“In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.”
— Mark Twain
“They’re not here.”
“They were here last time.”
“They couldn’t have just walked away.”
“But they could have been moved.”
“Honestly, they do this all the time. I think it’s a conspiracy. They rearrange things so that when people head straight for what they’re looking for, it’s not where they thought it was. Instead they find a lot of books they weren’t looking for, but between that and the time it will take them to browse for what they wanted in the first place, there’s a much higher chance that they’ll pick up more than what they came in for. It’s devious.”
“It’s business,” she said. “That’s exactly what they do.” She took me by the hand. “Come on. The classics must be somewhere.”
She led me through the aisles of the bookstore as our search for the elusive Lord of the Flies continued. At last she spotted the sign labeled “Classics” and we made our way to that shelf.
She looked at me. “What’s his name?”
“William Baldwin, I think.”
“Okay. B . . . B, B, B . . .” Her slender finger traced the spines. “Here’s Unamuno, U . . .”
“Unamuno? As in Miguel de Unamuno?”
“Eyes on the prize. Don’t get tricked by their system,” she teased.
“Ha, ha. But Unamuno–wait, that’s not Miguel. I’ve never even heard of this guy, how did he make it to classics?” I took the book off the shelf and examined the copyright. “1997? Come on, people. Not my idea of a classic. Am I a classic? Are you?”
“We’ll debate that later,” she interrupted. “Here’s Kantor, K, and . . . Collins, Carroll . . . Burnett . . .”
“Burnett?” I echoed, diving toward the shelf. I returned with a book cradled in my arms.
“The Secret Garden? I thought you already had a copy.”
“Two, actually, but one of them uses single-mark quotes where they should be double-marked, and vice versa, and I mean seriously, what’s up with that? Besides, they’re both paperback. Look at this! Leather-bound, and just smell it–wood shavings, right? I love that smell! And at a price like that, two dollars, brand new? I can’t pass that up.”
“All right, well, look for yourself, there’s no Baldwin here. It goes straight from Bacon to Beckett.”
“Uh . . .” I ran a hand down the back of my neck. “That’s probably because his name was Goldwyn . . .”
She had the uncanny ability to thoroughly deride my stupidity just by staring at me. Words would have blunted the effect. Rolling her eyes, she said, “G, then. That should be over here . . . Fitzgerald . . .”
“Frank,” I read, and looked lower; “Haggard, overshot . . . Guest, never actually seen any of his collections before. They said it couldn’t be done!”
“I see what you did there,” she answered, and I could hear her eyes rolling. Pointing with a finger she began, “Here’s–”
“Aha!” I interrupted.
“What? Do you see it? I don’t–”
“No, I just rememered, his name was Golding, not Goldwyn!”
“Doesn’t matter. Right here, goes from Gogol to Green.”
I tutted. “Not here?”
“We’ll have to try general fiction.”
As we resumed our heroic quest for our quarry, and as we wandered through the maze of shelves, she said, “Why are we even here? Why don’t you just order the book online?”
“Have you no sentiment?”
“Sentiment,” she echoed. “Like a spirit of adventure? Are you going to make some heroic quest out of this or something?”
“N-no . . .” I didn’t tell her what I’d just been thinking. “No, I only meant that here, in the midst of all these books, it’s something magical, it’s an experience. Sure, you can shop online, you can browse with your head and find what you’re looking for in an instant. But here in a traditional bookstore you get to browse with your eyes, with your hands . . . you get to browse with your heart.”
“And you get to go on an adventure,” she added.
“Well . . . yeah.” We found the general fiction section rather quickly, and began looking through the aisles for the hiding place of the Gs. “I mean, it’s one thing to get to read a book,” I went on, “one of the best things I know. But it’s something else entirely just to be able to be around them. Call me crazy, but I do it at home all the time; I pick a book up, sometimes whether I’ve read it or not, just to admire it, to feel it. You know?” I held The Secret Garden and petted its cover as an example. “Just to see it, to touch it, to be with it . . . it’s magical. It’s like you’re taking a part of it into yourself even without reading it. Pretty incredible, isn’t it, what a book can do, even before you read it?
We passed a shelf where a pair of pale hands offered us an apple; nearby several books displayed, with a definite undeserved pride, the half-naked subjects of their covers. I observed sagaciously, “And some books have a knack for instilling you with intense repulsion. Not much magic offered there.” As we passed on, I swept my hands into the air, generally gesturing everywhere, adding, “But on the whole, books are beautiful. They reach out to you . . . they touch you . . . they speak to you. What’s that?” I leaned closer to a bookshelf nearby. “Uh-huh? Uh-huh? Oh, absolutely! I couldn’t agree more.” I turned back to her. “You’ll never believe what the bookshelves just told me. I mean, I knew books were wise, but I didn’t expect them to be quite this percipient.”
She smiled a charming half-smile, amused. “What did they tell you?”
“It’s nothing I didn’t already know, but I’m impressed that they knew it, too. They tell me you’re the most beautiful woman they have ever seen.”
She laughed her trilling laugh and slapped me across the chest. “Tell ‘the bookshelves’ I think they’re the sweetest.”
I couldn’t help it. Overflowing as my heart already was with the enchantment of a bibliophile in his element, the emotions inspired by her shimmering, velvety raven black hair and the light in her eyes and the light in her smile were more than I could take. I put my arms around her and kissed her. A moment later, smiling a charming full smile and laughing still, she began again,
“Anyway–I agree with you of course, but I prefer used bookstores, don’t you? You’re the first person I would expect to appreciate the stories inside a used book. And I mean the ones written in the margins. All the lives that book has touched. Tell me you don’t love that a million times more than a brand-new book.”
“A million times more, without a doubt,” I admitted.
“And I just love the smell of old books.” She opened imaginary pages in her hands and drank in the aroma. “It’s even better than the wood-shavings smell some firsthand books have. As magical as any bookstore is, a secondhand bookstore has even more magic. When you go in there, it’s more than just you and the books. Go into a used bookstore and you’re something more than just yourself, you’re a reader. You’re another one of millions of the lives touched by these books. You’re a part of all that.”
“It’s like walking through eternity,” I breathed.
She glanced at a copy of The Screwtape Letters, then put it back on the shelf, and added, “And all that for a better price . . .”
“Always the practicalist,” I joked. “However, I agree with you absolutely. The only problem with used bookstores is that there’s no guarantee you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
“Right. Here, on the other hand, it was effortless.”
“That’s the best part of a used bookstore, anyway. You find so much you weren’t expecting . . . where’s there’s so much history and so much–so much, well, like you say, eternity–you make new discoveries every moment. There’s so much more more to learn, so much more around you than there is here with all these brand-new books. The only lives they’ve ever touched were the printers’.”
I stood motionless, just admiring her. She noticed me watching her and met my gaze sweetly. “My marvelous fellow-poet,” I said. “May I kiss you again?”
“Later,” she laughed.
Our search yielded no more success among the Gs of general fiction that it had among the classics. As a last resort, we approached an employee.
“Good evening, J.D.,” I greeted, reading the teenager’s nametag. “Or can I call you J.?”
He stared, “hip” oversized glasses sliding down on a face lumpy with acne. He pushed his glasses back up and slurred, “C’na hel’you?”
She looked at me and I looked back with an expression that begged the question, “Is he offering his services or threatening us?” She turned to J.D. and smiled disarmingly and said, “We’re looking for a book. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. Do you know where we could find it?”
“Come wi’ me to da fron’esk, please,” he answered automatically.
At the front desk a more helpful, more vivacious young woman chipperly helped us look up the book on the store’s computers. No, she’s sorry, it’s not in stock. If we like she can put in an order– No, we’ll wait? All right. Can she ring that up for us? Have a good night.
“At least it wasn’t a total bust,” I observed as soon as we were outside, holding The Secret Garden close to my heart with one hand, and with the other holding hers.
With her free hand she was deftly navigating her iPhone. “Done,” she announced.
“Done. Lord of the Flies, William Golding, please allow 2-3 business days for delivery. That took, what, thirty seconds?”