Cover Story - July 28, 2010

The end of the party

A fire hastens Nancy Kiesling's decision to close the Book Rack after 22 years

by Sandy Brundage

Nancy Kiesling is the sort of woman who can't walk 10 minutes from home to work in downtown Menlo Park without running into at least three people she knows. She cuts an elegant figure in blue jeans and a tie-dyed blue cotton shirt, white hair feathering in the breeze, as she greets familiar faces, some of whom were customers for two decades, some of whom shared life stories and laughter and tears while browsing at the Book Rack.

"I've never run a bar, you understand, but it's like tending bar," she said. "I don't know where they're going to go now, but they'll keep reading, so they'll have to find some place."

Her 22-year tenure as the proprietor of the popular used bookstore came to an abrupt end on June 16 when a fire that started in a cafe next door punched through the Book Rack's roof.

Ms. Kiesling had just left for the day, only to be called back to watch firefighters struggle to contain the blaze. She remembers watching one man sweep inches of water out the back door after it was over.

"We are so grateful no one was hurt," Ms. Kiesling said. "A whole lot of praise should go to the fire department and police department and everyone on the street. People really fell to and helped each other."

The Book Rack's run was coming to a close anyway, probably around December, Ms. Kiesling said, but planned to coincide in a less dramatic fashion with the expiration of the shop's lease. "I got a little depressed towards the end because we weren't doing as well as we needed to."

How did a woman born 78 years ago in Houston, Texas, who earned a physical science degree from Stanford University, end up running the Book Rack? She said she didn't know why running a bookstore appealed to her.

"I really don't. Maybe you need a bookseller in the family when you have a bunch of writers," she continued, laughing.

Three of her four children have authored books on topics as varied as military history (Jennie Kiesling), international diplomacy (Brady Kiesling) and rowing (Stephen Kiesling).

She recalled the store's selection branching out from romances to mysteries and science fiction.

"We were the only people who carried Harlequins and other romances that came by number," Ms. Kiesling said.

Her own reading tastes tend toward the classics: "Pride and Prejudice," "Middlemarch," and "whatever is engaging my attention at the moment."

She also watched the shape of books change, from the hand-sized paperbacks to unwieldy trade paperbacks that couldn't fit neatly on the shelves.

Ms. Kiesling turned the Book Rack into a showcase for local artists and writers, with the help of Al Jacobs and other luminaries in the Peninsula culture scene, a reflection of her own love of theater and music.

She even gave a reading herself once — not of her own poetry, but of a poem by Philip Larkin called "We Met at the End of the Party":

We met at the end of the party

When all the drinks were dead

And all the glasses dirty:

'Have this that's left', you said.

We walked through the last of summer,

When shadows reached long and blue

Across days that were growing shorter:

You said: 'There's autumn too.'

Always for you what's finished

Is nothing, and what survives

Cancels the failed, the famished,

As if we had fresh lives

From that night on, and just living

Could make me unaware

Of June, and the guests arriving,

And I not there.

The smell of smoke lingers in the store, and chips of plaster broken off the ceiling now pock the slate blue carpet. But it's still the sort of store where Pete Dexter's "Paris Trout" sits on a shelf not too far away from Carol Marinelli's "Bedded for Passion, Purchased for Pregnancy" (Harlequin #2879), waiting for the insurance company to decide what's worth saving. A dish of soot-covered pennies remains on the checkout counter.

"I would do it all over again," Ms. Kiesling said, and smiled.

What comes next? "I don't know, but if I don't get involved in something I'll just put my feet up and read. There's a lot that needs doing."


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