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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
I have this fantasy of plentitude and then plentitude whisked away that dates from my childhood. In 1967 our family went to the World’s Fair in Montreal, and back then what I may have loved more than anything else were those intricately hand-painted toy soldiers at which the Europeans excelled. I rarely saw them, because I’d never been to Europe, but I’d glimpsed them every so often on the occasional trip to one of the tonier toy stores in New York. Even those New York stores tended to carry only a few of them. So I dreamed, when first hearing about our trip to Montreal, of stumbling across some sort of mother lode of unguessed-at riches in that regard.
My desire was fierce enough that when we first got into the city — to save money and provide ourselves with some other attractions, we were staying in one of those knotty pine cabins on Lake Champlain, and driving the hour back and forth to the Fair — I actually maneuvered my way into a phone booth and talked my father into waiting while I checked the yellow pages for likely toy stores. I even called one or two that sounded plausible, but once they informed me that they weren’t within rock-throwing distance of the street corner on which I stood, it became clear that my father wasn’t going to, as he put it, drive all over the goddamned city looking for them.
In fact, he’d shied away from even driving into the city – who knew what kind of exotic street signs or miserable traffic he’d encounter? – and had parked at one of the Fair’s designated outer lots, served by the city’s Metro system.
So there we were, on our way home on the Metro after a long day’s Fair-going, riding dully along, when suddenly at God knew what stop I looked up through the car’s doors to see the dazzlingly lit and glittering toy store of my dreams. Rows upon rows of tiny, hand-painted figures, and not just the usual Napoleonic types but Romans, and Vikings and Greeks! I floated from the car in the direction of that amazing display window. I stood before it for some impossibly short amount of time. And then my father, who’d been shouting for me in an impressive panic, finally got my attention. He was in the Metro car’s doorway, holding the doors open. He continued shouting until I got the idea and ducked back under his arm and into the car again.
What the Christ had I thought I was doing, he wanted to know for the next few stops. It was only then that I revived and asked frantically what stop that had been. Of course he didn’t know. And then we came to our stop, and he hustled me out onto the platform.
It probably goes without saying that I never found the place again. On all my subsequent trips on the Metro, I stayed glued to my window each way and still never saw it. None of my family had seen it in the first place, as focused as they’d been on my apparent decision to get myself lost in Montreal’s Underground. Were we now somehow on a different line? Had it never existed in the first place? Your guess is as good as mine. It remained in my psyche, though, as an example of how the world worked, as in: there were amazing things out there, and every so often they appeared, in order to be all the more quickly swept away.
Two of the compensations for having accepted a tenure-track job way out in the woods of northwestern Massachusetts, I decided, were that first, and nearly instantly, I could get a dog, and second, and more gradually, I could start to collect hardcover –better–copies of those books that had meant the most to me. Like most people just out of graduate school, my library such as it was consisted almost entirely of paperbacks that were beat to shit, to use the technical term.
This was of course before Alibris or Amazon or any sort of internet shopping, which meant that the only place to find a hardcover book that was not brand new was either by mail order, which seemed to me a course reserved for shut-ins, and used book stores.
I met a new friend who was dweeby enough to have compiled a list of all of the used book stores in a four or five hour radius, and we started hitting those places on road trips. It was a lot of fun – we’d usually end up in some ptomaine palace of a diner on the way home – but we were very quickly struck by how often we came across the same books, and how rarely we scored one of the books on our Most Wanted lists.
Every so often we’d check out such places alone, as well, and at one point it transpired that I’d be driving with my mother to New York, and though my friend couldn’t go, he pointed out that I’d be passing right by a bookstore in Hastings-on-Hudson about which he’d heard excellent things.
It was easy to locate and looked promising at first but then nothing in particular materialized, in terms of finds. There were a few somewhat interesting things, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. I was drifting into the non-fiction aisles in that vaguely disappointed way I would when a bookstore hadn’t worked out, in the hopes that I’d still score something weird in some unexpected subcategory, when my mother, who almost never went into bookstores – I was the first in my family to go to college, and outside of work, she and my father almost never read anything other than stop signs – figured she might as well speak up for her son, since she knew her son wouldn’t speak up for himself. She asked the guy behind the counter if he knew he had an author in the store.
My mother was born in southern Italy and has a voice like Anna Magnani, so even in the non-fiction section I heard her and cringed. I was cringing because I knew why she was bringing this up. Once it was established that I was an author, she was going to ask if that qualified me for some kind of discount. Everybody in the world was getting a free handout on something except her family, she believed.
“Oh really?” the guy said, polite but uninterested. “What’s his name?”
My mother told him. It turned out that he was a fan, which was startling. In fact, back then, pretty much unprecedented.
She led him to me. He shook my hand, told me how much he’d loved my third novel (which had disappeared almost before my closest friends had read it) and asked if I’d sign the books of mine that were in the store.
It turned out there were two. While I was signing them, he asked what I was looking for. I told him I was looking mostly for hardcover literary fiction. He got the kind of look in his eye that Captain Nemo must have gotten when people asked him if he’d even seen a craft that could sail underwater. “Come with me,” he said.
He walked me over to the building across the street, which looked derelict. He unlocked the padlock on the door, led me up the stairs, unlocked another padlock on some steel inner doors along a corridor, and ushered me into a loft that to this day causes my breath to catch when I think back on it.
Extending in all directions were ranks of grey metal storage shelves, head-high and spanning out around me, filled with hardcover books. Think of that famous crane shot at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which we realize that the crated-up Ark is now just a needle in some staggeringly large government haystack of a storage room, and you get the idea. But it got even better: once he led me to the half of the room that held the fiction and I started heading down the rows, it was that childhood moment from Montreal all over again, only this time without the Metro’s doors closing.
I not only immediately spotted pristine hardcover copies of books I’d been hunting for years – Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, J.M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, and Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Stories — but I also registered that there were multiple copies of each, as though the store in some gently comic way wanted to flaunt its greatness. And on top of that, everything seemed to be priced to buy: between ten and twenty dollars. After I’d checked and double-checked those merciful numbers, I started making a pile in my arms. Very quickly I starting setting my piles down in order to begin new piles. Sometimes I’d put a book back when I found two others that excited me even more. Eventually I got to the point where I thought I absolutely had to stop, even though so many more rows remained to be explored. Even by the half-assed running tally that I’d been keeping in my head, I figured I was now up to around five hundred dollars.
It turned out to be a little less. And I had in shopping bags waiting to be toted out to the car thirty-eight hard-to-find and beautiful books. On what I would have previously considered a hugely successful outing to a bookstore such as this, I might have landed one.
“I certainly hope you’re going to give him a discount,” my mother told the owner. He knocked off another twenty per cent, making her day.
One of those shopping bags held two of the hardcovers for which I’d been searching the longest: Willam Gass’ In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Gass’ story collection in hardcover was compact and, in its matte brown dust jacket with muted yellow and orange lettering, appealingly unassuming in a way that was apt and therefore aesthetically satisfying as an object. Pynchon’s novel was in some ways even more unassuming in its initial aspect. Whereas the paperback had featured a Peter Max-like cartoon illustration that seemed to want to evoke from five hundred yards The Swinging Psychedelic Sixties, the hardcover offered on its dust jacket a monochromatic image of pavement, graffitied with the loop, triangle and trapezoid that forms the muted post horn of the possible secret society. Which was the more satisfying to hold in my hand? I didn’t have to decide. Each had been priced as though I was the one doing the pricing.
I felt, once I’d gotten home, like I’d rubbed the bottle and been granted thirty-eight wishes. I reread all or at least parts of each of the books, just to feel at leisure the heft of each in my hand. And of course I was very soon anxious to get back to that store, but I was heading into a brutally busy semester. I went back the first time a few months later and the store was closed, for whatever reason, and then one thing led to another and I didn’t manage to return until a six months or so after that.
You can see where this is going. The storefront was boarded up, the space inside empty. I asked at the local diner and was told that the owner had died and the bookstore had closed. What had happened to all of the books stored across the street? The guy at the diner hadn’t known there were books stored across the street. Was there anybody I could reach to talk to about where everything went? The owner’s family, the guy guessed. Did any of them live around here? Not that he knew. Did anyone know how to get in touch with them? Not that he knew.
I stood in the middle of the street, my hands on my hips. And for all of my disappointment, I wasn’t anywhere near as bereft as I’d been in Montreal, and not only because I’d matured — ! Ha! — but also because in this case I’d been allowed my time inside the charmed circle. I’d carried away all of those beautiful fictions as a result. I’d not only been allowed a glimpse at all of that bounty but I’d been granted my portion, as well, if not more than my portion. That’s what the physical object of a book that I love can evoke for me, and that’s all anyone can ask.
This essay first appeared in the superb anthology, Bound to Last, put out bu our good friends at De Capo Press.
Jim Shepard is the author of six novels, including Project X, and four story collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway, which was nominated for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize, and You Think That’s Bad, which came out in March. He teaches at Williams College.