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The Books I Kept: Part One

When I was growing up in Rochester, NY, in the 1980s, you could drive to Monroe Avenue on the east side of the city and spend the afternoon wandering between bookstores. My friend Karen and I would make our way from the largest of them, The Village Green, to the Brown Bag Bookstore, then to Gutenberg’s Books (used and rare), and then to the feminist/lesbian bookstore, Silkwood. I bought my second-hand copy of The Bell Jar on Monroe Avenue. I still have it.

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It never occurred to me that these bookstores would one day not exist. (It also never occurred to me that I would return to Rochester and settle down here.)

Books. All that time spent at the various branches of the public library—town and city branches, and the magnificent downtown library with its secret room, an actual Narnia/reading room for children, hidden by a bookcase, which swung open like a door. Not to mention all that time spent reading at Waldenbooks. The irony lost on me, then, that it was Waldenbooks that made the mall tolerable.

The secret room is part of the Childrens Center at the Central Library-Rundel. There is also a doll collection in this room hidden behind a bookcase.
The Secret Room at the Rundel branch of the Rochester Public Library. This is the new Secret Room; the one I remember was lost in library renovations many years ago.

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In Amherst, Massachusetts, where I attended graduate school in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the one traffic light downtown was home to half a dozen bookstores: The Jeffrey Amherst Bookstore; Atticus/Albion/Amherst Books (name changes over the years); Food for Thought Books; Valley Used Books; Wooton’s; Raven Used Books. Some of these stores sat practically next to each other or diagonal from each other.

You could spend an afternoon or evening in Amherst or in downtown Northampton and wreck your wallet and load down your arms with bags of books. And I did just that, more than a few times. At some point during the years I lived there, a Barnes & Noble opened in the neighboring town of Hadley, but no one I knew actually went there.

Most of the bookstores I name above no longer exist. I tried yesterday to look up these words, a Google search: “Oh love, o loss, o world that was before!” I couldn’t find them, but these words knock around in my head.

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I went thrift store shopping with my friend Leslie in March. We were in Illinois, far from where either of us lives. We kept trying to go to one store we’d heard about, but the store was closed one day (handwritten sign on the window) and kept early closing hours to begin with. We finally made our way to another store, where Leslie tried on some clothes (she is a painter and has a great eye for color and cut), and we also browsed through books. It was an everything kind of store—bureaus, lamps, knick knacks, old glasses, dishes, sweaters, skirts, and books. Leslie found a lovely, soft, celadon blue sweater. A perfect cardigan with a small stain. The woman at the cash register said here, let me see it. She dabbed baby oil to take out the stain.

There was a small section of old books, which I ignored at first, not wanting to acquire anything else. Nothing I actually needed would be there—and this was the point—treasure hunt to nowhere, discovery, to follow our own interests through what we saw, what spoke to us in some small way. I told myself I was just looking. Leslie uses found text in her paintings and she picked up this hard cover book of synonyms, dark blue cover, which was also a kind of dictionary. The words themselves entranced us: estrangement, eternal, ethereal. I mean, that covers it, doesn’t it?

A page from Crabb’s English Synonymes (Revised Edition)
A page from Crabb’s English Synonymes (Revised Edition)

The words intrigued me, and the weight of the book, the slightly yellowed and thin paper, harkened back to my childhood, middle, and high school years, when I spent so much time in libraries. In spite of all the bookstores in town, my mother believed in libraries. Why would you need to own the book, she wanted to know, when you’ve already read it and can borrow it at any time? I couldn’t argue with her logic, but some of the books I wanted to own.

There was a book I remember, a kind of faded rose color hardcover, a YA book that I knew would end up discarded in a library sale. I wanted to take it home with me and keep it. I knew I loved it more than anyone else. I can’t remember what the book was, but I am sure I was right—that I loved it the most—because when you are that age, 10 or 11, your love is fiercest. Or so it seemed to me, without an allowance, where the most exciting thing I could think of was to borrow a book from the library and to hold onto it.

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I picked up one other book from that store in Lake Forest—taken by the bright red cover and the title: How to Travel Without Being Rich. But what was inside the books drew me in, too: the subtle (in shade) and glowing (in sunlight) perforated stamp of library ownership.

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The purple stamp; the date and inscription to a once-owner of Crabb’s English Synonymes (Revised Edition). Which came first? To whom does it belong? Lawrence A. Tucker. Or to C. Copeland, 8/31/34.

What do I miss by not seeing what is in front of me? Life can’t all be an elegy for the world that came before, when all our grandparents were alive and there were bookstores galore. But when I drive down Monroe Avenue, I see not only what is there now—the empty Blockbuster Video storefront, the ethnic clothing store I worked at in college—but also what was there. It was not a world in which all was good or simple or even uncomplicated.

Still, when I look at these books from the thrift store, see the handwritten call number (920.2 St8), I do remember the book I wish I had stolen—it ghosts back to me. That book I wish I had kept—not stolen—because I had this sense the book was meant for me, that in fact, I belonged to it and it to me. (Mom, I did not steal it.)