Books are everything, and often everybody, that are needed to maintain an even keel during both the quiet and stormy times in the life of Phyllis Feran.
The significant role of printed fantasy and fact that lie between the hundreds of thousands of covers she faces each day (and often night) were perhaps best explained by the iconic Christian apologist, G.K. Chesterton, when he said, “There is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and the tired man who wants a book to read.”
“I find a great deal of comfort in all of these books, in this place,” says Feran, a small blonde woman, while standing behind the counter in her book store on Metairie Road. The store is jammed with a seemingly endless supply of mostly paperback books that rise together as great mountain ranges running on for eternity and blanketing her on all sides. “The feel. The smell. All of this is a great comfort to me. It’s just like home – it is home.”
To be sure, this is no “been-in-my-family-for-generations” operation. Housed in a building that was once a tiny neighborhood pharmacy, The Book Rack is part of a national chain of about 100 similar operations around the country. Still, the little nook maintains that luscious corner-store familiarity with its dark corners and dusty shelves.
It seems to be a statement of contempt against all that’s homogenized by today’s rush to digitized androidism. “Over at Phyllis’,” as one designer-suitd female customer puts it.
Though you can buy and trade books outright, the more common practice here is to bring in books you’ve read, receive credits for those books that are then deducted from any further purchases you make. “You can’t get much more down-home than that,” the well-coiffed shopper says.
Feran smiles and agrees.
“I hate computers and these Kindles and digitized books,” she says. To make her point, she holds up a thick Stephen King tome and shakes it at eye level for a second or two. “This is what it’s all about. This is comfort. I was reading an article in last Sunday’s paper by an out-of-town reporter. He was saying how Kindle has taken over readers over 55 and how one person said, (about Kindle) ‘Oh, I don’t even have to turn the pages!’ Then he puts a quote in there about ‘Well, you don’t have to make all those gas guzzling trips to the book store!’ I took offense to that.” She continues, “Somebody is going to get me his email and I’m going to write to him (and) tell him what an idiot he is! How could he do that to people who have been in business for so long. How could he say such ignorant things?”
The incongruity of harpooning all print things going digital then threatening to email a letter to an offending journalist doesn’t slow Feran down a syllable.
“I was visiting my daughter and son-in-law in Chicago for Thanksgiving,” she says. “We were walking down Michigan Avenue and I happened to look up the street at a big Borders. The store was closing. This building was huge. It broke my heart. This is what it’s coming to.”
Jules Sobel is Phyllis Feran’s 94-year-old father. He is her daily “assistant” and companion at the store. Feran calls him a “voracious reader” and on this day he’s couched in a comfortable niche he has carved for himself within a surrounding skyline of books. He lifts his eyes from the latest book he’s devouring, shakes his head and smiles in agreement with his daughter.
Feran was reared on State Street and as far as she can remember she has had a love of the printed word. As she grew older, so did her love for books, fueled in part by a friend who owned a bookstore on the West Bank. As for Feran, she toiled away in the tumor registry department at Charity Hospital and “loved every minute of it.”
When her daughter was born in 1980, Feran took maternity leave and though she’d never go back, despite her old department boss calling her back again and again. Until …
“Finally, in 1989 we had a big Christmas Eve party at my house and I went outside and slipped on the ice and broke my arm. The registry kept calling, so in ’90 I reported to work, cast on arm. I was there three days and it kept bringing up memories of my mother (who died of cancer). After just three days I went into the office and I said, ‘I cannot do this.’ That was the end of that.”
It was then that Feran’s friend with the West Bank bookstore enticed her into opening a book outlet of her own in Metairie.
“I jumped at the chance,” Feran says. “I had always loved books and this was perfect. My children were older and I had the time. We got about 1,500 books from my friend’s store and put them in here. She owned a franchise so my husband and I bought into it. She and her husband and me and my husband were partners. It was great, for a while.”
An argument eventually ended the partnership, so the Ferans bought out their partners and went it alone.
“It was wonderful,” Feran says. “Our customers became almost like family. They all became friends. There was a great peace and warmth in this store. This became, and still is, my little corner of the world. This is a wonderful retreat. I come here to find peace.”
Feran nods toward her father who’s deep into a thick book.
“I remember I had a cat – an orange tabby named ‘Wootaie.’ He was the love of my life. He died right in front of me. I had come home from the vet with him and the vet said he was OK. I was getting ready to feed him and he died. Guess where I came? Right here, right to this store. Some of my friends came over and they stayed with me. I found peace.”
When business acquaintances and friends died, Feran found refuge and the solitude she craved at her store.
Many nights during the 14 years her husband, Russell, suffered the worsening devastation of Crohn’s Disease, Feran found refuge and meditation time at her store. Her mind focuses on her husband of 37 years who finally succumbed to the disease in 2010.
“For 14 years all I did was take care of him,” Feran says. “That, and run this business. When I needed a place for a momentary respite, I found it here among these books I love so much. Here, in this place, that really has become my home.”
Feran says she pretty much operates on her own now, having only rare contract with the home office. When she arrives each morning, she picks up a small plate of food she places for the cats she keeps at the store. She looks through the barred windows and the dust that has accumulated on them. She promises herself that she’s gonna clean those windows. But still, she looks in before opening up for the day. And through the dust she can see all her friends – all the intrigue and romance and mystery and history and hoe-to books that a person could want. And they stare back at her as if inviting her in.
For Phyllis Feran, these are all the friends any person could want.
Computers and Kindles be damned!