03 February, 2014

Elizabeth "Betty" Rogers Fertig 1921 - 2014

Since August of 2012 there have been a succession of deaths in my life. One week in 2014 was bookended by the loss of my closest friend and the loss of a primary childhood mentor. One loss was encompassing, the other came as a whisper from the newspaper. It's the whisper I want to talk about. Betty opened a franchise of The Book Rack in my hometown when I was almost ten years old.  It wasn't until I read her obituary that it hit me what an astonishing influence she had been on my life.

We were not friends. Certainly, she was friendly to me but she was also frequently impatient and I was a child over attuned to the responses of adults. I never knew if I was going to jeopardize what I saw as precarious privileges. Now, with adult eyes, I realize our relationship was extraordinary. The public library was a several hour walk from my home, while Betty's store was less than two miles. I would pack a shoulder bag with books scavenged from flea market trash bins and bring them in for her approval. I think she took more than she truly wanted, because when she would reject a book there was a regretful explanation of why. Betty allowed me to spend hours in the store unchallenged. I was never asked to leave, even if a whole day had passed. I was quiet. My much younger sibling was permitted to do the same, but was more restless than I. We would arrange the shelves. Sometimes she might direct a customer to a certain section and I would find the item they were looking for and point to it without speaking. Then I'd slide into another aisle so they could shop privately. Eventually, when I was eleven or so, Betty trusted me enough to run errands for her or to watch the store while she walked down to the cafe. She kept a foreign language shelf in the back. When I took my wagon of Girl Scout cookies to meet incoming ships at the port, I'd pass out bookmarks to the sailors. "Biscoito? Livro?"

None of this is the remarkable part. Betty allowed me to read anything I wanted. After lugging my bag of books in for credit (never for cash, although I was always hustling for money) I'd lug home a different bag of books to read. Despite my age, Betty never censored my choices. She might ask if I was certain, or ask me to take a more worn copy if there were duplicates, but the books I chose were the books I took. "Bring this one back quickly, it's popular" was a common admonishment for new releases. When offered recent release books by family or family friends, I always rushed them into the shop. In exchange for being helpful and respectful, I had a safe haven and unlimited resources. Through her store I read college textbooks, WW2 pocket series, gothics, romances, mysteries, horror, Sartre, Camus, Chaucer, travel guides, sex manuals, science fiction. Anything my fingers touched could be mine, for as long as I wanted it.

For a child of dubious economics and questionable school attendance this was an amazing opportunity. By sixth grade I'd read all of Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries. I knew my Sheridan from my Moliere. By ninth grade I was familiar with multiple schools of philosophy and the evolution of horror from Lovecraft to Saul. I supplied V.C. Andrews books to half my middle school and Rosemary Rogers to the other. While my formal education was sporadic and truncated, my informal one was limitless. Betty never asked me to defend a choice or explain it. There were no quizzes, no essays, no instruction on how to experience a book. If it was Thomas Hardy or Willman's Thomasina the most she'd say would be "Did you like this one? Was it good? Should I highlight it on the suggestion wall?" Betty Fertig treated a street kid like an intellectual equal and changed an unknown number of lives as a result. I'm grateful I was polite enough to frequently check in as an adult and let her see how I was getting on.  

1 comment:

  1. No wonder you're so much smarter than me! I will always be grateful for Betty Fertig for providing what you needed-quietly heroic, she saved your life and helped you build your future. My hero was Caroline Witt, a servant all her life and one of the happiest people I ever knew. Not a judgmental bone in her body.