The owner of the bookshop was an old man; of such an age as to be past the stage at which one’s body seems to begin to get sick of itself and fold up in preparation for laying aside its earthly labours. At this age, the spark of life starts to become burdened down by its physical form and, like a candle about to drown in the puddle of wax it has itself created, the flame begins to burn yet lower still. He now slumped behind the small desk wedged between piles of books, asleep in the languid afternoon heat.
As I approached the counter, his dog raised its head at the sound of my footsteps. The heat of the afternoon outside was little alleviated inside, despite the best efforts of an ancient ceiling fan. The black, furry face that watched me curiously was punctuated only by a bright pink drooping tongue. A small growl issued from deep in the throat of the watching animal and this roused the old man. I soon realised this was the purpose of the dog’s growl as the animal rose and stretched lazily before making its way around to where I waited. It sniffed amicably at my hand as I bent to pat its head while the old man gathered himself.
I looked up from the dog and addressed myself to the owner of the shop who, by this time, was adjusting his spectacles and blinking himself into wakefulness. He greeted me cheerfully, if somewhat sleepily.
“Sorry to disturb you, it’s a good afternoon for a nap—it feels like a tired afternoon,” I offered.
The old man smiled. “Don’t apologise for waking me up to do the job that I should be doing anyway.” He chuckled, almost to himself, before assuming his business face. “So how can I help you?”
I was unsure as to the particulars of the book that I was after so I started rather obviously: “I’m looking for a book . . .” The old man smiled and nodded his head encouragingly. His scruffy black dog, tired of examining me, returned to its former position and soon appeared to have returned to its slumber.
“I think . . . ,” I continued, “that it would be a fairly old book—I don’t think it has been in print for quite some time.”
“We have a lot of old books; I wish you luck.” The old man sounded like some aged master setting an epic task for his young apprentice. When it came down to it, he was not that much older than I was.
He eased himself back down onto the stool o behind the counter. I hesitated for a moment, then asked him where I might be able to find volumes of short stories. The old man suggested the roughly designated fiction area that encompassed the shelves toward the rear of the shop space. “I think that a collection of short stories with various authors would be listed under the name of the editor—but that probably doesn’t help you much if you are looking for a particular story. See what you can find and if you have no luck come back and have a bit more of a talk to me and we will see what we can come up with.” The old man turned his attention to a small pile of books that must have been recent arrivals in the shop, and he began to catalogue and price these items as I made my way toward the back wall of the premises.
The shop was nearly a maze of shelves and piles of books. The smell of mouldy paper was so pungent as to bring the suggestion of tears to my eyes. In the corners between shelves, in the few that were not hidden by precariously balanced piles of decaying pre-loved literature, dust adorned long-ignored cobwebs. Similarly decorated cobwebs were draped delicately along the edge of the distant ceiling, removing any need for decorative cornices. The back of the shop was only dimly lit but I quickly found the area designated by an “A” taped onto the front of the shelf and began my search. I soon discovered that the rule of alphabetically ordered authors was considerably haphazard. However, as the name of the editor of the collection that I sought had left my conscious memory years before this day, this was not a handicap.
I undertook my search with a positive attitude and quickly moved on from “A” to “B” and then “C”. I came to realise more and more that these designations referred to consecutive shelf space rather than the contents of those specified shelves. I passed over many books that I had read, many of which I had heard but not read, and the majority of the volumes and authors of which I had never heard.
On one small section of the vast expanse of bookcase, I began to count and tallied forty-six volumes. Taking a short step back—that was all that was allowed by the bookcase behind me—I counted the number of these sections: seven across the back wall of the shop (allowing room for a small back door), six shelves high. “That’s forty-two sections in all, at maybe forty-five to fifty books per section,” I thought to myself, stretching my capacity for mental arithmetic. I bowed my head and thought through the multiplication carefully—approximately 1900 books just in these shelves before me. This did not account for the books stacked on top of the shelves and around the floor. This also was only one wall of a very cluttered shop. I did not take my mathematics further.
As I continued my perusal of the shelf, I thought of the countless hours and ideas represented by each of these volumes. The range of titles and authors included well-known literary classics and almost contemporary junk—so I dismissed some of the obviously more recent additions to the shelves. Some of the better-known works boasted multiple copies and different editions, although these were not always shelved together.
The fiction section—and my search—continued along the back wall and then turned the corner to follow the side wall of the shop. In the process, I discovered a number of books that caught my interest and I removed two from the shelves with the intent of purchasing these as I left the shop. My search for the particular collection of short stories was proving fruitless. Concentration on the process of my exploration of the shelves was beginning to wane so, carrying my intended purchases with me, I made my way again through the maze-like configuration of the shelving to the front of the shop.
The old man looked up from his continued work at the sound of my approach. His dog, apparently recognising me by sight despite his unseen eyes, continued its repose without bothering to make a closer examination of me. “Any luck?” The old man peered at my selections.
“I found a couple of things I’m interested in,” I said, placing the books on the counter between us. “But not that particular volume. It’s pretty old so it’s probably an unlikely thing to find.”
“How old is it?” The old man’s voice carried a hint of hope.
“I think it was first published about twenty years ago— give or take a bit.” I was unsure as to the exact date of publication but it had to be around about that long ago.
“I have an idea,” the old man announced happily as he made his way around the counter to where I stood. “Follow me.” As he said this, he closed the door of the shop and flicked the “Closed” sign toward the street. I watched him closely, uncertain as to what he was intending. He noticed my attention and explained, “It doesn’t matter—so few people are interested in real books these days. If it’s not a computer or doesn’t plug into a computer, people don’t seem to care about it at all. You’re only the third customer today. Follow me.”
The old man headed along the near-side wall of the shop where a straight line could be traversed to the back door of the building. The dog noticed his master disappearing towards the rear of the shop and stretched himself slowly before ambling after him. I, too, followed the now animated old man.
I caught up with him as he unlocked the back door. As I reached him, he began to explain his purpose: “When my wife used to help me run this shop—she passed on a few years ago now . . .” He paused for a moment as we descended the steep and narrow stairs that lead down from the back door. I was not sure whether that was in memory of his departed wife or simply because he was concentrating on negotiating the precarious stairway. He resumed his story readily enough as he reached the solid ground of the small yard below. “My wife always made me remove old books that had been on the shelves for a considerable length of time without being sold so that we would keep the stock turning over. As you can see by all the piles of books around the shop now, I haven’t been keeping up with it much in recent times.”
The old man moved toward the back of the building, below the stairs that we had just descended. I stayed in the small clearing among the neighbouring buildings. Because of the height of the walls surrounding this small courtyard, the afternoon sun did not reach the ground but it reflected from the top of the eastern wall and filled the shaft down among the buildings with a stifling heat. The small square of sky that was visible from the where I stood was clear and blue.
The old man fumbled with the padlock that safeguarded a metal gate before it sprang open. He led me through a caged area filled with debris accumulated over many years of shop keeping. Some dilapidated shelving was slowly decomposing there, together with a couple of outdated machines that I remembered being quite common in shops when I was much younger.
As he approached a heavy wooden door, which was also padlocked, the old man began again to explain our destination. “My wife always told me that I should just throw out all the old books that we were not able to sell—but I didn’t like to do that, so I simply carted them all down here.” Saying this, he leaned heavily on the unwilling door until it opened. A wave of cold, musty air ventured out into the sultry afternoon. The black dog stepped back from the cold draught and lay itself down outside the first, wire gate where it was soon asleep.
The old man disappeared into the cold darkness through the door and I heard him fumbling for what must have been the light switch. The fact that it was the light switch was revealed a moment later when a small, outdated light bulb, attached to the ceiling of the interior, commenced to glow timidly. By this light, as I stepped through the door, I was able to see thousands and thousands of books. These where stacked to uneven heights up to the back of the room—which was really the front of the shop—up the sloping, dirt floor.
“Here we are,” the old man announced, chuckling at the look of bewilderment on my face. I was once again guessing the number of books that were spread before me but I did not get far.
“It’s not quite as bad as it looks,” he attempted to reassure me. “You see, all these books are undisturbed in the order in which they were brought down here. So sporadically over the past thirty-four years—but not so much in recent times—these books have been bundled and brought down here. Thus,” he straightened himself with a smile, “you only need to start looking at about the time of the publication of the particular book you are looking for and work your back toward the door—until you get sick of it.”
“Where do I start?” I asked uncertainly, still not convinced by his optimism.
“Over this way.” He led me to a pile of books that had no particular distinguishing features that I could recognise. He directed the course that my search should describe so as to follow the vaguely chronological sequence of storage. The old man wished me luck and said that he should get back up to the shop. I watched him make his way back through the cellar, to be briefly silhouetted in the doorway and then he was gone. I heard him call his dog and reascend the stairs slowly.
I shivered in the cold, dusty gloom but began my search yet again with my earlier commitment. As I searched, I thought of the old man and wondered at his long-standing relationship with these books and how he could not bear to simply throw away all of these books, all of this knowledge, all of these stories and all of these words.
The cold of the room continued to seep into my body and I sneezed numerous times as I disturbed the dust that had settled on these volumes over many years. I was beginning to discover some encouraging signs as I was reminded of a number of publications that had appeared around the same time as the object of my search. I renewed my efforts and, a few minutes later, I held the volume in my hands.
My feelings at that moment would be hard to describe. I had once owned this book but, somewhere amid the march of years and moving house many times, my copy had disappeared. By that time, the volume had been long out of print and shops dealing in second-hand books had become increasingly rare. To find this book had been an object in the back of my mind for years—and now I held it.
Its cover was dirty and, as I flicked through the pages, I noticed the marks and notations of a reader long ago. I did not need to check the index to find the page number and turned straight away to page 127. As I held it open at this page, I smiled to myself, remembering the pleasure that first seeing that page had given me. I moved across the cold, dusty cellar, now oblivious to the discomfort, to make better use of the feeble light afforded by the dim bulb.
I seated myself on a dusty bench and began to read the dead book. It was so long ago but as I read it was readily familiar to me. As I read, I heard a younger voice reading with me in my mind:
“The owner of the bookshop was an old man; of such an age as to be past the stage at which one’s body seems to begin to get sick of itself and fold up in preparation for laying aside its earthly labours. At this age, the spark of life starts to become burdened down by its physical form and, like a candle about to drown in the puddle of wax it has itself created, the flame begins to burn yet lower still. He now slumped behind the small desk wedged between piles of books, asleep in the languid afternoon heat.
“As I approached the counter, his dog raised its head…
Image: Erik Desmazières, The Library of Babel, 1997.