I often wonder about the books we acquire for Bedlam. For any given volume, which bookstore sold it first? Who bought it, owned it, and why? Where has it been since being tucked into a backpack and walked out the door of (fill in the blank) bookshop back in, say 2006, or 1991, or 1975? Has it lain dormant on a shelf in someone’s cluttered den for decades? Has it been passed around from friend to friend, read and re-read repeatedly? Was it gifted to a parent, a child, received as an award, given in gratitude for a favor rendered?
Ah, if books could speak, the stories they could tell, stories above and beyond the story told by the sentences and paragraphs of text they contain. How quirky it would be to know, for example, the nature of the cat that repeatedly rubbed the bottom corner end pages of a Christopher Hitchens book that must have sat on someone’s lower shelf and been exposed to a cat’s cheek-rubbing ritual (the darkened end pages and trace hair strands clearly indicated a cat’s attention). Did anyone ever read the Hitchens book or did it sit unopened for years, rubbed daily by an affectionate feline, until its owner decided the time had come to part ways?
Occasionally, books provide clues to answering some of these questions. I recently bought a couple hundred books at a library sale in Lincoln, Massachusetts; later, while cleaning and pricing them, the sticker on one in particular caught my attention and I froze in wonder.
Albion Bookshop was once a prominent academic bookshop in Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1980s and early 1990s. I know this because I learned the bookseller trade at Albion, starting there in the summer of 1987 and leaving only when the crazy Irish owner expanded recklessly and wrecked a good thing by going broke in the summer of 1992. Given that this sticker is dated 06/91, there’s a strong likelihood that I sold this book myself.
For twenty-seven years this book has been at large. I’ll never know how it ended up in Lincoln – did someone from Lincoln actually buy it new at Albion back in 1991? Perhaps a graduate student at UMass or a precocious undergrad at Amherst College purchased it. But did it remain with the same owner its entire shelf life?
These questions cannot be answered. But the serendipity of finding this book, of knowing its origin story, what bookshop it came from and, because I worked at that very shop, what that bookshop was like, caused a little spark, a little glitter of sensation like a pulsar glaring from the shadows of my past.
I can still picture very clearly in my mind the extensive Philosophy section at Albion; that I can name a few dozen philosophers I owe to the hours I spent stocking those shelves and alphabetizing the hundreds of volumes that comprised that section. In the book trade, we learn by paying attention to the books in our hands, by noting the authors’ names, by learning the publishers.
To say that Sade My Neighbor is an old friend is an exaggeration. Yet the realization that this book possibly passed through my hands so long ago caused a little shiver to run up my spine, and prompted me to recollect a time and place long since passed.
Books are funny that way. They have the power to be more than they actually are, to be more than their text, their stories. Books, especially used books that circulate in the wide world for years, contain memories that may or may not ever be recalled. Whether these memories fade over time, I can’t say, but I do know this: memories are intangible, but books are anything but. Like Sade My Neighbor, for example; it’s resting right beside me once again.