The last post got me thinking about that strange need, that strange want of book. I think all readers (and writers) have this: a want of book. A desire for books, a little cerebral itch. And, really, that's what having a bookstore was all about for me: a massive want of book. A neurosis, perhaps, a want of book grown beyond all bounds. And joyously so.
In particular that idea of the want of book started me thinking not just about the drive I had to open a bookstore, but the actual beginning of it, the first steps of acquisition. I needed books, and I had to find them... and purchase them. A book lover's dream, perhaps. Free rein to buy books...
I started travelling, hopping in my car and driving to book sales all across the province. Church sales, charity sales, store sales, library sales... A family trip to the zoo even detoured into a purchasing spree at a closing bookstore. Books!
It's a pilgrimage, of sorts. My trips grew longer. Into a new country, through the states of Michigan, Ohio and New York. Long drives with only the lure of books to draw me on. But in the end... a sale, a place full of books (and cheap books, at that), where I could grab and handle them, could smell and almost taste them. Filling one box, and then another, and another. I could look at each cover, brushing my hand across the pages. Each title, each writer. A little blessing for each and then into the greedy box. Long drives to get there. Six hours, eight hours, ten hours... yet the drives home were always longer. The book want temporarily satisfied, and missing my family... driving the highways, an endless slick of blacktop flowing beneath, passing out of mind and memory.
Yet always another sale. And if these trips were pilgrimages, Mecca was Ithaca, New York. In the spring and fall Ithaca holds a book sale, each time spread over three weekends. Each day of the sale the book prices drop. And they have, each time, up to 300,000 books for sale. A two day trip, a long long drive down, a cheap hotel, and then a sale to end all sales. A warehouse with endless shelves, shelves always seemingly refilled, inexhaustible, a basket of blessed bread and fish.
A long ride home, of course. But before that I stopped at a few parks. Ithaca is located in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, an area comprehensively checker-boarded by state parks. The most beautiful, perhaps, is Watkins Glen, where a river has carved down through the forest, down through the rock, carving out a steep canyon draped in a lush forest skin. The water peels and tumbles over stone, down waterfalls, winding and cutting ever lower, ever closer to a welcoming lake. Shadow and mist shape the way, colouring it in extremes. Paths wind along the water's edge, sometimes below the cliffs, sometimes above. The path ducks behind a waterfall, where my fingers feel the flood of white life falling down, ever eager to continue its journey. Light is dappled into bright slants through the leaves of overhanging trees.
Above, climbing through the forest, I stumble out into a graveyard. The sun touches it on this high hill overlooking the world, as if the dead want to see for miles and thus remember their own travels, their own lost movements. History rests in the stone markers. 1900s, 1800s, 1700s... stones worn and weathered, a little faded and yet holding true, their words lingering.
Yet the most amazing thing was that I was entirely alone. It was in the park's off season, a monday morning. And it was entirely empty. Just me. Not another car in the parking lot, not another person on the paths. I'd been here before, as a child, and I remembered the water and the gorge and the hot sun and the press of people, the families vacationing and wandering about, kids complaining, asking for drinks, for snacks, for ice cream. Yet now... I was alone. The park was mine, and in that moment existed only for me.
A connection remains, between the book pilgrimmage and the gorge. In my head the experiences are intertwined, resonant, mutually reflective. Connected by time and geography, yes... but also by a feeling, by a sense of something ineffable. The park that day held a sense of both solitude and communion, and I sometimes think that ambivalent feeling is the perfect metaphor for a book.
A book is its own world, self-contained and communicative... you share a world, and yet you share it in solitude. You commune, but inside the strictures of your own imagination. You have a whole world to explore, and yet you explore it alone, with only the memory to share. Yet there is, I think, in that solitude, something profound. In that solitude is a most perfect and willing moment of shared story, a communication that slips the bindings of time. It is a piece of life framed in pages.
And so what was a bookstore but a collection of these infinite little worlds? Shared pieces of life, so many of them, becoming a vast quilt, but one ever shifting and changing. A place where others could come and share too, partaking of those moments, those lives, those worlds. Slipping a little further through time, a little further into story.
Each trip was a pilgrimmage, and yet so is each book. A trip to solitude and communion.