In ancient times, using a pen name, I wrote a series of short-short stories for use as one-page advertisements, under the heading ‘An annotated browser,’ to promote the shop. These are a few examples.
It is an established fact in the used book trade that a healthy shop cat will lose one and a half times its body weight in fur every 28 days. On bright winter mornings, with the sun reaching through the front windows to steal the reds and greens from the dust jackets of books displayed there, the cat hair floats, illuminated, on invisible currents.
My first customer of the day enters with a rush of cold air and an uncertain step, as if blown in by accident, her frail figure made twice as large by the wide brim of a floppy hat, and a great black wool cloak.
“Do you have a copy of ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ by Jessie Wilcox Smith?” she asks breathlessly. There is a challenge in the backward tilt of her head, the clear blue of her eyes resting orb-like above the textured terrain of her cheeks.
I guessed that she had not seen a copy of the book, perhaps since fondly remembered readings to her children, many years before. She recalled those wonderful pictures better than she remembered the author.
I remind her, “Jessie Wilcox Smith illustrated the Scribner’s edition. The poems were written by Robert Louis Stevenson.”
The cheeks fall and the eyes widen.
“No! I want the book by Jessie Wilcox Smith. I know it. I knew the book by heart before you were born. . .’I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, and what can be the use of him is more than I can see,’. . . I just now thought of the book again while I was walking outside and saw my shadow on the cement. I looked up, and there was your sign. You must have it!”
Her eyes sparked now with certainty, beneath the lowered brim of black felt. I wondered if the flush of pink to her cheeks was excitement or the weather.
“I have it,” I said, and slipped back to the children’s section. When I returned, a thin white hand shot forward from a break in the cloak and grabbed the book before I could make any presentation.
It was a solid but slightly tattered quarto sized reprint from the late 1940’s of that 1905 classic. The pictorial paper label on the front cover had been scratched through to the dark cloth in places and faded in others, but the binding was solid and all the pages intact despite much use, and with all the wonderful line and color of Jessie Wilcox Smith.
She smiled, “I told you—” then frowned as she realized the illustrator’s name came after that of Robert Louis Stevenson.
She did not look up—the hand lifting the cover slowly, stopping to read the awkward signature of a child on the endpaper and running a finger over that as if it could be felt, and then for a few pages, before reading the first lines her eyes found.
“‘Come up here o dusty feet! Here is fairy bread to eat. . . ’ Yes. Yes!” Her fingers finally flipping pages at random.
“I really couldn’t read then, you see. Grandmother read them to me.”
From the folds of the cloak, she produced a knitted black purse more than large enough and put the book carefully away. Then, reaching deeper within, she produced a neatly folded square of paper money.
“How much?” And though she clearly frowned when I answered, her eyes were still bright with her rediscovery as she counted out the one-dollar bills very precisely, and then waited patiently for the cash register to issue forth its receipt.
“Are you going to read it to your own grandchildren now?” I said, for one moment, too sure of the quiet harmony of the universe.
She seemed surprised by my question.
“Oh, no. No! It’s for me. I can read it now for myself!”
She left brushing in vain at the cat hair collected on the folds of the black woolen cloak but smiling still.
‘She has grown up and gone away,’ I thought, ‘And it is but a child of air that lingers in the garden there.’
A book may be correctly judged by its cover, but you won’t be any the wiser for it. A bookseller often passes judgment upon books he has never read, relying on the prejudice of past experience, if only because there are so many books and so little time.
There was one fellow who had been making a habit of stopping by the shop about midafternoon, once or twice a week, to buy a single comic book. With sharp eye, I judged him to be over thirty and under sixty. His hair was cut severely short in swatches, giving his scalp a cratered effect, and there was an edge of the institutional escapee to his appearance which was magnified by the intense focus of his eyes. The grime of his neck and arms stopped severely at lines made by the washing of his hands and face. His shaving left patches of gray stubble in odd locations, as if a mirror had not been used.
I assumed he was a bum. Never actually drunk, he spoke with a halting stutter and a monotone of voice that seemed permanently drugged. The sour smell of old wine and sweat followed his browsing movements. The mismatch of clothes appeared randomly chosen from the discards in alley trash bins where I assumed he searched for cans and bottles to be turned in for the deposit money. I was familiar with the dumpster divers of the Back Bay; frequent visitors, they usually looked for a little cash in exchange for books found along the way.
From the first, he seldom spoke more than a word as he moved very deliberately through the aisles (as if walking the edge of a high cliff), but always ending up in front of our small comic section. Then, picking a title at random, he paid whatever the price from a small plastic bag filled with nickels, dimes and quarters.
I accepted this routine without much note—bookstores being a common refuge from the push and shove of the street—until one day he stopped first at the counter and waited patiently for my attention.
“I want a book,” he said.
“Which one?” I answered, a bit too automatically.
“Something good.” he said, the voice as blank of emphasis as his face.
I reached behind to a stack of incoming paperbacks and picked an Elmore Leonard western for no other reason than the graphic illustration on the cover made me think it might suit a comic book reader. The spine was bowed with multiple readings but still intact. It would cost no more than a comic book.
He counted out the change and the book disappeared into the folds of a second jacket beneath the stained rain coat he usually wore in cold weather.
This now became the routine. He appeared reluctant to venture back into the aisles himself, and satisfied with the choices I made. Curiosity at his possible reaction made me alternate the subject matter, going to science fiction, then biography, then something else. As I stretched the limits, he never objected.
Because the frequency of his visits never altered from the time when he had purchased only comic books, I was sure he did not read them. My curiosity began to build. If I asked him for his opinion about a title, his answer was always the same.
“Fine. Just fine.”
I never gave him a book I thought was bad, always picking titles in the faint hope that he might indeed read them and wasn’t using their pages to start fires for warmth beneath a highway overpass. But the speculation turned to worry. At least he might be giving them to friends.
He looked blankly at my question as I pressed him again one day.
“If you tell me what you do with them, I won’t charge you. I’ll give them to you free . . .It’s really none of my business, I know, but—”
“I read them,” he finally said, as he had before, creating syllables within each word.
I groped in my mind for another approach. He interrupted my own fumbling.
“They taught me to read at the VA hospital. That’s my job. To read . . .May I please have a book.”
“But don’t you care what I give you?”
“Yeah. A couple of weeks ago you gave me a book twice. The one about the shark. Don’t give it to me again. I didn’t like it so much the second time.”
“But is there any kind you like better than another?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been stupid my whole life. It doesn’t seem so smart for me to pick my own yet…You pick.”
Responsibilities seek out the curious. Now, I began to set aside certain books in advance of his visits. I began to select the best I could afford to give away. Until the day, not so long afterward, when he stopped coming. A copy of Elmer Kelton’s The Day The Cowboys Quit remained on the reserve shelf for months before I accepted the idea that he would not return.
I had asked his name once. ‘Charles,’ he had said, the name in fractured parts I had to piece together to comprehend. I never knew another thing about him.
I had judged him for too long as only what I could see. But now
I have no idea where he has gone.
Food for Small Gods
The unique sound of a hardcover book hitting a brick floor after a fall of several feet is made distinctive by the specific angle at which the spine of the volume makes contact, rather than the exact number of pages, or total unit weight, or actual speed of descent, as one might think. Further, it is a cynic’s game to guess the appearance of the erstwhile customer responsible for the deed until after the fact.
He was a stump of a man, an old tree cut short to its first two branches; broad shouldered, barrel chested, his neck as thick as his large and balding head. When I approached, he spoke without looking up, as if to forestall my inquiry.
“I’m seventy-three. I took a job as assistant cook at a lumber camp in Michigan the week I got home from France and stayed till the week Armstrong walked on the moon. The lumber companies had started using the packaged food by then. They sent it in frozen. The fingers won’t grip like they used to. Didn’t need me anymore.”
He had well occupied the four feet of space in front of our section of cookbooks during the previous hour and my question was to help him find the book he needed as much as to be sure his interest was not more in line with a library than a bookshop. I picked the fallen volume from the floor and waited a moment longer. His meaty hands were not gentle as he continued to peruse one volume and then another. He held each book at arm’s length, his lips moving silently as he scanned the uneven lines of a recipe.
Ignored, I retreated to the front desk in the hope that he found what he wanted sooner than later. Another hour passed. At least one more volume hit the floor. He picked it up, but only I think because he had not yet looked into it. I estimated that he had diligently read a page from every one of the older cookbooks we had by the time I again felt compelled to offer some assistance. For several minutes, he had mauled an old hardcover which I could see from a distance was at least as old as himself. I thought my renewed attention might annoy him enough to make him leave.
“This is the one,” he said, looking at me with a broad and happy smile of perfect dentures as I approached.
“That’s the Fannie Farmer cookbook,” I noted helpfully. “It’s a favorite.”
“And it’s the best you got, son. I know. When I went to work at my first camp after cooking for the army for a couple years, this is the one left to me by the old woman who quit. It didn’t have no covers then, an’ the pages was all loose and greasy, so I had to keep it in a cigar box and memorize the recipes before they fell to pieces. Made a lot a fellas happy that I didn’t keep cooking like the army taught me to. I never did know the name of the damned thing, and here it is.”
He laughed to himself silently, his chest shaking. I wondered if he was remembering the old days in the woods and he continued to hold the book out in the air before him, finally closing it with a clap of the pages. He looked at me with wet eyes.
“That was the old gal’s name, I guess. Fannie. I don’t think the fellas was ever as happy with me as they was with her, but they liked my biscuits cause I used the lard like Fannie said to.”
“No–” I began to explain, but then realized he had placed the book carefully back on the shelf and begun to leave.
“But don’t you want to buy it?”
“What for? I told you…” He pulled a yellowed cotton handkerchief from his pants pocket and wiped his face without looking back at me. “I know it by heart.”
And then he left.