Obsession: Books, or, Poetry Finds Me

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In another life books framed my days. I slept with them, dreamt about them, woke to their presence stacked by the bed and in various corners throughout the house, read them, handled them, discussed their merits with friends, co-workers, beer-drinking buddies, bartenders, customers, strangers, relatives, and even enemies. Traced my fingers slowly down their spines, identified some by odor alone, others by weight and feel. Bought, sold, cleaned, lent, skimmed, traded, gave, borrowed, collected, repaired, preserved, received. Traveled to acquire more, returned home to find still others languishing in never-opened, partially read or barely touched states. There were always too many. There were never enough.

The relationship began innocently. I’ve been an avid reader since the age of five, and over the years developed a knack for uncovering uncommon modern first editions. I’d walk into a thrift shop and spot a copy of William Kennedy’s first novel, The Ink Truck, snuggling up to Jane Fonda’s workout book, for a buck. Or at a small town antique store, something especially nice, perhaps a near-fine first edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark, would leer at me from a dark shelf – $1.50. John Berryman’s Poems (New Directions, 1942) found me at a garage sale, for a quarter. Good Will yielded Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. There were others, of course. Many others.

I partnered with a few like-minded friends and opened a store, and when that didn’t work out, started my own home-based book business, which eventually expanded into a small brick-and-mortar shop, a true labor of love. And I mean labor. The forlorn space we rented was cheap and had housed for years a low-end, illicit massage parlor. Cleaning it out was, oh, shall we say interesting? I’ll never forget the furry massage table, the naked lady lamp or the various implements left behind after the joint was finally forced to close. But we hauled out the filthy carpeting, stripped and refinished the hardwood floors, fixed, painted and patched what we could, and hid what we couldn’t. It was exhausting, but well worth the toil.

My work schedule ran from Monday through Sunday, a minimum of eighty hours a week – in a seven-year period, I took off only two long weekends. It consumed me, but in the end I emerged mostly intact, a little more aware of my proclivities, of an unhealthy tendency to immerse myself wholly into an enthusiasm, to the detriment of family and friends. When we sold our store’s wares, I embraced the change; some dreams simply deplete you. But the itch remained.

Just a few weeks ago I found myself perusing an accumulation of books in a storage facility across the street from a junk shop in Llano, Texas, a small county seat an hour’s drive west of my home on the outskirts of Austin. The shop’s owner had purchased an English professor’s estate, and judging by the collection, the professor had specialized in poetry. My first thought was “I want it all,” but reason set in (I could very well imagine my wife’s reaction were I to arrive home with a trailerful of books) so I glanced over the criticism, fiction, drama, essays and biographies, and concentrated on the poetry. In the end I walked away with thirty-one books, including H.D.’s Red Roses for Bronze (Chatto & Windus, 1931), Randall Jarrell’s Little Friend, Little Friend, Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems and Questions of Travel, a brace of Berrymans – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest and Homage to Mistress Bradstreet – both the U.S. and U.K. first editions, which differ – and Love & Fame. A good haul, to say the least, but one that left me only partially satisfied and contemplating a return. But I remain resolute. So far.

As I said, the itch remains…

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This first appeared in April 2015.

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31 thoughts on “Obsession: Books, or, Poetry Finds Me

  1. I have a similar story – ended up with two book stores – definitely a labour of love, but alas, not profitable. Had to let go of most of my books when we sold our worldly goods in exchange for the nomadic life – but the itch, as you say, remains.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I would not want to even guestimate how many of my books are yet to be read … they come in much faster than I read … and even with Amazon’s speedy deliveries, there’s a good chance something else has my attention before arrival. Curious which former bookstore was once yours?

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    • I try to purchase only poetry or poetry-related books these days, but of course that doesn’t work. People recommend novels or non-fiction, and I spot interesting titles here and there, and the next thing you know I have a dozen books to read. The store was called Asylum Books. Oh, what fun, what labor, what heartbreak.

      Liked by 2 people

        • Asylum, as in refuge, or as in other connotations. 🙂 I wouldn’t trade the experience for any other. We could have continued, but when someone offered to buy us out, we took the opportunity. It was time to grow, time to get a “real” job and live a life beyond the hand-to-mouth existence of a bookseller. I’ve had many dreams set in bookstores, but never my own. Funny how that is.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! What a find! For a bilbliophile, the itch never goes away does it? I would love to have a book shop, but the logical side of me says not possible, cause not much would get sold– I would want to keep a great deal of the merchandise! So the practical me says that I am better off visiting other’s book shops, yard sales, thrift stores, etc to expand my collection! But I still dream……

    Liked by 2 people

    • It never does! The first rule of bookselling, especially in the used and rare business, is that you can’t keep the books. But truly, the joy was in never knowing what treasures people would bring in to sell, and then matching the treasure to the right buyer. I sold off most of my personal collection in those years, and have few regrets. The rarities were nice to own for a while, but I’m happy to have let them go. Oh, the books!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am always in confusion which one one to pick first out of all the collection I have and which keeps on stacking. Even I think, at times, to own a book store or something like that because at times, I can’t think of anything else than books. 🙈

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      • i have books, but i come by them after long periods. What i tend to do is re-read stuff, just read stuff till the covers wear thin, which is handy actually; you really get to know a text. i’d maybe do that with a bookstore in town, but i’d also be very tempted to keep buying & skim reading. In my limit i found a useful approach.

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        • There’s nothing better than reading a book so deeply that you KNOW it. I tend to read quickly, but some books grab me and I return to them time and time again. The more I read them, the more I know and understand. These days I know so many people getting books published that I find it hard to keep up. I try to buy them all, but often find myself lagging behind in reading. But there are worse problems to have.

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          • I will never buy a kindle because i know i’ll hoard & not get round to reading 90% of the hoard. Better to buy when i can & really get to the crux of a text.
            Not a bad problem to be stuffed with a to-read list a mile long. Just hope no one pesters you for your opinion or you could land yourself in trouble.

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  5. Those who know and love me best give me books…most recently, Peter S. Beagle’s “In Calabria” and “The Overneath”, Fiona Stafford’s “The Long, Long Life of Trees”, and Reza Aslan’s “God: A Human History”. Yum!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t want much, but books always seem to top the list. But I rarely get books for gifts, because my tastes are so eclectic and I have this habit of buying whatever I want to read whenever the whim strikes. 🙂

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  6. Oh man. I read this a few years ago and it brings back exactly the same feelings and a ton of memories of my own decade working for independent bookstores…making coffee for the Berenstain Bears one Christmas season…surprise visit from Pat Conroy in Charleston, SC… having dinner with Andrew Vachss after a book signing…the long long holiday weekends…I think the first rule of bookselling is that there is no last rule of bookselling…in some ways once you start you never stop…and the memories are always there, every time you find a special book in someone else’s bookstore. I find myself straightening shelves, facing-out books I like, all that stuff… and one meets the most interesting people in bookstores, still to this day…

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