Saturday, September 11, 2010

By the Inch

I remember the first time I went there, it was a damp fall evening and the wind was blowing the litter of society and nature down the alley that my new wife and I had turned down looking for our fix. I drew her close in my arms as the shadows cast from the buildings crept across the concrete beneath our feet in an attempt to engulf us in its maw of darkness. We walked in silence, shivering from the cold that seemed to serve as a warning to us as the earth moved into its season of slumber and death.

My wife reached her arm out, pointing to our destination, a lonely stairwell made of five granite steps that led down to a faded blue door that was pockmarked with bullet holes, rust and the acne of abuse that only time and man can provide. “Down there.” Was all she said as she tried to disappear into the crook of my arm. As we approached those steps I noticed they were covered with dead, wet leaves with an occasional cigarette butt or candy wrapper peeking out from beneath them showing us the evidence of others that had come here seeking out our drug of choice.

We each grabbed a hold of a loose handrail and carefully made our way down to the landing and walked the four steps to the door. I reached out my right arm and grasped the door knob and asked her “Are you sure this is it?” in a hushed tone. She nodded. I could see excitement slowly forming in her eyes in an attempt to replace the cold fear that had been gnawing at both of us. I turned the knob and tried to pull the door open. It only budged an inch as if in refusal to our needs, our desires. “It ain’t opening.” I said.

“Try again. Pull harder.” Was her advice. I listened to her. On my second attempt I gripped the doorknob so tight my knuckles turned white and I could feel my forearm muscles burning with pain as I prepared to open the stubborn entryway. I pulled, the door flew open almost hitting me in the face as the hinges screamed, and my bride chuckled as she pushed past me. I quickly followed.

After I pulled the door shut behind me I turned to take in my new surroundings. I was standing on poorly painted landing that overlooked a ragged basement that was filled with people that seemed locked in place, staring up at me as if I were a cop here to arrest them all for whatever it is they felt they were guilty of. I looked for my wife; she was descending a flight of 6 stairs that I know had seen better days, her right hand holding onto a handrail that wobbled under her touch. She turned, grinned at me and said “C’mon, don’t just stand there or you won’t find any of the good stuff.”

I could only reply in a grunt because I was suddenly hit in the face with the smell of the place, the smell of dried, old, musty paper. An aroma that penetrated not just my nostrils and brain but went straight to the core of my soul making me dizzy with the nostalgia of my youth. The potpourri scent of knowledge, fantasy, love, philosophy, science fiction, horror, romance, self help and home improvement. The scent that I had fallen in love with as a child amongst the many rows of shelves containing some of the greatest works of fiction and non-fiction available to mankind in a library in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

I walked down the steps, grinning and salivating as I ducked under a banner that read “Welcome to the Friends of the Portsmouth Public Library Book Sale! BOOKS BY THE INCH!”

That was 18 years ago and every month I still make my pilgrimage down to that 1400 square foot basement to look for books. A lot has changed since then. Gone are the homemade, wooden, rickety bookshelves that were leaning so bad that they looked as if they would topple over on you if you even breathed too hard on them. Gone are the single 75 watt bare light bulbs that tried to penetrate deep into the stack of boxes of books that lay in the dark recesses of the room at the ends of the aisles. Gone are the almost troll like book collectors that would hiss at you like a rattle snake if you even dared to look in their direction. Gone are the cobwebs and the outdated magazines. Gone is the unorganized madness of fiction and non-fiction mixed together in a recipe that could only have been put together by overworked volunteers. Gone are the blend of paperback and hardback piled from floor to ceiling in an attempt to shore up the shelves. Gone are bare bricks and flaking mortar that left dust and pebbles along the baseboard.

Now the shelves are powder coated metal and sturdy enough to hold 1500 pounds of books. The paperbacks never mix with the hardcover books, they can only wave forlornly to their more grown up brothers and sisters on the other side of the room and think back to the chaotic mayhem they used to enjoy. The naked incandescent bulbs have been replaced with modern florescent light fixtures that seem to suck the brain cells out of you the longer you stand under them. There are no boxes of books to root through anymore and where those boxes once sat there are now comfortable chairs for a person to sit upon. The bare brick walls have been sealed and painted to keep out moisture and the radiators that were spaced every 15 feet along the walls are gone and in their place a modern heating and air system continually blasts you with the canned air smell of environmentally correct humidity and temperature controlled air.

I miss the old, seedy days of good books at a cheap price. Don’t get me wrong, the books are still cheap. 0.75 cents an inch by spine thickness for paperback and 1.00 dollar an inch for hardcover. Used CD’s and DVD’s for 2 bucks a piece. Everyone is cheerful to see you where once they wouldn’t even look you in the eye until you had proven yourself to them by not just what books you purchased but by your continued support over a period of months and years. I miss the almost black market feel of the place, where one guy “Woody” would sit in front of the philosophy and poetry section and quiz you on the history of not just the philosophers but metaphysics as well. Once you answered his questions to his satisfaction he would reach a dirty hand around the back of one of the shelves and pull out a book and say “Read this! Come back next month and we’ll talk about it. If you don’t come back then you haven’t learned anything! Now leave me alone!” and you would grab the book from his hand and get away from him quickly not even looking at the title of the book he thrust at you. You would take that book home and you would read it because you knew you wanted to go back next month. YOU WANTED TO GO BACK.

Everything is genteel and quite down there now. No funny smells coming off the walls or people. No bargains being made between book collectors over first editions, no fights over treasures of knowledge between hard corps bibliophiles. Now, antique dealers come in with scanner guns and pick over the collectable books only to buy them for a buck or two and resell them at enormous prices in their antique shops two blocks away.

The volunteers are no longer overworked and are genuinely happy to see you. Gone is their sickly pale skin which has been replaced by a healthy, glowing tan. They even take the time to learn your name and are more than eager to help you find whatever treasure it is you’re looking for. They make you feel good about your affliction. They make you smile and not feel so “dirty” for needing your monthly fix of books. Heck, they even let you carry in your overpriced coffee from the coffee shop down the street if you want. The whole place has a family friendly atmosphere, kind of like Vegas.

Eighteen years ago when you left the Book Sale with your treasures you had to carry the books home in your arms or if you were lucky, one of the used, tattered boxes that some of the books came in. Today, you’re given a choice between a paper bag, plastic bag or for a fee a nice “Book Tote” with words emblazoned on the sides telling the world that you “SUPPORT YOUR PUBLIC LIBRARY”.

I look forward to making my journey every month to the book sale and I have even had the opportunity to recruit likeminded individuals to come with me on occasion. I even feel safe taking my daughter there now, but I still long for the days where the atmosphere was filled with an almost tangible scent of wrongness and illicitness.

Well, I just got a text from my guy over at the book sale, he says they just got a shipment of Centennial Edition Ayn Rand books in. So I am gonna take off and get my fix.

Have a great week.

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