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Vellichor

Friday, June 26, 2015

Popes Works, with a life by Dr. Johnson


Even before the door opens, a cart full of books tries to tempt me… but I know from long experience that there won’t be anything worthwhile. There’s a reason why they’re free or just really, really cheap. This is the place where failed wannabe bestsellers go to die, usually in the company of how-to books for software that’s been out-of-date for decades.

Still, I look (because one collector found a first edition of Moby Dick on a wheelbarrow outside one of those long-gone Fourth Avenue booksellers’ shops—a book that was signed by Melville to Hawthorne). I’ve never found anything remotely like that, but you never know…

Once through the front door, a second table of inexpensive books, or sometimes titles just recently added to the store’s stock. Always worth a peek. Sometimes, perhaps in an effort to justify the “rare books” portion of the store window’s “Used & Rare Books” signage, antique glass-fronted book cases hold the shop’s treasures: signed first editions; incunabulae; an unbound section of Pope’s Essay on Man; bizarre misprints—like 1631‘s Wicked Bible. I glance at these with a mixture of longing and parsimony. There will be nothing I can afford in those cases.

Further in, a wall of elegant leather-bound sets speak, in reserved tones, of opulent private libraries, lined in dark woods, and paved with thick sound-deadening carpets. These ancient volumes, wearing a patina that suggests, simultaneously, generations of care and the likelihood that they have never been read. I open one carefully, see the un-cut pages, inhale the fragrance of benign decrepitude, run the tip of a finger over the indentations of early letterpress upon ever-so-slightly foxed rag paper, then slide it back on the shelf. None of these books would satisfy anyone but an illiterate snob or his interior decorator. Who, among us, longs to read through twenty-eight volumes of seventeenth-century sermons written by an obscure pastor from an unpronounceable parish in Wales? Or pore over the military memoirs of a retired officer, recounting forgotten and inconsequential deeds in neglected corners of a long-gone empire?

These books are rare, and deservedly so.

I walk away from these shelves, respectfully—as if stepping between the stones of a cemetery, the graves filled with people I never knew, or even knew of. There may be nothing there for me, but there’s no need to be rude, either. I’m impatient to get into the parts of the bookshop that pander to my particular forms of book lust, but I’m vaguely aware of another urge, something perhaps more visceral in nature.

I ignore its implied message, and head to the alphabetically-organized shelves of favorite authors. I look to see if they have the one volume of Boswell’s journals that I’m missing. Alas, no—but they do have a better copy of the first one I acquired, and I’m tempted to upgrade. I hold off, since the day is young, my budget is limited, and I have no idea what serendipitous wonders are lurking back in the stacks.

How about TC Boyle? My living room has one shelf bulging with his books, but I’d like to replace a couple of paperbacks with hardcovers, especially the early Water Music. Alas, there are many copies of his later books, printed when his fame justified huge print runs. I’m beginning to feel a little anxious about my chances for a big haul, or maybe it’s an unsettled something-or-other in the abdominal region.

Perhaps I should have had breakfast before starting this book trek. Never mind; I’m here now; let’s see what finds are in store.

Do they have any of the four volumes that would fill out my set of complete works of John Burroughs? Not likely. I do find yet another copy of Locusts & Wild Honey—a tasty book, to be sure, but I already have two editions of it and a third would place an uncalled-for burden on already over-stuffed bookshelves.

Speaking of burdens, those complaints from my nether regions are becoming more insistent. It is becoming obvious that the problem is not the emptiness of my upper abdomen, but quite the opposite. While writers of books may be metaphorically full of shit, this collector of books is literally so.
Why don’t I ever remember to void my bowels before wading into the vowels (and consonants) of a major book hunt? For some reason, moments after entering a bookstore, the urging of my corporal (and less ethereal or aesthetic) nature begin to dictate my behavior. This has happened so often that I suspect there may be an element of causality at work.

Is it because I read in bathrooms—and all that literature is telling me it’s time to find a private place to sit and read?

Is it a variant on the gastrointestinal effects of fright and flight—the urge to empty one’s colon to ease an escape? If so, what could I possibly fear in a bookstore—finding more treasures than I can fit in my book-jammed house? Not likely, since I rarely pass up the opportunity to acquire more books.
Perhaps the urge to purge is metaphorical—my body telling me to make room before ingesting yet more volumes? Or does the smell of old books—“vellichor,” the word itself suggesting the Proustian aroma of parchment perdu—merely trigger ancient memories of reading in restrooms? Do rolls of toilet paper mimic the scrolls in the library at Alexandria?

Whatever the reason, I soon find myself in a small room at the back of the shop, seated between walls covered with old New Yorker covers, portraits of authors long gone, photos of the great libraries of Europe—a kind of sanctum sanctorum, consecrated with icons of literary lives, real or imagined. These bookshop bathrooms invariably hold a few books to distract the temporary occupants from their mundane tasks.


No longer burdened by the baser elements of my nature, I emerge fully refreshed and refocused. Where was I? 

Ah yes, “C.” 

I wonder if they might they have any Calvino or Catullus that I’ve not yet perused...

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