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Meet the Store Dogs
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Sparky and Lexington with Karen Hayes and Ann Patchett
Sparky and Lexington with Karen Hayes and Ann Patchett

There are always children who are nervous around dogs, who look stiffly away as though they’re being addressed by a crazy person in the subway, but Sparky is never pushy. If ignored, he will sit for a minute and try to puzzle out the situation (Child doesn’t want to play?). Then, coming up with no logical explanation, he simply walks away. So what about Lexington? After all, she was here first. All I can say is that while there have been some high-speed chases, there has been no competition. We’re bookstore enough for two small dogs, one who looks like a tiny supermodel, the other who resembles an unruly dandelion.

“Who’s this?” a woman asked me when Sparky put his front paws on the edge of the big, comfortable chair where she was sitting, reading a book. He butted his head against her knee.

“This is Sparky,” I said. “He’s the store dog.”

“What’s his job?” the woman asked me. “What does he do?”

I looked at her. She was scratching his ears. “This,” I said, stating what I thought was obvious. “He does this.”

Do store dogs encourage reading? I believe so, in the same way the rest of the staff encourages reading: by helping to create an environment you want to be in. Children beg their parents to take them to our bookstore long before they can read so that they can play on the train table and pet the store dog. Trains and dogs then become connected to reading.

Sparky and Lexington are also happy to provide a complementary service for people who don’t have dogs of their own—children, parents and non-parents alike—so they too can have a little snuggle before they go home. Our store dogs aren’t here just to create a positive association with books; they’re also here to create positive associations with dogs.

A high school English teacher called several months ago to say her class had read one of my novels and she wanted to bring the students to the store for an hour before we opened so that I could talk to them about the book. It was early in Sparky’s tenure and I thought a closed store with a limited number of people inside would be a good trial run. The 20 or so high school students pulled their chairs into a lazy circle. They were hip, disaffected and slouching until Sparky trotted in. As it turns out, there’s no one, not even a high school senior, who’s cool enough to ignore a small, scruffy dog.

Sparky worked the room like a politician, hopping into one lap and then another, walking over knees, until he had pressed his face to every person in the room. When he was finished, he came and settled in my lap. That was when the students looked at me with awe. Sure, I had written a novel, but they felt certain they could write novels if they felt like it. What I had going for me was the love and devotion of a really good dog.

I have no ax to grind with e-books. I care much more that people read than about the device they chose to read on. But I do believe in small businesses, and in the creation of local jobs, and of having a place where people can come together with a sense of community to hear an author read or attend story hour or get a great recommendation from a smart bookseller.

And I like a good store dog, a dog who knows how to curl up on your lap when you’re thumbing through a book. A virtual Sparky? A one-click Lexington? Believe me, it wouldn’t be the same.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 74: Summer 2013
Ann Patchett is the author of five novels: The Patron Saint of Liars; Taft; The Magician's Assistant; Bel Canto, which was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction; and Run.

Photography by Heidi Ross

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Annabelle | June 19 2013 |

Wonderful story. Wish I lived in your town.

Submitted by Marissa | July 2 2013 |

Lovely story! I love dogs and books, so your store sounds splendid! What a treat for non-dog owners to get some cuddles and licks while they pick up a book :-)

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