I spent yesterday cleaning and organizing my life. If I’m going to start my own business, was the thought, then I need to have a clean home to work out of, a centered place to call my own. No one cares if I work from my couch in my pajamas as long as I can find and supply the information they need, but how will I do that if my work area is a mess of scraps of paper and receipts?
And with that in mind the cleaning began.
It was a mad frenzy of clearing drawers of old clothes, organizing jewelry (I’m a bit of a magpie), and cleaning dishes. I stacked, folded, bagged, boxed, and put away item after item only to find when all was said and done that my apartment was still a scattered mess of shoes and books.
Granted, I have a weakness for these two things, and a large quantity of both, but there was no reason for me to have two pairs of heels, a pair of clogs, and a pair of loafers scattered down my hall into my living room. And there was definitely no need for every available surface to be adorned with at least one stack of books. Feng Shui, maybe, but not necessary. Not when I had a perfectly acceptable shoe rack and several sets of bookshelves just waiting to be filled.
So I set about putting them away as well. The shoes were easy, just a matter of fitting the heels correctly on the wire rack frame and condensing their use of space to a minimum. The process didn’t evoke memories so much as mental notes: these were shoes to walk in; and these to arrive, sit down immediately and be seen in (a very important difference that can save one’s arches a lot of pain).
But the books? Oh, the books. Each came with a story, an origin: a suggestion from a customer, the look of delight on a coworker’s face when this or that title arrived, the way I cried over an ending or scene. I put away the books slowly, remembering those which customers had given me as opposed to those titles loaned by friends. I shelved novel after novel whose release I’d anticipated so much that when it finally came out I holed up in my apartment, turned off the phone, and curled up on the couch to drift away for a few hours in this world or that.
There were books that I bought from my store and from others, used books who owed their dog-eared pages to an owner or two before me, and inscriptions to others lost in time. Some looked perfectly new, others yellowed, but on my shelves their jagged, chaotic order—hardback, paperback, trade, trade—warmed me inside. These were my books, my memories.
And somebody else’s memories too.
As a bookseller, I have no control of a book after it leaves my store. Where they go from there is up to fate. It may go home to an apartment down the block or travel the world via airplane or cruise. Its travels, owners and adventures are unknown to me and to anyone else who receives it second or third hand or even, in some cases, to its primary owner. Will the friend you loaned this book to give you an accounting of its time? Will they tell you about the discussion it created with a fellow passenger while they were on the bus or how they almost left it in the Laundromat? Will they explain the tiny smudge of ketchup at the end of chapter three or the small tear on page 118?
Will you even notice, or will you just put back on your shelf to be recommended to another or reread later on?
And when you eventually part ways with a title, you’ll keep that little bit of history—your history—tucked away in a corner of your mind; a secret its new owners will never fully know.
In Sayulita, a small town in Mexico, there is a tiny hotel called the Casablanca. The rooms are all bright, white stucco; woven blankets and pillows; and heavy wood tables and window frames. And in every room where the bench-seat couches meet the wall there is a tiny library created by tourists, for tourists.
They are the books left behind when the vacationers leave: nonfiction and fiction, genres aplenty. The languages reflect the former room occupants: a German mystery, a French collection of short stories, or an English copy of Guns, Germs and Steel. They are sun-yellowed, water-wrinkled and well-thumbed books that come with no rules attached.
Don’t finish the novel during your stay? Take it home.
Bought too many souvenirs? Feel free to leave your own books behind. They’ll be well-loved in your absence.
They may go on to travel the world, or maybe they did already and this is their new home; the place where they’ll live until their pages come lose from the binding or the cover is destroyed. Despite beginning in New York or London or Paris, they’ll live out the rest of their lives in a dusty little town providing entertainment to surfers and business people, adding to its history while never revealing its entirety.
Once upon a time I left a book in this hotel, a copy of The Egyptologist that I’d bought from my store in preparation for my vacation. I didn’t particularly enjoy the novel—felt the narrative technique broke down at the end—and therefore didn’t feel the covetous need to keep it with me for always. There on the third floor of the second tower, I placed the novel at the end of the row of those the hotel provided, hoping that it would find a more receptive audience in the next person who occupied my room. I don’t know if the book’s still there or if it’s moved on and found a home on someone else’s bookshelf.
I like to think that it has found the owner I could never be, or passed through more appreciative hands. Maybe it now resides on someone else’s bookshelf, relaying memories of fun and sand and sunshine whenever they shift or reread it.
I’ll never know for sure and the book will never tell, which is fine with me. A little mystery gives a girl something to imagine.
Do you have any book travel stories? Good books that traveled the world with you, or just crossed the street? What memories do you relate to the titles you kept? Those you gave away?
For those interested in tracking the history of the books they find or give away, check out BookCrossing.com.