Sunday, November 15, 2009

Life, Elsewhere

Chapter One

Last week, my dad sent me an article from our hometown newspaper about my favorite used-book store--Federal Street Books. I like the place because it's overstuffed and full of odd contrasts. It's like a good brain--Zsa Zsa Gabor's autobiography sharing space with how-to's, wherefores, and other, more lyrical volumes of mindjunk.

I've always thought a used-book store is a reflection of a strange kind of intelligence, anyway, that stores have personality. It's the only way I can describe my dislike for Athens Book Center, in my new hometown. It doesn't seem governed by a central philosophy and is somehow too discerning in what it keeps in stock and not discerning enough. There are treasures, but they're hard to find. Athens Book Center is a guarded fellow who hasn't figured out who he wants to be quite yet.

Chapter Two

I love spending time with Federal Street Books, though.

(Pictured above: In a green shirt, Federal Street Books)

He seems to know what's a classic and what's not. He's an auto-didact, so he's really smart but refreshingly uncertain. He's warm, half-kempt, softspokenly leftist, a little weird, and supremely curious. Federal Street Books is a good guy with a long memory.

Chapter Three

I started going into used-book stores early in college. The introverted part of me loved the chance to be civic while still being silent. The shopping-addict part of me (a small part) loved the quick, very inexpensive fix. I enjoyed seeing that a $14 book was $2.50, enjoyed that the price was always penciled into the top corner of the title page.

About bookstores, I like lying on their carpets best of all. I can read titles, relax, catch a nap. (Usually the other patrons are a bit askew themselves and don't judge.) I also like walking one-step a minute with my head tilted almost sideways. And bending at the waist to check on the second shelf from the bottom, P-W.

Titles and authors' names engross me and, even while my heart-rate plods, I quickly catalogue trivia; 200 hours of such scanning has helped me feel at home with literature. I know (sorta) who's who, who gets read, and who gets sold back.

Chapter Four

Once, while I was on the basement level of The Brookline Booksmith--a jewel of used-bookery--a woman in a jean jacket approached and offered to tell my fortune. Megan was upstairs perusing the new stuff (a choice which was okay, I guess, though I prefer the old. I was just glad she considered a walk to the bookstore a date).

The woman said she could read all about me by looking at the books I was holding. I had One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Life is Elsewhere.

There was something wrong with this fortune-teller--she was half-blind maybe, or otherwise off, and seemed to stare through me toward the Judaica section. She was an overgrown adolescent with dark, triangle hair, strands of calico fur on her black sweats, and Big Bacon Classic breath.

She carried a tote-ful of Dostoevsky, stood just an inch too close.

I made a ninety-one degree angle with the floor. She asked if I liked birds. I tried to be politely dismissive. The manager came over to me and said he had that book in cultural studies I'd been looking for. The woman noticed that he was trying to save me from her. She must've been a regular. I shrugged him off and kept talking with her.

She was lonely: I pitied her: I hated her: Involuntarily.

She said I should choose different books.

"I don't know, I think I'll stick with these."

"Okay, okay. I know what you'll do," she said. "You'll go upstairs and tell your woman how you were talking to a crazy bitch downstairs who could predict the future. But it won't matter. Because I'll hear you."

I'm not sure how she knew I had a woman upstairs, but I didn't do as she predicted. Instead, I double-locked the door that night. And started to think of her as a renegade character from one of the used books that stayed safely on my shelf.

She was the elsewhere life was, a deranged version of some part of me, the scuffed other side of my coin.

Chapter Five

I spent a good portion of my courtship in Boston, on loan from Ohio, waiting for Megan to finish work. Sometimes I went to mid-morning movies across from the Common. Once, a randy pair of Woody Allen fans let their baser instincts get the best of them in the back row and an usher had to yell, "C'mon, that's nasty."

To that, I preferred the two used-book stores around Megan's Boylston St. office. I became a voracious reader--of blurbs on the back of books someone else had read.

Blurbery became one of my favorite kinds of language. Sometimes, I bought ten books, got back to Megan's, and put myself to sleep reading all the back-cover reviews. It's so conclusive, blurbing, so grandiloquent: "One of the best books of the year!" "One of the best books of the decade!!" "The only true love story of our time." "[McCarthy] puts most other American writers to shame."

What if I, too, could be full of a secret wisdom, trenchant, unsurpassed, and so forth? I kept scanning the shelves. I read 86 first paragraphs. A certain book design, from Vintage publishing, started affecting me gravely. I had to own a Vintage.

I was under the sway of used books.

Chapter Six

I like the idea of making use of what's been cast aside, forgotten. When I was little I had sympathy for toys and stuffed animals on the bottom of the pile. I get the same feeling from torn covers and urine-yellow pages. I love a book that's broken in, like a good catchers mitt.

If it's got notes or inscriptions or marks of a long-ago reader, it seems to me that the story's been infused with that person's life. The book went unfinished, maybe, but there's something in that too. Maybe it was mostly-read in a bay window or a wicker chair or on a bus or by a boy waiting for his love, or a woman with triangle hair.

In my copy of Phillip Roth's Our Gang there's a letter dated 3/7/75. "Jay, we think you should pay off all your debts (including to us) before you get a car." Another book's inscribed with a Get Well note to a grandma who didn't.

And then there's the copy of All the Pretty Horses which belonged to Camille Bouquet, a middle school acquaintance of mine, as slight and pretty as her name.

After Camille died in a car crash, her parents must have sent it off to Federal Street Books, maybe to try to share a tiny part of her, maybe for no reason but to turn the page.

The book became part of the mind of the store, a little paperback memory obscured in the stacks. I bought it for five dollars because I always want to be a person who notices things.

The first sentence of the book is: "The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door."

I haven't gotten any further, but I can tell that the character will always be one who makes an impact, if only a tiny, flickering one.

I wonder if Camille thought that was hopeful or bleak, and how far she got.


Joe said...

I've walked with sober wonderment through the vaunted aisles of the infamous Powell's in Portland, OR and Green Apple Books in San Francisco. You are almost guaranteed to find what you're looking for there, at half the price. But there is something to be said about the small town (city, like Boise, ID) book shop, lovingly curated by an owner/operator and full of surprises, with walls that hold you. You can't find whatever you're looking for, but you can find things you never expected. Put that on an inspirational poster and smoke it. What.

Zach said...

In reference to your bookstore crazy: To quote the band, The Go-Betweens:

Why do all the people
Read Dostoevsky
Look like

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