Friday, May 19, 2006

The Enemies of Reading 2

Trapped in A Bookshop
by Hugh Gilmore

In which the author, the owner and proprietor of an Old & Rare bookshop in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, confronts all those smiling, envious people who have said to him, “It must be so great to run a bookshop. Sit around and read all those wonderful books every day.” Sigh. Yes, the community of book lovers. Sigh.

I’ll ignore the fact that those who say such things don’t usually sully their love with money. They just poke their heads in the doorway, sigh their envy, and then return to gleaning the FREE books on the doorstep.

Those are books I’ve put out to honor The Diggers and to propitiate the gods who might otherwise send stick-up artists in their place.

My bookshop is open predictably only on Fridays and Saturdays, 11-4. On those days, I go in early and stay late in order to do my daily quota of writing. I put up the “Closed” sign and turn out all the lights except the one in the back room where I’m working. From outside, the shop looks uninhabited.

On a Friday night a few weeks ago, after I closed the shop, I finished my first piece for The Chestnut Hill Notebook (the first “Enemies of Reading: Waiting Room TV’s”). I hadn’t paid attention to the time and didn’t notice night had fallen until I turned off the lights in the back room. I paused to let my eyes adjust before walking through the dark shop. The eternal piles of books on the floor shift as sneakily as sand dunes and could easily trip me so I’d fall and hit my head on the corner of a piece of furniture and get knocked out and bleed to death like William Holden.

In that second’s pause, I saw that someone was on the doorstep, going through the FREE books outside. Looked like a man. What to do, what to do?

I hate this scenario. Some poor guy or gal is going through the books in the dark, looking for something to read, or hoping to find the Rosebud book of their youth, and suddenly, and without warning, I’ve soundlessly crept up to the door and: Thrown The Lights On!

Aha, caught you!

Not the feeling I’m trying to promote. In fact I am promoting nothing. I simply cannot throw away a book and I’m lucky enough to have a doorstep and a handmade sign that says FREE.

If I do snap on the lights, the night browsers look up like wildlife at a midnight salt lick. That’s when my drab life gets interesting, because I don’t know what kind of eyes are going to be blinking back at me from the book pile.

If I’ve disturbed a mouse, then I feel as sorry as Robert Burns when he turned up a mouse nest with his plough:
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
And fellow-mortal.

But if it’s a wolf, I’ve just thrown the lights on myself. It is I who will feel like running away, “a panic in my breastie.”

No brainer, right? Turn the lights on, I’ve either embarrassed some book lover, or I’ve exposed myself to one of the things that could bump me in the night.
I decide to wait it out in the darkness of the shop. That sounds stupid, doesn’t it? Gutless. I don’t mind. What’s another few minutes if it’s linked to life extension?

But, I was also tired, hungry, and anxious to get home and see my family. I kept coming through the shop and was nearing the door, where the light switch is, when I heard him talking. Something in the tone of his voice stopped me. He sounded angry.
There’s no other exit from the shop than the front door. I’d wait a minute for him to leave. I walked around to my desk near the window, figuring to key in a VISA number from an internet sale on my credit card machine, a task I could do using the light that came in the window from the street.

Whoever was outside had propped a racing bike against the doorway and was wearing a bicycle helmet. He also had a long, unkempt beard. The frame of the doorway kept me from seeing more. Blocked him from seeing me. He kept up a steady stream of conversation, not angry anymore. Silly me, I thought, he’s on his cell phone. Oh well. He’ll be done browsing and talking and ride off in a minute.

Sort of hiding in the dark, no longer in fear, but feeling I’d look strange prowling around in my own shop in the dark, I hunched over the desk and entered the card numbers in the machine. Click, click, click, “Enter.” The printer kicked in, making what sounded under the circumstances like an enormous racket.

“Who’s there?” the voice from the doorstep demanded.

I froze.

“Mumble, mumble, mumble, angry mumble,” I heard. I saw he didn’t have a cell phone. He’d been talking to himself.

Oh my, I’ve angered the gods. Oh how I wish I had a back door. The streets were deserted. I could see the man pressing his face against the glass of the door, trying to see in.

“There’s a time to live and a time to die,” he roared.

Oh shit.

I eased to the back of the shop, taking advantage of the angled shadows, and stood in the backroom’s doorway, partly shielded by a chin-high bookcase. I could see him, but he couldn’t see me.

He began walking back and forth across the front of the store, like a zoo animal, never taking his eyes off the interior of the shop. He was angry. Something that threatened him was lurking inside this place. Something was watching him. Only, unlike myself, he was hunting for whatever he felt had been stalking him.

I never felt so much in my life like a small animal, down in a hole, listening to the heavy sniffing up above, waiting for the sounds of the earth being pawed away.
He put his face against the glass (glass! - an eighth of an inch), cupping his hands like blinders around his eyes so he could see inside better.

“There’s a time to live and a time to die,” he said again, laughing at the wonderful, hideous truth of his declaration.

Whose time though? His, because he was wiling to risk attacking his enemy? Or mine, because I’d put out milk and cookies for the kittens and managed to attract a golem?

I felt my cell phone in my pocket. Two questions: How much time do I give this drama before I seek help? Who do I call?

The time element? Well, if he doesn’t try to break in, I’ll wait him out. He hasn’t seen me, I’m guessing, because he hasn’t said anything like, “I see you.”

Or,“Come out of there, you varmint.”

He merely suspects I’m here. I’m counting on him being the kind of guy who suspects lots of things that aren’t there. And even though he is, technically, right this time, I’m hoping he says, “Silly me,” and gives up. I’ll give it fifteen minutes, maybe a half hour.

But if I’m wrong. If the siege goes on “too long,” or he tries to break in, I’ll call for help. At one point, police officer Joe Bird gave me his patrol bike cell phone number, but that’s on a piece of paper right near where my free-book patron is mumbling with his face against the window. So I guess it’s 911. But what do I say? I start working on the wording of my cry for help. These 911 tapes get played on the news. As a bookman, I have a certain obligation to provide a coherent, perhaps even eloquent, sound bite for TV.

And then … I’m not sure, but I think I haven’t heard him for a …second? minute? And I lean out beyond the bookcase, looking at the front door. I don’t see him. He may be laying a trap. I wait a little longer and then walk stealthily forward. I don’t see the bike in the doorway.

In a little while, still in the dark, I open the door, bracing my foot against the bottom in case I have to push it shut against resistance. Nothing. I step partly out and look up the block. Deserted. Far up the street, passing OMC Church, a man is walking a bicycle. Away from me.

I lock the door and walk across the street to my car. I get in, lock the doors and start the car. As I pull away, I am feeling like Wally Shawn at the end of My Dinner With Andre: I’m grateful to be going home to a warm, well-lit house, a loving wife and son. I’ll eat my dinner and probably drink some straight gin over a single cube. Maybe we’ll watch the DVD I rented, a documentary about the photographer W. Eugene Smith. Then we’ll read for a while. I like the book I’m reading now. Tomorrow I’ll get up early and go in to write and I’ll open the shop again at 11 a.m. and hope to sell some books. And after work I’ll write again, but I’ll be careful about the time and try to leave before it gets dark.

Only, Wally Shawn, riding a cab home, looking out at the streets of New York at night, was really looking forward to telling his girlfriend, Debbie, all about the time he spent with Andre. I don’t think I can tell my story tonight in an amused way and I don’t want to upset Janet, or myself, so I’ll hold off for a while.

In the meanwhile, I feel in my heart a version of The Merchant’s Prayer: “Thank You Dear Lord for not sending anyone to rob, shoot, or stab me because I run a public business in the city.” Amen.

But Wait - THE SEQUEL …

Seldom is a man so blessed: The next day, Saturday, near closing time, I opened the door and stepped outside for some air. In the same instant a tall, rangy, bearded guy dressed as “a street person” walked up and said, “Hi, any new ones today?”

Same beard shape and body build. No bike or helmet.

“Yeah, I put out some good ones today,” I said.

“Man, I couldn’t believe my good luck last night,” he said, “to actually find a Wallace Stevens poetry book. With the complete poems. Amazing, man.”

He was missing a few display teeth and his eyelids had drawn way back to enable the obvious fervor he brought to life.

“Good for you, “ I said, “I was hoping someone who appreciated him would find the book.”

I’d put it out for free because the lettering on the spine was faded and browsers would be unlikely to even examine such a book. “Can’t read the spine - can’t sell the book,” we say.

“Appreciate him?” he said, starting to wind up for a speech. He had the look in his eye of a man who could and would talk at length. I felt like asking for a forensic voice sample on the line “There’s a time to live and a time to die,” but I didn’t really need one.

“Appreciate Wallace Stevens?” He continued, “Why he grew up on Fifth Street, North Fifth Street, in Reading. I used to deliver the paper to that house. He wasn’t there any more, he lived in Connecticut by then, but still it was an honor. His house is still there. That was the first famous person I ever crossed paths with, so to speak, but not the last. Then there was …”

“He was from Reading?” I said. That sounded dubious.

“Yeah, Reading. Went to Reading Public High School. Oh yeah, he was from Reading.”

Well, live and learn, huh? I listened for a while. I had to come off the doorstep because he was upwind of me and the reek of stale urine from his greasy pants made me feel I was trapped in a subway tunnel. He went on and on. I was thinking, Where’d you come from, buddy?

Everybody is some mother’s child. What path led this former baby boy who gathers books from my doorstep by day to being the unkempt, smelly, wild-haired, loony “street person” who looks through my shop window for his demons at night? He seemed like a lost child right now. He seemed hungry to be listened to. I felt sorry for him.

“I’ve got to get back to work,” I said, “take it easy.”

“Okay, thanks for the books. And, uh, I’m Marty* by the way,” offering his hand, which turned out to be bony and wet. We shook. He walked back up Bethlehem Pike, carrying his FREE book for today – Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy. Volume four, I think.

Now, if I refer to the scare he gave me and the conversation we had about Wallace Stevens, I refer to it with Janet as My Dinner With Marty.

Sequel to the sequel: Yes, I googled Wallace Stevens: 323 North Fifth Street, Reading Pennsylvania, 1879. Reading Public High School.

* = Obviously not his real name.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
Julius Cæsar. Act ii. Sc. 2.

Sat May 20, 03:11:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really brilliant there, anon. You don't get anything else from 'Enenies of Reading' except that the author is a chicken? Suggest you read the column again, and reread 'Julius Caesar', too.

Mon May 22, 10:12:00 AM EDT  

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