Jean McGean, Longtime Utah Bookseller, Is Remembered

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When Jean McGean, the long-time book buyer for Sam Weller's Zion Book Store in Salt Lake City, died recently, colleagues throughout the industry mourned her passing. McGean was a favorite among publishers' representatives, including the author of this piece, Bruce Roberts, who called on her for many years representing regional book wholesalers. Roberts is currently an account manager for Books West, a regional wholesaler in Boulder, Colorado.

Jean McGean, the principal buyer at Sam Weller's Zion Book Store in Salt Lake City, Utah, lost her battle and life to cancer recently. As was her nature for 24 years at Weller's, she stayed on the job until she could no longer perform her duties, facing her increasing pain with stoic grace. Jean roundly criticized the deadly illness invading her body and its thoughtless disregard for her plans to live out the remainder of her life in good health and happiness.

Jean wanted no fuss to be made about her ill fortune, requested no sympathy, no mourners, no obituary, and no memorial service. In spite of her extremely private wishes, publishers' representatives throughout the western United States felt the pain of her loss and shared their thoughts about a woman who defined a buying style that was a sales rep's dream. Jean was "old school" in the finest sense of the phrase. Her remarkable ability to match books with customers from memory was a talent rarely seen anymore in an industry that increasingly relies on lifeless technology to make its decisions.

Ron Priddis, editor of Signature Books in Salt Lake City, enjoyed a unique relationship beyond books with Jean, sharing nights at the opera and dinners, which she rarely spent with publishers' representatives. Ron recalled, "I liked her eclectic tastes. In fact, she was all over the map, and you couldn't begin to pigeonhole her. Off the top of my head, I know she liked opera, basketball, needlework, murder mysteries, stuffed animals, and good restaurants." Ron marveled at the times Jean's encyclopedic memory served to put the right book in a customer's hands. "I wanted to find the poem, 'Stop All The Clocks,' by Auden, and couldn't find it in any anthologies. When I called Jean, she immediately knew where it could be found and put a copy of the book on hold for me. In my mind, as I think of Jean's death -- which is hard for me to accept -- I think of the words to that poem and hear La Boheme playing in the background."

In retrospect, "stopping all the clocks" was a way of life for Jean and her visitors at Sam Weller's Zion Book Store. The back room could be a set for a 1940s movie, where staff-made shelves and tables create a comforting claustrophobia that could only be appreciated in a bookstore. As the linoleum floor creaks its warm welcome to visitors walking out on the floor, one recalls the image of Sam Weller yelling across the store to an employee from his perch on the mezzanine, not unlike a captain beckoning a crew member from the bridge of his ship. This man is credited with making hollering across the length of a store during business hours an effective communications tool. Sam has waged his own battle with age in winning fashion, enjoying life in spite of the devastating loss of sight several years ago. He visited with Jean on the phone during the final weeks of her life, challenging her to a round of golf and sharing words of comfort.

Jean made book buying a calculated and efficient art, earning the admiration of reps who called on her. Jeannie Dunham of Wilcher Associates recalled recently that "when I first met her, I thought, 'Boy, this is one tough cookie.' Her sometimes brusque, no-nonsense manner seemed off-putting at first. But then it became clear that it was her way of setting the ground rules and letting you know she wasn't to be trifled with. It has been a joy to work with her these past years, because she was without a doubt one of the most knowledgeable, best, and easiest buyers I've ever worked with. I'm having a hard time getting my mind around the fact that when I come to Sam's next time she won't be sitting behind her cluttered desk, a dozen notes taped to her computer screen, answering phone calls, looking through a pile of used books someone has brought in, answering a question about an order someone is receiving, and helping me clear a space to sit down. She did it all in her inimitable Jean fashion and, you bet, I'll miss her."

Simon and Schuster rep Terry Warnick recalled, "Jean was known as 'the fastest buyer in the West.' She didn't like to squander away her time, and I often had to scramble to keep up with her. She often knew my authors better than I did. She had a wealth of information tucked away in her brain, and Sam Weller's has lost a very valuable resource. She was their own personal computer, with information that cannot be replaced. Jean was a remarkable person, one of a kind, and I will miss her more than words can say." Lee Collins representative Ted Terry never could find a pen fast enough to keep up with Jean while she scoured through his many academic press catalogs. Ted had the greatest admiration for Jean's phenomenal memory, which reflected the vast interests and eclectic tastes of Weller's customers. She had the knack to know what to bring in and when to pass on "landfill." Jean used the store's computerized inventory to confirm her knowledge rather than create it.

One of Jean's most endearing qualities was her generous support of small presses and desktop publishers. In a community where self-published books at times seem to be inspired by visitations from another planet, Jean was always willing to buy a half dozen, giving the authors and publishers their first sale. There were more than a few instances where Jean's acquisitions created a boom for sales.

Jean McGean's unique personality and classic buying style allowed publishers' representatives to "stop all the clocks" and to fondly experience a golden era when the profession of bookselling and buying was based on shared knowledge and memory. Her untimely death at a relatively young age reminds us of the mortality of these special relationships and their saddening disappearance in the wake of reliance on technology to run a bookstore.