Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. ― Henry Miller
At first I mistook it for gunfire–short bursts on automatic. But snipers are much too frugal with their bullets these days.
No, it was the sound of an impatient knuckle on wood.
I opened the door an inch, the latch chain drawn taut, and there stood the yellow cap, mustache and gold tooth capped grin of a man I had never seen before.
‘Your order is ready.’
Behind him the streets were strewn with brick and concrete rubble. ‘What order?’
I wanted to say: ‘Are you crazy going out in daylight?’
He worried his mustache with his finger. ‘Your book order. Please accompany me to the secret bookstore. I have to show you where to go.’
‘Where? What is…?’
The crack of a sniper bullet a few blocks away—a real sniper bullet this time—made us both wince. ‘Come.’
‘There are no bookstores.’
It wasn’t strictly true. There were bookstores. Bookstores sold fluffy toys, flowery gifts, greeting cards and cute little My Kitty diaries and pen sets. But no books, of course.
He thrust the receipt in my hand. There it was: my name; the order number; the logo at the top of the yellowed paper—The Secret Bookstore. I considered. Intrigue outweighed common sense. His hands were honest. Straightforward and smooth, not twisting their fingers around hair or buttons or thrust into pockets. Always judge a person by their hands.
The covered alley was as safe as you could get these days. We ducked onto the main street only for a moment then we were undercover. The night’s corpses, I noted, had already been collected and buried.
He walked in a crouched position as we all do, occupying as little space as possible, keeping out of view as much as possible, and in our grey clothes the color of rubble and dust. But he kept his hands in view all the time: a good sign.
The sniper’s crack and thump rang out every now and then, and though it was blocks away, we ducked, as we do even inside the safety of our own fortified homes.
At the end of a street I can’t remember ever seeing, he motioned me down a concrete dusty alleyway. At the end, he lifted a coal bin hatch and showed me a coke dusted staircase. At the bottom, I could see yellow light, a doorway. He motioned me to climb in.
He darted glances back at the main road, and made impatient motions to be quick, before anyone saw us.
I stepped into the hatch, and he encouraged me with urgent hand gestures.’ Go down. Go down. Quickly. They’re expecting you.’
Here he doffed his cap in a gesture that today could only be mocking the gesture of an old free state. Then he turned and disappeared into the grey air.
The Secret Bookstore. I clamped the receipt in my teeth: I would need both hands to clamber down this stairwell. Curiosity had led me into dangerous situations before, and here I was.
But it was no use standing outside, exposed and a target. I lowered the hatch over my head and creaked down the wooden steps in the dark. A yellow flickering light guided me forward. I looked up for the security camera in the spider-webbed corners but saw none. At the bottom, I ducked under the low frame of light and stepped through a doorway into what looked like a genuine second-hand book shop.
Here is where all the books went.
It was low ceilinged, arched, dimly lit, musty and smelly, and most remarkable of all, piled high with books—on dirty shelves, in spidery coves and recesses, on the black floor. Books. I hadn’t seen a book for years. And in every recess, I saw people…. Doing something I had not seen for a while either: browsing, sampling books from shelves, turning pages, reading, pulling out books from shelves, placing them back, weighing them. Reading back covers, front covers.
But these people shrank into shadows like spiders as I approached.
The unoccupied desk at the front was also piled with books.
The whole basement smelled of old books. Musty. Organic. Decomposing materials. Damp. Death. But something nevertheless delicious about it, enticing, like cigar smoke. I pinched my nose so I did not sneeze.
Weak sunlight shafted through grey windows onto a dark mahogany desk. I saw dust snakes and worms in the air wiggling down and up.
And there on the desk, lying casually, as if waiting for me, an old edition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Green spine, yellow brown cover. Faded front cover. I touched it lightly, afraid that it would fall to dust.
It was solid. Real.
I blew the dust devils off it, and they danced into the air around it, in protest or celebration. I picked the book up—just to feel its weight, its substance. It felt more like paper bark than paper; the cover looked more like a gnarled wizard’s face than a picture. I sandwiched it open to the middle, brought it to my nose and took a deep draught.
So good. This was the smell of my childhood, or rather, of a childhood I had never had. Of ages past, when people read books for their smell, their touch, their taste. When people read books. And it tasted—no, I did not actually lick it with my tongue, though I was tempted to– of wet sawdust, ground wood, vanilla essence, anisol, almond, camphor, mushroom. And alcohol. Benzaldehyde to be precise. A memory of my grandfather’s violin bow came to me, that faint whiff of rosin. And mildew. I was smelling decay, but the kind of decay you find in fine wine or mature cheese.
I laid it gently back in the dust-free rectangle on the desk, and picked up another: The Secret Island, Enid Blyton’s first novel. Why, this looked exactly like the copy I treasured as a child, but this was in mint condition.
My heart beat faster; my head dizzied from lack of oxygen. The Secret Island of my childhood had that new smell of wood, like the Tillamook Oregon pine forest in Spring; and glue, like my father’s Sunday morning in his workshop, sanding and planning white wood; but more: it had the smell of adventure, of excitement: the space of childhood. I paged through the book I had not touched for twenty years. Read old familiar magic words—The Beginning of the Adventures; An Exciting Day; The Escape; The First Night on the Island….
And another. And another. Treasure Island. The first Harry Potter book in mint condition, exactly like the one I had loved as child and lost years ago. And here Der Struwwelpeter, a book I read at five years old that had haunted me all of my life. And here… on the dark shelf behind the desk, the entire series of Richmal Crompton’s William books. My father had read some of these to me when I was eleven, explaining the words that were too sophisticated for me, words that promised a universe of words and ideas ahead. I had in a hypnotic impulse formed by this early craving to find and buy every William book I could find… and of course never did.
Huckleberry Finn. Tom Sawyer.
I browsed the shelves in increasing amazement: here were all the old books I had lost; here were books I had read as a child, here were books I had loved, all of them as new, unmarked, unblemished. On one straining shelf was the entire Dickens collection; there an entire Shakespeare collection, a first edition ofGreen Eggs and Ham. A memory bubbled up in my mind of Jackie and I dyeing our fried eggs with green food coloring.
The Little Engine that Could.
And on the floor at my feet, the entire DC Superman collection of comics from the forties to the eighties, in tight plastic covers. Unsullied by time or boys’ greasy hands. No scribbles on the back, no ripped pages.
So maybe not a second hand bookstore after all. A collector’s bookstore, maybe? Highly illegal of course…
But what a wonderful idea. I wish I’d thought of it. I’d make a fortune. If I had only had the presence of mind to collect all the books before they vanished, and hoarded them like this. But Someone had thought of it. Someone had had the presence of mind to collect, keep, store, revere, before they all disappeared. Were any of these books for sale, I wondered.
‘Excuse me…’ I said to the shadow passing by the tall bookshelf to my left. But the shadow ducked away. To my right, three hunched old men spirited away as I approached them.
And then I saw the bell, an old fashioned round bell with a ringer in the middle, at the edge of the desk. I dinged it and the ring, a sound from another era, echoed throughout the bookstore.
An old man—wispy white hair, speckled beard, sunspots on his face, hooked nose, gleaming eyes—stooped through a dark entrance behind the desk. He rubbed his gnarled hands in nervous glee, or in habit. A gnome, a dwarf, I first thought. But no: just a withered old man, more like a paperbark tree than a man
‘Your book order.’ He extended his branch-like limbs towards me.
The book he presented to me—and which I must have ordered without any recollection–was innovative to say the least. It was in the shape of a large pencil with a point at one end and an eraser at the other.
‘Your book.’ He zipped it open down the middle and inside were loose thin pages, like so many pencil shavings. ‘Begin anywhere.’
I held the book, and leafed through the shavings. They looked as if they would crumble at the slightest touch.
Here was a story called ‘Lost Loves’.
As I read, I could feel the old wounds knitting together.
Denise sat on the desk at the Christmas Dance, watching the DJ….
‘Why this is about me…. The first time I fell in love….’
I leafed through the shavings.
Our lips touched at last, but I did not close my eyes as I should have: I stared up at the window where three grinning faces watched….
‘And this too. My first kiss.’
The man gestured towards an old armchair in the corner. ‘Read. Read. You’re safe here.’
Above, through the low ceiling, I could hear faint cracks of enemy fire. I looked behind, but the door I had come through was sealed shut.
I slumped into the armchair. Reading this book was like drinking delicious soup: it sopped up all the hunger pains, the aches of an unrequited past. It was a book I had long wanted to write myself, but could never figure out how to do it. Here was how: Each chapter took an ache and sucked me through it and out the other side so I felt refreshed, revived and renewed. Cleaned out. The essence of the sweet nostalgic fragrance of hurt distilled into words.
From my first pangs of desire and wanting, my first crush, before there were words for it, though to all yearnings for the unattainable, unrequited loves, to major heartbreaks that left fault lines in my life, this book led me through and out the other side.
I read and read, lost myself in the past, or rather what the past should have been, because there were curious deviations from what I remembered, happy endings where I remembered sad. And finally, some catharsis, as if I had rewritten my life just by reading it.
It wouldn’t do to get these pages wet, so I wiped the tears with the back of my hand, folded the pages back inside and zipped up the book.
‘Perhaps you would be interested in this?’ The man handed me a leather bound book, shoe laced together with strips of brown hand-cut string.
‘The Lost Country?’ I read on the cover.
I knew what to expect this time, and creaked open the ancient pages as if they were the actual events themselves. A lost past, gathered up in one place and retrieved, recorded, knitted together in a story that, so unlike my life, made sense. Chapters starting with regrets turned into adventure stories where I was the hero and triumphed against all odds; mysteries, tangled as my life had been, unraveled and straightened into solutions.
‘So unlike my life! Yet it is. How much is this book?’
The man no longer hovered above me. I saw his back as he whiskered through the dark entrance behind his desk.
I saw a shadow sitting at a low table at the other end of the room. A young girl looked up at me, smiled and then bowed her head down again over a large book. She blew hard and the dust rose and fell off it, like a flock of birds on a field. She held up the book with her tiny hands and blew again. This time, what looked like words tore off and danced into the air.
‘No.’ I reached the table and saw the words dislodging from the neat lines of type and floating in the air as she blew and blew. ‘Stop. You can’t do that.’
I caught a few words as they see-sawed around me, but like snowflakes, they melted into nothing between my fingers. ‘Wait.’
She looked up at me again and smiled.
‘Please be gentle with this book.’
But as I reached out a hand to stop her, the pages I touched flaked into ash. She blew hard and they rose into the air.
She took no notice. Instead she took one long breath and blew the ashes into my face. My eyes stung like tear gas. My chest burned. My heart thumped and ached. I wiped the lachrymose gas from my eyes, and saw her cupping the remains of the book in her hands, presenting it to me as a gift.
‘I don’t understand.’
She motioned for me to cup my hands, and as she poured the ash, I felt whole again, as if the entire past aches and pains, those festering wounds, were all burned away.
‘How did you do that?’
‘It’s what books do,’ she said.
‘Who are you?
But she smiled and turned and before I could hold her by the arm, she had dissolved into the dust around me.
‘Did you see that?’
A man stormed past me in a black trench coat– disheveled, unshaven, suspect age. Ignored me. He took a book for ma shelf, slammed it on the desk and opened it in the middle. Pulled a pen from his coat pocket, like he was drawing a sword. A Mont Blanc, I saw.
Without a qualm, he began writing furiously in the book.
‘Please, please, I have to write.’
‘But… this is a… it’s not a blank book, not a journal. It’s already…’
I looked around for the usual shelf of blank books that populated our modern bookstores, but found none.
‘You can’t write in that book….’
‘My thoughts are too fast for my hand,’ he says, writing faster and faster. ‘Don’t you find that?’
‘You shouldn’t….. Here…’ I searched my pockets for a scrap of paper to give him.
‘I have to get it out, or I’ll burst,’ he says. ‘It’s like defecating. When you got to go, you got to go.’
‘Or giving birth.’
I watched as he wrote over the words already written. ‘You can’t write in this book. These books are for reading…’
But I was mistaken. He wasn’t writing. He was moving his pen across the line of words, yes, but as he wrote, he left an empty page behind him, as if his pen was sucking up the ink on the page.
‘I’m not writing, I’m unwriting.’
‘But how selfish! Who else can read that book after you’ve been… unwriting it? No one.’
‘Finished. Now yours?’
Before I realized what he is doing, he had whisked the book under my arm and flattened it open on the desk.
‘Wait a minute,’ he said. ‘These books are blank. You’ve been reading them.’
‘The words are gone. Every word you read disappears. You know that?’
It was true. I paged through the beautiful book and it was now a mere journal, a blank book with feint blue lines. The small print of the copyright page was still on page two—I hadn’t bothered to read that but as I glanced at it, the print began to fade.
‘Stop!’ I slammed the book shut. I wondered about my pencil book now, but dared not open it. Not here anyway.
‘Is that what that girl was doing,’ I asked. ‘Unreading?’
The man pointed to a section of the book store I hadn’t seen—through a narrow doorway, a faded sign pointed to the Secret Future Section. ‘You’d better not go in there then.’
‘All your possible futures are written up in those books.’
I peered into the dark passage of books.
‘You can go, but please don’t read.’
‘How can I not read?
He motioned me into the room and ushered me to the end of the room. ‘Not these books. But the ones at the end are OK.’
Too late. I spied a book on the first shelf that was displayed open at page one. I could not help reading. And then the great novel came out, the pinnacle of a career, after making all that money, fulfilling every dream, taking the courage to grab hold of every opportunity and live life to the fullest, here is the person whose words made everyone weep with enlightenment.
‘Not any more. Go. Go. The end shelf.’
I passed rows of books, old, dusty tomes, but newer and newer as I reached the other end of the room. And here were new books, freshly published, smelling of new glue and paper.
‘Wait… these are books I’ve written. I don’t remember writing this…’
My name was emblazoned on the front cover of each. My photo on the back cover with a blurb about how I was the greatest living writer.
And so many books. A whole shelf of new books, tightly packed in alphabetical order. Here were titles I had written—but had no recollection, no hint that I could do such a thing. And why would you want to in a world without readers? But here, on the front—New York Times Bestseller; Millions sold. In its fiftieth print run, a classic for all time.
I pulled out the first book—My Death and Other Stories—and caressed the texture of its cover, smell its new book smell, finger my gold embossed name.
‘Is this real?’
The man, a silhouette at the end of the corridor made a motion that I could continue.
I must read them, or at least remember what I have written, I thought. I gathered as many books as possible in my hands and stumbled across to the table to read them.
Here was one about called The Secret Bookstore, about a character who goes into a book shop and finds a book called The Secret Bookstore in which a character goes into a bookstore only to find himself reading a book he has written called The Secret Bookstore.
And there on the top shelf—I spied the book I wanted to read more than any other: My Self and Other Stories. Again, I turned to the shadow at the end of the corridor for—what was it? Permission? Or assurance—that I could do this.
There was no ladder but the shelf looked sturdy enough so I began climbing, placing my feet on the sturdy books on the first shelf. They held nicely so I hoisted myself up onto the second rung of books. They sagged and the shelf bowed. My fingers grasped dusty air. Only a few inches—stretch—and I touched the book. I had to stand on the third shelf, but the whole structure was now protesting at my impertinence. And even though I am of slight build, it groaned under my weight. I touched the book, tried to grab it, but the cover tore in my hand. I had to get better purchase.
I was desperate. ‘Go on,’ the man at the end of the corridor said. ‘You can do it!’
I pulled the books next to it away so that it would fall closer to me but they toppled off the shelf and clattered to the floor and clouds of dust rose up. Coughing, I reached, stretched, brushing away books which tumbled down.
I must have it. I must know.
The shelf began to sway and fall backwards, and the books–like teeth in a nightmare on impotence–popped out of the shelves and fell around me, hitting me in the face. I tasted hundred year old dust.
The shelf gave, the books crashed and the book I desperately wanted turned to dust as I grabbed it. And over I went, backwards, into a cloud of dust, bracing for the impact as I hit the floor.
Images of the Twin Towers collapsing stayed with me as I woke to a new day, in my own bed, safe in my own house. The blocks of books hitting me were shafts of sunlight streaming in at the window, and the sound of books falling were the crack of sniper fire close at hand. The book dust was the whump of an explosion of a mortar somewhere close enough to powder the air.
‘It was only a dream,’ I said aloud. ‘There is no Secret Bookstore.’ But I rose with a new lightness in my heart.
(published in Fictionaut http://fictionaut.com/stories/paul-williams/the-secret-bookstore 3/04/2013)