Chapter Two: trading in life in the fast lane

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Roger Carlson used to arrive at the office in a Brooks Brothers suit and order soft shell crabs at the club for lunch. Now he wears jeans and sneakers to work, and he eats his midday sandwich at Buffalo Joe's. Mr. Carlson used to put in a slim 30 hours a week on the job and pull in a top-bracket salary. Now he works 12 hours a day Monday through Sunday and brings home one-third his former pay.

If this sounds like someone on the skids in a TV soap, the scenario is completely Carlson's own choosing and doing: He made a mid-life career change. After 25 years in advertising sales, Carlson started selling books.

He's lived through a few grim chapters, since then, mainly because he took the plunge with meager funds in the bank for backup.

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Carlson says his advertising salary generally went in one side of his checking account and out the other to cover entertainment, raising four children, and suburban living, with little left over for stockpiling.

He had just passed his half-century mark when he made his decision. He knew there was nothing wrong with his abilities and nothing wrong with advertising. The mix was the mistake, like a book with the wrong cover. Fortunately, his wife sanctioned the move and the downward slide in income.

Now, seven years later, in a back alley of Evanston, Ill., Carlson runs a low-key operation, the antithesis of the two big-chain bookstores based less than a block away on the main drag.

Instead of new books, he sells used ones, and instead of glitz and greeting cards, he deals in comforts for browsers -- cushioned chairs, chess boards, and Verdi in the background. And the scents wafting through the shop don't come from spray cans but from scented candles and fresh flowers bought for bargain prices at a nearby floral shop.

It's the rocking chair pace that entices even fast lane lifestylers to his out-of-the-way Bookman's Alley.

Obviously, Carlson didn't spend all those years in the advertising game for nothing; he picked up the know-how of marketing a product. Given the same back-alley space, most people would use it for a warehouse. That's what it is. Or, they'd use it for a garage. That's what it was back in the '20s. But Carlson has taken the area -- narrow and windowless -- and converted it into catacombs of nostalgia. Memorabilia, from model airplanes to zithers, thread throughout the 18,000 hardbacks that line the walls.

Carlson recruited both furniture and antique accessories from home when he opened up shop. His wife, Deborah Carlson, didn't care.

``I'm a minimalist,''she says, explaining that now there's less for them to clean on the homefront. ``He's a definite collector. I'm glad he finally has a place to collect -- not at home.''

A native New Englander, Mrs. Carlson earlier encouraged her husband to give up advertising and run an antique store in Vermont. But that suggestion never came off the shelf. Now, when talking about his shift to books, she says, ``I just wish he had done it years ago.''

The Carlson story is similar to many today. In short order, there had been marriage, mortgage, children, plus all the accoutrements and costs of suburbia. It didn't take long for the family to become locked into a pattern that precluded a vocational switch for the breadwinner.

Over the years Carlson, who studied journalism and liberal arts at the University of Minnesota, was employed by Fortune, National Geographic, Parade, and NBC. With each successive year, he says advertising sales paled, and he found himself escaping into bars and bookstores. Eventually, he gave up the former and realized that the latter was his occupational calling.

Even back when other kids idolized cowboys and cops, ``I wanted to grow up and own a bookstore,'' he says, but during adolescence that ambition was buried beneath societal pressures to pursue a more remunerative profession.

The bookstore urge, however, resurfaced in midlife.

When Carlson finally made the change, he borrowed to the hilt on his life insurance, generating cash to give the family a financial backbone.

His days were devoted to books, but he worked nights in a glue factory and later on a swing shift in a warehouse while his wife bolstered the family income with her job at a posh department store.

For the first two years, he ran his book business out of his home, selling by mail and to dealers and the public by appointment. His initial inventory came from his own private collection of books that numbered more than 1000.

``Gradually,'' he says, ``I was able to go from a maximum ignorance about the business to a slightly better position.'' But Carlson always did know his books. When most kids were on a Hardy Boys kick, he was reading Kenneth Roberts's historical novels -- and Mickey Spillane, he confesses. Later, his literary tastes became broadened and channeled.

Although the family stayed in the same house in the suburbs, Carlson recaps some of the adjustments prompted by his career change. Entertainment has been slashed to a minimum; dinners out now are not fancy fare; the family car is used, not new; Carlson buys his clothes at a discount house, and he frequents a barber, not a stylist.

As for Mrs. Carlson, she became a working wife, leaving behind the role of suburban matron with its volunteering and entertaining. And the new status of things seems to click well with her. ``Life's happier now,'' she says, ``because he's happier.''

``And never before did I get up at 4 a.m.,'' he says, a practice that's absolutely necessary if he wants to be among the first in line at house and estate sales, a prime source for both books and accessories.

Carlson leans back casually in his bookstore chair. His hair has silvered, and there's a Will Rogers look about him, but it's easy to imagine him in another time frame with a smile and a soft sell, angling for a good account.

There's no sales pitch now, though. His talks with customers are strictly book lovers' banter, free of any pressure to buy. Carlson says he keeps track of bookstore traffic by how often he fills the candy dishes scattered about the shop. Patrons currently consume about 16 bagfuls a week as compared to the early days when just one dish of gumdrops gathered dust.

People come, and people go, in and out the alley door. A kid tries on the old-time French fireman's hat; another checks out the Western saddle, a hand-tooled one that marks the Western Americana section. A couple wants directions to an art gallery. While two browsers lounge on the settees, an adult picks out a tune on the blue-painted piano.

And 11 customers buy, purchases ranging from $6 to $32. Not too shabby for an hour or so on a midweek afternoon -- especially when one is doing exactly what he wants to do.

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