1. The Name
Strictly speaking, the phrase “used bookstore” is false, clumsy, and ungrammatical. The books are used, not the store. But along with the pre-owned contents, consider the sorry condition of the real estate. A used bookstore never occupies a new space, designed and fitted up for the purpose. It was always something else, a place that used to be. The old fixtures remain, counters and bins, traces of ads painted on the walls, worn spots in the flooring, and the heater that wheezes, groans and creaks like a tiresome invalid, a superannuated pensioner that refuses to give up the ghost. “I have been used,” it sighs, while its fetid breath infuses the space and taints the whole enterprise.
Off the beaten track, at an address that was never fashionable, in permanent shadow when the sun is blazing, the used bookstore has a name that suggests failure. If a railroad track is near, as it very often is, the bookstore will allude to a depot. If it bears the owner’s name, it will be a nickname like Bart or Grannie, or an impenetrable surname like Wilfong or Puffenbarger. The name may tinkle a literary pun, or ring a variation on the theme of age, or hammer on the bare banality of books. It has nothing to do with marketing, product placement, or smart consumers. A hand-lettered sign mumbles “bargains galore.”
2. The Book
The artless display, the overflowing abundance that spills onto the sidewalk, the sagging shelves, the tottering piles of books beckon. The perfume compounded of paper, ink, dust and mildew, with accents of mothballs, bric-a-brac, dead houseplants, and decaying leather draws me in. Yet sensual factors pale beside the conviction that this time, no matter how many times I have been rebuffed, I will get lucky. The elusive book of my dreams is inside, the book that explains everything, the book of truth and beauty. It is my holy grail, and I am its pilgrim.
Jorge Luis Borges knew this book well. He studied it, plagiarized it, and accidentally left it lying on the seat of a taxicab in Buenos Aires. Had the book not existed, Borges himself would hardly have left a trace. There is one definitive edition, issued by an obscure publisher that vanished long ago, and any number of cheats, pirated copies, and versions of dubious fidelity. In the realm of rare books, it is the rarest. Unlisted, never up for auction, impossible to value, it languishes amid turgid novels and obsolete school primers, glinting like a forgotten jewel.
I enter. My eyes to adjust to the gloom. The used bookstore has windows that are barred, screened, shuttered and hung with tattered venetian blinds. Glass that has not been painted over or blocked with books is opaque with grime. Electric lights are dim bulbs that dangle from a cord that loops and writhes overhead like a vine. Or they glimmer like swamp gas, ancient fluorescent tubes that have faded to phosphorescence.
I grope through the narrow aisles, peer at the spines of books, and try to make out a title, an author’s name, a word. Not for the first time, I wonder why a place devoted to reading is so poorly lit. A naked bulb hangs over the top of a bookcase like a luminous gargoyle, and I shield the glare with a hand held to my forehead, as though I stood on the deck of a ship in broad sunlight. But I stand in a world of shadows, where vague masses loom in darkness, and text merges with context.
I want a lantern to hold near the cracked spines, a searchlight to train on the printed page, a flaming torch to illuminate dark passages. Like the Lady of Shalott, I am half-sick of shadows. Let the noonday sun stream through these dank and congested corridors. Let its brilliance drive away the doubt and uncertainty that fester here. I want to see the author face to face, read his words with assurance, and hear his voice in the clarity of its original utterance.
The used bookstore is furnished in the style of a graduate student apartment, a janitor’s basement office, or a church youth group hangout. The stained and overstuffed armchairs, sagging sofa, battered coffee table, and lamps with their torn and tasseled shades, are castoffs. They were found on a sidewalk, next to a dumpster, on the back porch of an abandoned house. The furniture has no style, no color, no shape. What did it cost when new? Was it ever new? It has transcended earthly meaning and is now inseparable from the haven of old books into which it has settled, like a shipwreck on the oozy floor of the ocean.
My nose buried in a book, I perch on the soft, rounded arm of a chair, rest my weight on the ancient fabric, slide slowly down and sink into its padded recesses. I reach up without looking and pull the little chain of the lamp. The page is bathed in soft, yellow light. A plush carpet lies underfoot. I slip off my shoes and dig my toes into the pile as I read. A cup materializes, and something herbal steams from it. As in a dream, I am trapped and powerless to stir. The furniture seduces me without so much as a sigh.
5. The Maze
The oldest and largest used bookstore in my town is called Daedalus, and its slogan is “Explore the Labyrinth.” Occupying three floors of a rambling old house, it truly is a maze, full of blind alleys, narrow passages, and sudden openings. It is an interior world, dreamlike and airless, a catacomb lined with books instead of ossuaries, and as silent as the tomb. Or it resembles a limestone cavern, utterly still and claustrophobic, fantastically carved by centuries of erosion into shapes that suggest but never signify. A ball of thread would come in handy here, and a Minotaur would not seem out of place.
Pipes drop from above like snakes in a jungle, shelves lean, and hazards jut from every angle. Faded signs are tacked to shelves with arrows pointing this way or that, like the street signs in Venice which direct you to San Marco or the Rialto. Here they are misleading and fallacious, signs that lead only to destruction.
I forget which floor I am on, what time I entered, what day of the week this is, what year. I feel dizzy and disoriented, as though some toxic, odorless gas fills my lungs and seeps into my bloodstream. Will I wander here until I faint from exhaustion? If I call for help, will anyone hear? I waver between panic and despair. A heap of rags in the Anthropology aisle—is it the remains of a book lover overcome by anguish, who was unable to locate the exit and perished here in the stifling gloom?
6. The Stair
If you can find it, the stair in a used bookstore is narrow, steep, sloping, rickety, and choked with piles of books. The handrail is broken or coated with slime, or it comes away when you grasp it, like a bone from a disintegrating skeleton. Instead of a landing, the stair has winders, wedge-shaped treads arrayed like a fan that force you to tiptoe. Two persons can pass on the stair only with unwanted intimacy. One or the other must flatten against a wall. Or both must perform a dangerous ballet, a pas-de-deux on unequal risers, a dance of death in midair.
The wall of the stair is lined with books. How to stand to look at them? Do I place both feet on one narrow tread and balance like a tightrope walker? Or do I stand with one foot up and one foot down, like a Swiss goat on an Alpine pasture, one leg shorter than the other? There is a title just beyond my reach, a book for which I risk toppling headlong, a heavy volume that shifts my center of gravity as I pry it from the shelf. “Who managed to put it there?” I wonder, as my body rotates and gathers momentum for the crash.
A social program that supplies reading matter to the incarcerated, Books Behind Bars, refuses donations that contain handwriting of any sort. Underlining, highlighting, marginal notes, gift dedications, bubbles, doodles, arrows, checkmarks, exclamation points, lists, cross references, glosses, hints, jottings, definitions, commentaries, and exegeses are forbidden. I don’t know what the authorities fear, whether the prisoners will be distracted, or get ideas for escape, or in the absence of a reference library be deceived by another’s musings, but I feel the same way.
If I pick up a book and find it interesting and read whole paragraphs and then chance on a passage that has been underlined, however neatly, I replace it on the shelf. No exceptions. Such notes are a violation, an unwarranted intrusion, and a crime against literature. They are the marks of a vandal, as bad as graffiti painted on a wall, or lines scratched on a glass windowpane, or old shoes thrown over a telephone wire.
The perpetrators bear a burden of everlasting shame. Like the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, they are branded from within, suffer burning torment, and will eventually reveal their guilt to a startled and unsympathetic public. I cannot abide a book that is defaced.
In the course of leafing through an old book, I discover things left by previous readers, bits of paper with all manner of printed or written information. They include store receipts, business cards, ticket stubs, shopping lists, pamphlets, flyers, postcards, urgent notices, paint colors, bills, maps, snapshots, sketches, medical prescriptions, lecture notes, newspaper clippings, foreign currency, love letters, and torn envelopes. These are the fringe benefits of book hunting, the perquisites of the browser, the loot that comes from ransacking shelves.
In early days, I revered this ephemera. I left it undisturbed, like a valuable clue, or evidence that might be subpoenaed by some extraterritorial court of law. Then came a period during which I removed it, as one might pick up litter from the ground. I discarded it in the nearest bin or unswept corner. I imagined that I was clearing debris, weeding the garden of literature, doing the bookstore owner and my fellow readers a public service.
Now I follow a policy of self-interest. A personal letter to “Danster,” a message scribbled in cuneiform, a rubbing of an inscription, a prayer, a photograph of Cape Cod, a floor plan of the Prado—these I pocket. My gain is no one’s loss, and I am never at a loss for a bookmark.
The owner of a used bookstore is by nature a collector, even a hoarder. He is disposed to acquire books and more books, regardless of condition, subject matter, suitability, or literary style. He is constitutionally unable to cull the weaklings, winnow the grain from the chaff, or strain the curds from the whey. The result is a mass of books of no interest, books which will never sell, books which simply take up space. They obstruct my search for the golden prize. These hateful books are dross.
How else to explain the uninspired religious tracts, mistaken manuals for self-improvement, faded flowers of inspiration, superseded school textbooks, old almanacs, laborious hints for homemakers, outdated travel guides, archaic treatises, withered anthologies, stale cookbooks, petrified garden manuals, and row after row of uniformly bound collected works of forgotten authors? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, you say. The mass of printed matter is by definition mediocre, and taste is subjective.
I condemn this pernicious opinion. Just as the pantheon of heroes has no place for the average citizen, so the temple of literature excludes these insipid placeholders. It is built of precious stones, not common bricks. In this world, if not in the world to come of electronic books and hand-held devices, let us cleanse the temple and burn the tares of the field.
10. Old Friends
As I browse and linger in the perpetual twilight, lost in a reverie of print and paper, as I squint at the spines of innumerable volumes, a half-familiar name swims before my eyes, a title or author I seem to recognize. I pluck the book from its niche, and read a paragraph at random. It affects me in some indefinable way. I read a whole page and experience a feeling of déjà-vu. I turn to the front, where I see that it is an old friend, a book I have read from cover to cover, more than once. I may even have it in my personal library, which continually turns up surprises, like a cultivated plot of soil that produces Indian arrowheads or shards of pottery.
The book I read did not look like this, though. It was smaller, thinner, with a light green cover instead of this deep crimson. The author’s name was spelled out in full instead of initials. The typeface here is more elaborate. This edition has notes and an interminable introduction.
In the same way, I encounter old friends in new settings, in disguise, in festive masquerade, refashioned by finery and cosmetics. Hair has turned gray or been dyed, flesh has shrunken or filled out, and the voice I know from childhood proceeds from an adult I can hardly identify. The book I loved so many years ago is here and not here. This volume I hold is a counterfeit, a fraud, an imposter. Or it is transformed, improved, refined. The text is identical, but it reads like a translation. It calls into question things over and done.
11. The Browser
Absorbed in this pastime of wandering and reading disjointed printed passages, I bump into something soft, covered in fabric, and sentient. A muffled noise, a groan. I look up, and a human figure confronts me, as studious and shy as myself, a scholar of indeterminate age, gray-haired and possibly bearded, certainly wearing something woolen, a sweater vest and heavy coat, though the weather is warm for this time of year. He clutches a tattered cloth-bound book. I stand face to face with a browser.
Our eyes veer away by mutual consent, but the shock is unnerving. I stare in a mirror where no reflection was expected. I see the true image of myself in the likeness of a parody. I stumble over my own effigy, lumpy and stuffed with straw. Are we shades in this literary underworld, doomed to search forever for a fleeting peace of mind, famished in our unending pursuit of nourishment for the soul? I peer at the title in my fellow browser’s grasp, desperate to know what he has found worth reading in this desert. He turns a corner without uttering a word. Like a phantom, he flits, as though he had never been.
12. The Purchase
I must buy something, a souvenir of the time just squandered. At random, I reach toward a shelf and extract a book. I clasp it to my chest and lurch toward the front, slow as a truant, glancing right and left. With what regret I leave! I might have missed something on the way in.
At last, I rein in my attention. Ahead is the door to the street, and there, in a clearing in the wilderness of books, is a wooden desk. Seated at the desk, motionless, silent, with head bowed in an attitude of prayer, is a small, wizened person of no gender. For convenience, let us call this person the Guardian.
The Guardian is not the shop owner, who is never on the premises. The Guardian cannot answer a question, no matter how simple, or direct you to the toilet, or show you where Modern History is shelved. The Guardian bends over a ledger, or makes notes in a tiny, cramped hand, or burrows in a newspaper, or hovers over a black rotary telephone that never rings. Yet this person is not a clerk. Sleepless, vigilant, incorruptible and chaste, the Guardian keeps an eye on things, literally.
I approach like a suppliant and show my book. No price is marked, and no rule for pricing is posted. The Guardian examines the book, turns a few pages as if to find inspiration in the text, and shakes the book to dislodge its secret. The Guardian pronounces a number. The number is in dollars and cents, but it has no relation to the value of the book or to the world of commercial transactions. It is a number plucked from nowhere, a price in the sense that ducats are money in a Shakespeare play, or wampum beads were legal tender in colonial New Amsterdam.
I extract my wallet, count out some real money, and hand it over. The Guardian deposits it in a metal strongbox on the desk, or makes an addition or subtraction to a wad of bills produced from thin air. Bending over the ledger, the Guardian scribbles something lengthy and illegible, then looks up in surprise to see me still there.
I step through the door and blink in the light of day. I am a gasping survivor vomited by the sea monster that swallowed me, an addled soul released from the fairy kingdom, a victim who walks away unharmed from the scene of the accident. Under the open sky, I look at the book I just bought. Was it a wise purchase? Is it mine? I tuck it under my arm and stride away.