The air was cooler thanks to the giant fan that slowly whooshed above my head. I noticed how quiet it was. The noise from the street segued to that of a distant party on the horizon.
I ambled aimlessly around the store, glancing at the eye-level titles and rarely mustering the effort to crouch and pay attention to the book at my knee-level or lower. The books were like wallflowers, like pretty girls who sit at the back of the hall and hope to be picked out for a dance. At least books don’t have feelings. Within just a couple sidesteps, I waltzed from sidewalk to Sartre.
A low muffled groan – but I looked around and only saw other browsers. Judging by the looks of them, I didn’t think any of them were muffled-groan kind of people. Perhaps it was the air con.
I wondered around even more, following my well beaten path – poetry first, then travel, a bit of mystery, social history and music to the middle right. Then I would move down to the Q-T fiction section. I gravitated to this section as it was snug. I picked out a book at random and flicked through it. I forget what it was. It was some old English detective story from the 1920’s. Country gardens and vicarages, not my bag at all. I remember the author’s name. Mrs Hubert Housegoe. How stiff was that. I shut the book and a small plume of dust wisped into the air and melted into invisibility within seconds. I placed the book back but I felll straight back out and landed with a soft thud on the long dead carpet. I bent down to pick up and another book fell down. I knew I was kinda clumsy but not this much.
I picked up the other book, checked its title and author. Gareth Hinkley. I put it back where I thought it ought to go, between the other Hinkley book and the Housegoe book.
I heard another groan.
I turned around.
No-one was there. The shop was deserted. I checked my watch. It had just gone midnight. The store wasn’t closing for another ninety minutes. Perhaps everyone got thirsty and headed to a bar. Perhaps I’m the sucker for staying behind here like a high school bookworm while the Fonzies of this world are oozin’ up to the Peggy Sue’s.
But there was something about this place. I plucked out random books and read the messages on the inside pages. “I hope you enjoy this George, love Melissa. December 1968” was one. It was in one of Norman Mailer’s books, “Presidential Papers”. I read other such messages but it left me with a sense of melancholy. Who were these people? Are they still around? These were once lovingly chosen gifts. Melissa probably spent hours, days even, getting into a state about what to buy George. She found the book, bought it, wrote her message inside it, wrapped it and finally gave it to George. George opened the wrapping, smiled at seeing the title. It was probably something he wanted for some time. He opened the cover and read the message and smiled. If Melissa was in the room at the same time as him, George would have turned to her and smiled. They would have embraced, kissed each other even.
Back in December 1973. Where did all that joy go? Did it just vanish like plume of dust from a closed book?. Why didn’t George keep the book? That made me pensive. Part of me would have liked to have turned sleuth and find George and Melissa, but that would be stupid. People bought things in cash in those days. There would have been no electronic trail neither. Some of the old books still had their price tags stuck like fossils to their spines. This one didn’t.
Perhaps some things and some people weren’t meant to be found.
I put the book back and wandered some more, deeper into the back of the store. I’ve been in bookstores before but this one, my, it was like a medieval cavern of underground tunnels. The shelves were so high, they rose almost two floors in height and they were so close together. It was just as well no one else was here too. There would have been no room. I imagine it would be pretty embarrassing squeezing past the bodies of other bookworms during rush periods.
I decided I had enough. I felt closed in, almost claustrophobic. The novelty of the hundreds of old books had worn thin. I felt I was in a mausoleum.
All those books.
All those writers.
I bet every single one of those books were launched in a swanky cocktail party. The authors, resplendent in finery, holding court, lauded by fans and sycophants. A reading, perhaps, and questions and answers.
‘What inspired you to write this?’ from the audience. The clink of glasses. ‘Congratulations’, ‘Well done’, ‘Awesome’ and other varieties of felicitation filling the air. Interviews on public radio, sponsored by some dead rich white guy.
All now long forgotten echoes, thinned and melted into invisibility within the ever growing growl and hungry hurricanes of time passed. The bouquets, crushed. The glasses, long abandoned, melted down. The champagne, long drunk and passed and now rain water. The people; mostly well dressed bones under marble headstones.
I had to get out.
I needed to breathe.
I walked back the way I came. As soon as the counter and the front door came into view, ‘Thud’. My way was blocked. The shelves on either side of me had suddenly closed the gap in front of me. I looked around to find another way out.
There was none.