There's something about gloomy cold weather, when the air feels pregnant with rain, that calls out for either a good nap or a good book. This is where J and I are a perfect match. He's got napping down pat, having written his doctoral thesis on the varied forms and patterns of napping. And J, when he thinks he's being awfully funny, will often call me "bookworm," quoting Principal Skinner's octogenarian mother on the television show The Simpsons, "Don't you read enough at school, Bookworm?!" He'll then laugh to himself thinking he's just said the funniest thing ever and for the first time at that. He thinks he's hiiiilarious. His humor is all but lost on me, but I laugh to make him feel good about himself, the way they tell you to do when you're trying to win someone over.
It has been suggested that for any healthy relationship to flourish, each person must have something that they like and is theirs alone. Today, ours took the form of J driving up to Bothell to test drive a car, something that doesn't interest me in the least. Give me a dependable car with enough gas in it to get me to my destination and I'm happy as Harry, however happy he is. I, on the other hand, spent the morning between dusty stacks of used books.
Nowadays I'll bring a list of the books I want to look for with me. I didn't always but it's a lesson I learned after repeated visits to Brand Bookshop in Glendale, Ca and coming out not with books but with massive headaches. Headaches earned from going up and down the stacks with a tilted head reading every title. So with list in hand I had J drop me off at one of Amazon.com's several brick-and-mortar shops around Seattle that sell new and used books at half-off. I didn't find any of the books I wanted except for Nadifa Mohammed's Black Mamba Boy which is shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. But it was one of those early review copies, the ones not slated for actual sale and it didn't feel right buying it; like tearing the warning tag off of mattresses. So, I left and decided to go to Elliott Bay Bookstore, an independent bookseller but definitely not a used bookstore, near our apartment.
One of the best things about living in Seattle, in my opinion at least, are the people one sees walking about the city. As soon as I had walked out, I happened upon a man wearing a purple and magenta wizarding robe, like the one Mickey wears in Fantasia. I tried taking a photo with my cell phone but he disappeared into the ether before I could, no doubt using some incantation or spell to do so. He did, however, lead me to a used bookstore I had never noticed. It was called Twice Upon a Time or Twice Told Tales or some equally clever pun.
I'm not ashamed to admit this, but I was giddy with excitement as I walked up the steps to the bookstore. But all of that giddiness evaporated the minute I stepped inside. I was immediately hit in the face by the smell of stale cigarette smoke mixed with the ammonia smell of cat piss. The books were placed on bookcases that leaned to one side or the other reminding me of the staircases in those Escher pencil drawings. A large orange cat not unlike my own cat, Simon, howled a hello and then leaned against my right leg.
My eyes began to water and I felt my skin begin to itch. I may have thrown up in my mouth a little. Already inside, I decided to hold my breath as long as I could to look for some of the books on my list. I couldn't do it. I was getting lightheaded and dizzy. Someone asked me if I needed any help finding a book and I mumbled something in response. She then led me to a computer to check their online catalog. I was amazed that this shop with their books shelved all higgledy-piggledy, 1) cataloged their books and, 2) kept it on a computer system.
As she looked up the books on my list I asked her about the cats. It turns out that her store also acted as a cat shelter. She told me that there were 6 cats in the store. I noticed she had one of the cats under her shirt cradled like a baby in one of those hippy baby slings. She saw me notice and she informed it was the way one makes a feral cat, what?, less feral? I told her I was late for something and begged off and left. I found my way to Elliott Bay Bookstore and was happy to see books lined up in a neat and orderly fashion. I heard the familiar hissing of an espresso machine and breathed in the heady aroma of fresh coffee being made. I found all the books on my list but somehow their crisp clean pages left me feeling bereft of something inexplicable. I ended up not buying any of the books.
The thing about used books I like is that I can imagine the previous owner of the book. The condition of the book often tells me the most about its previous owner. If the book looks like it's still in pristine condition, I imagine someone who barely cracks the book open, tilting the book at odd angles to read the words closest to the spine. I think these readers as shy and timid.
Then there are the books whose spines are broken and pages are bloated. These readers, I imagine, like to read while in the bath with one or more glasses of wine. The more bloated and puffy the book, the more wine consumed. Then there are the crazy readers. The ones who write in the margins, yelling at characters like they are flesh and blood witnesses to their actions. These readers I love and hate the most. I was disappointed that I was going home empty-handed.
But then I thought about the used bookstore-cum-cat shelter and thought maybe new books have their pleasures as well.