Chapter Two: trading in life in the fast lane
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.