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.