Establishments that sell used books mean one thing to me as a reader and something else entirely as a writer.
I've been a bookstore habitue since high school but didn't discover used-book shops (or is it shoppes?) until college. Now I can't stay away from them. No other type of place in my experience has offered excitement and tranquility in equal measure. No other type of place has so transported me.
The thrill of discovering a beautifully written, bound, and/or illustrated book is a thrill with shimmering edges that never go dull. Add to this the unexpected, occasional joy of easing the covers apart and finding an old bookplate or bookmark, a flattened four-leaf clover or rusty rose, a Victorian calling card or WWII ration coupon. The crispness of the text in a seventeenth-century volume is astonishing. Each letter has visible depth. The yellow brittleness of some twentieth-century paper is poignant. Leaves flake at the touch.
When I started writing, I saw older books -- some of them, anyway -- in a different light. Because I haven't lived in or near a large city in a while, I've been getting used books at resale shops and library sales. It's at the former that I've found row upon row of the Forgotten.
The Forgotten are usually novels with modest bindings, missing dustjackets and, often, the former owners' signatures scrawled on the inside front covers. (Sometimes, on a rear flyleaf, you'll even find a penciled grocery list.) They were written by women with names like Helen Constance Wiggins and men with names like J. Henry McElroy--names sturdier than the authors' books and reputations turned out to be.
Every time I see one of the Forgotten, I feel a drizzle of sadness. And I smell the unmistakable odor of kinship. I imagine how Mary Kelmsford Johnson must have felt when she got that letter of acceptance from her publisher -- how her pride swelled, how her future suddenly blazed with brilliant promise. She'd become an AUTHOR. People would read the words that flowed from her heart and take those words into their hearts. She would leave her mark on history . . .
How seldom it turns out that way. For every William Faulkner or even Louis L'Amour, there are untold hundreds of Bertram R. Youngbloods and Margery D. Pilsmeyers. Their legacies are books with cheap, scuffed brown or blue bindings, sans dustjackets, languishing on resale store shelves. Not a single shopper is willing to fork over a dollar, or even a quarter, to read their once-precious words.
So here we are, a whole new crop of hopefuls, wondering if we should make book trailers and invest in refrigerator magnets to help our stars shine brighter. Here we are, waiting with crossed fingers and bated breath for our accolades, our five-somethings reviews and bestseller rankings, each time our words appear before the public. And when that recognition doesn't come, we feel the breath of Helen and Bertram and Margery stirring the hair on our napes as they whisper, "Don't worry. Someday your work will be welcomed. We've reserved a place for it in our aisle."
What a profoundly humbling adjustment in perspective.