There used to be a bookstore next to the grocery chain my mom would frequent. It was all narrow aisles and fully-stocked shelves with the sliding ladders to allow the booksellers to get to the overstock. If it was sunny out, I would have to blink hard to let my eyes adjust to the dim interior, and no matter what the weather it was always cool inside. If we were good and well-behaved at the grocery store, my mother always promised that my brother and I could each have a book; a promise that led to collections of Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and before that the Serendipity Books by Stephen Cosgrove.
He signed there once, Stephen Cosgrove. A very sweet man whose book, the Muffin Muncher, I blame for both my continuing fascination with dragons and my inability to pass by a muffin without taking a nibble. My mother has a picture of my brother and me proudly standing on either side of Mr. Cosgrove, our tall stack of books nearly obscuring his face. He signed them all, poor man, and took the time to talk to us about Serendipity.
Looking back, I realize it wasn’t much of a signing, probably netting him only a few additional buyers besides us. The store only saw a small trickle of customers during the day, few of whom might have had rabid, young Cosgrove fans at home, or an attraction to books about moralistic fantasy creatures. It was the kind of signing I often hear authors complaining about—the bookstore didn’t do enough advance advertising, it was wrong book for the area, etc—but for my brother and I, it was an adventure. Here was an author; a star! One who took the time to talk to the skinny little girl with the high voice and the shy little boy with the bowl cut like they were the most important readers in the world. To this day I think of that day as a perfect little encapsulation of why: why I read, why I love books, and why I love the people who produce the books I read.
Oh, the difference one author made in a tiny bookstore. Who would have thought?
There are memories of books and people and laughter, some sharp and clear, others faded near through. My mind plays tricks on me though. I know, from a picture of that long ago day, that the store wasn’t as dark as I remember it. I know that I’ve forgotten or melded together many similar days of haunting the racks and begging my mother to be able to stay there while she shopped. I can’t recall the names of all the people that helped me find books over the years—although at the time it seemed incomprehensible that I would ever forget them—and only in some cases do I remember the recommended books. I can’t say definitively whether or not it smelled of paper or something more with just a touch of mildew, but it’s a smell I’ve continued to associate with books.
And I can’t go back and answer these questions because the store has long since closed, its traffic gobbled up by the introduction of a much bigger store several blocks away. It hasn’t been there for years and the space has instead acted as the home for a succession of hair salons and nail studios. There are many who frequent the grocer who have no knowledge of the little bookstore that sat at the end of the complex up until a decade ago. They have no emotional ties to the books that used to live there or the sellers who used to stock the shelves, and they pay no mind to the area at all as they run to their cars with that last minute gallon of milk or the makings of this week’s dinners.
Whenever I drive by though—on the way to my parents’ or to the bank—I see it out of the corner of my eye, just a spark of the old sign, a shade of the doors superimposed on whatever lives there now. I see it and I remember the books that sent my imagination spinning and the people who suggested them. I remember talking and dust moats and feeling of paper on my fingers.
I remember that little store that was so much bigger than the sum of its parts.
Within the few months of working at my store in the mall, an old man came in gripping a battered plastic bag.
“This used to be a bookstore,” he told me when I asked him if I could help him find anything.
Thinking I’d misheard him, I replied, “Yes, sir. This is a bookstore.”
“No.” He pulled the plastic of his bag taunt so I could read the word printed on the crumpled, faded plastic: Scribner’s. “This used to be a different bookstore.”
They’d closed years before and we’d taken their place, I informed him all the while considering what I would do if he tried to return a book or if this was a scam. Why my mind went there, I don’t know, perhaps it was because I was suddenly very sensitive to this new environment where people tried to con us with some regularity, but he didn’t deserve the suspicion. And while I’m sure it didn’t come through in my voice or my eyes when I asked him again if he needed help, his reply was simply this: “No, thank you. This isn’t my bookstore.”
In less than a month, we’ll close our doors and something new will take our place. Most of our customers have been made aware of the situation, and while some have expressed their outrage, just as many have accepted the fact that in the future they’ll have to walk a few blocks more for their book or magazine. The less frequent customers, those who are slow readers or who only make it into town a couple of times a year, might be in for a bit of shock as it’s entirely possible they’ll walk to our end of the mall only to discover we’ve disappeared. Maybe they’ll pause for a moment before whatever store has taken our place and find themselves confused. “Wasn’t there a bookstore here before? I remember buying that book for Tony around here somewhere.”
Maybe, like that old man, they’ll tell whoever works there, people who may otherwise never know the predecessors of their space.
Maybe they’ll say nothing at all, blame our bookstore’s non-existence of foggy memories and ask for direction to the next closest shop.
Or maybe, just maybe, if we made enough of an impression—having introduced the perfect book, list of suggestions or just a smile on an otherwise bad day—they’ll think to themselves, “This used to be a bookstore.”
Then out of corner of their eye they’ll see it again—bright or dim depending on the memory—but there, always there, shadowing that space. And as it used to be, so it will remain, if only in their (and our) minds.