The storekeeper

Not in secret, like a spy, but openly, and telling me so with a knowing smile , as if it were sure to be valuable when I was famous someday, he kept a file on me. A file of things I said to him, on my visits to his store, that made him laugh or give a wistful shrug at the world. Notes I left on his counter when he was out, greetings from my spirit to his. Copies of my published stories - not many, but glowing - that I handed him across his counter with a shy pride that hid behind a serious look, a gravity of earnest youth. Always, after accepting a story, he would slowly shake my hand and smile, as if he didn't know what words to say.

His name was Meyer Hoffman, and he had in our downtown neighborhood what we called ''the halfway store.'' It was a little grocery halfway between us and the supermarket. Here was where we went when we needed in-between things, a can of this, a box of that, and kosher. Some of the prices were lower than at the supermarket, too, so we could even save a nickel sometimes.

When you came into his store, usually there he'd be behind his counter, a tall, broad, gray-haired man with kind, alert eyes in a much-stained smock. Always he would greet you by name and remember something important in your life - ''Good morning, Mrs. Liebowitz, and how is your canary?'' ''Mr. Goldman, did you ever find your missing sock at the laundromat?'' ''Little Sarah, I saw you skipping rope today. You're a champion!'' Many of his customers, older people, were quite short. They couldn't reach things on higher shelves. At the same time , they had pride and didn't want to ask for help, like people who are lonely but don't ask for company. So Mr. Hoffman provided in each aisle a sturdy, four-legged stool they could use. On top was written, ''For my customers, God bless them.''

In need, he would personally deliver groceries, too, never closing his store, but leaving it open in a declaration of boundless trust in the neighborhood. For payment of purchases, he put on the counter a little tray, always back out of view, as if he had never quite made peace with the mercenary details of his relationship with his customers. Many places where he delivered were sunless and dreary, the lives there uneventful, so it was always a treat when he appeared in the doorway, his sleeves rolled up, and the light from his arms brightening the whole room.

Like all people who are good at heart, he had in equal measure humor and sadness. His humor was never hurtful, always playful. He teased the rabbi about the rabbi's beard, remarking that a goat, too, had a beard, but did that make a goat wise? And to a customer who, on the way out of his store, bade him, ''Be good!'' he would answer with a sigh, ''Well, that's asking a lot!'' He was a person whose smile itself could take the trouble out of your eyes.

His sadness seldom showed, and you almost had to surprise him to see it. I remember late one afternoon near his closing time, I came to give him a copy of a story that had just been published. He was leaning on his counter in the empty store, smiling pensively, like someone taking stock of his life. Sensing his mood, I concealed the story behind my back.

''I was just thinking of a time when I was a boy, David,'' he said. ''My mother and I went to this big city. It was the first time I'd ever seen one. I spent the whole day looking up at all the people and the tall buildings with my mouth wide open. My mother had to hold my hand, so I shouldn't fall down. When we got home, I cried. I told her that the city made me feel I didn't matter, it was so big and I was so little. She dried my eyes and told me I was wrong. She said everybody mattered; everybody was a treasure. Do you think she was right?''

''Yes.''

''Me, I'm a treasure?''

''Yes.''

''I'm a storekeeper. Anybody who can smile can be a storekeeper. I don't even know why you share your stories with me, David. I am very touched you do, but tell me, why? Why with me?''

I saw that Mr. Hoffman thought that, compared with me, a writer, he was no treasure at all. He reminded me of a man I saw one evening at twilight in Jerusalem, a porter carrying on his back a sack of flour. The man was climbing the steps of a steep street, listening intently to a little rabbi who was climbing with him, and expounding to him on a holy matter with hintlike gestures of his hands and with deep words. Fatigue dragged at the porter, but still he bent his head close to the rabbi with respect and awe. And if the rabbi in the radiance of his thought sometimes lost his step and stumbled, the porter reached out his free hand to steady him. At the top of the street they said goodbye. The rabbi went off at a brisk pace, his hands clasped over his heart, as if they were listening to an even greater teacher. The porter looked after him a long moment, in his eyes a childlike gratitude that a learned man had climbed the street with him and shared with him his wisdom.

I handed Mr. Hoffman my story. ''How many writers have a reader who keeps a file on them?'' I asked.

Brightening, as if with happy surprise at this treasure he was to me, he shook my hand as always. ''I'll read it right after I close, David,'' he said. ''I'll read it right here in the store.''

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