Round and Round Part 12
[This week is the second anniversary of these Friday book stories. The first was post July 27, 2017. It is unlikely more than a few people read that first one, so we are posting it again here. It is quite short. Thanks you for reading and commenting. It great fun to get these stories out—fact or fantasy.]
If you missed it, read Part 11 of Round and Round here.
“We are haunted.”
Althea was standing in front of the sales counter in the old bookshop. Her shoulders barely rose above the wooden plane that separated the public from the booksellers who worked on the other side.
“Always has been,” Sally said softly. She was printing off the two dozen or so internet orders that had dropped in overnight.
“Books jumping off the shelves again?” the bookseller asked barely looking up from the signed Lemony Snicket books he was pricing in pencil. “They’ve been pretty quiet for a long time. I’ve almost thought that the spirit had left them or, perhaps, they had gotten so comfortable they had gone dormant. ‘Lemony’ has an odd signature. It is a blind stamp with his name scrawled across it. Trying to maintain the mystery of who really wrote them, I suppose.”
“No, in the last couple months, I have found small sections of the store disarranged. Today I found the entire Poetry section had been moved between the E and F sections of alphabetized literature! An entire bookcase of poems has TS and George Eliot to the left of it and F Scott Fitzgerald and CS Forester to the right! It will take a bit of time to put it right. No one would ever be able find the Oxford Book of English Verse with the Anthologies pigeonholed in the midst of literature by author,” Althea paused for a moment and continued, “If I could only have one anthology, that would be the one. I have told our customers that as well.”
“Do you prefer the original edition or the 1939 revision ‘Q’ did?” the bookseller asked.
“While some people feel ‘more’ is usually better, I like the 1900 edition. It is the perfect size! Even for my small hands. So many have gained comfort with that book at hand. However, there was some wonderful poetry written between 1900 and 1918,” Althea equivocated. “They are both wonderful collections.”
“Did you know Kenneth Grahame modeled Ratty in The Wind in the Willows after Arthur Quiller-Couch?” the bookseller asked.
“That is pretty obvious. Poor Q did have a bit of rodent in his features. His mannerisms at times as well. But who would do such a thing to our poetry books? And when would they be able to move all those books without one of us noticing?”
“You didn’t move poetry did you, Sally?”
Sally harrumphed and briefly looked daggers at the bookseller.
“I thought not,” the bookseller spoke. “We are not amused, are we Sally? Shall we go back and see what Althea is talking about?”
“No. I should begin pulling and packing these internet orders. People nowadays…I swanny, they want the book delivered yesterday and only want to pay pennies for it.”
The bookseller edged around the counter and followed Althea toward the sprawling Literature section.
When they were out of earshot from the counter Althea asked: “What does ‘I swanny’ mean?”
“Sally’s mom was from Alabama. It kind of means ‘I declare!’ or ‘I swear!’ In the old days, the word ‘swear’ could be considered vulgar.”
“‘I swanny’…that is odd.”
They arrived at the Literature section, and indeed on one bookcase there were 6 shelves of poetry anthologies and other generic poetry books in their own little section between the E and F sections of literature by author. It was near the middle of a long row of bookcases—not at the end or beginning of an aisle.
“I swanny…” the bookseller said in awe and surprise. “This just makes no sense. When was this done, do you think?” he added his voice trailing off softly.
“Sometime in the last few days. I certainly did not do this. Neither you nor Miss Sally would. Aurora has only been in for a few hours this week.”
“I hardly think so. We would notice someone shifting so many books. There was no void here for the poetry to be simply stocked without shifting the literature on either side.”
“I swanny…” the bookseller sighed confusedly.
“I hope that you will not be using that phrase constantly.”
“What’s where poetry used to be?”
“I have not checked. I was so surprised I came straight up front to show you.”
They both headed toward the former Poetry section without a word.
“I swanny…baby books!”
Indeed, the bookcase which formerly housed 6 shelves of poetry was now filled with baby and parenting books. There were two shelves of “what to name your baby” books alone. The new Baby section was located between the Literary Anthology section and the Literary Criticism section.
“Well, this makes perfect sense,” the bookseller continued his thought.
“Does it? I would not think any customers would be searching for a name for their baby in the Literature section.”
“I was being facetious.”
“Aah, a witticism.”
They headed across the store to the Family and Parenting section.
There were no “swannies” there. The Family and Parenting section was quite full of family and parenting books. As always. That section tended to bloat up rapidly and sell slowly. The Baby section was still about three quarters full as well. It was very neat, and any voids were filled with books facing out on display. There was even a shelf and a half of “what to name your baby” titles remaining.
The bookseller and Althea just stood there side by side staring at the bookcase.
“Please do not swanny.”
“No. I was going to say at least the trail stops here.”
The bookseller asked: “You say this has been going on for a while?”
“Yes. The last few months I have found rearrangements and other things. Some weeks ago I found 8 boxes of compact discs in the storeroom. They had all been sticker-priced quite recently and then reboxed rather than putout into stock. I might not have discovered them for months, and then they would already be on their way to being out of date.”
“What else?” he asked.
“Someone created a Hardcover Romance section in the middle of Paperback Romance. Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Janet Dailey and a few others. They had been pulled from hardcover fiction. It was only a shelf and a half, but it made no sense. The section was so tiny and remote that no one would ever find those books. The vast majority of romance is paperbacks. 25 or 30 hardcovers randomly stuck in the middle of the paperback romance monolith just does not make any sense.”
“What are you two staring at?” Sally asked as she approached. “Either of you expecting?”
“Now Miss Sally, I do not find that funny on the one hand and impossible on the other.”
Accompanying Sally was the tall Asian man, Cham.
“We’ve got a mystery going on here, Sally. Good morning, Mr. Cham.”
“It is simply Cham, please. I was inquiring about the China book. Have you located it yet?”
“I assure you, Mr…um, er…Cham, that I have never seen a copy of it here. We have your contact information on the extremely remote chance that a copy appears.”
“Althea, do you feel the book is nearby as I do?” Cham asked.
“I am afraid I cannot see it. There is a fog about it when I try. It is a very unhappy fog, I am afraid.”
“My instincts warn me I am closer than I have been for many, many years. And the Raven…”
“We will certainly be in touch should it appear. You’re welcome to look around the store. It is a very, very large book, however. It would be unforgettable should one have been shelved. That being said, unusual things do happen here with books. Why just today…”
“I shall inspect your bookstore. Again,” Cham interrupted the bookseller. “Perhaps Althea will accompany me, and we can discuss the possibilities. I have found HER to be quite helpful. It is my feeling that she understands things that you do not. I believe she understands the animals as well. There was an opossum on your porch when I arrived today. I believe I surprised it for when I ascended the steps it fell over on its side and feigned death.”
Sally said: “I’d better go check. If there’s a dead possum on the porch, it’ll scare away the customers.”
“It has awakened and departed, Miss Sally, I am certain,” Althea said. “I will look around the store with Mr…ummm…Cham. Perhaps he can tell me about his family and the book. Beyond the bird talk, that is. Maybe we can try to fathom why clues lead him here for such a rare and imposing book.”
“I’ll take Sally and show her our new mystery categories. By the way, Cham, I never asked how you got a photo of that book if it has indeed been missing for over 200 years.”
Cham chuckled. “I am afraid I lifted that image on the internet from a colleague of yours. She has it on offer on the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America website for over $100,000. I assure you I did this only for informational purposes, for your benefit. As you know a picture is worth a thousand words. Do you know we Chinese have never been credited with that adage? When we find that book, I believe that omission will be corrected. For my father told me that phrase is written on the same page as the lineage which anoints me as Emperor. He told me long ago there is other advice there of which an emperor should be aware.”
“Ummm. Right… Sally let’s go look at the Poetry and Literature sections and see if you can make sense of it.”
“Miss Sally, I believe you will ‘swanny’ when you see it.”
And so the two pairs parted in opposite directions.
Some weeks later when Althea approached the front counter again.
“We are haunted!”
At that moment, the bell on the front door clanked a little bit, and a young man entered carrying a box of books. He stepped to the counter and set the box politely before the bookseller.
The young man was dressed in worn jeans and a t-shirt. His neck to his jaw line and his arms above his wrists were covered in tattoos. Large gold earrings swung from either earlobe.
The bookseller began pulling books from a box that the young man had brought in.
“I’ve outgrown Bukowski,” the fellow was saying. “In high school and college, he seemed so radical. Now everyone talks like he writes, and it doesn’t shake or surprise me anymore. His poems seem like conversation—statements just broken up onto numerous separate lines. It doesn’t even shock or surprise my parents anymore and that bothers me.”
“What did they think about your tattoos?” Sally asked as the bookseller was stacking up the “Buks” on the counter. No one ever seemed put off by Sally’s questions. Maybe it was the “southerness” in her.
“At first they were shocked and surprised about those too. Now at Thanksgiving or Christmas, they just shake their heads and say ‘You had such beautiful alabaster skin.'”
“Bukowski sells so well,” the bookseller said. “I can give you $37 for these 19 paperbacks. None are first editions, and they all are pretty well read.”
“That’s fine, man. But could you go fifty-three in trade? You have some Robert Graves first editions, and they are really cheap. I think I could pick up a couple with fifty-three bucks.”
“‘Strawberries that in gardens grow
Are plump and juicy fine,
But sweeter far as wise men know
Spring from the woodland vine.
No need for bowl or silver spoon,
Sugar or spice or cream,
Has the wild berry plucked in June
Beside the trickling stream,'”
The bookseller recited from memory and then continued: “I just picked the last of the mountain raspberries this morning on the way in. That’s what made me think of that poem although it is late July. Not all of Graves’ poetry is that sappy. I just happened to think of it for today. His poems about women are far different than Buk’s.
“‘For a touch of her fingers
In a darkened room,
For a searching look.
Take courage, lover!
Could you endure such pain
At any hand but hers?’
Would Buk write about a woman like that?”
“Yeah, man. I know. That’s why I’m here.”
“Go pick out the Graves books you’re interested in. Maybe we can make a deal.”
The young man turned and headed out into the store.
The bookseller looked across at Althea. “I hope no one’s moved the Graves books from literature. Sally, remember that woman that worked here long ago. She insisted on putting all the poetry books in the Poetry section. Randomly. So Shakespeare and Ogden Nash and Thomas Hardy’s poetry were in Poetry instead of in Lit alphabetically with their other books. I wonder what happened to her. It took so long to put things back together after she finally left.”
“Dera!” Sally exclaimed.
“Yes! That was it. I wonder what ever became of her?” the bookseller responded a bit dreamily.
“Dera is a Celtic word, for oak tree. Was she Welsh?” Althea asked.
“No. She was dreadful,” Sally responded.
“Dera…the problems she caused. I called her the Anti-Employee. She was hired when Priscilla was getting too ill to put in all the hours needed. Then I was away so much taking care of her…Dera…”
“She was a disaster,” Sally intoned. “I tried to warn you, but you wouldn’t listen. You’d say: ‘She just needs more guidance than I can give her right now.’ She talked the talk but wouldn’t walk the walk.”
“Talk the talk? Walk the walk? What does that mean?” Althea asked.
“She looked good on paper. She had a degree in Art and Design from a top school. Her resume included stints at some excellent retailers. She talked about merchandizing and advertising and promotion. She said she wanted to move into old books. She was going to take us to the next level,” the bookseller explained.
“You were vulnerable. I couldn’t help as much as I wanted because Aurora was so young,” Sally’s tone was not so brusque as it usually was. “Remember the Sports sections?”
“Oh my God! Yes!”
“Sports?” Althea asked.
“Yes. That section was about 13 bookcases of baseball, football, basketball…with all the same subcategories. In fact it was located right where it is today. One morning I came in after being away a couple days, and Dera was standing behind the counter with a Cheshire Cat smile on her face. I told her good morning and asked if everything had gone ok while I was absent. She just smiled and nodded. There was a twinkle in her eye. In retrospect, I still don’t know if she was pleased or plotting. I checked the buys she had made while I was away, and they were fine. The paperwork was a bit sloppy. She told me she had to do some ‘forensic accounting’ to get things to balance. I’m still not sure what that meant. Sometime later that day I was taking some books out to stock and passed the Sports section. I was about ten paces beyond it when I stopped in my tracks. I turned and went back.”
“Women!” Sally exclaimed.
“Yes! Dera had placed the two bookcases of Women’s Studies smack in the middle. Football was to the left and Baseball was to the right!”
“Why that simply makes no sense. Why would anyone do such a such a thing?” Althea inquired.
“Why is the sky blue?” Sally responded.
“It would take a bit of time to explain,” Althea said evenly. “Perhaps over a cup of tea this afternoon when the buying stops?”
“Thanks Althea, I’d rather it remain a divine mystery.”
“Did she explain her reasoning?” Althea asked.
“She tried…cross marketing or some such…” the bookseller replied. “But you said something about us being haunted again?”
“Yes! Out in cooking…”
Just then the young man reappeared. He had three slim dust jacketed hardcovers in his hand. By the typography and bindings, the bookseller recognized them as books from the 1950s or 60s. From their size and configuration he presumed they were poetry—most likely the Robert Graves…
“I found three,” the young man said. “Two are $31. One is $29. Those are odd prices.”
“Sometimes he gets a little odd.” Sally indicated the bookseller with her thumb.
“I only have $53 in credit. I can pay the difference in cash. I was hoping you could recommend which two I should get. You seem to know the guy pretty well.”
The bookseller took the three books and flipped through each.
“I’ve had these quite a while. The Bukowskis will all be gone in 5 to 7 days, I’m sure. We’ll get 11 apiece for them, I’m pretty sure. We will just call it even.”
The bookseller reached under the counter and slipped out a millinery bag. He then slipped the three slim volumes into it and handed them across the counter to the delighted young man.
“Cool!” he exclaimed. “I’ll save up and come back to buy some more.”
“We’re hiring part time in case you have some free time,” the bookseller hinted.
“Really? Can I have an application? I need to ask my girlfriend. We have a kid, and we gotta make sure one of us is around to watch her.”
“Sure. Here you go. May I ask your name?”
The bookseller introduced himself and Sally and Althea.
The bell above the door made a happy silvery chime as the young man pushed it open.
“You let him take $91 on a $53 credit!” Sally chided.
“We’ve had those Graves for several years at least. If I can get a young person reading Graves, it is an act of biblio-evangelism,” the bookseller responded defensively.
There was a small but firm slap of shoe leather from the other side of the counter. Althea had stamped her foot to get their attention.
“Oh! The haunting! Althea, I’m so sorry. Do tell us what you’re talking about.”
“I am talking about trains. All the books on trains and railways have been relocated between Thai and Vietnamese cooking! And the books are all stocked foredges out!”
The three of them headed out into the bookstore. Althea led the way fairly strutting in her purposeful stride.
They stood before the cookbooks, and all were quiet for a moment. Sally was the first to break the silence:
“Swanny?” Althea whispered. “It was not like this yesterday. I was arranging the Joy of Cooking collection just before we closed. I do not understand why we stock 17 copies of the same book. Why do we keep so many?”
“Well, there are many different editions, bindings and vintages of that book here. That one cookbook can represent someone’s entire domestic life with food. It was often a wedding gift or the first introduction a young couple would have to thousands of meals to come. Not lightly does one give up one’s ‘Joy.’ When they do, it usually means the end of a household…or a life. Almost every copy here is a bit brutalized, used hundreds of times. Each stained page was a meal long, long ago. I’ve just found it hard to cull a book that was such an intimate part of someone’s domestic life—usually for decades.”
“That is sad,” Althea said. “And bittersweet.”
“Who would move the trains into cooking?” Sally asked.
“I am certain it was done overnight. While we were closed.”
“You think someone got in? The door is alarmed. We’re the only ones who know the code,” the bookseller said.
“Dera once did something like this. I came in and found every 5th art book shelved spine inward. It was…weird. When I asked her about it, she told me it was marketing. Customers would be curious about the books whose spines they couldn’t see. They would pull the books off the shelves just to discover what they were.”
“Was it successful?”
“The regulars would come in and laugh about it. New customers were just confused,” Sally answered.
“The Biography section!” Sally said.
“But we do not have a Biography section,” Althea said.
“Dera created one and put it in the middle of the Crafts and How To section,” Sally grumbled. “She didn’t even ask. One day I came in, and there it was.”
“Why do we not have a Biography section?” Althea inquired.
“Experience,” the bookseller said. “And Marketing. Long ago when I first started the little shop, I had a Bio section. Customers would come in, and if they were looking for books on Picasso, they’d have to look through biography and art. If someone came in looking for Hemingway, they would usually just go to Lit. They wouldn’t think of going to the Biography section. I decided: ‘No Biography section.’ Books about presidents would go in the Presidents section. Books about Civil War generals would go in Civil War. Books about Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton would go into Nursing. Books by and about Charles Dickens would go into Literature. It’s worked pretty well. The section of biography we had in the old days would have books about Cleopatra next to Clinton next to Cromwell next to Custer and so on.”
“There is something else,” Althea whispered. “Something much bigger.”
“Well…?” Sally asked.
“The Humor section has been moved in its entirety.”
“Where?” Sally and the bookseller inquired at the same time.
“Just over here. It is in between the Beer and Wine sections of our Spirits and Bartending section.”
These were only a few bookcases away from the Asian Cooking section which now housed Trains—backward.
And there it was. Humor was a pretty large section—2 bookcases. The Wine Beer and Liquor category was only 5 shelves. Somehow 16 shelves of humor had been placed between 1 shelf of beer and 2 shelves of wine books.
“There’s more,” Althea said with some portent in her voice. “A number of authors have been relocated into humor. Mark Twain, PG Wodehouse. Here is a copy of Tristram Shandy!”
“That’s not funny!” the bookseller burst out.
“For a couple hundred years, people have thought it funny. Many readers feel Sterne’s sprawling comic novel is a classic. Schopenhauer considered it one of the four top novels.”
“Really?” Sally asked.
“Yes. Along with Goethe, Rousseau and Don Quixote.”
“That is just not funny,” the bookseller spoke with exasperation.
“There is more,” Althea added. “The Marx Brothers, MASH, Charlie Chaplin and many other books have been moved from Hollywood to here as well. Gilbert and Sullivan too.”
“It is getting worse. This is a huge mess,” Sally grumbled. “It will take a lot of work to put this all back together.”
“There is more,” Althea spoke quietly. “I went back over the last 5 months. Last night was the full moon. These hauntings, these biblio-shenanigans, may have all occurred on the night of the full moon.”
“We are haunted,” Sally and the bookseller spoke in unison.
Weeks later, Althea entered the bookseller’s office. He had removed the gold ring from the wall and was looking through it as he rolled it between his right thumb and forefinger.
“Do you think you will ever wear it again?” she asked.
“Why do you ask?”
“I have seen you holding it more and more often in recent months. The other night as I was going out the door I remembered there was a book I had purchased. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It was the one illustrated by Edward Gorey. Gorey had signed it on a custom bookplate he had created.”
“I gave you a good deal on that,” the bookseller said.
“I know. You priced it as though it was just a reading copy.”
“You deserve it. I have a copy here signed by Eliot…somewhere… He inscribed it ‘to V, age comes upon me like little cat feet…I wish I had written that.’ I’ve always wondered if V was Valerie. His assistant and then his last wife.”
“I came back for my book, and as I passed your office, I looked in. You were holding the ring. You were facing the window. A ray of the setting sun was passing through the ring. The ray also appeared to be shining through you right through the center of your chest. It shone down and spread onto the floor behind you in a perfect golden circle. Valerie, she was much younger than he was, was she not?”
“About 38 years. You say I was pierced by a dagger of sunlight? I never felt a thing. How is your cat, by the way?”
“I believe she can read! I often come home and find a book knocked to the floor and left open. Any time when I am reading in bed, she will climb to my shoulder and watch the pages as I turn them. The sunlight passed through you as if you weren’t really there…or here…or…”
“You haven’t asked to bring her in any more. It’s Mattie, right?”
“No, Mathilda is her name. Everything is all set. Miss Sally and Mr. Tim have both agreed on the plans I have created while the expansion is being built. I have designed a space so Mathilda will be here but also not here. Everyone will be happy. Especially Mathilda. No one needs to interact with her unless they wish to. And vice versa.”
“No one told me.”
“We did not wish to bother or distract you.”
“I’m glad everyone is looking out for me.”
“The reason I came in was I went searching for Dera online last night,” Althea said. “She is a missing person. Her family said she went on a trip to Boston to visit the Libraries. She never returned.”
“That’s sad,” the bookseller said. “She had odd ideas but her heart was in the right place. I think.”
“She was mean and arrogant,” Sally asserted; she had just walked in the office carrying the cash drawer. “She took advantage of your situation with Priscilla. Sales crashed when she was in charge, and the place was in disarray. There were times I would come in to cover a shift, and I could feel the tension in the store. It was if the books were unhappy.”
“Those were tumultuous days. It seemed the whole bookshop was in upheaval,” the bookseller reminisced.
“You told me once the books protested,” Sally said.
“How would books protest?” Althea asked.
“It was as if they read the schedule. On mornings when Dera was scheduled to open, she would often complain the store was a mess when she arrived. Books would be sprawled on the floor, blocking aisles like barricades. One morning she pulled the front door open, and she said a pile of books spilled out onto her feet. A customer, a friend who was waiting in his car in the parking lot, said she went nuts and began kicking the books across the porch. She was ranting and even started tearing her hair.”
“Was that the time she pushed…” Sally started.
“Yes. She pushed one of the dollar carts off the porch. It busted. She told me it happened before she got there. The customer didn’t tell me until after she’d left he saw her do it.”
“And I am planning to spend the night here the next full moon,” Althea said.
“That’s only a few days away,” the bookseller said.
“I believe I can solve the problem,” Althea spoken softly. “I have seen this before.”