The Atrocities of Book Collecting
by Karin Stevens
Lainey left the sweltering heat of the sidewalk and stepped into the cool of the used bookstore. A jingle from the door’s bell, and the young man behind the counter glanced up from a stack of old hardcovers to peer at her over the top of his glasses. He offered no greeting. She let the door close and turned her attention to the handwritten markers hanging above the used books. History. Biography. Poetry.
The store was narrow, but deep. This seemed much more promising than the bookstore two blocks up. It was a surprise that she hadn’t noticed this one when Jason had driven her through town on their way to the hotel.
The clerk continued to ignore her as she browsed. Aside from the jazz playing softly in the background, an almost smothering stillness had settled around the books. She was alone with him. “Slow day?” she asked, filling the emptiness with a voice far too loud for the short distance that separated them.
“About average,” he answered without looking up from the tomes. Maybe they were new additions being readied for the shelves.
She turned her back to him and ran her fingers down the spines of the travel books, lingering on one titled Greece. An upright bass sent a pulse into the room.
“Average is usually this empty?” she asked with a small laugh vacant of any real humor. “How do you stay in business?” She waited for his response, but only his sigh followed before the quiet returned to saturate the spaces between the music. She kept her eyes on the book. After a beat, she pulled it from its home.
On the cover sleeve was a stunning photo of an ancient marble structure. Through the carved pillars of the ruins, a modern city could be seen cut into a hillside. The dead next to the living. She tried to imagine what it would be like to sit with her book and coffee having this as her view each morning. Unfathomable.
The song ended and was replaced with a tune her inept ear found indistinguishable from the last. She slid the book back into its place and turned toward the counter. “Fiction?” she asked.
He hooked his thumb toward the back of the store without looking up and said, “All the way at the end.”
The door opened and another young man wearing a pork pie hat entered the store, bringing the noise from the street in with him. She adjusted her purse strap on her shoulder and headed into the stacks, happy to have the tall shelves create a barrier between her and the clerk—the pressure to speak alleviated. She was pleased to discover that the narrow passage of books before her actually led to a small second room dedicated to fiction. The speaker on the wall was slightly louder here. The alcove held what looked to be an impressive and large assortment. This is what she had hoped for.
Lainey inhaled deep and slow the smell of books, of bookstore. It always effected her. The scent of aging books in particular was transporting. She admired the collection that climbed the shelves to just under the breach of the high ceiling. Far, far out of her reach. Good literature here, not just crap like the store down the street. Plenty to choose from.
Somewhere outside the store, Jason would wander back out of the antique shop and discover she had disappeared. If he noticed this bookstore, he would know to look for her inside, but its entrance was somewhat obscured by the protruding, modern false front of the bakery next door. He would find it eventually though, and when he did he would talk her into leaving In the meantime, his delay meant she might have long enough to her a good look around. She wished she could make an afternoon of it.
Kafka was the first to come off the shelf. A collection of his short stories that included “The Metamorphosis,” a favorite piece. She Hipped open the front cover to find an inscription in feminine hand:
All my love, Elise
“How wonderful,” she whispered, closing it and running a hand over the cover.
She already had two copies of Kafka’s collected works at home, but she knew she would likely walk out of the store with this copy anyway. The inscription. She had a picture in her mind of Elise—a woman who had no doubt put a great deal of thought into choosing this book above all others, inscribing her heart into it and giving it to Bertrand with all her love, and she wondered at what kind of bastard Bertrand was that it would have ended up here instead of treasured on a shelf where it should be.
All these books had been let go. at some time or another. An astounding thing in and of itself. Lainey had never relinquished a single one of her books without first finding it a good home.
She set the book on the floor in the corner of the room. This could be the bottom of a small pile if she hurried. Jason would, without a doubt, have an argument handy if she didn’t make it to the register before he figured out where she was. Their bookshelves at home were already stuffed beyond capacity and all available living space was as occupied with bookshelves as he would tolerate.
She drifted before the collection scanning titles and admiring bindings. An ornate, two—volume set of The Tales of Genji was the next to be pulled from the shelf. The first volume slid from the slipcase allowing her to examine the cover artwork. It was the Kencho translation. At $67, she would catch more than the usual amount of crap from Jason, but this was worth it. Even if she never found the time to undertake its 1,090 pages, it belonged in her collection. There were an infinite number of circumstances that could have prevented the work from surviving after nearly one thousand years. Yet here it was, in her hands, continuing to be printed and appreciated. And besides, it was pretty. She set it with the Kafka. A paperback copy of A Tale of a Tub for the ride home soon joined it, and she knelt beside her pile with a Heritage hardcover of Flaubert’s Salammbo. She wasn’t really familiar with this work, but it was Flaubert. It was a lot to spend along with the two—volume set. They were already on a tight budget for the trip. Of course, she could always order salads instead of steaks, and she could put the receipt in her purse instead of the bag It might be best if she got these to the trunk of the car before returning to Jason. That would also prevent her from having to carry them around with her the rest the day.
She picked the rest of the pile up with the Flaubert and allowed her eyes to roam over the room one last time. Her eyes came to rest on one book, red and hardcover, lying on its side atop one of the shelves. It looked abandoned there, easily ten feet from the ground. What did it say?
She moved closer and strained her eyes. The Something of Book Something. She glanced around the alcove for a stepladder, sure there would be one around somewhere. The top shelves were so high. Not finding one, she returned to have another look at the title—standing as close as she could without the words becoming obscured by the shelf, on her toes, squinting. Did it say, The Atrocities of Book Collecting? She hoped that it did. She wanted that book if it did. There was more printed on the binding as well, and she tried to focus on it, but the lettering was smaller. The music distracted her momentarily and she wished the clerk would turn it down. Its irregular, impossible-to-follow, improvised rhythm only added to her sense of frustration.
The bell on the door chimed and she peeked out of the room, sure that Jason had found the store at last, but the man who entered was older and heavyset. Relieved and feeling somehow triumphant, she looked up and down the corridor for a stepladder and found none. She would have to ask that clerk for his help.
A moment of uncertainty followed. Lainey weighed whether or not she wanted the red hardback badly enough to make dealing with him worth it. She wouldn’t be able to get it without him. In the end, she realized that she didn’t have any other choice. She needed to get a look at that book. Inhaling with resolve, she set her pile on the floor and walked to the front of the store.
The sounds of quiet conversation under the music were audible now. Before she fully emerged from behind the travel books, she saw that the man in the pork pie was with the clerk. They leaned over the counter toward one another speaking in hushed, close voices.
She hung back and watched with some hesitation as the overweight man, decked out in full California tourist regalia, approached them. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Jazz,” he said.
The two young men stopped talking and turned to look at him. Not just to acknowledge that he had spoken, but really looked at him. Sized him up.
“It’s great,” the man said. “Who is this?”
The clerk shifted his eyes back to his friend when he answered, “Lee Konitz.” A look passed between the two of them—a smile that kept only to their eyes and said idiot. She loathed them both on the man’s behalf.
The clerk straightened up and leaned heavy into his hands on the counter. “Can I help you find something, sir?”
“No,” he answered. “Just looking around.” He strolled away from them. Dismissed. A slight flush spread through his cheeks—whether from anger or embarrassment, Lainey couldn’t be sure. When he stepped out from behind a rack of zines, he noticed her and their eyes met. She smiled at him, trying to pass him some kind of feeble encouragement and apology for the rude way he had been treated. At the counter, the clerk said something inaudible to his friend, who turned his head into his shoulder to muffle a laugh.
The older man smiled back at her, and in that smile was all the defeated realization that there had been a witness to what had transpired. He made a brief show of looking at book titles without really looking and then left the store, pulling the door closed behind him.
Lainey peeked around the shelf again to look at the two men. They had returned to their conversation, and in that moment there was no possible way she was going to approach them with her request and invite their ridicule.
“Assholes,” she muttered, knowing the piano meandering in the speakers would mask her words.
Her fingers knit themselves together as she turned back toward the room and the books she had left on the floor. She worked to convince herself that she didn’t need them either. Shame at allowing herself to be intimidated by their snobbery took root and anger was following. Even so, she had nearly fixed on leaving when she noticed a chair tucked into the gap between two shelves. It was solid-looking, oak, ladder-backed. The view from the counter obscured, she took quiet steps to pull it from its place and carried it with awkward gait, her purse shifting off her shoulder and into the crook of her elbow, careful not to drive the chair’s legs into any of the books in her path. She placed it below the red hardcover and climbed onto the seat.
Standing on her toes, she reached for the top of the shelf, knowing she was still far too low. “Damn it,” she said and looked around from her new vantage point, hoping for a solution to present itself. There was nothing to be found. She looked up again. Her position was too close to the shelf for her to be able to see the book anymore, but she knew just where it was up there. The wide stance of the chair’s legs made it sturdy on the floor. It was backed up to the shelves. Old, but well-crafted. If she stood on the back of it, it would hold her. Surely it could hold her.
She tossed her purse aside and hung onto the edges of the shelf putting her right foot on the topmost, thick wooden slat of the chair. The length of her skirt nearly impeded her from getting upright before pulling her left foot on as well. The close proximity to the shelf made it more to balance than she had anticipated, and her fingers whitened with the strain of hanging on. She felt, however, that if she could just get steady, she would be able to reach the top now. It certainly felt high up. With great speed, she released one hand and placed her forearm on the shelf in front of her, leaning her weight into it. Better. She reached her free arm up to feel for the book, and at first it seemed to be all right, but then the motion of it caused her to shift, a side-slip, a series of frantic motions that matched the frenetic sax in the speakers as the chair toppled and she found herself clinging to the shelf in desperation, her feet climbing it like the rungs of a ladder, her upper body wedged in one of the upper shelves, face smashed into the books and the arm that had reached now clinging to the small gap between the back of the shelf and the wall, fingers curled around it and frozen. Afraid to breathe, to move. Fearing the slightest alteration in her position might send her plummeting to the floor.
“Crap,” she squeaked. After what seemed a very long time, she calmed a bit and allowed herself to look down. The chair below her was on its side, but still lying where it would prevent her from letting go and dropping. There would be no way to avoid tangling in its legs and breaking her own. The pain in her fingers was becoming intense.
Climbing down might be her best option, but she was too afraid to let go of the top and attempt it. As she tried to reposition her feet for more stability, she became aware that the front of her thighs were in direct contact with one of the shelves. Leaning out to get a grasp on her situation, she saw that her skirt was hung up on something protruding from the adjacent shelving unit and had been hiked up in such a way as to leave her exposed. Lord. What if the clerk were to walk in now? She tried to remember which panties she had put on that morning and prayed they weren’t the ones with the polka dots. The skirt snag was on the opposite side of her free hand, which she allowed to leave the shelf and Hail about for a second to no avail. It was impossible. It occurred to her that if she dared to drop, or even climb down, the skirt would likely be yanked up to her armpits. There’s a picture. No calling for help then, not that she had been considering that as an option anyway.
She strengthened her grip, pulled her body outward, nearly standing erect, and added her other arm to the top, pushing the rest of her fingers into that gap. And there was the book. She released her aching hand, shook the blood back into her fingers, picked the hardcover up, and tossed it toward her purse on the floor. The bell on the door jingled again, sending a panic through her. “Jason,” she whispered, and at that moment a loud crack imposed itself over the music.
A lightness of equilibrium came, and the ceiling seemed to shift position.
The shelf peeled away from the wall, her weight ripping out whatever had been used to anchor it in place. She pushed herself off with as much force as her angle would allow and dropped to the floor, landing hard and falling to hands and knees, narrowly missing the toppled chair as the wall of hardbacks and paperbacks tipped. Her arms flew up to protect her head while books rained down on her in muted, syncopated thuds and the shelf at last completed its creaking fall, coming to rest against the shelf on the opposite wall and tenting over her. Loud cursing and the sound of running footsteps from the front of the store provided an unwelcome cross-rhythm to the music.
Unable to do otherwise, Lainey crouched low on the floor carpeted in books, open and askew. Breathless and shaking, she assessed her pains, which were numerous, and was relieved to find she hadn’t been seriously injured. The men were in the room now, she could hear them behind her.
“What the hell?” came one of their voices, she didn’t know which.
“Lainey?” another panicked voice called. Jason.
She sucked in her breath and held it a “I’m all right.” moment before finally answering, Pivoting on her heel, she did the best she could to move without crushing the books with her palms. That contentious A Million Little Pieces lay open, pages down in front of her. She never had read it. Maybe she ought to. “I’m OK, Jason,” she said and began to crawl out. To her surprise, it was the clerk who reached for her hand to help her out. She stood, close to his face now, his expression pale. The snobby elitist had somehow been replaced by this shaken young man.
Jason pushed past him to take her by the shoulders, “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine, really.”
“I’m sorry, ” the clerk said. “l don’t understand how this could have— ”
Jason turned on him and yelled, “You’re damn lucky my wife wasn’t killed!”
The clerk seemed unable to respond.
His friend in the hat stood examining the shelf, dumbfounded.
Lainey picked up her purse while her husband continued to tear into the boy. Pork pie looked from the wall to her, his gaze lingering on the book as she picked it up. His eyes drifted back up to the top of the wall where it had sat only moments before.
“Let’s just go,” Lainey said, putting her hand under Jason’s arm, attempting to pull him from the room. The friend looked back at her again, back at the book. “Please, Jason.”
Jason threw in one last, “Damn lucky!” before he turned away from the kid and ushered his wife from the room. “You could have been killed.”
She didn’t respond, only allowed herself to be led outside, leaving the sounds of sax chasing trombone behind them. The door jingled itself shut.
“Wait!” she said and stopped. “The book!”
Jason stood on the sidewalk squinting in the sun and looked back at her, “What?”
“I didn’t pay for it.”
She lifted the book to show him that she still held it.
“Screw that guy,” he said. “Take it. He’s lucky we don’t sue.”
She looked down at its red cover and read the full title. The Atrocities of Book Collecting and Kindred Afflictions.
“How wonderful,” she whispered.
“C’mon,” he said. “You’ve torn your skirt.”
Lainey looked down and eyed the ripped fabric. “I must have caught it on something when I fell,” she said.
“When you fell?”
“When the shelf fell.” She could feel him looking at her, and she refused to look back, drawing a finger across the lettering of the title.
“How did it tip over?” he asked. His hands, open before her, moved to rest on his hips.
“Just did,” she said, flipping the cover open to look at the title page. No inscription in this one. “I don’t know.”
“Jesus,” he answered, and turned to start walking. “You and your bookstores.”
Lainey followed behind with a slight limp, admiring the book.
“Let’s go back to the hotel so you can get changed.”
“Why don’t you wait up here in the shade,” he said. “I’ll get the car.”
Lainey took a seat on the edge of a planter box and looked back up the street to the bookstore, taking note of its signage. Pulling a pen from her purse, she wrote its name on the back of a loose receipt, using the red book as a lap desk.
A throb was beginning to beat a steady rhythm in her right knee, and she rubbed it a little, checking for signs of swelling. Waiting for Jason, she watched with some fascination as a bruise formed on her shin. There would likely be more. She would have to make a trip to the hotel’s ice machine. Maybe she should even stay behind at the hotel and elevate that knee, do some reading.
It wasn’t long before the front end of their car emerged from behind the building on the corner and swung in her direction. Her back was stiff when she rose, and she winced as she walked to the curb. She tucked the receipt into the front cover of her prize. When she had a moment alone later, she would call the clerk, pretending to be someone else, and see if she could get him to mail her Bertrand’s Kafka. That one couldn’t be found elsewhere, and she already knew just which shelf she wanted to keep it on.