Birth of a Bibliophile

A young gentleman came into the shop yesterday; I’d guess he was about 14 or 15 or thereabouts. He was with his Mom. They were both “first-timers,” and were just poking about to see what they could see. After offering to show them where things were (“No thanks.”), I pointed out the coffee, invited them to help themselves and left them alone to poke.

A couple of minutes later he came up to the counter and asked about one of the books in our front display case. That’s the case that we keep locked since it contains some of our older and more expensive books.

We walked over to take a better look and when he pointed it out to me I saw what had drawn his attention.

It wasn’t prominently displayed, and it was one of the older volumes; and just a bit beat-up, actually. It wasn’t in tatters, but it did show its age. It was lying on its side and so it was a little difficult to tell what it was. Elocutions was stamped in gilt on the spine.

I opened the case and handed it to him. He opened it and his eyes got very wide when he saw it had been published in 1774. There were hand-written notes from previous owners on the inside front cover, and the pages were browned and foxed with age. The ink was starting to fade to sepia.

“Mom! You’ve got to see this!”

She came over and marveled with him, turning the pages gingerly. I just stood and watched. At this point they didn’t need any extra commentary from me.

“Can I get it?”

“Well, I don’t know. How much is it?”

It wasn’t cheap. This isn’t the case where I keep the $3 paperbacks, after all.

When I showed them the price written on a post-it note inside the front cover, she groaned. But he really wanted it, and she really wanted him to have it. So I cut them a pretty good deal and quoted a price that was about what I had originally paid for it. That sealed the transaction.

Later, after everything had been bagged and they were heading for the door, I asked him if he knew how to care for it.

He asked how, and that was a good sign.

“Well, for starters, you don’t carry it around like your Mom is carrying it now.” I indicated the plastic bag she was holding by the handles. He immediately took it from her and brought it to me.

“The first thing you do is make sure it stays laying on its side,” I said. “Gravity is the enemy and if you have it standing up on a bookshelf, gravity will tug at the pages and will start to pull them from the binding.”

“Next, keep it out of the sun. And, when you are done with it, keep it safe. Ideally, wrap it in acid-free paper. But at the very least, find a sturdy box when it can be kept safe from everyday wear and tear.”

I told him that the goal was not to restore it. “You’re not good enough at it; I’m not good enough at it.” His goal was to try to preserve it just as it is.

“Look at it this way,” I said. “In 150 years or so, there’s going to be a guy just like you who will want this book. Your job is to take care of it for him.”

He just looked at me and nodded. He got it.

Now, I can’t know for sure of course, but I have a suspicion that today I witnessed the birth of a bibliophile.

Give Me A Book That Will Change My Life

“Give me a book,” he said, “that will change my life.”

He was a student at one of the local colleges, in his junior year (that’s a guess). I’m not sure of his major, although he did tend to gravitate to the psychology and philosophy shelves. He’d been in the shop before. Not really a regular, but I do remember seeing him once or twice.

And today he seemed to be on a bit of a mission.

“I need to get motivated. What I am doing now isn’t working, and I need to find something else that will move me into a different direction.”

“So give me a book that will change my life.”

That’s asking rather a lot from a book. But he was serious, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

Maybe I should have handed him a treatise on differing philosophic or theological world-views. Maybe I should have given him something on Einstein or Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Or The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran; that’s a big one. Or just told him to read almost anything by Shakespeare. But I didn’t.

Nor did I ask him a lot of questions; maybe I should have. Instead, a vision of another college junior looking to change directions flashed into my head.

Suddenly it was 1975 again. That was my third year in a little private college, and perhaps the most confusing year of my life. Many of the universal truths that I had simply accepted up to that point somehow had dissipated. Unfortunately, nothing had as yet appeared to take their place.

So I was looking for a change of direction at that point, too. It wasn’t a panic thing, but it was certainly a quest.

But not a quest for someone else’s answers. I was looking for my own. I didn’t want anyone to tell me what to think or what to do, and I honestly didn’t want to know what someone else had come up with. This was something I really wanted to figure it out myself.

And it all revolved around a simple, yet somehow eloquent, question: “Huh?” That pretty much fit every situation where I found myself.

So, I will admit: I was projecting my own quest upon this earnest young man. For all I know, he just wanted instructions for a better way to do his laundry. That’s not what he got.

Instead, we went to the Science Fiction section and I handed him a book that I wish someone had handed to me.
reality
Good science fiction starts with an absurd premise (obviously, we cannot travel between the stars). But if you accept that premise, everything that happens afterward flows naturally (if we could travel between the stars…what would we find? Who would we find?).

What is important about science fiction is not the story. Rather, what is important is the very act of accepting the absurd, for this act of acceptance requires a profound suspense of disbelief.

More than that, it requires non-linear thinking. Thoughts and ideas and concepts racing between stars or bouncing off, and perhaps breaking, the boundaries of space and time. New concepts of what is, and is not, and what could be, real. New constructs; new ways of evaluating our own space and time.

And it is precisely non-linear thinking that my young customer was seeking (although he may not have realized it). I wasn’t about to give him a new direction; he probably would have rejected, wisely, anything along those lines that I had suggested. Instead, I was going to give him a new way of finding his own direction.

I handed him Time Enough For Love by Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein was probably the best of those who have written in this genre, and this was (in my opinion) his best work. (I won’t tell you the plot. But I will say that if you don’t know it, I envy you for what you have yet to discover.)

If all goes well, he may have just spent the best $3.50 of his life.

On the other hand, he no longer has the change he needs to do his laundry. Either way, his life just changed.

That’s my job.

Is My Wife There?

***RING***

I’m at the back of the shop working with a customer. Naturally. Just about as far from the phone as I can be while still being in the shop. I make my excuses and start moving toward the desk.

***RING***

I’m rounding the corner now, moving past the Science Fiction and Horror sections, and I pick up the pace. I don’t like to run in here (me running isn’t a pretty sight, and I am not in great shape), but I know that I only get four rings before the call goes into the answering machine, and most folks hang up rather than leave a message.

***RING***

Now I break into what passes for “sprinting” on my part. I fly past the vintage paperbacks (OK…”fly” is also a relative term), up past the cash register and get to the desk just as…

***RING***

“This is the York Emporium.”

“Yeah. Hi. Is this a used book store?”

“Yes, sir.”

“On West Market Street?”

“Yep.”

“Do you have romance novels in there?”

“Uh…well, yes we do.”

“Is my wife in there?”

Suddenly I know how every bartender in the world feels when they get a call from someone’s wife.

“Well, uh, she may have been. Can you describe her?”

He does. And, yes, she was here. She had just left. Now what do I do?

This is a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, I don’t want to be caught in a lie. On the other hand, it certainly wouldn’t be stellar customer service to be the cause of a customer (a paying customer, I might add) catching the ire of a husband. As a general rule, I try to stay on the good side of husbands. So…..I vamp.

“Well, yes she was here. And I’ve got to say that she really felt good about herself, sir. She bought a couple of books, but they are on sale this week and she saved about 35%. She only spent about 6-bucks. She said her husband would be proud of her because that was a lot less than she had spent last time and that she was going to bring him in before the end of the sale.”

“Oh! OK. Well…good. Thank you.”

“Bye.”

Maybe I should start asking folks if they need me to supply alibis. This could be a new profit center.