For most of the past 15 years, Concord’s Berkshire Books has been a one-man operation, with Lynn Kuehl buying, selling, stacking, shelving and otherwise handling the books and doing the chores common to an independent bookstore.
That changed on Nov. 14, when the 65-year-old Kuehl was starting his day, getting ready to go to his Clayton Road store when he noticed he had no feeling in his right foot. Doctors told him he had had an aneurysm in his right knee, cutting off circulation. It couldn’t be fixed, and he lost his leg soon after.
That could have also been a catastrophe for his business, which didn’t have any other staff to pick up the slack. But it wasn’t long before Joel Harris got involved, and this one-man operation would become, temporarily, a joint effort of at least two dozen people.
On Nov. 21, “I heard about it from Tamara Steiner, the publisher of the Concord/Clayton Pioneer,” a local newspaper, said Harris, an Antioch-based attorney and a former owner of a bookstore, Clayton Books, which closed in 2010. “We started texting about how we could get the joint open.”
Concord City Councilman Edi Birsan, who meets with a group on Saturday mornings at Berkshire, had told Steiner about Kuehl’s predicament. Harris called Kuehl, who was recovering at home, and the two talked about how the store could stay open as many hours as possible.
Harris, also a customer of the shop and an author (“Images of America: Concord”) who had appeared at Berkshire in the past, got busy calling his own former employees, other bibliophiles and friends and family members.
Within a few days, he had assembled a team of 24 people who agreed to work volunteer shifts at Berkshire, helping keep the shop open during the holiday season. Some signed up for one shift, others several.
“People have been coming out of the woodwork to help with this,” Harris said.
One of them is Sunny Solomon, who has worked at both Clayton Books and at the now-closed Bonanza Books in downtown Walnut Creek. She now lives in Reno, Nevada, and comes to Concord once a month to lead a book club discussion. Last week she volunteered to work two shifts before returning to Reno. She was learning how to work the cash register Dec. 11.
“I got the call (from Harris), and it was like, ‘OMG, be still my heart,’ I was so happy to respond,” said Solomon, who also has an online book review website at bookinwithsunny.com. “I was thankful to come back and see people I used to work with. It’s just super.”
Ronnie Smith, a friend of Harris’ daughter Amy since kindergarten, was working a shift last week. “What better way to spend my time than to donate it to a good cause?” she said. Amy has volunteered at the store, too.
The result is that the store was closed for two weeks after Kuehl went down, instead of for the entire six weeks before Christmas. Enough shifts have been filled, Harris said, that the store should be open every day through Dec. 22.
Kuehl, who for now is using crutches and a wheelchair to get around, goes the few blocks from his house to the store to open and close each day, but stays home and rests most of the time. By phone from home, Kuehl said Dec. 11 he’s grateful for the volunteers keeping his store running.
“They seem to be either younger people who think bookstores are cool, or older people who also think bookstores are cool,” he said. “Some are knowledgeable book people, and others are just big-hearted.”
As for when he’s coming back full time, Kuehl said that depends largely on how soon his body can accommodate and adjust to a prosthetic leg. That could be sometime in January, he said, but nothing is certain.
Harris said he, Kuehl, and perhaps others, will probably talk soon about how, or if, the store will remain open after Christmas.
“He wants a peg leg,” Harris said of Kuehl, “so we’ll set up a ‘Pirates’ section for him.”