Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Books by the Bay

I was both befuddled and delighted to discover these literary riches in unlikely places. Little nooks of civility, these two small, locally-owned bookstores, tucked away in Door County where we vacationed for a week. We came upon one on our bikes, while wending our way around Washington Island. The sky was overcast, and the air freighted with fluttery white butterflies. I thought of the cup of hot chai waiting for me at the Red Cup Cafe near the harbor, and I pedalled a little harder because of it. Adjacent to the cafe, another squat building bore a sign adorned fancifully with tropical birds, whose plumage bordered the words Islandtimes Books. We had noticed this bookstore before on previous visits to the island but surprisingly, never ventured inside. Why this oversight on my part? I, who have never been able to walk past a bookstore without slackening my pace to gaze at the display window, and finally with resignation, walk inside to stay put until I'm dragged away.

In the past, I must have been so besotted by the chai -the invigorating buzz of black tea tempered by a sweet milkiness- that I remained at the cafe, resting my limbs while poring over a book I'd been reading, oblivious to the bibliophile's dream next door.

This time, after leaning our bikes against an ancient tree, we walked into the bookstore. A curious thing happend next. Something that comes over me whenever I'm surrounded by books. I can best describe the feeling by its attendant reactions: a quickening of the hearbeat, a slight rippling of the mind, and a barely-there sweatiness of the palms. All these happen, and not a drop of chai ( or any caffeine, for that matter) has passed my lips! My head swam as I scanned the titles on bookshelves stocked with works of fiction. New and old titles stood side by side. An attractive trade-paperback by MFK Fisher caught my eye, a potential read for my nascent book club. The bookstore owner looked approvingly at my choice as I carefully stashed away my new purchase and headed over next door for the long-deferred cup of chai.

There is a different kind of charm to a bookstore that primarily carry used-books. They give the impression of being quaintly cobwebbed, fuzzily eccentric, the latter quality often imparted by their owners. Wm Caxton is such a bookstore. Located on the tip of Door County Peninsula, this treasure trove is in a one-street village of Ellison Bay. I could easily conjure up a wind-swept scene, ghost-town like, of this street in its yesteryears. The dry-goods store, then as now, a hub of the community, is flanked by a gas station with pumps that look archival.

The bookstore is tucked away in this anomalous setting, presided over by its avuncular owner, a former professor of archaelogy from Chicago. Here, books on shelves groaned under their weight, every available shelf space wedged with volumes of different sizes. I wended in and out of the aisles -labyrinthine and dim. I held books, scuffed to a faded slickness from use, old editions with scribbled marginalia that I tried to decipher, passages of text underlined with a thick ballpoint. A highlighted sentence in flourescent yellow piqued a reader's interest at one time, its import I could only guess at. Years have since passed, and these books have witnessed lives, not solely confined to the words on their pages.

I gathered up the several volumes I culled from the shelves, inducting myself into the secret society of their past readers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You left out what your favorites were about. But it's ok. Just the experience of looking into the past like that is enough. I'm reminded of the virtues of Pu-erh made from ancient trees here. That's a connection to the distant past that goes back past many modern records. --Spirituality of Tea