Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Romance of Old Books

Somehow I always manage to entangle myself in trivial exchanges on odd little bulletin boards. I like them. And occasionally I find myself making contact with someone who seems to be transmitting on a similar frequency, rather than simply assuming that their reception is flawed. I recently found myself involved in a discussion of old book stores (not "old bookstores," which suggests that the stores themselves are aged, which admittedly they usually are), on which subject I had more to say than I would have thought. I had dumped a hastily eccentric response to a quotidian general question about Your Favorite Authors. Things went astray. I'm reprinting my half of the correspondence (slightly altered in the interests of decency and humanity) here.

(28) Your Favorite Authors? You raise an issue I hadn't previously considered. The proprietors of those out-of-the-way used book shops always seem to be silent, sour, morose, and often quietly intimidating as their bespectacled eyes follow you skeptically as you attempt to browse. The shops seem always to have two or three customers -- at most. When you bring your purchases to the counter, they barely nod as they painstakingly add them up, without lowering themselves glance at the titles. Then all are dumped unceremoniously into a plain bag. You can say "Thank you" if you wish, but you'll be lucky to receive a fleck of spittle in return. Then the proprietor turns away as though you'd inconsiderately interrupted him at a truly important task -- such as writing prices in a jumble of books on the counter; or flying off to grab a mouse in his talons.

Who are these people? How do they manage to eke out a living? (Or do they? Perhaps they're merely subsidized by family members in order to keep them occupied and out of difficulties with the larger world.) Is bookselling some sort of mysterious cult for which the business is a barely plausible front?

(31) Your Favorite Authors? Surely, the sour curmudgeons who run used book shops can't always have been old. I've been going to old book stores for a few decades now, and it seemed that they were always old, dyspeptic misanthropes.

Well, a few were kindly, if you approached them with a question in such a manner as to indicate that your willingness to smile and nod politely was well-nigh infinite. "So you want to know about the inadequacies of the translations of Shakespeare into Greek?" No, I didn't; smile, nod. He'd lean forward conspiratorially. "The whole truth has never been told," he'd croak. "It's a long story with many irrelevant turns and inconsequential anecdotes." And so it would prove to be. The only thing you had going for you was that your stamina proved mightier than his, and he'd collapse into a nostalgic grin and vacant stare after an hour or so. The trouble was that, if you returned to the selfsame bookstore even three or four years later, he'd recognize you instantly -- from the sound of the bell, if you tried to obscure your face -- and begin precisely where he had left off before.

But these were few; most owners were of the fretfully suspicious gargoyle type. With them, you got the impression that any intrusion, from having the audacity actually to enter the store, to that gravest of offenses, attempting to pay for a book while he was busy being silently leery and cold, was the moral equivalent of war. And no matter where you took your books, he'd somehow find a magical way to be several feet away, so that he could glare, groan, rise from his seat, and shuffle painfully in your direction while emitting noises somewhere between cursing and coughing. The entire process of getting to the cash register often took a full ten minutes, and that was usually only the beginning. "No, we don't make change! We require the exact amount! Can't you read?" He waves his hand vaguely in the direction of a sign that isn't there. Or, "Yes, it says six dollars, but this book is ten dollars! Can't you read?" Another sign in some alternate universe.

But the last time I was in an antique bookstore, around Christmas, a new type had appeared -- not unfamiliar, merely unfamilar to to the used book business. He had the look of a hireling -- a few too many piercings, and an "I'm in graduate school and I'd rather be working in Borders" attitude. His condescension was fine, but his air of hostility needed work. It was almost as though he'd been instructed in the varieties of rudeness, and hadn't yet taken them to the level of art. Perhaps many years are needed for this.

(34) Your Favorite Authors? I think I may have been to The Book Barn, once upon a time, though it's hard to say. All I recall is a series of small, uninsistent road signs, proclaiming, "This way to The Book Barn," with an arrow helpfully appended. But perhaps it's a phantom memory (cue the string synthesizer) or a composite. I've often made border crossings (dense forests, guard outposts, barbed wire, the occasional gunshot and strangled cry -- sorry, I'll try to contain these outbursts) into New Hampshire, usually to buy bird food and enjoy the small but profound bliss of not paying sales tax.

I steer clear of bookish temptations these days, but used to range hither and yon -- from the overpriced first-edition-never-touched-by-human-hands/thrice-used-never-read-textbook-on-literary-deconstruction shops of Cambridge and Boston, to the more humble allergen factories of western Massachusetts, and on to the frankly pandering tourist bookstores in such spots as Maine and Cape Cod. The scientific law appertaining here was: every used book store, no matter how dreadful, contains somewhere on its shelves at least one book that you'd die for. A corrollary of this law is that such book is probably misfiled, so it's no use checking particular sections, or going by strict alphabetical order. Once you find it, it's likely to be dismissively marked $2.00, and to have a faded inscription, "To Mimsy, on her thirteenth birthday, 1938, with love, Aunt Fanny." Did you ever wonder what happened to these people -- and what strange journeys their books took to get to these particular spots in these obscure, dusty stores?

Antique stores are quite wonderful, and, really, used book sales are, properly assessed, minor subsidiaries of the antiques trade. Your book barn owner should lower his nose a notch or two out of the higher atmospheres. I am safe in antiques stores, because I am easily amused by the unfamiliar, know absolutely nothing about them (and hence never spend more than three dollars, and that hesitantly), and am happily free of taste in these matters. To my further advantage, antiques never impose the intellectual burden that a dozen unread books do. You simply put them in the hallway, where the burden is only aesthetic, until such time as your wife quietly throws them out.

I like your idea of the curmudgeon-in-training. Residencies. Internships. Television schools of curmudgeonry. Doctoral degrees for the truly tenacious. I once managed to get a curmudgeon (who had a permanently curled lip and chronically raised right eyebrow) into an interesting discussion. You have to find the right topic -- in this case, suggested by the used jazz CDs he had at the counter. Once past the rant about how there has been nothing but screeching and panting in music since 1960, we had a rather rewarding exchange.

Thanks for your kind words -- and for smiling rather than ROFLing. I've never seen a sane person roll on the floor. The expression makes me want to give the writer something to bite down on while I administer medication.