By Pamela Dozois
Tom Gerald has loved the written word since childhood, and his 40-year career in bookselling includes the past 15 years at the Book Loft in Solvang, helping people discover the magic that lies within the pages.
Gerald has become a fixture at the Book Loft and in the community, due not only to his extensive knowledge about books, writers, publishing and bookstores but also because of his friendly southern charm and storytelling skills.
But now he is retiring.
“I’ve been in the book-selling world my whole adult life,” Gerald said. “While attending Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, studying for my degree in English, I worked at the college bookstore.”
After receiving his degree, Gerald taught school for four years but left that career in 1974 to pursue a different direction.
“I became enamored with the idea of opening a bookstore with a couple of partners in Natchez, Mississippi, which we called ‘Page One,” he said. “Unfortunately, that store closed after only two years.”
“In 1978 I decided to move to Jackson, Mississippi, to work with a friend at his bookstore called Lemuria Book Store, which continues to be one of Mississippi’s finest independent bookstores. I worked there for 15 years. It was great because my friend and I could talk book business together,” he said.
“While (I was) working at Page One, a nice man came into the store wanting to start building a library for his young son. He started with the Hardy Boys, ordering three books at a time,” said Gerald. “Fast forward 20 years, while working at Lemuria Books, a man came into the store and asked if I was Tom Gerald. Surprisingly, it was the same boy, now a grown man, whose father had started building him his own library.
“I hadn’t seen him since he was a boy. He told me that he had just published his first novel and he wanted to know if I would hold a book signing for him. His name is Greg Iles, now a famous author of numerous crime novels, some of which have been made into movies.
“At 43 I moved to Eugene, Oregon, and worked at the University of Oregon’s bookstore for about eight years. My future wife, Molly, who lived in Lompoc, told me there was an opening at the Book Loft. I met with Ed Gregory, the manager, and Kathy Mullins, the owner, and they hired me, so I moved to Lompoc. Molly and I had known each other in college but, after graduating, we had gone our separate ways. Fortunately we reconnected and we got married. Molly Gerald is the former director of the Lompoc Public Library,” he noted.
“It’s kind of ironic that I work in a store that has a Hans Christian Andersen Museum in it,” Gerald mused. “One of my earliest memories was of my mother trying to read to me ‘The Ugly Duckling,’ but she couldn’t get through it because she’d just start crying. It wasn’t until a few years later that I read it for myself and found out it had a decent ending.”
“I also have this image from second grade when my teacher got fired and was replaced by an interim teacher who read us two Hans Christian Andersen stories, ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ and ‘Thumbelina.’ Both of those stories were so magical to me. I hadn’t been exposed to such inconceivable stories before. Imagine, to have this idea of someone so small you could hold in your hand. Hans Christian Andersen has had some kind of impact on my life. I even see him every night when I close the store,” he mused.
Reading didn’t come easily for him, he said. His first real excitement was reading short stories by Edgar Allen Poe, by himself. “It was quite different from Dick and Jane.”
He then got caught up reading car racing books, which were all the rage at the time. Most of these paperbacks were set in California, which gave him a really romantic picture of what California was about.
“As a kid I spent a lot of time in my local pharmacy at the paperback spinner rack,” said Gerald. “That’s where I purchased all the James Bond books, since we didn’t have a bookstore in town.”
Gerald believes it is important for people to have books as a part of their every-day lives.
“Growing up, we always had a collection of books in my home,” he said. “When I told my father about opening a bookstore, he said, ‘Everyone isn’t like you. If you had a dollar you’d spend it on a book before spending it on dinner.’ But then again, books are food for the imagination.”
“You pick up a book and it’s a vessel that contains these words and these words have been put into this vessel by this other person – the writer. When you open that vessel, images and sounds are created in your mind. The contents become uniquely yours. What is that? How does that happen? It’s very interesting to me,” he said.
Gerald recalled that recently a customer said to him, “walking through a bookstore is quite different from shopping on Amazon. You can see the real book, not just the image, you hold it in your hand, and there’s a connection there.”
“One of my favorite books is Ralph Ellison’s ‘The Invisible Man,’ another is M.L. Stedman’s ‘The Light Between Oceans.’ Since I am a stepfather of three children, that book perfectly described the relationship between a stepfather and a stepchild. Step-parenting gets overlooked, in my opinion. Raising stepchildren is a huge responsibility. Another favorite of mine is Ahmed Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Bagdad.’ It’s not political, it’s about how violence begets violence,” he said.
“I have been fortunate to work in some really great bookstores during the past 40 years and it has been a delight working at the Book Loft. It’s a unique book environment, in that it has new books and is also a used bookstore plus a museum dedicated to one of the icons of literature. It’s been an education for me to be exposed to people from all over the world who know and love Hans Christian Andersen. I also feel like I’m leaving the store in good hands, under the leadership of Echo Molina, the manager, and my fellow book sellers,” Gerald said.