Monday, July 6, 2009
I am, by both natural inclination and financial necessity a cheap and miserly bastard, although I prefer the condition’s less pejorative and currently trendy nom de plume of “frugal.”
That’s why I drive a truck that’s pushing 160,000 miles, that’s why the computer I’m typing these words on is so old it has a floppy drive (really, it does…), that’s why I hold my nose and haunt the local Wal-Mart after hunting season is over hoping to score a few marked-down boxes of AAs or steel waterfowl loads and that’s why my oldest son, who asked for an engineering set for Christmas, instead received a box full of twigs, toilet paper tubes, bits of copper wire and PVC pipe left over from the construction of our house and a big container of Elmer’s glue to “engineer” it all together.
There are, however, some things I have massive trouble resisting. Classic shotguns with two barrels and nice wood, gundog puppies that beseech you with those pleading blue eyes, high-end rods and reels, custom knives, custom bows, vintage maps and travel posters, German optics, scotch and above all, books.
I should probably be thankful for that, because as much as I like all that other stuff, I mostly can't afford it. Books, on the other hand, I can usually find the coin to buy. But not just any books. No Barnes & Noble-Borders-Hastings Pay-Full-Retail for me. Nope, I like used books. Old books. Done-been-read books. Out-of-print books. Obscure books.
I know that seems a little self-immolating, career-wise, for someone with aspirations of someday writing books he fervently hopes many, many people will pay full retail for, but I can't change who I am. When you grow up hardscrabble you have no choice but to go swimming for hung-up spinnerbaits, be picky with your shots come dove season and buy used books.
And although I do buy a fair number of new books at chain stores, it just seems such a soulless way of going about it, what with the clean, wide, well-lighted aisles, cheerful staff, the faux-coziness, the local beatnik tribute band setting up in the espresso bar, the college students earnestly (and inexplicably) reading the pixilated words on their laptops while ignoring the printed words that surround them. Give me dusty shelves, tattered pages and crazy old bastard bookshop owners any day.
The problem for me, however, is that I live in a town with exactly one real, in point-of-fact bookshop, and for the most part it's the kind of place patronized by housewives, hairdressers and grannies who come in once a month to exchange an old grocery bag full of tales of busty damsels and well-hung swashbucklers for a new grocery sack full of tales of busty damsels and well-hung swashbucklers.
So I have to get my used bookshop fix whenever I return to my hometown for a few days. And it was there in a used bookshop that the difference between independent bookshops and chain stores was once again driven home to me, but in a weird and unsettling way.
But first, a little backstory: The particular used bookshop is something of an institution in my hometown. I bought my first book there when I was eleven years old. When I was sixteen I tried applying for a job and the crazy old bastard (henceforth known as COB) who owned the shop informed me he only hired girls. I tried again when I was nineteen and the COB again informed me he only hired girls.
I figured that if a vagina was what it took to get the job I probably didn’t want to work there, anyway, so I stopped asking. But other than that the COB was a decent sort - if a little pervy - and he DID always seem to employ one of those quirky-hot 18th-Century French lit major-types sporting Lisa Loeb glasses and tight shirts, so I continued buying and selling books there until I married and moved to Purgatory some years later.
So I walked into this shop a few weeks ago and there's the COB, looking exactly the same as he did when I was eleven. I'm now 38. I know he's at least feeling older, however, because instead of Lisa Loeb he now employs Cloris Leachman, an unsmiling, marmish old lady just retired from a career spent performing penal institution body cavity searches.
Withering under her severe gaze, I retreated into the shelves, where to my delight I found a book, a nicely illustrated circa 1950 Random House collection of stories by the French short-story master Guy De Maupassant. The book contained a story that had been recommended to me by F&S writer Hal Herring on one of my Field Notes blogs a few months back. So I took the book up to the counter and the COB and I started talking books.
Somehow, though, the conversation turned to fishing and kayaks, and the COB says "Hey, I've got a good kayak story for you."
So I proceeded to learn - whether I wanted to or not - that the man who had repeatedly denied my adolescent dream of bookshop employment enlisted in the Army during WWII, but by the time his training was over so was the war. The COB therefore got stationed to a remote observation post somewhere along the coast of Greenland.
There apparently weren't many women on the coast of Greenland in 1946 so one day when a party of kayak-paddling Inuit seal hunters showed up the GIs asked them to please bring women. Any women would do. Bargaining ensued and the next day the Inuit hunters brought back several kayak loads of Inuit lasses. One thing led to another, and before long there was quite a party going on in the old igloo.
At this point all I wanted to do was grab my book and get the hell out of the store. My long-held suspicion that the COB was a dirty old man had just been bawdily confirmed. I wanted no more tales of Eskimo conquest but as I ran out the door the COB gave me one last charming anecdote...
"Those igloos can get pretty hot inside, and let me tell you, nothing kills the mood like a girl who smells of walrus."
Now that's the kind of personal service and attention you just can't get in the big-box stores any more…
Posted by Chad Love at 1:58 AM