Old Books

In the early seventies, which I unashamedly think of as the good old days, the way you sold old books if you didn?t have a store was by advertising them in the weekly magazine of the old book trade?The AB Bookman?s Weekly. It was an unslick, approximately 100 page magazine that had articles on collecting, book business problems, the fine points of certain books and long, long lists of books wanted by dealers and collectors and books for sale by dealers.
It was a monopoly AB had; there was no other way for the itinerant ramblers in the trade to sell their books for a decent price. Course, you could always sell them for an indecent price?You could go a used book store but they never paid more than a couple of dollars for a book, and you were lucky to get that much?even for a hard-to-find book worth 40 or 50 dollars retail. For instance, a novel from the 30?s or 40?s with a dust jacket (not so common for a book that was forty years old at that point) might be worth twenty, thirty, even a hundred or more, depending on who the author was, to a collector or a dealer that had a customer who wanted it. But if I went to the Strand book store in Manhattan?they were the worst?they might, if I was lucky, give me two dollars for it with a complimentary sneer thrown in by the buyer behind the counter. It was part of the transaction you learned to accept (or not)?part of the ritual. You were just a junkster, a roach, a mere civilian, a lower form of life, like, say, a customer. They, the buyers, were the liveried servants and appointed minions of the royalty, the owners. Their castle was already filled with millions of used books like yours, why should they lift an eyebrow because yet another peasant had trundled in yet another load of dung.
In fact, The Strand and a few others of the large used and rare book stores in Manhattan were identical in their palpable disdain and contempt for everyone on the other side of the counter. The only way to escape such treatment was to be a regular high-paying customer?someone who bought hundreds of dollars of books every week.
But owners and operators of old bookstores, the smaller ones, that is, were an odd, funky lot anyway, even when they weren?t loaded with status and money.

They were, almost to a man, men. You rarely saw a woman working in a used book store, unless it was very large or upscale. These men in the little shops were usually old and when they weren?t actually old, they looked old, wizened and dried-out way before their time. They were cranky, often sloppy, even sometimes actually dirty; grubby hands, dirty fingernails, unwashed necks and arms (the parts you could see). They moved like distracted, muttering rats, scurrying back and forth among their disorderly piles of books. These were underground men, a la Dostoevsky, hiding from the light and the world. They crawled around in attics and basements and old apartments, scampering to avoid light and humans?transporting their precious cargo, books, in their greedy little mouths?depositing them in ever increasing piles in their nests (book stores).

Such men preferred books to people, dealing with customers often caused them what appeared to be physical pain?they winced and twitched, grumbled and when pushed to their (easily reached) limits, snapped. Buy the book or don?t buy it?just stop bothering me. Even seeing a customer handling a book would make some of these men uncomfortable. They had a jealous, possessive little feeling for every book in their store and it hurt them to see you lift a book up and open the cover. They reminded me, the times I browsed in such places, of the Golum in The Hobbit. ?It has my precious, it?s touching my precious!? All this over some old, beat-up hardcover with a three-dollar price on it.

Who were these crotchety men? Where did they come from? How did they reach such impressive levels of misanthropy? What process of natural selection plucked them from the rushing river of humanity and consigned them to sit like microscopic Midas?s among these dusty stacks?
Well, for one thing, you had to be in love with the past?and this wasn?t necessarily a healthy or happy love? even a legitimate feeling of reverence for the beauties and glories of vanished cultures was always complicated by a fear of the present and a horror of the future.
It was a dirty, dragging undertow of an old, musty sick love, that kept dragging you back?like Miss Haversham in Great Expectations.
At the time I saw all these men as different than myself, but later I realized that I realized I was very much one of them?

These old books, despite the great stores of wisdom and beauty, stored between their worn covers, despite they exquisite care and craftsmanship of their sewed bindings and colored, gilt-stamped cloth and leather covers, their marbled endpapers and engraved illustrations, These old books were, despite whatever else they were, were old. They were antique, often archaic, they were like relics and articles dug up from old burial grounds, ancient tombs. Things that had been deliberately placed there to keep the dead company as they mouldered beneath the ground. They were at once, symbols and containers of all the knowledge and passion and yearning of the ages and then, crumbling, spiteful guardians of death and decay.
Much, these books were, like their caretakers. Worn, dusty, crumbling and flaking, creased and folded on the outside; often stuffed with knowledge, spirit and even beauty on the inside; but what was their raison d?etre?hiding out, all of them, like exiles in these darkened old caverns.
What passions, hopeless yearning for their own pasts, what child-like dreams of love and purity, lay beneath the dirty white shirts and damp white skins of these men? Surrounded by dust and decay, so long inhabiting the musty, unprocreating past, they became completely dry themselves, inside and out, like the hollowed-out husks of insects lying in a field at the end of summer.

And yet, of course, for all the crankiness, the fear and inherent sense of retreat that pervaded most of these places, there was, I guess, precisely because of that feeling of retreat?great comfort to be gotten in these old stores. As soon as you walked through the door, you felt it; like settling into warm bath. The pace of life instantly slowed, the buzzing and grasping of the street shut out as surely as if you had stepped into another dimension and time. You had entered, after all, a kind of religious shrine, a temple?of the the used, the second-hand, the old book. The guardian of the temple sat in his old chair, behind his old desk, while pilgrims and communicants walked thoughtfully, or posed reverently in front of the stacks. Some people, young, old, men, women?never many women?sat on chairs or old couches, beneath old lamps that cast a soft golden light over them, deep into some old book they selected, as dreamy and transfixed as a denizen of an opium emporium. There were whispers, sometimes friendly, sometimes cranky duels between customer and customer or customer and proprietor about politics, philosophy, art, and the relative merits of some writer or other…

You walked quietly with a contemplative tread on the old wooden floors, sometimes covered with worn Persian carpets, amongst the piles of books. Slowly past the wooden, or steel shelves, running your eyes across the titles on the spines?sometimes touching one, sometimes stopping and, carefully, removing a book and holding it in your hands, opening it, and on the front end-paper, maybe an old inscription from fifty years ago: 6/12/32… ?For Ellie, who knows the meaning of friendship…??with love, Al. Turn the page, the half-title, then the title-page, a little foxed?touches of light yellowing or tanning to edges of the old paper; then gathered armies of dark, rich, black print, indented into the paper, pressed like sex into the soft, receiving paper. Black, sometimes with capitals in rich red. A history, a romance, a tale of adventure; opposite, covered by wafer-thin t
issue paper, an illustration, a damsel in distress; fainting slightly, into the arms of a knight or sturdy explorer type in a pith-helmet, or a bust of a bearded old Greek or French philosopher. Leaf slowly, through the book, chapters, footnotes, pictures, old photographs, men smiling, next to a full-rigged sailing ship; posing in front of an old ruin. Turn the pages carefully, why should you be the one to tear a page, or even wrinkle it (what did you do to earn that right?) and, finally, to ?The End.? Then the last couple of blank, yellowing leaves, the inside of the back cover, maybe a sticker there from the original bookstore that sold it, in St. Louis, or Chicago, or Boston?Close it and put it, carefully, back up on the shelf, lined up flush with the spines of the other books? just the way you found it, standing shoulder to shoulder with its comrades?blue or gray, or yellow or dark red cloth; upright relics of the recent and ancient past, waiting patiently for the next one to choose it.

The desk up in front, upon which sit an old table lamp, a bunch of papers, some cash and an old, dented brass cash-register, that, every so often, jostled the reflective air of the place with a few Klangs! and Kachungs!

These little stores were archives, towers of preserved knowledge, tended lovingly and carefully by their caretakers, while just outside the thick glass door, was the darkling plane, the modern fires of chaos raged.
Inside this store, you are a kind of mediaeval monastery, where you had retreated for a time, or for all time, from the harsh carnivorous realities of life that drove the city, like a great infernal machine, night and day.

Every book had a life of it?s own?was a separate, hand-held time machine. Opening the front cover was like going through a doorway into another time?long ago and far away… An old sailing-ship?s log from 1860, a discourse on moral philosophy from mid-19th century or the pleasures of trekking through the Scottish highlands (a true gentleman?s pursuit) a hundred years ago; novels written by ladies and gentlemen of another age; Illustrations, engraved, drawn, photographed; the really fancy ones sometimes hand-colored?and in these illustrations, you see the palms swaying in the Indian ocean breeze, women in sari?s, colonial ladies with pink dresses and parasols, sipping glasses of tea by the banks of pastoral streams.
Jazzy drawings, in shocking line and angle, of flappers and hot-cha girls from the twenties… the hard silhouettes of tough guys with cigarettes dangling from their lips, fedoras cocked at an angle?the grit and hard-knocks of the thirties; Soldiers charging ashore, rifles held high… terror and savagery, the doom-inspired love of the war-novels from the forties; combats, births and deaths, loves and losses with all the flourishes; the interior monologues, diaries of great, life-altering journeys, the finer points of civilization, all arranged here in this endless rows of volumes?all you have to do is pick one up and open the cover..

It?s a psychological predisposition? People who love old books and old book stores are instantly smitten, and remain in love with them forever; and people who don?t like old books and old books stores are immediately repelled by them and forever repulsed. Most people only want the the clean, the untouched?the unhandled. It?s New! It?s Fresh! Wrapped and made Just For You!
Me, I liked it that another pair, another dozen pair of hands, muscled with labor, or stained with ink, or curious, pale and thin, had once opened these books and turned the pages. Some of those hands had long-ago been carefully folded across chests and buried, but they had passed these books on to another pair of waiting hands, like a baton in a marathon race, passed it on to me, just before they fell.
Imagine, just imagine, that a book I?m holding, was once read, by candle or gaslight, in a house that was a hundred years old a hundred years ago, by a fellow being, another heart and brain, that existed before there was ever, or ever even the dream, of a car, a telephone or a computer. This same little blue, cloth-covered novel was read in the quiet night, interrupted only by the sound of horses hooves or wagon wheels. Maybe, the year it was published, men in blue or gray were charging across a field in Virginia, or sailing over to Europe in troop ships, waiting to liberate the world. Maybe it came out in the thirties, when a book was like a vacation from the constant grimness and poverty, or maybe the book was new in the square old fifties when normal was everything, or it might be from the day-glo, burning sixties??Look out Whitey, Black power?s gonna get you!!?

– Mike Feder (New York City – August 6, 2006)

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