Unless you’ve been binging pet videos 24/7 for the last few weeks, if you live in Napa Valley you know that one of St. Helena’s landmark institutions, Main Street Books, has closed its doors for good. Most people would not, however, use the word “good” anywhere in that announcement.

The shop long ago achieved legendary status as a place where its owner and guiding light, Liza Russ, could pluck just the right books from the proliferation of word-sludge sandwiches that infest wholesale book catalogs and, more recently, the internet. It is pretty predictable that you should now be seeing an outpouring of praise and admiring valediction from legions of fans who have benefited from her expertise and advice over the years.

But knowing Liza as I do, I am duty bound to offer the dark truth about this enormously complicated legend--if only to affectionately hassle her one last time.

First and foremost, it is vital to realize that Liza is clearly a sorceress—tall, lean, with piercing eyes--a shape-shifter of the most dangerous sort. How else to explain her ability to gently welcome 6-year-olds who wanted just to sit in a big overstuffed chair and look at picture books, then like lightning shift gears to help the children’s mother find the right novel for a relative’s birthday? It was frankly creepy.

Her manner would change again in a flash as she diplomatically explained to a tourist that she was not really in the business of stocking the collected works of James Patterson. The fact that she was unfailingly direct yet polite to everyone was charming — until it was so consistent over such a long period of time that it became disturbing. What was she up to? Who could possibly have a manner so quick and crisp while still being gracious?

My confusion about this person was redoubled during many visits to the shop. I would come in, engage her in a little banter, and then ask what new book I might like. More than once she replied, “Yeah, well…not much of anything new right now that would appeal to you.”

Grant and I have lived in St. Helena for 25 years. We have raised our son Logan on books which Liza has suggested. From Asterix to Ric Riordan…

Seriously? This woman was violating the number one commandment in the world of capitalism: Make the Sale. Did she have absolutely no killer retail instinct at all? Was she her own personal Sales Prevention Team? Was she perhaps not just a Sorceress, but a Communist, too?

Maybe not so amazingly, her reverse-psychology had a powerful effect on me, to the point that I might have walked out with a couple of Nancy Drew mysteries had I not gotten a grip on myself. On the occasions when I actually bought some books, she would give me that penetrating glance and say something winning, like “Pay up, Buster.” I was disarmed. Putty in her hands.

She exercised more sorcery, by the way, in remembering the reading tastes of hundreds and hundreds of customers, delighting and astounding them with the accuracy of her choices for each of them, like she was a magic act at a children’s birthday party, pulling quarters out of kids’ ears.

This is not to say that she wasn’t a Book Nazi, however. She has very clear literary tastes of her own, and she was very frank in expressing them. I forgave her for loving Dickens — that is understandable — but to hold “Bleak House” as the favorite among his works? Come on. We tangled on that issue, I being a partisan of “Great Expectations” and “A Tale of Two Cities.”

It's a shame for a small town to lose this intensely flavored and sustaining morsel of a shop. Also poignant, because it brought back so many memories of another bookshop in another small town.

Needless to say, she tore me to shreds, quite convincingly. I received further thrashings for championing the post-modernists Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, too. At the mention of either name, her face took on the expression of someone who had just been handed a big spoon and a parfait glass layered with whipped cream and night crawlers.

Over time, though, I bowed to superior knowledge and her gallingly consistent thoughtfulness. I could not help but recognize Liza’s deep expertise, surpassed only by her love for her community, and I became very comfortable in my role as one of her many, many admirers. I realize now that just because the activities in the shop have stopped, it doesn’t mean that the admiration doesn’t go on and on. Such a remarkable sorceress. (And Book Nazi, too.)

Paul Moser


Editor's note: Since this letter was submitted, Napa Book Mine of Napa announced it would take over the former Main Street Books location in St. Helena and would hire former owner Liza Russ to run it.

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