The Right Book
About three miles from my place there's a used bookstore that I've spent a lot of time in. I like this particular shop because they never have what I want--but next to what I'm looking for, I always find something else that looks good. Consequently, I've ended up reading a few different novels that I never would have opened otherwise.
The employees at this place have always been extremely friendly. As I'm buying my books, I learn a few things about the authors, or I get a good recommendation on other things I need to read.
About three years ago I walked in and a new employee was behind the counter. He appeared to be in his mid-sixties, and he had a sour look upon his face. He was playing good jazz though—something raw, but not too raw. Avant-garde, but not too avant-garde. There was structure and communication going on in that music. It was the kind of music that someone who listened to a lot of Coltrane Quartet would put on in order to keep his or her ears sharp.
Now most of the local bookshops ask that you check in your backpack before you enter the store. Fair enough. But never had I been asked to do so at this particular store—most likely because the entire shop is roughly the size of a large bedroom. So as I'm looking around the store for about five minutes, all of a sudden the man curtly asked me to leave my backpack next to the counter. He's not checking the bag in, mind you, or placing it behind the counter. He wanted me to set it down next to the counter, just leaving it there up for grabs. There was something valuable in my backpack that I wasn't about to leave unattended, so I inquired as to whether their policy had changed. It had not, he informed me. This was news to me. And so we were off to a rough start.
This pissed me off. I had given this bookshop hundreds of my dollars. I threw around the idea that perhaps I wouldn't be doing that anymore—especially if this guy was behind the counter.
As a little bit of time went by I became less indignant. Every few months I'd go in there looking for some book or other. When this guy was working, I'd always get the same cold response. What was this guy's problem? And what's he so bitter about, anyway? He's got good jazz. He's surrounded by thousands of books. What else do you want?
As I kept going in there, at a certain point I decided that I'd try to connect with the guy if the opportunity ever presented itself. After all, I like I jazz. I like books too. Why can't we break some bread? But, whenever I get to the counter, even if I ask him about what he's listening to or reading, all I ever get are curt answers with that sour look.
So last year my parents visit. My Mom's an English teacher and tutor in the inner city, and she is responsible for planting her love of books in both my brother and I (which she tries to impart to all of her students as well). She spends at least half her salary on books. Her entire garage is full of stacked boxes filled to the brim with books. I had to take her to this bookshop, because I knew she'd be in seventh heaven. Sure enough, she gets in there, starts browsing the shelves, and finds a book that my Grandfather's friend had given her as a small child. The copy she found was printed before she was born. She decided to purchase the book.
As she and my dad approach the counter, I stand off a bit so the guy behind the counter won't know I'm with them. I want to gauge his reaction with some other people. Now my folks talk to everyone, and I know this guy will be no exception. My Mom inquires about the book she is purchasing. With that same sour look on his face he gives her those same stereotypical curt answers. He rings her up coldly. As we leave the store I tell her about the employee. She's more excited about her new book than anything else.
So last week I woke up, and decided that it was time to read On The Road. I crawled out of bed, went to my bookshelf, grabbed a few books that had been sitting there for years—books I knew that I was never going to read—and headed out this other huge bookshop that does used trade. After selling back the three books and getting my used credit slip, I wasn't able to find a copy of On The Road that I liked. With books like that, I'm sorry, but you have to get the cover and font right. They had a new copy with some lame cover that embodied everything I understood the Beats to be not, so I decided to tuck the used credit slip into my wallet, and save it for a rainy day. When I left the shop it was a beautiful day out, so I went for a walk.
As I headed home I found myself a block away from the smaller bookshop. Why not go in real quick and see if they had the version I was looking for? I walk in, and there's that same curmudgeon, busy at work behind the counter restoring an old book, sour look upon his face, as always.
I go to the K section, and sure enough, there are 3 different used copies of On The Road. They, in fact, have the exact edition that I was looking for. Now, broke as I am in my current state of never-ending unemployment, I certainly don't have the cash to burn on this right now. But, you can't think about cash with these types of things. You could probably even steal this particular book and go to bed that night with a clear conscience. ("You know what President Truman said? 'We must cut down on the cost of living?'")
I took the Kerouac up to the scowling man in order to purchase the novel. The man put down the old book he was restoring, and took On The Road in hand to ring it up. His face lit up.
"You know when I was younger, after I read this book, my wife and I hitchhiked from here to New York. We hitchhiked back too—all in one week. That was back when hitchhiking wasn't as dangerous as it is now," he explained.
And so we began talking at long last. We discussed Kerouac. We moved onto to other subjects like Bob Dylan's autobiography. As I left the shop the man assured me that I was going to enjoy On The Road. We even exchanged names.
Walking home I finally understood what our problem had been—I had just never grabbed the right book.When not playing drums--punk or jazz--Eric Kamm is reading books.