The comfort of books

There has never been a time when I did not love books.

Growing up in my small rural life, books were my window to the wider world. I explored the streets of Paris with Dupin, the alleys of Victorian England with Sherlock Holmes, swung from trees with Tarzan, and visited brave new worlds under the tutelage of Isaac Asimov.

The tiny library in the town 7 miles away from my parent’s house filled my childhood hours with adventure and excitement. It was there I was introduced to dinosaurs, knights, and Druids. The way it smelled, the lighting, the posters on the wall, the massive oak desk with Ms. Lee behind it, glasses on a chain around her neck. The whole gestalt of it all felt like magic.

No, it felt Holy.

Later, as an adult, I would go through a horrible divorce (is there truly any other kind?) and quit my good job and buy a paperback bookstore in Midtown Memphis. It was my act of rebellion, my following the admonition of Wendell Berry to “So, friends, every day do something / that won’t compute.”

It was, I would later say, a great way to go broke slowly.

I watched my income drop by $80,000 year over year and went from living in a large apartment overlooking the Parkway to a tiny attic room over a friend’s office. I delivered pizzas at night to support the bookshop and me. I entered into all sorts of ill-advised romantic relationships with art college students who loved the romance of a bookshop. Later I would learn that addicts often slept with their dealers. I leaned into the Bohemian existance of a man in his early thirties who drank wine from boxes, listened to jazz piano, walked to work, and read. God, did he read.

Books saved me during this time. Every moment I was at home, in my tiny attic room, I had a book open. I read poetry. Complicated fiction. Magical Realism. Sci-fi. Biographies of all the major Beat writers. I read that Truman Capote said that Kerouac wasn’t writing – he was typing. I loved that, so I read all of Capote.

It was an intense year.

I opened the shop at 10 Tuesday through Saturday. But I’ve always been an early riser, so I would find myself at the store around 7:30 many mornings, drinking coffee and sitting on the couch in the middle of the store, surrounded by books.

The shop had large windows that faced North, giving good, soft light throughout the day. In the early mornings, the edge of the sun would peak through, casting light across the shelves. Motes of dust would drift lazily through the sunbeams, and Monk would play on the 80’s era jam box I hid behind the counter.

During these times, when the stack of bills on the counter went unopened – when I could briefly not think about the many people I had let down, the rural life I had walked away from, the marriage I had walked away from, the careers I had walked away from. When I could just stop walking away and just be, on that couch, surrounded by thousands of books. It was then that I felt the way I always assumed a better person than I would feel in church.