“Read it out,” he said.
“America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
He passed no comment, but patted the cover gently, like you might the head of a favored child.
In those days, bookselling still had an air of genteel transaction. It was commerce, yes, but of ideas and language. In Fox & Sutherland’s, many families had accounts, and never paid in cash. Prices were not mentioned, but, under Mr. Fox’s gaze, were carefully noted in the account books. In a gesture both enlightened and pragmatic, the staff were encouraged to bring home any books they wanted to read, and so for me the store served as a further education, enabling me to read more widely than any curriculum would.
But the company of books brought me no closer to being an actual writer. And as the days went by, my ambition began to seem what it was, a dream of youth.
One summer afternoon, two men came into the bookstore together. One was broad, in white shirt and khaki trousers, the other shorter, in a blue shirt and a low baseball cap. Alice, a bookseller, first realized who they were. She came to the counter and mouthed: Frank Sinatra.
Almost immediately, everyone in the store knew: Frank Sinatra was the short figure in the baseball cap. In Records, staff acknowledged him by putting on Songs for Swingin’ Lovers. It played out over the sound system. The man in the baseball hat didn’t react. He kept his focus on the shelves while his voice was everywhere around him. The man next to him was Robert F. Wagner, the three-time mayor of New York City.
Now, I’m not sure whether Mr. Fox knew either of them right away. What he did know was we had a customer with three hardcovers under his arm. Mr. Fox motioned for me to go fetch the books so the customer wouldn’t have to carry them.
In Dublin, when he wasn’t listening to Pavarotti, my father listened to Sinatra. He sat in the small front room on his own and played his music. He never said I should give up listening to Bob Dylan; he never said, ‘‘That’s not singing, this is,’’ or otherwise revealed how the music spoke to his inner life, but I knew.
So when I was crossing the short distance of Fox & Sutherland’s to take the books, I was also crossing an enormous one. I was crossing one of time and distance, of geography and generation, of fathers and sons, and also the one that lay between Alien and American. No one seemed more American to me than Frank Sinatra.
‘‘I’ll take those to the counter, sir.’’
At the sound of my voice, the baseball cap tilted up—I was much taller—and then I saw his eyes. The blue of Sinatra’s eyes was like nothing I had ever seen. In the many times I have told this story, I can never convey how extraordinary his gaze was, how it stopped me.
He creased a smile and handed me the hardcovers, then moved on through the aisles. No customer approached him. There was only me, coming and going, taking books from him.