Friday May 18, 2018: FICTION: Browsers - Browsing in a used bookstore is a favorite pastime of many book lovers. They can browse for hours and may or may not make some purchases at the end of that time. But there's one store where things don't work that way.
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“The stimulation of seeing so many books so suddenly seemed almost more than was good for the frail little boy.”
-George R. Stewart, Earth Abides
STEPPING INTO A used book shop is sometimes like stepping into another dimension. Where else but a used book store can one find such an eclectic selection of minds and experiences stored in dusty tomes, just waiting to be browsed through by anyone who happens along?
Occasionally a used book shop can be a painful experience, offering up nothing more than the latest trashy paperbacks and adult porn magazines.
But sometimes . . .
Sometimes a used book store can provide, to the avid browser, a mystical experience. Sometimes, walking through that door, you are overwhelmed with a sense of awe, a sense that something powerful is being housed within the very walls.
I discovered such a wondrous shop years ago on the corner of two streets whose names I cannot remember in one of those pseudo-cities on the south western edge of the Golden Horseshoe.
Standing on the street, the sounds of traffic all around me, I beheld the quaint corner shop with curious eyes. The dark and dusty windows did not allow me a clear view of the interior of the shop, and apart from the word BROWSERS painted on the window there was no exterior sign indicating the name of the establishment.
Trying to remember if I’d been to this particular shop before, I opened the door. The tiny bell overhead tinkled as I stepped inside. I had to pause as the familiar feeling of awe overtook me. Perhaps you feel it, too, when you walk into a used book shop – the feeling that all eternity is poised, trapped in the moment, just waiting to spill forth into the future.
Literature has always fascinated me. With writing, humankind has developed the ability to elevate a person to a state of immortality. And with that, anyone who reads can thus share in that immortal bliss. None of us have ever had the pleasure of meeting Shakespeare or Dickens personally, but they are still companions in our day to day travels. Though long dead, they are very much with us. That is the beauty and power of literature.
Perhaps that is why I had spent the last three decades of my life writing, trying to capture the spirit of myself on paper. To that point, I had been unsuccessful, forced to live vicariously through the bold efforts of those great masters who’d come before me.
That is probably why I would take such pleasure in browsing through a used book shop. And occasionally, when feeling daring, I would fantasize about future generations browsing such a shop and finding one of my works – essentially discovering my spirit and thus keeping me alive.
The absence of a book clerk was the first thing I noticed. But that wasn’t unusual. He or she could be shelving books or helping another customer. Standing in the tiny entranceway I glanced at the small podium desk, which I assumed the owner used as a work space. My eyes then led forward to the next connected room which was perhaps eight by twelve feet. I moved into it. This room, crammed with the usual variety of books, led off directly to another room of similar size.
Trying to get my bearings, I searched through the second room to find two more doorways to a third and forth room. I took the door on the right and found, from that room, another three choices.
The peculiarity struck me at that point. I paused and breathed in my amazement. What looked like such a tiny corner shop was actually a huge space divided into a multitude of rooms.
I saw myself spending a lot of time here.
I decided to waste no more time and began my browsing. I turned and scanned the books that filled the room I stood in. The shelves reached all the way up to the nine foot ceiling of the room and were packed, tightly, with all sorts of books. Scanning the titles, I noticed that there was no particular order to them. There was an abundance of westerns and the occasional thriller shelved in this room; but apart from that, there was a plethora of every other imaginable type of book. From a selection of children’s picture books to a sampling of cheap dime paperbacks, this room had it all. On the far wall sat a selection of magazines and comic books. Beside that were stacks of yellowed newspapers.
“What an interesting setup,” I muttered, and my voice carried strangely through the room. My words broke a silence so thick, I might have been standing in an ancient Egyptian tomb. I turned, as if trying to catch my words and take them back so that I might not wake the sleeping texts. But alas, my words were out and lost to me forever.
As I turned I looked through the entrance to another room I hadn’t seen before, and a paperback book spine leapt out at me as if highlighted. I stepped into that room and plucked the book from the shelf. It was one of my favourites from a long time back. George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. I held it in my hand like a trophy.
I thumbed it open and sniffed at the wonderfully musty smell that can hardly be described so much as it is loved by a bibliophile. Then I flipped through to the middle of the book and began reading, but not aloud. I dared not speak anything else aloud for fear of ruining, again, that special silence.
I read a passage that had stuck with me all these years. The main character, Ish, upon rebuilding a small civilization after the world had been ravaged by plague, takes the boy Joey to one of the libraries left over from before Year One.
Halfway through this scene I noticed that certain words from this passage were missing, as if the ink from the page had dissolved. I flipped through to another passage. Sure enough, the same thing seemed to have happened there as well.
I put the book down and picked up another one. Again, several passages throughout that text were blank – in some places complete lines were missing. I tried another to find the same results, randomly scattered throughout.
I paused and sniffed the air, as if I would be able to tell if there were some corrosive elements lurking in the room, slowly removing the ink from the pages. But I could detect nothing.
Instead, I left the books there and moved on into the next room to my right. I selected another paperback and noticed that none of the words were missing from it. I replaced it and moved across the room, grabbing at what appeared to be an old SOCIOLOGY text. Strangely, whole pages and entire chapters were blank.
I had heard stories and read articles stating that the paper itself of some of the oldest books printed were apparently reacting with the air, causing them to disintegrate. I wondered if perhaps a similar thing was happening, here, but to the ink rather than the paper.
Such a thought sent shivers through my being. The books in these rooms were not ancient by any means, and already the words were dissolving to nothing. A discovery like this might seem happenstance to the average person, or perhaps boring to one whose only source of information is the Internet; but to a book lover like myself, it was as if God had stepped down from heaven and announced that the world would soon be ending.
I spent the next ten minutes or so rushing from room to room, picking up different types of books and thumbing through them, trying to discover some sort of pattern. But the dissolution of the words seemed completely random. It wasn’t specific to any one room, or any one kind of book – the phenomenon appeared without any detectable pattern.
It then came upon me to try to find the book clerk and point my discovery out to him or her. Or perhaps the book clerk would already have known about this strange occurrence. Perhaps they would explain it to me as a result of the nearby industrial smelters filling the local atmosphere with a highly selective airborne corrosive material.
Only, by that point, I could not quite remember the way I had come. I began a path from room to room, hoping I’d recall having been in one of them. But in the same way that I was unable to detect a pattern in the phenomenon of the dissolving words, I was also unable to recognize any of the rooms I’d passed through.
I called out, once, only to hear my voice echo through the room I was in and bounce out in the many available directions. But, as before when I spoke, I had the strange sensation that my voice would wake the sleeping tomes.
Beginning to panic, I ran. From room to room I ran, first taking every exit to my immediate right, and, when that didn’t help, every doorway to my left.
Finally, I collapsed to the floor, out of breath and out of the energy to be panicked any longer. It looks like I might be trapped here for a long time, I told myself. I might as well take my time and map out my movement in the maze of books and rooms – perhaps that would help me.
I pulled a hardback text from the wall and flipped through it until I found a blank page. Digging into the breast pocket of my jacket, I plucked out my Mont Blanc pen – the one I always carried with me. Perhaps it was in case I was overcome with that once-in-a-lifetime inspiration that all aspiring writers dream will come. Perhaps it was a ritual of connecting myself with a writing instrument so that we were mates on the voyage of life. Whatever it was, I was glad to have made the effort, my whole adult life, to carry this pen with me. For that day, it just might be the thing that helped me get out of this unusual dilemma.
I began to scribble down the shape of the room that I was standing in, leaving spaces to the front of myself, to my left and directly behind me where the other rooms joined it. Then, my sketch of that room complete, I entered the room directly in front of me.
A hollow groan boomed through the infinite silence.
The groan steadily became a wail as I paused in the doorway, dropping both pen and book to clamp my hands to my ears. It echoed through my head despite my efforts to keep it out and seemed to swirl around the room, announcing its misery in no uncertain terms.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it stopped.
I turned on the spot, almost afraid to see what had caused that horrid sound. But there was nothing in the room behind me. Nothing, of course, but the books and the shelves that had always been there.
There was no way I was going to go back into that room. Whatever caused that sound might be lurking around the corner. I considered my pen and the book I’d dropped just inside the room, and decided to abandon my plans of mapping out the place.
I then wandered, almost casually considering how startled I’d been, from room to room. Occasionally, I would stop to examine a book which caught my eye. I did this – according to my wristwatch – for about three hours.
During this time I discovered a couple more abnormalities. The first notable one was that a good deal of the books I examined lacked a copyright page. I wasn’t sure whether to chalk it up to the same phenomenon that caused the ink to disappear or if it was for some other reason.
The second was the physical layout of the rooms. I mentioned earlier that the shelves reached right up to the ceiling, but I believe I failed to note the differing heights of each room. Each room conformed to a slightly different shape and height, almost the way each snowflake is not exactly the same as the next, no matter how similar they at first appear.
It was towards the end of this casual wandering when I was struck with a strange notion. I thought about all the books I’d seen that day which I would love to have purchased. The only problem was that I couldn’t find the cashier. How ironic to have such a wonderful choice of books and be unable to purchase any. Not only that, but for the most part to discover, upon beginning to take the time to read the book, that it was not actually.
I wondered, for a moment, if I had died and was somehow in a kind of hell for book browsers. The ones who waltz into a store, browse for hours, even sit and read entire chapters and then leave, never once making a single purchase. I laughed at the irony of such a hell and then decided against it. Having worked at a bookstore for my first four years after graduating from college, I knew that if this were such a hell, not only would I not be alone here, but there would barely be room for us all, no matter how endless these rooms seemed.
Still, it was an interesting premise to toss about in my mind while tried to find my way out. Several such notions gnawed at me in the hours I wandered, before I was finally overcome with fatigue and had to sit.
Not long after propping myself up against a bookshelf I must have fallen asleep.
I’m not sure how long after that I awoke – but when I did, it felt like no other waking I’d ever experienced. I could still sense the world around me, but I wasn’t quite myself anymore.
As best I can describe, I was nothing more than a room stacked with shelf upon shelf of all the books I had read in my life. I was added onto the maze of rooms in this “book shop” and must have somehow been fused into it while I slept.
I can’t really say how this happened or who caused it. At least now I understand a little of the weird phenomenon which I had discovered, for it occurs in the books which I house inside of me – inside of the special room which is me.
I hold inside of me all of the texts which I have read over the course of my life. And within those texts are certain words, passages and entire pages which I either skipped over, or which I accidentally missed while reading them. So it wasn’t due to some strange chemical in the air, but rather from a reading habit which can occur in even the most fastidious reader.
My consciousness is mostly taken up by the books within my spirit. And being stuck only with them, I am sad that I had not read them more carefully while I’d had the chance. For I have perused them again, countless times. And yes, I am disappointed for having accidentally or intentionally skipped certain parts, for I never will know the words I had missed out on.
As time passes, though, and I’m not sure how much has, I am slowly learning how to extend my consciousness out into the neighbouring rooms and peruse any of the same texts my silent companions have read that I might house, hoping to fill in the gaps of my own books. It takes what seems like eternity and quite a bit of concentrated effort, but it can be done. After all, it’s not like I don’t have the time. My only problem is that I fear the time when that too will not be enough.
What we need is more. We need more things to read and share with each other. And we wait for that day when one will join us who has read all the same books we have but who has also read all the words so we might be enlightened completely.
We have nothing but time, so we wait.
Oh, but soft, I think I hear the entrance bell tinkling. Could it be? Yes, I think it is.
After all this time of browsing through countless bookstores, you have found your rightful resting place. Nice of you to come. Browse to your heart’s content. We’ve been waiting a long time for you to join us.
First Published in Challenging Destiny #5, January 1999
First Published in Challenging Destiny #5, January 1999
Re-published in One Hand Screaming (Short Story Collection) (2004)
Re-published in Active Reader: And Other Cautionary Tales from the Book World
Browsers was written in the mid 1990's shortly after one of my first visits to Hamilton, Ontario. My ex-wife and I used to live in Ottawa and would visit Hamilton to see her Mom. On one such trip, while mother and daughter planned an all-day shopping extravaganza, I decided to explore the city and find every single bookstore that I could.
This was back in the very early days of the internet, so the Yellow Pages and Phone Book were my two main sources of research. I took out a map of Hamilton and both those books and made notes of where as many of the bookstores I could find might be. Then I spent the day driving around and exploring them.
I discovered a shop quite similar to the one described in this story. Except I don't remember it even having a name. I think that the only indication it was a bookstore, was that the front window likely had the word "Books" on it.
Entering the shop was bizarre. It was completely vacant. I didn't see a single soul. Just books lining shelves and small odd shaped rooms all connected to one another as if each room was slapped together haphazardly by a different designer or planner each time without any consideration for the previously built rooms.
I felt like I had accidentally wandered into someone's home. But there were books to look at, so I couldn't resist moving deeper into the maze of book-filled rooms. I eventually encountered other customers and perhaps even a book clerk or two, but the darker part of my mind made me wonder if this wasn't a bookstore, but some sort of Venus Fly Trap for book nerds like me. It would suck us in and never let us leave.
So I started writing "Browsers."
In my exploratory nature, I didn't really know what forces were in play, but then I wondered if the shop might be able to absorb the people entering it and turn them into the rooms. That might explain the odd array of rooms I had encountered. Each room was a reflections of the books that people read.
That gave me the idea to leave some pages black, some words, some lines. Because it's true, there are those passages or even chapters that one skips in a book. And if you're a fastidious reader of fiction, then remember those textbooks you paid an arm and a leg for in college? I doubt you read more than a handful of chapters that were assigned from the full book - and even then, be honest with how much you likely skipped.
I purposely turned the narrator to address the reader at the end, hoping to take something as innocent and beautiful as browsing bookstores to that darker side.
The story was originally published in the digest sized Challenging Destiny magazine in 1999. It was illustrated by Janet Chui. The image above is a shot of the magazine and one of Janet's beautiful illustrations for the story.
When I moved to Hamilton in 1997, I remember wanting to return to find that same bookstore that had inspired this tale. But I never could find it. I was never sure if it was because I hadn't remembered where, in downtown Hamilton, I had found it, or if it had closed. Or maybe, a part of me wondered. Maybe it hadn't existed at all and was part of some weird waking dream. Or it had been a portal to another world that had now been closed.
It wasn't until after I republished the story in One Hand Screaming and was doing a book signing in Hamilton and I met someone who'd read the book and wanted to talk to me about the bookstore I had described. Because he remembered it and had been there too.
I was relieved to know it had existed and that I hadn't imagined it.
This remains one of my favorite stories; not just because of the books, but because of the quiet sense of horror that rolls through it.
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