Sunday, November 29, 2009

We Don't Let People Go Easily Into The Night

Our store lost a customer last weekend. I don't mean that we angered someone and they stormed off, vowing to tell all their friends not to shop here. No, we really lost a customer in the most final sense of the word.

Of course, I'm being coy. We didn't just lose a customer, we lost a good friend.

Dr. Sean P. Keane was a man of sublime intellect and unending curiosity about the world and its workings. He satisfied these interests with a cornucopia of books, nearly all of which came from Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, as well as our present incarnation as Boswell Book Company. He shopped at the store from back when it was in the Iron Block Building. He took his kids to the Coffee Trader while browsing the original Downer Avenue location, tucked away from the front of the street and down the block from where it ended. Sean had a storied history with Milwaukee's beloved indie bookstore.

Sure, we were his friendly, knowledgable booksellers helping him find a book that satisfied his current topic of interest, suggesting "American" books for his daughter in Ireland to check out (I felt like I even knew her!) and picking out gifts for the grandkids. But we also listened to his stories, witticisms, and politics. Those of us who had the pleasure of acquainting ourselves with him on his weekly visits to our store considered him a friend. He encouraged me to return to school, suggesting programs or educational institutions, gently harassing me each time we spoke about it. Fellow bookseller Carl Hoffman and Dr. Keane developed a special bond over a number of years regarding all things Irish: music, history, culture, and (of course) literature. Longtime manager and bookseller Doug James recalled Sean to be a "lovely man" and longtime bookseller Jay Johnson observed that "the community lost a good man." It wasn't only the longer term booksellers who were impacted by this fascinating man, even former bookseller Denise Dee remembered fondly how he brightened her days at the store with his "devilish jokes and gentle snoring" during her time on Downer Avenue. It's true-he would, on occasion, fall asleep in a comfortable chair and we never bothered to rouse him unless it was closing time.

While we will dearly miss Sean's presence at the store, there's a greater lesson here. It's that while you may love our customer service or that we found you that obscure book with the blue cover whose title you couldn't recall or recommended you your new favorite novel, we want you to know - to really, really comprehend - the impact that you, as a regular customer, have on us as well. In a local store of any sort, not just the bookstore, if the employees recognize your face or even know your name, it means you are just as important to us as we may be to you. We notice when you're absent, we miss you when you're gone and some of us may even attend your funeral if you pass from this life altogether.

And some of us will miss you greatly and remember you for the rest of our days.

As Michael Fleet, professor and longtime friend of Sean Keane's said: "We don't let people go easily into the night."


  1. goodbye, Sean. it was a pleasure knowing you.

  2. stacie, that was perfection. i can't think of a better way to express what people like sean mean to people like us. the man was special.

  3. Thanks Stacie. It really is a beautiful tribute. Sorry I couldn't help out, I was just too broken up.

  4. I never knew his name, but met him when I was working for the evil empire. He will be missed.

  5. He always asked me (in his very thick Irish accent) and with a lopsided grin when I was going to give up my accent. Thanks, Stacie, for this lovely tribute.

  6. This past weekend I continued the lengthy but enjoyable task of selectively listening to the cassette tapes I made in the 1990s of the 'Radio Erin' show of which Sean was a 'co-host'. The show was broadcast on Sundays at 5 p.m. on WYMS, 88.9 FM. As most of the tapes are only labeled with the date, my task is to find the ones on which Sean appeared (under the pseudonym of John Brown) & label them with his name & separate them from the rest. It was wonderful hearing his voice.
    This reminded me of how I met him for the first time, scant days after I began working as a bookseller at the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Ave.
    I was somewhere in the front of the store and heard him speaking and immediately recognized his voice. I approached him and asked, "Excuse me, is your name John Brown?" He replied, with a rascally smirk, "Yes and no".

  7. Ha ha! That makes me smile! Good story Hoffers! That is fabulous!

  8. Few people may know that "John Browne" was the nomme de guerre that Sean's father Edmond used while a member of the Irish Republican Army during the Irish war of independnce.

    1. Somehow I missed your comment when it was first posted. I'm glad I came across it today. :) Thank you.