I had been visiting the shop since I was a teenager, a result of hanging out with my then boyfriend who liked to paw his way through all the used record bins, looking for classic rock, independent label punk, and oddball novelties. While he remained steadfastly focused on the myriad of album cover art and liner notes, my attention drifted to the books and the shop’s internal landscape.
Upon entering the store, there was a noticeable, distinct energy. The casual gruffness of the all male employees, the ever-so-slight musty smell of the used books and records, combined with the patchwork of flyers, photos, notes, and random bits of paper found taped to every available surface created a surprising sense of coziness one wouldn’t expect while standing on a linoleum floor beneath fluorescent lights. The ends of bookcases, the sides of record bins, the space between the top row of books and the ceiling, the side of the cash register, the glass of the door- any place where your eye might roam, your gaze would land upon a found secret note, a photograph, or newspaper article, long ago forgotten and rediscovered, stashed in a book. One could spend hours reading in the store, never opening a book, but feasting on the ephemera before them. For a girl who reveled in the smallest detail and was fascinated by secret intimate knowledge, I left the record buying to my boyfriend and simply wandered the aisles in awe.
Many years passed and, as luck would have it, I found myself actually being paid to spend my days in the land of dog eared pages and cracked leather bindings. I learned about the various types of paper on which the words are printed, the distinct style of individual book cover designers, the information contained on the copyright page, and how a book can be aged based on the quality of the linen, leather, or paper covering its boards. I learned that a dust jacket is a valuable asset. I learned about publishers, secret indentations, and the value or non-value of an ex-library book. And I learned that almost every person who walked through the door, looking to trade or sell their books, thought their heavy cardboard box contained some real gems. Only on rare occasions was this actually true. But we welcomed their box and looked and sorted through it all, brushing the mouse droppings aside, blowing away the dust bunnies, and wiping off a variety of sticky substances from who knows what. They brought us their books and presented their stories. We listened and acknowledged their feelings of sorrow, loss, sometimes even desperation. Occasionally, they left with a bit of cash in their pocket. But always, whether or not we took any of their books, they left feeling a bit lighter, their load a bit less heavy.
To this day, I love finding a note stuck in a book. Or an inscription containing wit and humor, only intended for the book’s owner. I once purchased a copy of Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain. It wasn’t a first, but an early edition with a dust jacket. The cost was negligible, I assumed due to a scrawling inscription that covered both the front and back end papers. I took the book home and stuck it on a shelf. It was probably six months or so before I took the book down, opened it and actually read the inscription.
The inscription was written by Nina Clemens, Mark Twain’s granddaughter.
I still revel in small details and intimate knowledge, especially when discovered unexpectedly. I picked this single malt Irish up in Connecticut and now its mysteries are hidden in plain sight, right upon my home bar. All you need do is simply take a sip.