Selling Books in Cold Places -The Toast

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Illustration: Marissa Maciel

 I. End

Five or six years ago I stood in a cold attic in front of a hostile man with an open, empty human-sized birdcage beside me and a rustling animal sound creeping swiftly around behind me. He asked me to explain something about collating manuscripts and I guessed, correctly, that he did not know the answer himself and was trying to overawe me so as not to let on that my resume impressed him. I did not dare to turn my head to spy what moved, or to ask whether that massive cage had held an attic wife just lately escaped or only a small ground mammal. I don’t suppose I would have asked even if I had dared. I stood squarely on the stacks of newspapers, said a long list of words in lieu of answering the question, and ignored the sounds of the invisible prowling beast. Books are my business, creatures can take care of themselves. He made me an offer, which I accepted, and I walked out through the warehouse below with cold air and mold spores back in my lungs where they belonged. Rare book cataloging is where, when I have to go there, they have to take me in.

I got that job, the third and final dying phase of my bookselling career, by writing to strangers and asking for a position until one of them gave it to me. I had been warned away from this “huge operation, run by a megalomaniac” by a kindly book dealer with a grudge. Is it such a warning, really, to be hated by other booksellers? I reasoned. Booksellers will hate anybody. Another insightful man told me later that the owner was a bad man, but not smart enough to be a dangerous man. I heard the warnings and wrote to the megalomaniac just the same and he did very well by me. I expected to float around the shop floor but he installed me in a remote storeroom full of prints butchered out of art books by inept surgeons, set me to cataloguing, and put the word about that I was to be “taken care of,” which turned out to mean only that the others were to be nice to me and not at all that I was to be killed.

As I say, I wrote to this stranger, this charlatan and fraud and purported misogynist, in full knowledge of his reputation, to beg an undeserved favor now that I was out of work, out of money, and out of luck. It was my last and only chance to stay in the new city where I’d come running away from Indiana with no prospects, and it worked; I had only postponed the question for so long because I’d known the answer must be Yes. Some things can’t fail.

In bookselling, and in no other sphere of my life, I do believe in divine Providence. Bookselling is a petty god but I am its favorite. I come from a long line of religious maniacs and I am righteous, not as I am an American, by an accident of birth, but as I am an atheist, by the grace of God. When I walked into that last interview six years ago, bookselling had already broken my back, but I didn’t know it yet; the collapse was delayed years past the trauma. And any way, one crippling injury in exchange for several years of a pure right spirit is not too high a price to pay. A woman of the intense Protestant sect that formed my mother’s people died with these words on her lips: I have found the one right way.[1] If I had been crushed under a book press or frozen to death in an attic annex or fallen to the Mouse Queen in that final battle all solitary catalogers fear, I would have said the same thing.


II. Digression

Modern people understand certain types of American religion very well, which stands in the way of explaining to them the types they don’t understand. Talk about a religious childhood with few books and no secular music and they will start to think about snake-handling and sweaty tent revivals and Jesus camps, you can’t stop them. That’s all nothing to me and my terrible Northeastern forbears.

When I say my mother was brought up in a tiny intense Protestant sect, I mean she was brought up by a people who ate up and were eaten up by their own consciences to such a heroic and insane degree that, to my knowledge, there were associated with them no abuse scandals, no hoaxes or scams, no novel heresies, no excessive poverty and deprivation, and no line of prophets following on the founder. There was only a small group of Christians who, for a generation or two, met in one another’s homes and interrogated their own guilt before the Lord and prayed to be saved, and then prayed to recognize that they were already saved, which is the only mechanism by which one may be saved, and then prayed to stop sinning, and then prayed not to be arrogant in the knowledge of their freedom from sin, and then prayed not to fall into the error of believing they had not sinned, and then prayed not to die in the depths of their sin and go to Hell, and then went to bed. There was also some singing.

If you try to look up this group in the indices of history books, you will not find them in The Burned-Over District and you will not find them in Upstate Cauldron.  A readership enticed by the Oneida Sex People and the Upstate Spirit Business and all the prophesying and revivaling and spiritism that made the Psychic Highway what it was will never miss them. If you search diligently, you can find a solitary reference in a 1903 obituary for the founder’s widow, which reads as follows:

Mrs. Dunkle’s husband achieved some fame as the founder of the strange religious sect known as the Dunkleites, who were better known a quarter of a century ago, but which have as a sect practically passed out of existence.

This is not quite right; that earnest group of religious maniacs had not altogether died out by then, as I have personal reason to know.  In 1903, my grandfather, nephew of George Dunkle’s most fevered disciple, was twenty-eight; my grandmother was six years old; my mother was thirty-three years away from being born; and I did not exist at all except as you may believe that I was already and eternally a diabolical twinkle in God’s all-seeing eye. The problem with a sect that meets quietly in the houses of its slowly aging members, that holds with no churches, no musical instruments, no boasting, no vanity, no idolatry, and no glorification of the flesh, is that it can be difficult to tell when it is all the way faded and dwindled and when it is just holding very still and thinking holy thoughts.  Hard, I expect, even for the believers to tell.

My mother was born late into the third and final generation of Dunkleites, thirty-six years into the last century. Her father, my grandfather, died when she was ten; some years before that, a tractor had thrown a stone that hit him in the head and left him with twitches and fits and blank silences: an old man one did not want to be left alone with.  I imagine that he could still be with God when his brain was quiet; but if he had still been leading worship in his own house, this put a stop to it. My mother’s childhood was a Silver Age, god-wise: her siblings, all much older, had been thoroughly made to believe and the effects never left them, but by the time she was born some fifteen years after them, the 20th century had taken firmer hold on my grandparents and anyway, they were too tired.

I can readily imagine most aspects of my mother’s early childhood – the taciturn hired men, the pet rabbits that ended in cooking pots, the summer children taken in to board for extra money, the gruesome farming accidents, the absolute unacceptability of lying under any circumstance, the disapproval of any music not made by a human throat for the worship of God – and I do, often. YOU wouldn’t have been able to stand it was the moral of most of her stories and I am sure she was right. When my mother was alive and I wanted to feel close to her without having to speak to her, I’d get drunk and read the Old Testament. It’s a good time.

But making you, reader, feel close to my mother is a more difficult proposition. What it is to grow up an intelligent child of an intelligent family with some real respect for learning in a farmhouse with only one shelf of books and half of them bibles is something few women alive may understand.

I personally am the product of a different kind of household where, though forbidden televisions and pierced ears – not so much from stubborn principle as to give me something forbidden to focus my energies on that fell short of heroin and grand theft – I had full and unrestricted access to scores of full bookcases. But lying behind all this abundance was that single shelf I never saw.

One of the books on it, I know, was Thirty Years in the Church of Rome by Father Charles Chiniquy, which is a narrative of that priest’s voyage from the solitary shores of Kamouraska to the Papist thickets of Illinois and his eventual deliverance from the Mother of Harlots. It was to my mother’s childhood what the D.H. Lawrence and Belle Epoque erotica stored on the high shelves were to mine.[2] One was 100 Greatest Loved Poems of the American People, or some such title, and was the reason my mother and all my aunts could pour out unwanted Eugene Field on you at any time; one was my great-great-aunt Carrie Kirkham’s tract, Seeking and Finding the Way from Earth to Heaven, a memoir of her liberation from the unscriptural doctrines of Wesleyan Methodism into salvation at the hands of God; one was a hymnal; and more than one, I trust and believe, was a Bible. The Good Book: and I suppose in the company of its fellows on that one shelf it must have seemed like a very good book indeed.

I could, if I cared to, describe my early adult life as a petty but principled rebellion against my parents’ choices: them, with a long string of practical, mathematical and scientific interests deeply hateful to my temperament; I, descending from art school to Classics to assistant book-dealing, leaving each liberal art behind as it threatened to become profitable or, at least, livable. But my mother was unwilling to cultivate anything but an attitude of extreme respect for my book years. I tried to rile up at least some anti-tradesman sentiment in her famer’s daughter’s heart, but I failed. I imagine she felt as you’d feel if you’d struggled heroically from poverty to wealth and surprised your daughter nonchalantly swimming through a vault of gold coins. You don’t quite like that kind of profligacy, you didn’t bring them up to that sort of behavior, but it is a wonderful sight to see someone take riches for granted; there is a certain splendor to it.


III. Beginning

In the beginning, I worked in a used bookstore and loved it very much. I had fallen out of graduate school and fallen into temping, and had not yet thought of anything between these extremes of misery and degradation that I could do with myself. Here my eyes were opened to a whole hidden world of useless and unprofitable employment: the third thing, as Housman says in Stoppard’s play, when you thought there were only two.

I passed a test to get the job, a child’s dream of a test: take this long list of authors and write down a title for each one without stopping to think, to prove you’ve read everything. You got the second-highest score in the history of the bookstore; good. Are you willing to pet the bookstore cats? It’s part of the job. Good. No, I don’t have any use for your references. Start tomorrow.

Here, I sat behind a counter, alone in the store most days, with a baseball bat and a cat, the one to throw at shoplifters and the other to hit them with. Here I was trained in the art of buying by a brilliant woman who soon left us and went west to keep bees. She had been struck in the head by lightning once, she told me, but I don’t believe that can have been the only reason she worked in a bookstore.

Here is where I took a quiet young man up the creaking stairs to unlock the cabinet to look at our Lesser Key of Solomon – a expensive thing you can get reprints of for as cheap as you please, but he did not please, or did not know – and every day for a week he came back with a friend, then two friends, then three and four quiet young men to see the Lesser Key of Solomon. Are you intending to purchase it? the owner asked gently. I don’t like to have my time wasted by idlers, said his eyes, and probably his mouth too. Oh yes, they said. We only need to see it and think on it some more. We are poor, but serious; we are all going to buy part shares in the Lesser Key of Solomon, we have only to bring in a few other fellows.  They never asked to be left alone with it, but perhaps it found a way around that. One day none of them came; they were never heard of again. I never heard that we sold the Lesser Key of Solomon to anyone else, and I would have heard; but all the same, when it came time for me to leave, it was not there anymore.


IV. Middle

In the middle of the night, a car explodes.  Bright lights and gouts of steam and smoke rise up to my window and I find my glasses and go look out. I don’t drive, never have, and know as little as I can about the automobile and its habits, so it seems natural enough to me that one should tear itself apart in a spontaneous self-hating eruption. What seems less natural is that none of my neighbors are appearing. No house lights, no voices. I suppose things must explode in Indiana everyday. Now assembled policemen and fire persons have come; they poke at the car’s smoking husk as they giggle like schoolboys; now little pinging noises of metal cooling and flexing follow me back into sleep.

In the morning, I cross the street and find nothing there, only a darkened patch the size of a car, with a few tiny, twisted pieces of a metal strewn about. I take one to prove that it was not only my dream that exploded. I have it still.

I am here in this terrible land of Indiana in the hopeful year of 2008 because I was led astray by lies and false promises, but also by extreme stupidity. If you see a job post written as a lure and a promise only to you and for you, you have to answer it, just like the small boys in The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet read the classifieds and go running to put their fates in the hands of Space. When you solicit a bibliographer with expertise in classical and Romance languages and experience in the rare book trade, I can’t not answer, I’m not made that way. They took me seriously and hired me swiftly from across the country, which would have told me everything about what was coming, if I’d wanted to know.

So, tempted away from my idyllic first bookstore by the promise of climate-controlled, hushed offices and days filled with unhurried research and careful handling of delicate materials, not to speak of a living wage, I am delivered instead to an uncooled and unheated warehouse, coated in grime to my elbows and eyebrows, throwing books from one pile to another, saving some few but delivering most to destruction. I am in the Antiquarian section, so-called, and I am what passes for an expert there – that much is as promised. They pour in at the loading dock, unwanted and mostly garbage books, donated and de-accessioned from libraries in every corner of the world, and go out again through the terrible Internet as fast as we can send them. It is a graceless and ungentle life.

The essential skill here is to go through a massive pallet-full of books, a thousand pounds of them, flinging them wildly into the recycle bins, fast – faster – faster! in a steady rhythm so as to keep up your processing numbers, saving out only those few of value or interest. You don’t discover value or interest by looking inside each book, or by looking at the title page only, or the spine only. No time! Go faster! You have to do it by feeling with your filthy fingertips and knowing. An Actual Librarian, hired with me, was fired a small time later because he could never rid himself of the coward’s urge to give a fair hearing to every book – to gaze, read a few pages, consider, consult a reference book. It went hard with him to judge worthlessness at a glance, at a touch; he thought, I think, it should be a harder decision. Even sometimes he would go to the discard bins to have second thoughts, looking back over the condemned like Lot’s wife.

I could tell you how to look up first edition issue points, if I wanted to bore you, but I couldn’t tell you the technical process by which I reach unerringly into a great cardboard vat of worthless, featureless, coverless, ex-library science fiction hardbacks on my first day and pull out the blank body of a first of Olaf Stapleton’s Star-Maker, like the blinded Cyclops feeling his sheep for Odysseus hiding underneath, but finding him. Or I can tell you: you can do this pretty well by reading all your life, by spending time with books and getting to know what is commonplace and what is unexpected, but that requires thinking, and thinking requires time. To be as good as I was you need peerless, perfect instincts.

Books came in on us in phases, in changing moods with the seasons, as every one of our academic donor libraries would decide suddenly and simultaneously that a fashion in reading had passed forever and cull its holdings like the angel of death passing over. I know the day and the hour when the Director of All Libraries decided that no one would ever read Warwick Deeping or Osbert Sitwell or any biography of Margot Asquith ever again.

(I suppose in reality it was a lot of individual library directors independently consulting the Brazen Head that answers Yes and No to all questions you put to it. I know really there isn’t any Master Director of All Libraries deciding, I don’t need you to tell me it is all done by isolated petty functionaries each with his own yearly audience with the dreadful head. I know how libraries work.)

I have to buy a special brush for scrubbing the soot and grime of the book vats from under my fingernails. I haul books around the warehouse by the ton with a pallet jack (rated for 5500 pounds!) Nobody tells me to push with my legs instead of pulling with my back, and I am certainly not intelligent enough to work that out on my own, so in two years my spine will have ruptured in three places.  I may or may not have broken a bone in my left foot by running a hand truck over it.

There are consolations. I find Tim Lahaye’s personal copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, covered through with eager pen scribbles and exclamation points.[3] I find a vast store of vintage pornography, stuffed hastily into a box along with twenty giant volumes of the American Review of Tuberculosis:[4] Seven Men in a Barn (A Manhard Book)! Fun Down on the Farm in Old Missouri! Lord of the Flys! Pulling a Boner! I find a lot of Little Nemo in Slumberland in the recycle bin and rescue all of it. Harsh pricing metrics condemn many brave books to death. The first four volumes of Stith Thompson’s folklore motif index come home with me; I read through them as though they were novels, I find them helpful to classify the narrative progress of my life.

J2093.3. Fool ignorant of value of jewel throws it away. J2461.1.2.1. Literal numskull sings entertaining songs on approach of death. D719. Disenchantment by rough treatment – miscellaneous.

Long days in the book mines are made longer by my daily seven mile walk through clouds of locusts and, sometimes, driving rain and lightning and thunder. I have an umbrella but it makes no difference because the rain goes sideways. As I walk to and fro, terrible signs and portents gather around me. In the dark dark mornings, garage doors open by themselves when I walk by. After it rains, mushroom rings appear by the side of the road three inches tall, overnight.

Sometimes when I walk home at night, the whole town smells like fire.

It is into December before I buy a winter coat, because how soft does a person have to be to wear a coat when it is within ten degrees of freezing. In the warehouse, it is even further from freezing, easily fifty degrees. Or even more! The weak ones huddle at their cataloging stations in mufflers and gloves, but I am strong, like a walrus. I have started to think about escaping, but I am having little success with the phone interviews I manage to get.  Maybe you talk too fast, says a helpful person.  Maybe you listen too slowly, I say. I make a great effort to emerge from the present tense, it’s what keeps me here.

One week, we were paid a visit by an antiquary from Ypsilanti with a careful moustache and a quiet brown suit and some well-polished shoes that the dust cringed away from. I asked him how a person goes about becoming a book dealer of his sort – that is to say the picturesque, gentlemanly, mysterious, quaintly well-dressed and -manicured kind that would be played by David Straithairn in a film adapted from a Donna Tartt screenplay about money and regret – when one has already figured how to be the shifty, prematurely aged, poverty-stricken, uncombed kind.  He gave me a useful and well-articulated answer which I wrote down on the spot so as never to forget it; here is what he said:  “Have money!  And lots of it!”

Even now I make half-hearted gestures at aspiring to this kind of picturesque lifestyle, at pursuing the rarified end of the trade where you dress well and consult for international auction houses and travel to Rotterdam and Bruges to broker deals for reclusive collectors. I ought to be well-suited to it; I can read Greek and Latin and French and German and stare at people until they become uncomfortable; I can research and catalogue and cater to the wealthy and eccentric and I am quite sure that if my livelihood depended on it I could polish my shoes and tailor my suits as well as anybody. I’ve forgotten a lot of what I used to know, but I could lower myself to go to the Rare Book School for a summer or two and train alongside librarians, the natural enemies of books. I’m a tolerant woman.

The problem is only that my great gifts are for the low end of the world, for closing my eyes and pulling a gold ring out of a heap of garbage. I think I would not thrive in a space where everything I touch is worth a great deal and nothing is hiding. I like a book to be a secret that reveals itself only to me, because – I said this back at the start – it loves me best, because I am its favorite.

The great text on what it is to be a favorite is the Book of Job, which happens to be my favorite book of the Bible and one of my favorite books just generally. As a text about human misery it has particular application to Indiana and in fact the most famous passage in it speaks directly about that place and my sojourn in it. You probably know the verses:

Behold, the sight of Indiana is in vain; shall not one be cast down at the sight of it? Was it thou [says God] who set the vacuum cleaner repair shop on your right hand and the Pleasureland Museum on your left and fixed you between them? It was I who made Leviathan and bade your plumbing freeze till it burst; I who set Behemoth under the shady trees and set the mice to squeaking in your stove and stocked the drugstore liquor aisle with schnapps of every color and no whiskey. Everything under heaven belongs to me.

Interpreters have some trouble with this passage, but I have always found it very clear.

I made some efforts to thrive in the wasteland – I walked one day to the South Bend farmer’s market and bought some cardamom pods from a woman who, when she had finished with me, turned back to the previous customer to resume her sales pitch for cow shares–that is, buying shares in a cow. In spite of being what you might call the supreme interested party, the cow in question was not present for the haggling. I would venture to doubt whether the cow even knew the transaction was taking place.  All those of us whose decisions are made for us by invisible powers must determine whether we are like this cow or like Job: that is to say, whether our sufferings are incidental to the transactions of the mighty or essential to them.

And even God’s favorites can finally have enough. On my walk home from work one day, I find a spine. I am not incorporating a fine figure of speech, please understand, I am not telling you that I found my backbone in the idiomatic sense, I am only speaking of just a regular old spine by the side of the road.  Is it human?  Well, I am a bookseller, not an anatomist, but I don’t think so.  Indiana is a land incapable of metaphor, so I take this repulsive and typical discovery for a symbol[5], offered directly to me as a personal message. Indiana speaks, Indiana says:

Get out. I exploded a car under your window and you would not go, I hit you with a car and you would not leave, so I have resorted to more subtle omens, but subtlety is not my strong suit, I think you know. These signs I have written on myself in letters of fire, you crawl in book-pits all your waking hours, you have texts under your hands always but you WILL NOT READ ME. I sent you a giant black dog loping past you in the early hours of the morning that changed into a black van when you looked at it straight on, I thought that was some good work, a really well-done omen, I was proud of myself, but you decided you merely imagined it. Should I send a rain of blood, a plague of locusts, another truckload of college boys careening past you to bellow obscenities and pretend to swerve at you as you struggle along the edge of the road? Would that help?

And I say to Indiana: No, that wouldn’t help. It’s all right, I was leaving anyway.

And then I left the Middle West and its deceptions far behind and ended up, after some struggles, where I began telling this: in a better place, out of the depths and into the attic, working for a better monster. I took a lot of books with me.


V. Post scriptum

My mother told me once that when she worked in a nuclear reactor facility you had to wear a badge with a film on it so they could check your radiation levels now and again; this was in the Past, before Safety. She and my father both worked in places like that for years and years, so I assume I am fairly radioactive myself. This accounts for my special powers, my perfect instincts, probably. They don’t make a dosimeter that will tell you when you’ve had enough exposure to old books, so you don’t know when you’ve had enough, only when you’ve had too much.

Now it is some several years later, and I work in an ordinary office with no allergens or carcinogenic solvents or slippery metal stairwells or unheated mice-ridden back rooms or ominous empty cages big enough for unruly booksellers. No one wants to show me their Nazi memorabilia and ask me what it’s worth; no customers climb ladders to hurl abuse and my own stock at me until the authorities remove them to police custody and, eventually, what used to be the Steilacoom asylum; no unbearable teenagers in top hats try to barter sprigs of holly for paperbacks; nobody brings me to the houses of the dying to carry away their libraries or, worse, to decline to carry them away; nobody shouts at me about why Velikovsky isn’t shelved with Einstein where he belongs. I have fallen out of favor with the great powers. All I have is clean hands, clear lungs, health insurance, a little respect and a lot more money. I don’t sleep very well, but I never did.

A used bookseller is a collector and a sorter: dependent, mostly, on the thoughtless leavings and discards of others: a scavenger and parasite, the wasp in the fig. It isn’t a bad way to be. You are a frightening creature and your pleasant surroundings are killing you, but you like to be there. The last time I went to a used bookstore, here in DC, I saw a frowning girl behind the counter, wearing her leather jacket in the warm indoors like an idiot, with a withered old man next to her explaining something about record-keeping and price coding with great patience and no enthusiasm. She looked angry and bored and frankly in no condition to battle the Mouse Queen or let some addled book scout cozen her through his beard. I thought: There I am! I should have known that was where I left me.

When I am rich, and old, and have had enough of this world, I will go back where I most likely belong and open a bookstore, an unprofitable museum of the dead past, even though we will none of us read paper books anymore because the trees will all have died and we live on the moon. I will keep a small cat that bites; I will teach her to bite the deserving and the undeserving alike. You may come in and be as clever as you like but I will sell you no books. I have the one you want, of course I do. I knew the one you wanted before you opened your mouth. I know my business. You may enter my kingdom and touch what you find there, because I am an honest woman who keeps an open shop, but my books I will keep for myself, and drive you out into the rain with empty hands.


[1]Kirkham, Carrie. “Only One Right Way”: Religious Experience of George Dunkle and what he taught. With Testimonies From Those Who Have Been Benefited Thereby. Canandaigua, NY: Published by the Author, 1894.

[2] I found and read it a few years ago and while there is no sex in it per se, there are a lot of priests leading women and youths to corruption through their Jesuitical tricks. To a fresh and unspoiled palate that’s almost as good. Chiniquy is a great favorite of Jack Chick and features in his Tracts.

[3] If you can believe what’s written in a book. I found a signed Edgar Allen Poe once, the 1919 edition with the Harry Clarke illustrations. Signed sixty years after his death with a ballpoint pen, but signed is signed.

[4] How can it take twenty volumes to review tuberculosis? It’s a bad disease! Thumbs down! One star!

[5] A fine and pointless distinction.

Zoe Selengut is a research analyst and editor in Washington, D.C.

Marissa Maciel is a writer and illustrator.

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