I got the sad news today.
A friend of mine is shutting down his used bookstore. Though to be honest we knew it was coming. Not so much a market decision as much as one dealing with real estate. The owner of the building from which my friend rented had sold the property. Soon the building would be demolished and replaced by a high-end hotel.
Lately my husband and I, avid book collectors, have been uncollecting. Last weekend we unloaded two Rubbermaid bins at a church rummage sale. We tried selling them for a $1 and then settled for fifty cents. We kept to the side a special pile hoping to get $2 a piece. We didn’t sell any at that price and ended up re-boxing them to eventually sell to a dealer—five for $9.
We’re at an age where we worry about the future. Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, (what’s the difference?), money for healthcare we don’t have. We’re paring down stuff we don’t need anymore, trying to lighten the load of possessions that now seem more of a burden than a fringe benefit of a life well-lived.
The books, though, there’s another story. Some are easy to get rid of. “I never read it!” “I thought I needed the complete series, but now . . . ” We see where we overdid with all the books. But others are not so easily dispensed with. Some mark chapters of our life separately and together as a couple. So much of our early marriage revolved around browsing used bookstores, hitting up estate sales, stopping at the side of a road at garage sales—always in pursuit of the Holy Grail of that One Book. One time my husband carried around New York City a 500-page tome he’d purchased from a sidewalk vendor. By the end of the day his shoulders hurt from a weighed-down backpack. We stopped at the Strand. We bought from guys with random paperbacks outside of Central Park. It was our vacation.
In Paris we visited Shakespeare & Company and visited with the ghosts of James Joyce and Sylvia Beach. We strolled the stalls along the Seine, the sellers of ephemera lining the Left Bank. We were crazy for books. Even in far-flung Albania, in the capitol city of Tirana a gypsy was selling books along a low wall outside a state department building. My husband approached with all the hope of someone desperate to believe, like the cure for cancer or Ponce de Leon in his search for the Fountain of Youth, that what he was looking for was just one book away.
But the reality is books are going away. We download and read on Nooks and Kindles. We scroll down or swipe with the flick of a finger, simulating a page turn, we read from screens in small bursts of words rather than curling up and dwelling with a novel. That 500-page book—given away; we couldn’t even sell it at the rummage sale. Who wants a door-stopper of a book anymore?!
Look at me. I write for the web. I sell short shorts—the latest thing in creative writing—flash. Rarely these days am I able to place a short story of 4,000 to 7,000 words. Ten years ago the average short story was nearly 16,000 words. I feel so old.
I have more room on my shelves for books that are quickly disappearing. What will Mike and I do in the future? What will draw us together?
Perhaps we can sit by the fire and talk about the stories we have read and those $2 books we now miss.
I consider as lovers of books not those who keep their books hidden in their store-chests and never handle them, but those who, by nightly as well as daily use thumb them, batter them, wear them out, who fill out all the margins with annotations of many kinds, and who prefer the marks of a fault they have erased to a neat copy full of faults. Letter to an unidentified friend (1489), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974)