THE day after voters in California rejected an initiative to legalize marijuana, a package arrived at the bookstore I own with my husband: eight ounces of premium bud. This was not a gift from a grateful customer, nor was it a new product we’d brought in for the holiday season. The package came from a grower here in Humboldt County who had decided it would be amusing to use our bookstore as the return address.
And it might have gone directly to a buyer in Austin, Tex., except that the grower had used a little too much packaging, pushing it over the Postal Service’s weight limit. Stamped packages weighing more than 13 ounces have to be handed over in person at the post office, not dropped anonymously in a mailbox. And so the padded envelope and its aromatic contents were returned to sender — in this case, our antiquarian bookstore, which is better known for shipping signed first editions and vintage bird lithographs than Humboldt County’s most famous agricultural product.
At first we couldn’t believe our luck. Rare book dealers are in the business of buying low and selling high, but never had we had the opportunity to take that phrase quite so literally. Anyone else might have been inclined to keep the package for personal use, but we’re shopkeepers facing a busy holiday season. We can’t afford to let the next few weeks drift away in a cloud of smoke.
Being retailers, we weren’t immune to the temptation to sell our windfall. One of our regular customers walked in just after we’d opened the package; he offered us enough cash to cover our rent through the end of the year. But although medical marijuana laws and a tolerant attitude by law enforcement make the drug practically legal here, we weren’t quite ready to take the next step and start dealing from behind the counter.
Strangely enough, though, the idea that a bookstore could keep itself in business by selling marijuana might explain why someone chose to put our return address on the package to begin with.
Two months ago, a local weekly, The Arcata Eye, asked if it could run an excerpt from a novel I had written a few years ago in which digital books had become so popular that bookstores everywhere were forced to shut their doors. Only one remained open: a creaky old antiquarian bookstore in northern California much like my own. The shop, finding itself in the national spotlight, could no longer hide the fact that it had been selling something other than books for years.
Soon the story about the bookstore that tucks marijuana between the pages of old books appeared in The Eye; it was part of a fictionalized series about life in cannabis country that ran as the state debated the failed referendum, Proposition 19, which would have allowed licensed retailers to sell marijuana to people over 21 for recreational use.
I like to think that pot growers read the newspaper, and read novels, and enjoy contemplating the fine line between fiction and fact. I envisioned one packing the week’s shipments and facing the persistent conundrum of what imaginary return address to print on the envelope. In a moment of inspiration, he or she must have realized that it would take only a few strokes of the pen to bring my novel to life. And so it was that our bookstore — at least according to the fiction written across a padded envelope weighing slightly over 13 ounces — made its first shipment of marijuana.
We hope this will also be the last shipment. In the end, we didn’t smoke it or sell it or give it to our employees as a holiday bonus. We called the police and asked them to come pick it up. This is a laughable move in Humboldt — it was difficult to persuade the officer to bother making the trip down to the store at all — but we realized that we needed to establish some sort of plausible deniability before a drug-sniffing dog got a whiff of another package with our address on it.
Besides, the voters of California have made it clear they aren’t ready for a bookstore that sells pot — for now.