Sunday, March 8, 2009
First Encounters in the Trade
There being in my childhood no bookstore in our nearest town, I was dependent on yard-sales, auctions and the like for the getting of books. The two greatest occasions in my young calendar then where the annual Street Fair, at which the local Library had a book-sale, and the less certain dates when a local postal worker, book scout and collector, opened his garage to sell off stock. For the Library sale, I would arrive on Broad Street before the vendors, setting my clock to be up at dawn, eschewing breakfast, bath and chores to be on my bike and up the four miles to town. When, at last the Librarian and her lady volunteers arrived to unload the station wagon and stock the tables with donations, I stood ready, helping where I could, secreting such treasures as came my way in a mounting pile by my feet. Speed was all, discrimination quick, to stock and to pick requiring not just the nimbleness of youth, but a redoubled vigilance to avoid the hectoring hand of the Librarian, who remonstrated at my greed, disbelieved my solvency, and, like all her unhappy sorority, distrusted enthusiasm in the young, ever more watchful of impropriety than for the opportunity to educate. I learned, after my first foray into the boxes with a friend, to come thereafter alone, as one child seemed to threaten the Librarian's dignity less then two. But even the next year solo, an attempt was made to shew me away, refuse my assistance, it being quickly seen for the ruse it was, and to make me "wait my turn," my advantage in arriving so early being, perhaps rightly, deemed "unfair to the other customers," of whom of course there were yet none. I learned to defy the authority of even so formidable an obstacle as the Librarian's fat ass, sharp elbows and sharper words, work fast, appear cheerfully innocent of her acerbities, forgetful of her warnings, and set to the task at hand, acquiring all I could without seeming to actually set books aside; tucking Musketeers into unlooked-for corners, turning Arthurian Knights wrong way round so as to be found again quickly, hiding, I remember, a copy of The Wind in the Willows in a battered box of incomplete encyclopedias. The other ladies, being mothers, were more indulgent, and easily amused at my rapacity, even offering up suggestions from the boxes, though these seldom met with my approbation, being usually too childish for so serious a scholar of nine or ten years. When the task was done and the cash-box out, the Fair begun, it was to the forbidding Librarian I turned triumphant with my haul and paid in damp dollars and sour smelling change. Our hatred was mutual and life-long. (That I have met other and kinder of her kind since, makes me wish her no better fate than what she wished me when I saw her last. Forgiveness, I've found, is not something learned in libraries, or from librarians.)
The first real bookman of my life was the postal clerk mentioned above. He had the true bibliophilic fever of a man denied his avocation by the necessities of his responsibilities and the stoic work-ethic of his generation. He worked, so far as I know, most of his adult life in the little central Post Office in town. When I first came to know him, he worked one of the brass and marble windows selling stamps, fetching packages, telling postage and the like. He had the look of a man grown heavy in moving no further than from window to bin to scale and back, but I was to learn, later in our acquaintance, that his weight, while appropriate to his dignity and suitable to his time of life, did not slow his eye for good books or retard in any way his agility at auctions or estate sales, from whence he made up his collection and later his stock in trade. Like many portly men, his movements were considered rather than quick, but, a true gourmand, at least in books, his broad arms could gather in whole tables of good things when he chanced on them.
Before he retired from the Postal Service and opened the first bookstore in town in my time, he held, as I've said, sales. My mother and I, already adepts at studying the weekly paper for upcoming sales, came to recognize his address and the terse announcements of another invitation to his overstocked garage. "Books for sale," followed by his address and the dates, was, as I recall, the whole of his advertisement. My good mother might roll her eyes and shake her head when she saw this, knowing that I would be all but too excited to wait from the Thursday when the paper came until the Saturday of the sale, but she would show me none the less. After his retirement, but before he had opened his shop, my first bookman would begin his sales on Fridays, and even then, my mother, allowing me the morning off from school, knowing I would refuse to miss the sale and skip if she did not take me, invented our excuses, mine from school and hers from work, and took me.
"Brad was sick this morning, but is feeling better now. Please excuse his absence."
That garage was to me Aladdin's Cave! The walls were lined with shelves, the floor below narrowed to aisles by open boxes that extended down the drive. In the middle were tables for his finer things. The boxes were my particular temptation. Not only were the cheaper paperbacks likeliest there, but unlike the more carefully arranged books on the shelves and tables, in the boxes there were often multiple duplicates, the bane of the used book reseller's life, and these could often be had for a song, as all used booksellers are as eager to be shed of them as they are too reverent of books, or too tight with a nickel, to destroy or dispose of them without some token profit. What gems were gathered from those discards! How much time I spent bucketing from box to box in those far off early summer mornings, the dew still on the lawn, the tar of the drive not yet hot enough to stick. How long my mother sat in the car, distracted by the wages she was losing, the explanations she would again have to invent, being just superstitious enough to hesitate guiltily at telling another lie about her "sick" boy requiring her to be late to scrub a floor. I wonder she never smoked, if just to calm her nerves, pass the time.
When I was in Junior High at last, the bookman retired from the Postal Service and for the next few years, devoted himself to his true calling, first still in his garage and then in a proper shop, just at the entrance to town, in a cinder-block, one story building, with two plate glass windows, one either side of the door, but perpetually shaded against the sun and the likely depredations to his stock from being "sunned." If this space was grander, it lacked something of the magic of his old garage; the books that had seemed rare and undiscovered there herein became all too familiar from being so often seen, passed over or never to be afforded. I haunted the bookshop so much in that first year of its operation, despite being unable to get there by any means other than begging in winter or biking in summer, and despite my penury precluding much in the way of purchase, that eventually the kind old man, all taciturnity and gruff, smoky indifference to his few customers, took pity on me, so obviously a fellow sufferer of covetous bookishness, and offered me a job. My age, circumstances, and the distance of my home from the store, did not allow for any formal employment, but one muggy afternoon in summer, when I had listlessly and shyly circled and circled the store, picking up to read and hold first one book, then two, then returned the first as beyond my means, the bookman stirred behind his desk and motioned me over. The native delicacy of that good old working man! He understood without being told that to offer me either the book I wanted -- which could not have been more than a dollar or two, his prices being always quite reasonable for the time and place -- or to offer me some invented discount as his most avid customer, would have shamed me as the greedy little spendthrift I was. Instead he told me, never quite meeting my eye, or taking his cigar from between his teeth, that I might, if so inclined, help him, as he was old and tired, by bringing out some unsorted boxes from the back of the store and if I did, I might take both the books I'd carried around for an hour or more by way of my wages. Would I find such an arrangement to my liking?
I did indeed. This was an exchange repeated many, many times thereafter, though not every time I came in. Never once, should I happen to be in the shop with a friend, or in the company of a parent, did he ever acknowledge the working relationship we had negotiated betimes. He would never have presumed on my labor, nor would he have embarrassed me before others in addressing me then with anything other than the stolid detachment he affected, I think now from a genuine shyness in his nature, with the public at large. And yet, he seemed to know, almost from the moment I came in, if I would be able to pay for the book I stood reading, and if I might, just then, be willing to help him sort a bin of books for defects, or lift boxes from his pickup truck, or sweep the cobwebs for him from the buzzing overhead lights. He was never less than grateful for my help in these small things, never over generous, or extravagant in his benevolence. Should I ask him how much an unpriced book cost, knowing I would not be able, in a hour, to work off such a price, he might tell me just "too much" and gently take it from me. Should I ponder too long at a title while I was meant to be sweeping, he did not hesitate to prod me to "get on with it," meaning back to my broom, though I was but a halfhearted cleaner of cobwebs above or dust below when surrounded by the distraction of so many books.
Once and only once did he refuse me a book outright. The title now is lost to me, as is the reason for my interest in it. Whatever it was, it's cover was slightly salacious, at least by his lights, and when I took it to him to pay, for I'd come this time with money, he looked first at the book and then at me, ground his cigar between his molars, and without a word slipped it under his desk and waved me away. My mortification was intense, as no doubt was his, and the incident may have marked the beginning of the end of our compact. I may have helped him around the shop once or twice thereafter, but I do not now know that I did. I was growing up, had more access elsewhere to books, and new ones at that, and had already become less the habitue and more just a customer of his little store.
His bookshop survived my apprenticeship by some few years. Long enough that when I noticed, on a visit home from college, that both he and it were gone, replaced by a baseball card shop, I was less regretful than I ought to have been, feeling no special connection then to either the bookman or his business. Oh, the harsh indifference, the easy forgetfulness of youth! That I never expressed the gratitude I owed that little man in his little shop, never told him how much magic I found in the boxes in his garage, never understood until it was far too late to offer my thanks to any but his shade, just how thankful I ought to have been for the chance to push a broom, sweat an hour for a book, learn something of what, all unknowing then, would some day be my trade in life.
"Fantastic forms, whither are ye fled? Or, if the like of you exist, why exist they no more for me?" Lamb writes, of the ghosts from his own childhood. Perhaps I had to be, myself older, fatter, my own eyes behind inadequate glasses, my hands dry from handling books, before I could reflect enough on the kindness of such an exemplary, if humble tradesman, as to regret the loss even of the memory of his name.
My own name being no more likely to linger when I am gone, I understand how unlikely it was my first bookman expected any more thanks than he had from me. He did as he did because he was decent, because he was honest, because he loved books. That I should memorialize him, even here, would in all likelihood embarrass him, though I should like to think he would like to have known that the boy he employed occasionally, to no better purpose than indulgence, grew to be a better man than he was a boy, and a bookman too.
I offer here then, my gratitude, my amends, and however belatedly, and awkwardly for us both, something like if not actually a prayer: if any god or spirit, any ghost or memory of my first friend in the trade may hear me now,