Friend's Dream Will Live On

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Bookseller Kathleen Caldwell pays tribute to Debi Echlin, owner of A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, California, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, who died in her sleep on Thanksgiving Day. In this column, which originally appeared in The Montclarion newspaper on December 9, Caldwell meaningfully says Debi Echlin was "the perfect combination of big sister, mentor, and best friend."

Normally at this time of year, I would be writing about the books I think would make the perfect gifts for everyone on your list, but you have to understand these aren't normal times. You see, one of my best friends went to bed on Thanksgiving and never woke up.

Debi Echlin

Debi Echlin was a force of nature, a vibrant pint-sized dynamo with bright red hair, an infectious laugh and a smile that could melt even the most somber person's facade.

Debi had two speeds, fast and faster. Trust me, I know, I was always running after her. It was as if she needed to pack as much living into each day as she possibly could.

It was almost impossible to be in a bad mood around her, she just wouldn't allow it. She would do everything in her power to make you laugh, or she would tell everyone you both encountered how crabby you were, or sometimes, she would just mock you until you were laughing with her and at yourself.

But the most incredible thing about Debi was that if she loved you, you knew it. Because she told you she did whenever she had the opportunity.

Debi and I were only friends for a little over a year but now I can't imagine my life without her.

We met in October 2004 at [the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association's] annual trade show. I wasn't working and my unemployment was about to run out. Basically, I needed a job -- and I needed one fast. At the suggestion of a few friends, our trade organization's executive director, Hut Landon, hired me to report on the workshops for the monthly newsletter. He also said it would be the perfect opportunity for me to put some feelers out. I packed my yellow legal pad, a few pens, my tape recorder, and my resume and headed over to the convention.

I was standing outside of a workshop chatting with a friend telling her my situation and I noticed a small redhead listening in. When Janet and I were done talking, she grabbed my arm and said, "Give me your resume." She handed me her business card and said, "Let's talk Monday."

I spent the rest of the weekend watching her. Whether she was standing behind a podium or working the information booth, Debi Echlin had the ability to commandeer a room. What I didn't know then was that she also spent the weekend watching me, and being the consummate businesswoman she was, she was also checking my references.

On Monday morning I arrived at A Great Good Place for Books at 9:00 a.m. and Debi was waiting for me.

We walked over to Royal Grounds, ordered a couple of lattes, sat at a table and Debi flipped open her calendar and said, "Can you start tomorrow?"

That was the last time she acted like my boss; she always treated me as her equal. Actually, when I introduced her to people as "my boss," she would get mad at me and correct me saying, "We're colleagues and friends, Kathleen. I'm not your boss. Give yourself a little credit."

In the past week, people have told me when they had heard I was going to work for Debi they had a hard time putting the two of us together until they saw us together. Then they knew what we did from that first moment -- we were a perfect fit.

We became friends. We loved working together. We talked about books, the ones I loved, the ones she loved, the ones we both loved, and the ones we disagreed on -- always trying to convince the other why she had to give the book a chance. (Deb, I promise I'll read Too Close to the Falls now). We took turns being in the spotlight, and most important, we began telling each other everything. We discussed our pasts, our heartbreaks, our triumphs, our mistakes, our dreams, and our futures.

Because of Debi, I fell in love with the store and began to believe it really is possible to create an enormous community in a small space.

We would work together all day and then when we got home spend two hours on the phone. Trust me, we drained the batteries on our phones more than once! We included each other in every aspect of our lives; a couple of weekends ago we were dancing with each other at my sister's 20th wedding anniversary party. She was the perfect combination of big sister, mentor, and best friend.

A few months ago, I sent her one of those silly chain letter e-mails about friendship and this was her response --"I don't need to read what friendship is, or pass notes on to others. You, my dear friend, demonstrate what a friend is to me everyday! Love, Debi."

It's true and absolutely unbelievable, she's gone. You may be asking yourself, What can I do to help?

Simple. Shop at her store and keep her vision of community alive. When push came to shove, Debi was a businesswoman and a really fantastic one at that. She loved the book business and loved her store.

The staff of GGP has every intention of keeping her dream going. It's true it won't be the same; she won't be there yelling out at the end of every event -- "Don't just buy yourself a copy, buy 10; give it to all of your friends" -- and she won't be there to ask you how your mother is. But GGP is Debi: She created it, nurtured it, and watched it grow. She would want it to be here forever.

Last night, I came out of a meeting that was spent primarily discussing Debi and how life was never going to be quite the same again without her in it. When I got in my car and turned it on, I heard Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" playing.

It was perfect, because that's about the only thing I'm feeling right now.

Deb, I wish you were here.

Kathleen Caldwell has been a literary events coordinator for 15 years. She is currently coordinating author events at a Great Good Place for Books in Montclair Village, in Oakland, California.

This column originally appeared in the December 9 issue of The Monclarion.