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Excerpt: 'The Cookbook Collector'

The Cookbook Collector

Yorick's was not always the kind of adventure George wanted. Good help proved elusive. Graduate students, budding novelists, future screenwriters, manic-depressive book thieves -- he'd seen them all. With a kind of gallows humor he had printed up a questionnaire that he distributed to those seeking employment. When Jess had turned up, inquiring about a part-time job, he showed her the dark crammed store, the thicket of history, philosophy, and literary criticism in the center, fiction all along the walls and trailing into the back room where random stacks cluttered the floor. Then he returned to his desk and handed her his printed list of questions.

"Could I borrow a pen?" Jess asked, after digging in her backpack and turning up a handful of change and a warped chocolate bar. She was young. She had the clear- eyed beauty of a girl who still believed that, as they used to say, she could be anything she wanted to be. Of course she would not consider herself a girl. The word was offensive, but she had a girl's body, delicate shoulders, and fine arms, and like a girl, she had no idea how fresh she looked.

George handed Jess a black ballpoint, and she took the questionnaire and filled it out right on the other side of his desk. He tried not to stare, although she was leaning over. Casting his eyes down, he resisted the impulse to turn up the sleeve covering her writing hand.

When Jess finished, she returned the questionnaire and waited, expecting George to read her answers right away. He ignored her. When she hovered longer he said, "Give me a couple of days and I'll call you."

But he read the completed questionnaire as soon as she left.

1. Full name: Jessamine Elizabeth Bach

2. Are you a convicted felon? No

3. Are you an unconvicted felon? Not to my knowledge

4. Are you currently taking or dealing illegal drugs? No

5. Are you sure? Pretty sure

6. Circle one. A bookstore is: a meeting place, a mating place, a research room, a library, or a STORE, as the name suggests. Store for convicted felons?

7. Circle one. It's acceptable to wear earphones or use cell phones or notebook computers at work: rarely, sometimes, if I am daytrading, NEVER. Own none of the above

8. Circle one. It's acceptable to take money from the register: rarely, sometimes, if I really need to pay my dealer, NEVER. Wow, sounds like you've been burned. Sorry!

9. Short answer: No more than three sentences, please. Why do you want to work here? I want to work here because I really need the money for day-trading (just kidding). I love books and am well qualified to talk about them if you need someone knowledgeable. You have a great philosophy section, and as I mentioned, I am a grad student in philosophy.

10. Why in your opinion is this store named Yorick's? Hmm. I think this is a trick question. You want us to say because of "Alas, poor Yorick" in "Hamlet," but I can tell from looking at you that you are one of those guys who reads "Tristram Shandy" over and over again, so I'm guessing you named the store after Parson Yorick in the novel.

George read this last answer twice. The phrase one of those guys chafed. Was she saying he was simply an esoteric type? He fancied himself original, and he was miffed, or thought maybe he should be, for although he had a sense of humor, he exercised it primarily at others' expense. He found Jess a little flip, but she seemed sane, an unlikely arsonist. She'd do.

Excerpted from The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. Copyright 2010 by Allegra Goodman. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press.

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Allegra Goodman