She: I want to buy you a good book for your birthday.
He: What would I do with a book? Buy me a new body!
--Conversation overheard between a man and a woman.
When I think of second-hand books, I think quite literally of anonymous fingers reaching out to me from beyond the grave. I can practically smell the stale breath of the book's past possessor and hear the words pass across his or her lips, buying vicarious intimacy for fifty cents or a dollar a pop. I'm talking about the way things were, when, as a painfully introverted teen in the late 1960's, I did my virgin browsing on Fourth Avenue, and when, unbeknownst to me and itself, this second-hand book Mecca was already on the wane.
Invariably staffed by a wizened old owl, himself hardly visible, perched on a stack of new arrivals (there being no room for table or chair), he might, if you were lucky, help direct you to the right pile, for the arcane inventory was locked in the folds of his brain.
But the secondhand books on my shelf derive from another source. I dug them out of a premature grave.
Down the block from where I have stubbornly plied my literary trade for more years than I care to count, the Eighth Street Bookstore, in its heyday the cherished haunt of aging Beat poets and bibliophiles, went up in flames decades ago, though it feels like the fire was only yesterday.
I happened to be on hand when the demolition men got around to clearing away the debris.
"Watch it, sonny!" one of the workmen muttered, pushing past me a wheelbarrow full of burnt books and broken glass. He dumped the contents into a huge metal garbage container parked just off the curb and broke for the day.
I reached in and plucked out the Complete William Blake.
Seconds later I was up over the edge of that great book coffin, as happy as a boy in a mud puddle, getting litera(aril)ly filthy among burnt books.
I stumbled over jagged sheet metal, former shelves and partitions, amid a hodgepodge of poetry and pornography: Sanskrit erotic verse, Fanny Hill, and Homer. Most of the books were singed but readable, with titles outlined in charcoal and price conveniently obliterated. They cost me nothing more than the effort to dig them out.
Jim, a philosophy grad student who happened by, joined me and together we set about to systematicallystrip-mining the bin.
"Kant here!" I yelled and flung Pure Reason at him.
"You want Williams?" he asked.
"Tennessee or William C.?" I asked.
In the beginning we mercifully glanced at unknowns. But sweat and greed made us choosy. And the obscure poets and thinkers went flying back into oblivion.
When a wall of psychology threatened to cave in on us we deserted the French Surrealists. Breton and Aragon, alas, got buried under Freud and Jung.
"I can tell there are a couple of book lovers here," said a well-dressed old collector with a canny smile. We helped him into the bin. He picked out a few French novels and The Whole Sex Catalogue, "for a friend," and dropped them into his straw basket. "Always find the best things in the trash," he winked, climbed back out and rode off on his bicycle.
"Any occult?" a woman called to us from the sidewalk.
"Come in and look for yourself!" I said.
The passersby got wise. By sundown the bin was as crowded as any bookstore, with browsers demanding: "Where's yoga?" or "How about art books?"
I loaded my haul into a one-wheeled shopping cart and dragged it back to my place. A little girl stopped me on the way.
"What you gonna do with all those books?" she asked.
"Read them," I said.
So the City swallows up its treasure. Life goes on.
After the fire, plywood planks replaced a once book-laden window display. Overnight the new wooden wall was covered with posters announcing upcoming events. The events took place. They too were forgotten.
A writer in multiple modes, including fiction (A Modern Way to Die), drama (The Tattooed Man Tells All and Burning Words), and translation (most recently, Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist), Peter Wortsman, the recipient of the Beard’s Fund Short Story Award and The Geertje Potash-Suhr Prize of the Society for Contemporary American Literature in German, was a Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in 2010. Also a widely published travel writer, his texts have appeared four years in a row in The Best Travel Writing 2008 - 2011. He is also the author of a new series of short e-Books: “The Urban Nomad – Paris” and “The Urban Nomad – Vienna.”