Second Story Books is your typical used bookstore—every available crevice is crammed with literature. Taking a book down from the shelf is a small act of bravery, like playing Jenga. The air is full of tiny, invisible mold spores that make their presence known as an earthy, wet tree smell. I wish some opportunistic perfumer would recreate that scent in a lab and then sell bottles of the stuff to bibliophiles like me. I love the smell of rotting novels in the morning.
My father was a chess freak in the same way that I’m a book freak. Every day after work he went to Dupont Circle, where an incongruous mix of businessmen and homeless men gathered to play. It was a boy’s club. When he took me along with him, I was the lone little girl hanging out around the tables. Sometimes the cross-set banter would get a little too crass, even by my father’s lax paternal standards, and he’d hand me a twenty and say, Baby, why don’t you go get yourself a book?
At first I’d go to Crown Books because it was right on the Circle and it had all of the pre-teen targeted serials that I was into. At age eight, I wasn’t exactly a budding intellectual. I read a lot of Sweet Valley High. Still, little suburban rube that I was, I could sense that these books were a guilty pleasure, incomparable to something like A Swiftly Tilting Planet or The Wizard of Earthsea.
As I got older I walked farther away (literally and metaphorically), down P Street to Second Story. I first read Sylvia Plath and Louise Glück on the floor of the poetry section. I found The Book of Disquiet, which I judged entirely by its cover:
I liked the photograph and I started reading and I ended up discovering my own thoughts on the page, somehow perfectly articulated by a strange little Portuguese man who died almost a century ago.
I sat and read and fell out of the space-time continuum and receded into my own internal universe. Hours later I would wander back over to the tables where my father would still be playing chess, lost in a state of hyper-focus.
So, here’s what I’ve been thinking—when I grow up and make myself a baby I plan to neglect that child on a small scale, just enough so that they learn how to explore on their own and entertain themselves. I’ll point them in the direction of a bookstore and say, why don’t you go get yourself a book? And hopefully they’ll be like I was and actually go do that and not slink away to some back alley and discover the flourishing drug scene of our nation’s capital.
Or put another way—
Mothers of America
let your kids go the bookstore.
(instead of hanging around the yard
or up in their room
prematurely since you won’t have done anything horribly mean yet
except keeping them from the darker joys)