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The Great Bookstore War

by Paul Combs 6 months ago in Excerpt
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A novel excerpt

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The war begins the way all wars do, not with the actual combat but with a press release buried on page four of the business section of the newspaper. Sal Terranova doesn’t see it, since he never ventures beyond the sports pages; fortunately, Camden Templeton, his cousin and co-owner with him of The Last Word Bookstore, always reads the business section first, a practice begun back in London while she was still a CPA. She reads the story on page four with growing alarm and after finishing pours a cup of coffee, adds a shot of Jack Daniels to it, and carries it to Sal’s bedroom door.

They have shared the apartment above the bookstore since inheriting it from their Uncle Franklin a few years earlier, and there are days she wonders if they are stuck being roommates forever. Rents in Fort Worth have skyrocketed, and she’ll likely never be able to afford a house given the store’s meager profits, plus the apartment is rent-free because they own the building. Her best hope is that Sal will either get sick of living with her and move out or finally propose to Julia Hall, his longtime girlfriend and their best employee.

She knocks twice on the door, pauses, then twice more. She hears stirring and prepares herself for Sal’s usual early-morning tirade — he is a night owl who believes waking before noon is a sign of the apocalypse — but to her surprise the door opens with no accompanying outburst at all. This is because Sal is still snoring away in his bed; it’s Julia who opens the door, wearing an XXL New York Jets T-shirt and a sheepish grin. She steps out of the room and closes the door behind her.

“Good morning,” she says, looking down at the floor. “Sal was up late watching The Godfather on the Turner Classic Movies channel.”

“Good lord, why?” Camden asks. “He’s seen it a million times.”

“You know the guy rule: if The Godfather is on, you are legally required to watch it. My dad told my brothers the same thing, and he’s as far from Italian as you can get.”

“It’s ridiculous,” Camden replies. “Simply ridiculous. As ridiculous as the fact that you still get embarrassed when I see you here in the morning. Despite my cousin dragging his stupid feet, I already consider you family.” As Camden had hoped, Julia beams at this. “Now go stick this under his nose. We have things to discuss.”

“Coffee is not going to do it,” Julia says doubtfully.

“It has whiskey in it.”

“That’ll do it,” she says, and walks back into the room.

Ten minutes later and with Sal still grumbling, the three of them are sitting around the kitchen table, Julia buttering an English muffin and Camden finishing up a bowl of cereal while Sal reads the story for the third time. He finally tosses the paper down, gets up, and adds another shot to his coffee. When he returns, Julia offers him half of her English muffin, which he declines.

“You realize this means war,” he says, motioning toward the newspaper. “Total, scorched-earth, take no prisoners war.”

“Don’t you think that’s a bit of an overreaction?” Camden asks. “I admit that it’s concerning, which is why I wanted to tell you right away. But war?”

To a casual observer, the story wouldn’t seem to warrant Sal’s reaction. It announced that Discount Books, the largest used bookstore chain in America, was opening a new store in an abandoned warehouse on the edge of downtown Fort Worth. The Last Word Bookstore was located in the center of downtown so obviously they would be rivals, but there were Discount Books locations all over the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex already and it had not impacted them significantly. The Last Word’s used book volume was small, with the vast majority of their sales coming from new books.

“Yes, war,” Sal says. “Putting that large of a store so close to us is not a coincidence.”

“Seriously, Sal,” Julia says, “do you think they even know who we are? They have stores in 17 states and are basically the only place to buy used books in Texas. I doubt they’ve ever given us a second thought.”

“They know who we are,” he says. “This is payback for what happened with their store on Forest Park Blvd.”

The store on Forest Park, a few miles southwest of downtown, had closed following a riot that erupted after someone had broken in one night and changed the price of every book in the store to 99 cents. The overworked employees had not questioned the change the next morning (minimum wage was not enough to make them give a damn) and had rung up countless sales at the ridiculously low price until the manager showed up and put a stop to it. His intervention is what had caused the riot, and the resulting publicity was a humiliation to the owners and a source of great amusement to Sal.

“You denied having anything to do with that,” Camden says. Julia stifles a laugh and Camden shoots her a withering glare. “And even if you were involved, how would they know?”

“I get blamed for a lot of things I had nothing to do with,” Sal says. “I always have. Like that heist in Ithaca people still won’t shut up about, even though I was in Altoona at the time.”

“Atlantic City,” Julia and Camden say simultaneously.

“Right. Atlantic City. Anyway, given my colorful past, rumors about what happened at Discount Books that night have attached themselves to me. The bastards in Dallas want revenge.”

“You think they bought an old warehouse, are going to incur the remodeling costs, and take the risk that it will cannibalize sales from their other Fort Worth stores just to get even with you?” Camden asks. “Even though we don’t even sell the same books?”

“We don’t know that they won’t be selling the same books yet,” Sal says in an ominous tone. “It makes no sense for them to open a store as large as their flagship location in Dallas so close to it. There is something else going on here, and I’m going to find out what.”

Camden looks at Julia, who can only shrug. Once Sal gets an idea in his head, there’s no talking him out of it. The first shots in the Great Bookstore War have been fired.

* * *

Thanks for reading this preview of the upcoming fourth book in The Last Word series. The previous novels can all be found at your favorite indie bookstore or ordered in either the paperback or Kindle version here.

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About the author

Paul Combs

I’m a writer, podcaster, and bookseller whose ultimate goal (besides being a roadie for the E Street Band) is to make reading, writing, and books in general as popular in Texas as high school football. It may take a while.

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