paperback writer

If you’ve never been inside a second hand shop, there are things you must know. To the untrained eye, the disarray of what might just look like a collection of “other people’s crap” (as my dad would say) can be summed up as complete sensory overload.

I see something else, though. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had an appreciation for old things; things with stories behind them. I like to think of the worlds they might have once lived in before they began collecting dust; before they landed along the shelves of consignment shops and antique stores; displayed under white tents at flea markets.

Did someone love them once? Or were they only arbitrary items tucked away in rooms rarely visited? Is anybody wondering where their old toys went? Lost jewelry? Woven throws, hats and scarves?

More than the furniture, art and apparel, my favorite thing found in places like these are books. There is one corner mom-and-pop shop out in the country near my childhood home. I meander in every few months when I’m back visiting. There is something endearing about the clutter of that place: the stacks upon stacks, rows upon rows, piles upon piles of hand-me-down literature. Hours of rainy day entertainment.

Understand, most of them are really just books. They were dumped in a cardboard box out back after sorting through a deceased relative’s belongings; after a spring cleaning of the family basement. They don’t all have a backstory. Many simply served as props on bedroom bookshelves. Half may have gone unread altogether.

The trick, you see, to finding the good ones is to look for the bindings that are so cracked – so tattered – you’re barely able to make out a title along the spine. The ones with covers faded from the sun; dog-eared pages, underlined phrases and corners discolored to yellow and brown. They are the ones once read by flashlight under bed sheets; on boats at sea by the lost and lonely; on cross country road trips and over summer vacations. Anything so worn down – so resiliently damaged – still legible and standing can only mean one of two things: it’s one of the best you’ll ever read, or, it held quite a bit of meaning for someone else once.

The moment you hold these paperback books in your hands, you are holding onto a piece of someone else’s life. Strangers found wisdom once on these aging pages. Transformation occurred; eyes were opened; brains expanded. The ghosts of many memories live here. Stories on top of stories behind all the intimate inscriptions scrawled on the inside covers; all the cities and homes they may have once lived in. All the people who might have once loved them.

It never ceases to amaze me that I might discover a book in a place like this that was written a century ago and find the same sense of wonder from it that a person generations before me did, too. That’s the beauty of words. When strung together in just the right order, they have the power to knock the breath right out of a person, despite what time period they might have lived in. Despite the demographic they come from.

A good book is immune to the passage of time. Just as clocks tick to the same tune all over the world, their message beats on from century to century; from human being to human being.

Some people would still call a bunch of old books, used furniture or abandoned art just another pile of someone else’s junk. Call me an idealist; a dreamer; a romantic; but I see so much more here. So very much more.


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