Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Bookstore on the Corner

Image courtesy of eapartak collection
My skin tingled my heart raced as if I had been reunited with an old lover. The musty smell of paper, the scent of old books caressing my senses. My quest was to find as many used bookstores across the country that I could.  I wanted to see how they were set up and how they were managed so one day I could have my own.

I know books are supposed to be a thing of the past.  Everyone has a Kindle or whatever each corporation calls theirs. I even fought with some elderly women in a bookstore about them. ‘All books will be assessable as e-books one day - even textbooks’ they said. But what if I love books. Love the smell - love the feel of them. Love what running my fingers along the binding does to me and where it takes my mind, why do I have to give that up? ‘You do,’ they told me, ‘it’s the way it is now.’ That is something I cannot surrender myself to accept. I have my wants and my desires in life and no one will control what they are.

This shop looked abandoned from the outside, the old building was deteriorated. The brick needed tuck-pointing and most of the windows were boarded up. The faded, red painted sign on the only window still in place just said ‘Bookstore.’  The rest of the town was new construction, with a new bookstore/cafĂ© across the street. No one seemed to care that this building stood in rotted condition falling away around itself. It stood there as if it were invisible, defying what everyone dictated a brick and mortar bookstore should look like, even better, defying the fact actual books would soon be a thing of the past. I loved this rebellious store. It defined me, a non-conformist standing alone conquering the world.

I almost decided not to stop here, but just go on to the next town. This place was so far from any populated area, but part of me liked that idea.  My computer search directed me to this location, those websites are not always reliable and seeing this place I really doubted it was still in business. I got out of my car and looked through the one large window that was not boarded up.  It held a display of all my favorite classics, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Jungle, Alice in Wonderland, The Complete Works of Edger Allen Poe, just to name only a few. I knew I needed to make this stop on my bookstore quest. This one could give me all the information I needed regarding how to be a bookstore owner. I came all this way - I had to at least see if I could get in.

The door creaked as I stepped into this dark mysterious old shop. The wooden floor seemed to give at my every step, and that musty perfume of old paper affected me as always. This store seemed to have dampness unlike the others and a scent that was familiar, but also foreign to my senses. My eyes raced over the shelves filled with books from floor to ceiling. I could see dust had collected on the bindings and cobwebs meandered down each shelf like a snake’s twisted path in the dust. I looked up to a mezzanine and a beautifully carved dark oak railing. Behind the railing were ladders, the kind that had wheels and rolled on a track above shelves so you could reach every precious book near the ceiling. This place looked just like pictures of old time libraries I had seen in books and movies. I felt as if I had stepped into my own heaven, a place where I could spend the rest of my life.

“Welcome to my store Miss. I have the feeling I have what you want.”

I was startled by the voice behind me and turned around to see who had pulled me back to my earthy existence. Behind me stood a tiny old man with thick glasses, thinning salt and pepper hair and a pencil thin mustache sitting above his top lip like a skinny little caterpillar. The typical stereotype of the bookish person I had created in my mind.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know if anyone was here, the store seems abandoned.” I continued to look in wonder around the store as I talked. “I’m sure you do have everything I am looking for. Are you opened for business?” I was starting to feel a little uneasy suddenly thinking I could be trespassing and this cute little old man may pull out a pistol and shoot me at any minute.

“Oh yes I am opened for business, but business is slow these days. People don’t want to read the old classics. They don’t even want a real book anymore,” he sighed as he also looked around with the look of a loving father admiring his children.

“I guess I could get the new things people want so I could lure customers in. I keep hearing I need to change with the times in order to keep the business going, but I just can’t.”  He let out a big sigh again looking around, “I’m getting too old, it is time to let go. This store has been in my family for generations. I love and care for these books the same as every member of my family has in the past, but now, now it will just die. I keep hoping some young person may be interested in keeping it all alive. Anyway you don’t need to hear an old man’s sob story. My name is Mortimer,” he said with a little bow of his head. “Anything I can help you with please do not hesitate to ask. I can tell you about any book or about anything in general”.

Here I was standing in my dream with this lonely old man. “I’m Angela. I love books, love the old stores. I want to one day own a store like this. I have been researching old bookstores across the country. I must admit there are not very many left and yours – well I must say it is the store I have seen in my dreams”.

It was the store of my dreams, even down to the big library table in the corner surrounded by dark leather chairs that proudly wore cracks and lines from many years of use. As I spoke his eyes were bright and his mouth turned with a slight knowing grin. He just stood there looking at me as I engulfed the surroundings.

“Angela, you are a blond heavenly messenger sent to this Dead Sea of Books. The books are dying. Look around while you can, it will soon be gone.  Now, please excuse me, I have some work to do, as I said, I will be happy to answer any questions when you are finished,” and off he disappeared into the dusty darkness of the store.                              

I looked around, then slowly I moved up the creaking stairs to the mezzanine level, the more I looked it seemed I found, resting on the dusty shelves, every book I ever read and those I still wanted to read.  I didn’t see how I could ever leave this place. It would take me an eternity to read all the stories this heaven held.  I coughed with each breath as the dust swirled in the air and found its way to my nostrils into my throat and lungs.  Dust from the words of the authors I adored, their creativity choking me, consuming and becoming part of me as I slid each volume off the ancient shelves.

After a few minutes had passed Mortimer ascended the stairs, with a floating like magical movement. He held a tray with a teapot, and sandwiches that rested on delicate china that was trimmed in gold with pale pink rosebuds.

“I thought you may be hungry and thirsty,” he said has he gently set the tray on the library table without a single drop of tea spilling.  “You have been up here for hours.”

Hours I tried to exclaim, but the dust in my throat captured me into another hard coughing spell. Mortimer handed me the tea and told me to drink it to clear my throat. I took the cup from him and swallowed the warm tea to bathe and soothe my parched throat.

“Thank you I seemed to have developed a cough, all the dust from these old books I have been in contact with I think,” I then took another sip of the sweet warm tea.

“Honey is the answer. Honey in the tea it is a natural way to keep the throat clear. After awhile your body gets use to the old paper and dust, just give it time,” he motioned for me to sit down.

We sat in silence as we ate our sandwiches. Finally Mortimer dabbed his mouth with the white linen napkin.  He looked me straight in the eyes, “Well what do you think? This can all be yours with no more searching – this is what you’ve been looking for.”

I gulped down the last of my sandwich in disbelief.  Was this old man offering me this store filled with these valuables?  It seemed too good to be true, a dream, it had to be a dream.

“I love the place. I would give anything to have it, but I don’t have the kind of money to purchase a place with the assumed value of this. I’ve been searching for information to learn about having a place. To start out slow and build up to this.”

“No need to build up, no need to start slow, it is all here now,” he moved his arms around and then in front of me as if gathering the building and handed to me. “You don’t need money. I am giving it to you.”

“Wait, just a minute. You told me this has been in your family for generations. It has to mean a lot to you, how can you just give it away”?

“You love the books. My books need to be loved. I know you will cherish them, take care of them, I see it in your eyes. Make an old man happy, stay and run my store.”

“What about family? Your family may be upset if you give away property that rightfully belongs to them.”  My cough was getting worse with each sentence I uttered. My emotions were running wild. I could get my life dream by taking this gift, or be sued from his family for taking advantage of an old man. I didn’t know what to do; he seemed serious about handing it over to me.

“There is only my grandson – Thanatos,” he said as he gave me more tea. “He is young like you and loves the books too. But he says he can’t run something that is dying, at least not by himself, and we all know this is dying.”

Grandson. I get it now, nerdy - ugly grandson who can’t get a girl. Grandpa is his matchmaker.  Sure hypnotize a book-loving female with a business to get loser Thanatos a bed partner. He figures I won’t see what a nightmare the grandson is if I get my dream for free.

“Mortimer, I don’t think you have the authority to give this away without your grandson’s approval. This is a generous offer, but I can’t take your store.”

“I have all the authority - this is my bookstore.”

Each thing I said he had a comeback. I felt as if I were playing chess with a master and soon I would hear ‘checkmate’ and surrender the game to him. But would I lose or win, for losing the game I would win the store I so wanted.

“Thanatos will be here later. We will all talk and then make it final. Look around some more, you have seen nothing yet,” he stood up and gathered the plates and cups, then floated back down the stairs.

I explored the store some more.  Up on the third floor was a children’s section. I took an old copy of ‘Pinocchio’ off a top shelf, not the modern tale with the cute innocent marionette that turned into a boy, but the story that upset me as a child where Pinocchio killed the talking cricket that tried to teach him how to be good. Next on the shelf was The Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales, the originals not the tamed down versions most of us grew up with.

Wandering into the next room I noticed a door near the back of the room.  Getting closer I read the words on a small metal sign: No Admittance - Owners Only. Of course my hand immediately went to the antique glass doorknob, as I tried to turn it I heard a chair move, looking behind me there was Mortimer and someone else I could not see clearly.

“Do you not read Angela? I thought you turned down the offer of ownership presented to you. Was I mistaken?”  He then stepped aside to reveal the shadowed figure behind him.  “This is my grandson Thanatos. I think you two may have much to discuss.”

I recognized him, tall with short black hair, eyes so blue the sky would be jealous. There he stood another one of my dreams. It was as if there was a camera in my brain projecting my thoughts and desires for the world to see. He took a step toward me his hand outstretched to shake mine.

“Hello Angela. Grandpa Mort has told me about you.”

“So nice to meet you Thanatos,” I took his hand to shake but my body shook more.

“Please call me Than. So you want a bookstore, but you don’t like this one?”

I could feel the hot rush of embarrassment color my face. “No. I mean yes. I mean I want a store and I love this one, but Mortimer, your grandfather wants to give it to me. I can’t do that.”

He tilted his head and stared at me with those eyes, and smiled the same knowing smile as Mortimer. “But it’s your dream, it’s why you started your quest. So why would you turn your back on such an opportunity?”

I looked back ready to tell him why, but I didn’t really know why. It was the place I wanted all my life, the place I would have given my last penny for. Here it was being given to me for a reason I did not know, and I was turning it down. I guess that was the answer, for what reason was I getting this?  I started my quest to learn about bookstores. Could I really walk away from here, not only having the opportunity of learning how to manage a bookstore, but to own one. I was ready to tell Than my answer and another coughing spell consumed me.

“It’s the book dust, you will get used to it,” Than said. “Grandpa Mort why aren’t you taking care of her?”

“I’ve been trying to Thanatos, you take care of her.”

Than lead me over to a chair to sit and took a throat lozenge from his pocket and gave it to me.  “Contains honey it will…”

“I know- I know- it will keep the throat clear,” I took the wrapper off the lozenge and popped it in my mouth.

“Grandpa Mort why don’t you leave us alone. I have to talk with Angela.”

Mortimer made a grumpy sound and turned and disappeared from the room.

“You have to excuse him, he comes on a little heavy sometimes”.

“You’re telling me. What kind of game is he playing anyway? Now tell me why would he give a store like this to me?”

Than shook his head and grinned. “Well he doesn’t mean he would just hand it over to you, he would like me to have it. I told him it was too much work for something that is all but dead.  He thinks if he finds me a business partner I will take it. He loves this place. He loves his books and doesn’t want to see the place dead and gone. You love the books as much as he does, it’s what you want too, and he sees that.” He said his words, and then just stared at me as if waiting for my next move.

What should I do? Here was my opportunity, something I would give anything -everything to have.  Did fate bring me here? Would I be crazy to pass this up? I looked at those irresistible eyes. I was picturing the two of us working in the shop together - forever.  Should it matter that some people think books are dead? I don’t. I don’t think Than really does either. Mortimer seemed to love the idea, seemed it was his plan all along, like he knew I would be walking through that door today.

“Come let me show you something,” he led me over to the forbidden door, opened it and told me to follow him inside. The room was very cool and dark.  Than turned on the light. I was surprised at how large the room was it seemed much too large compared to the size of the building.

“This room holds the oldest and most precious volumes. First editions of every classic ever published. We even have the first book ever printed,” he said pointing to the shelf to his right.

“You can’t mean the Gutenberg Bible?”  My voice seemed to get lost as I tried to get the words out.

“Well, yes we have that too. But I was talking about the Diamond Sutra, it was printed around 868 AD.”

I stood there with my mouth half opened, not sure what the words were Than was telling me. “I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s a Buddhist religious text, written in Chinese and printed on paper from woodblock, believed to be the oldest book. But one never knows what may yet surface that could be older.”

Than walked over to me. Taking my hands and in a soft sensual voice he asked, “What would you give to have all of this?”

My mind was spinning with the thought of having all these books. To be the owner of the oldest books known to mankind was beyond anything I could imagine.  I didn’t even care how they got possession of such treasures. My heart was pounding out of my chest, my breath out of control. What would I have to do to acquire this? How was I led here to find such treasures? I was ready to spend eternity here. To live forever with these cherished books. “I’d give my life for all this,” I said without hesitation.

Than put his arms around me and pulled me close to him. “Checkmate,” he whispered with a smile.

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