Paper Treasures

I adore bookstores. Being a lover of language, I’m not sure if this is the due to the rush that I get from literally being surrounded by words… ensconced in words. Or perhaps I can blame it on the sheer excitement I feel being in the presence of so many lofty thoughts, ideas and stories.

And I have a particular affinity for used bookstores. You know, the kind of stores that are bursting at the seams with so many books that there are racks and bins of them spilling out onto the sidewalk, beckoning you like paper sirens to come hither and have a look a around.

If you’re someone like me, you’re almost immediately drawn in by the countless titles that call out to you from the various makeshift shelves that are haphazardly strewn outside. You begin your treasure hunt there, wondering what little literary gem might be buried beneath the stacks of trashy romance novels with paintings of exotic women in various stages of undress on the covers. Perhaps you find one—a shiny jewel that you simply cannot fathom how anyone else could have missed—and you tuck it under your arm.

With your curiosity piqued and your wallet burning, you venture inside. Instantly you are reminded of your grandmother’s basement, as a heavy aroma of dust, glue, aged leather and ancient paper envelops you. Stretched out in front of you are endless rows of leather and fabric-bound tales waiting to be discovered by just the right person. You see… each used book already has a new owner… they’ve simply not yet been introduced.

As you meander through the narrow aisles, head tilted to one side so as to read the inverted titles, your eyes pour over both familiar and unfamiliar names. So many books! It is incredible the shear volume of words that must exist under this one roof! A person could flop themselves down in a quiet corner for hours and travel to foreign lands, soaring through time and space to witness pivotal moments throughout history and experience wild and wonderful adventures all along the way! In the small span of an afternoon one could experience love and loss, danger and deception, death and dying, murder and mayhem, treachery and treason.

But as you navigate the passageways between the shelves of bargain masterpieces, you become aware of the presence of something far more valuable than the written works themselves. These books have stories all their own. I’m not talking about the words typed on the pages inside… but rather the silent stories of their previous owners. Over time, clues about them have begun to emerge on the covers, the spines, the margins and even in between the pages.

For instance, I once picked up a book entitled The Art of Pessimism and opened the front cover to find the following inscription: “1989 – To my dear friend Patricia, this needs no explanation! Love, Anne” I chuckled to myself at the inside joke that these two friends must have shared. And this was just one book on one shelf  of one store that I randomly picked up one day. That same day, a copy of Seven Short Works of Modern Fiction (which I later purchased) had a small stack of index cards stuffed inside which came fluttering out when I picked it up. Apparently, they were someone’s study notes on the different themes of each novel.

It seems that names, dates, doodles, coffee rings, notes, inscriptions, dedications, even rips, folds and tears are present everywhere you look. To me, these parcels of paper, words, ink and glue cease being books and instead become tangible evidence of people’s lives. I consider the shelves they once sat upon, the hands that once held onto them, the eyes that once scanned these pages, the souls who were once drawn into the story. The bags and briefcases they traveled in. I wonder where they have been and what was going on in the world at that specific time? How many different people posessed this very book before it landed in my hands now? Oh, but if these pages could talk! What secrets would they reveal?

I realize that anyone can go to a museum of Natural History and see valuable icons and rare relics of previous cultures and lives lived. And perhaps you think it’s silly for me to consider such things about plain, old, used books. Either that, or you may think I just have too much time on my hands. But I actually think it is because they are so ordinary, so unremarkable in their existence that they are of such unique value! These used books… These hand-me-down narratives… These second and third-time-around stories… They carry with them the indelible marks of everyday humanity.


15 thoughts on “Paper Treasures

  1. Amen! I’m reading a book right now that I’m horrifically ashamed to say I bought through the Kindle app on my iPhone through Amazon. There’s just all kinds of wrong with that! What I should’ve done was get my lazy self to this great little bookstore we have here in New Orleans called Maple Street Books. I love that place and those incredibly sweet and helpful people. Of course, since it’s in New Orleans, it’s an old house with creaky floors and a musty smell with a confusing arrangement of the books (I just go in with my little scrap of paper on which I’ve written the title, give it to them, and they fetch it for me while I peruse my next purchase). Who knows what treasures, of which you speak, I might have found? I missed out. I know. And now at night, when I crawl into bed, curling up with my phone is just not the same as with a real, live book. I’m chalking this up under “Lessons Learned.”

    • But Kindle is a neat technology. I just set up my mom’s for her and she loves the convenience of it. I think we can love and appreciate both! But I would definitely visit that book store of yours as often as possible if I were you! 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • So nice to find you. Here on the Isle of Wight & just around the corner from my home, there is the most fabulous bursting at the
        seams ‘bookshop’. So bursting that one day after spending a couple of hours going from room to room, I settled myself on the third floor right at the top of the shop in a room full of artbooks.
        In heaven I was & nearly ended there too, after one of the top shelves of books decided to collapse over my head & shoulders, books falling everywhere. I came away with a few bruises & a few
        hours of shock. But no books that day. The shop owner was very concerned about the books & the collapsed shelf & seeing me in my distressed state, never once asked if I was alright ! I recall I went home & ended up with over 400 hundred books on my Kindle (most of them free & big collections of old literature, I was in heaven). But I love bookshops, the atmosphere, the smells & just to look at & hold books is one of life’s great little pleasures. I hope bookshops do not become obsolete & even though I do buy books over the internet, I will always buy books from book shops, just to keep them here, for books are real.

        • It’s nice to meet you! Thank you for commenting and sharing your bookstore story. I love old bookstores and like the post said… love to think about the history of the books themselves and who held them, who read them and where they were at the time. I hope to see you around again! 🙂

  2. JT says:

    Joanna, you and I share parts of a mind sometimes 🙂 Really thoughtful and thought invoking! I imagine the authors, sitting in some spot were they sensed some ability to block out life and pour their thoughts, ideas, emotions and imaginations out into the readers universe, some had no intention of being published at all!I could go on but hey, I really enjoyed this!

  3. Oh, I agree! There is just nothing like a good used book store. I can get “lost” in one of those for hours.
    A couple of favorite inscriptions in used books I’ve gotten over the years are:
    “To Kristine: how are the chicken pox? Love Grandpa and Grammie Oct 1961” and
    “Property of Donnie Fischer the Great” (followed by a phone number!)

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