I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land
by Connie Willis
The terrible thing about Manhattan is that all the streets look alike. And I can hear New Yorkers screaming bloody murder already, asking indignantly, “How can you say that? The Village and the Upper West Side look nothing alike, and how could you possibly confuse SoHo with Midtown?” and bleating about Carnegie Hall and Penn Station and the Met, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the streets. Especially the cross streets, though what I’m talking about applies to long stretches of Broadway and the avenues, too.
They’ve all got two or three restaurants and a deli, a hole-in-the-wall shop selling electronics, and another one selling Yankees baseball caps and Statue of Liberty pencil sharpeners and Radio City Music Hall magnets. There’s a Duane Reade and a newsstand and a branch bank or a fancy-dancy pet store or a shoe repair. And there are always hoardings, those board fences they put up around construction sites, so that you have to walk half the block between plywood plastered with ads for Metallica or Hamilton or the Sels-Floto Circus. And maybe if you’re a local you can tell the difference between Petronelli’s and Antonelli’s and Antonio’s Pizzeria, but to an out-of-towner like me, they all look as much alike as the Starbucks on every corner.
Which means even if you do happen on that great little antique store or bakery, you have no idea where it was and no way to find it again, unless it happened to be next door to Radio City Music Hall. Which it wasn’t. Or unless you noted the cross streets. Which I didn’t.
I was in New York doing publicity for my blog, Gone for Good, and meeting with editors about publishing it as a book when I found the bookstore.
I’d just finished doing an interview on Backtalk on WMNH, and Brooke had called to tell me the editor at Random House I was supposed to meet with canceled our one-thirty appointment.
“Probably because he heard that train wreck of an interview and doesn’t want Random House’s name connected with a book-hater,” I said, going outside. “Why the hell didn’t you warn me I was walking into a set-up, Brooke? You’re my agent. You’re supposed to protect me from stuff like that.”
“I didn’t know it was a set-up, I swear, Jim,” she said. “When he booked you, he told me he loved your blog, and that he felt exactly like you do, that being nostalgic for things that have disappeared is ridiculous, and that we’re better off without things like payphones and VHS tapes.”
“But not books, apparently,” I said. The host hadn’t even let me get the name of my website out before he’d started in on how terrible e-books and Amazon were and how they were destroying the independent bookstore.
“Do you know how many bookstores have gone under the last five years in Manhattan?” he’d demanded.
Yeah, and most of them deserved to, I thought.
I hadn’t said that. I’d said, “Things closing and dying out and disappearing are part of the natural order. There’s no need to mourn them.”
“No need to mourn them? So it’s fine with you if a legendary bookstore like the Strand, or Elliott’s, shuts its doors? I suppose it’s fine with you if books die out, too.”
“They’re not dying out,” I said, “but if they were, yes, because it would mean that society didn’t need them any more, just like it stopped needing buggy whips and elevator operators, so it shed them, just like a snake sheds its skin.”
He snorted in derision. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Necessary things disappear every day. And what about all the things we don’t realize are necessary till they’re already gone?”
“Then society brings them back. Like LPs. And fountain pens.”
“And what if we can’t bring the thing back? What if it’s too late, and it’s already gone?”
Like the chance to have a decent interview, you mean? I thought. “That isn’t how it works,” I said, trying to keep my temper. “Bookstores aren’t disappearing, they’re just changing form. And so are books,” and I tried to explain about e-books and print-on-demand and libraries going digital.
“Digital!” he said. “How do you know all these digitized books won’t be accidentally deleted. Or disappear into the ether, never to be seen again?”
“That’s what the Cloud’s for,” I said. “It can store every book ever—”
He snorted again. “You’ve obviously never heard of Wheeler Field.”
Wheeler Field? What the hell was Wheeler Field?
“Wheeler Field was an Army airfield in Hawaii during World War II,” he said. “They got worried about sabotage, so they parked all the planes in the middle of the field. And when Pearl Harbor came along, one Japanese bomb took out the whole thing, bam! just like that. And according to your reasoning, that was proof we didn’t need those airplanes.”
“That isn’t what—”
“And I suppose you don’t think we need forests either. Or polar bears. I suppose you think closing one of the best bookstores in New York City is just fine?”
“Yes,” I said. “If it has outlived its usefulness.” And things really went downhill from there. By the time the hour was up, he’d accused me of everything from promoting illiteracy to setting fire to the Library at Alexandria.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Brooke said. “I thought you made some good points about how there are some books we’d be better off without, like Fifty Shades of Gray and Meditate Your Way to a Wealthier You. I loved that!”
“If I was so great, then why did Random House cancel the appointment?” I asked.
“Because he’s leaving for a big meeting in London. There’s supposed to be a huge storm coming in tonight, and he moved his flight up a day to beat it.”
Which was probably just an excuse. The sky, or at any rate the slice of it I could see between buildings, was devoid of clouds.
“He’ll be back Friday,” Brooke said, “and he wants to see you then.”
“Okay,” I said grudgingly. “But don’t send him the podcast of that interview.”
“I won’t. Oh, by the way, Harper Collins said they’d like to meet you for drinks before your dinner meeting with Tor. Will that work? Five-thirty at Fiada’s?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Great. And till then, kick back. Or go see the city—the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building or something.”
That wasn’t a bad idea. Not the Empire State Building part—I had no desire to spend the afternoon standing in line with a bunch of idiot tourists—but I hadn’t seen anything of Manhattan except what was visible through the window of a taxi.
Now, with my Random House appointment canceled, I’d have time to walk back uptown to my hotel and see some of the city along the way. It wasn’t particularly cold for November, and, according to the map on my phone, it wasn’t that far.
Wrong. The blocks between the avenues are three times as long as the ones between streets, and it was getting steadily colder. The sky had turned a leaden gray, and the wind whipping through the skyscraper canyons was really nasty. I decided to get a taxi and go back to my hotel after all, but they’d all unaccountably disappeared, and before I’d gone another block, it began to rain. And not an ignorable sprinkle—the cold, coat-soaking kind.
I spotted a guy one corner down selling umbrellas and ran over to buy one, but he was out by the time I got there. I had to walk forever before I found a newsstand that had some, and then wrestled for several blocks to get the damned thing up and then to keep the wind from turning it inside out, the net result being that I have no idea what street I was on. It might have been Thirty-sixth or Fifty-second, somewhere between Broadway and Madison Avenue. Or not.
At any rate, I was messing with the damned umbrella when the rain turned into a downpour, and I ducked into a recessed doorway and saw it was the entrance to a bookstore.
The old-fashioned kind of bookstore, about a foot and a half wide, with dusty copies of some leather-bound tome in the front window, and “Ozymandias Books” lettered in gilded copperplate on the glass.
These tiny hole-in-the-wall bookstores are a nearly extinct breed these days, what with the depredations of Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Kindle, and this one looked like the guy on WMNH would be ranting about its closing on his next program. The dust on the display of books in the window was at least half an inch thick, and from the tarnished-looking brass doorknob and the pile of last fall’s leaves against the door, it didn’t look like anybody’d been in the place for months. But any port in a storm. And this might be my last chance to visit a bookstore like this.
The inside was exactly what you’d expect: an old-fashioned wooden desk and behind it, ceiling-high shelves crammed with books stretching back into the dimness. The store was only wide enough for a bookcase along each wall, one in the middle, and a space between just wide enough for a single customer to stand. If there’d been any customers. Which there weren’t. The only thing in the place besides the guy sitting hunched over the desk—presumably the owner—was a gray tiger cat curled up in one corner of it.
The rest of the desk was piled high with books, and the stooped guy seated at it had gray hair and spectacles and wore a ratty cardigan sweater and a 1940’s tie. All he needed was one of those green eyeshades to be something straight out of 84 Charing Cross Road.
He was busily writing in a ledger when I came in, and I wondered if he’d even look up, but he did, adjusting his spectacles on his nose. “May I help you, sir?” he said.
“You deal in rare books?” I asked.
“Rarer than rare.”
Which meant wildly expensive, but a glance outside showed me the rain was coming down in sheets, and it was still two and a half hours to my dinner appointment. And it wasn’t as if I had to actually buy anything. If he’d let me browse, which if the books were that expensive, he probably wouldn’t.
“Were you looking for anything in particular, sir?” he asked.
“No” was obviously the wrong answer, but if I named some title, it would be just my luck that they’d have it, and I’d be stuck paying two hundred bucks for some tattered, mildewed copy. “I just thought I’d look around,” I said.
“Be my guest.” He waved a hand at the shelves. “We’ve got an enormous selection, I’m afraid.”
Yeah, I thought, looking at the titles on the nearest shelf. And if it wasn’t all stuff like Surviving the Y2K Apocalypse and Gibbon’s History of the Liberty of the Swiss and The Vagabond Boys Go to Bryce Canyon, you might actually be able to move some of this merchandise. “Thank you,” I said, and he nodded and went back to writing in the ledger.
I started back along the narrow aisle, looking at the books. Rare? Obscure was more like it. I didn’t recognize a single title in the whole first section and only a couple of authors. Most of the names—Richard Washburn Child, Ethel M. Dell, George Ade—I’d never heard of. The books didn’t seem to be arranged in any particular order. A dark-red Moroccan-leather-bound copy of Nothing Lasts Forever: A Tale of Pompeii stood next to a torn paperback of The Watts Riots: What’s Next?, a 1950s anthropology textbook, a dozen Harlequin romances, and a fancy illustrated copy of Fairy Tales for Wee Tots.
Obviously not grouped by topic or by author. By title? No, Promise Me Yesterday was cheek by jowl with A Traveller’s Guide to Salisbury Cathedral, Herman Melville’s The Isle of the Cross, and a 1928 Brooklyn phone book.
By price? I pulled out the Melville, but there was no slip in it and no price penciled lightly at the top of the first page, and nothing inside either Promise Me Yesterday or the Salisbury cathedral guide. Which must mean really expensive, though I refused to believe it or the phone book was worth more than a couple of dollars, to say nothing of Finlay’s Common Diseases of Holstein Cattle. And The Dionne Quintuplets in Hollywood.
Maybe the owner was an eccentric who was actually only interested in collecting books, not selling them, but the shelves were too neatly arranged, and as I worked my way toward the back, the books became less dust-covered and somehow newer looking, though the titles didn’t bear that out. Here was Ocean to Cynthia by Sir Walter Raleigh and Ben Jonson’s Richard Crookback.
There still didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the books’ arrangement. There was a Nine Steps to No-Effort Weight Loss on the same shelf as the Raleigh, and The Corpse in the Larder stood next to Grace Holmes’ Junior Year at Rosetree College. And a Tiger Beat picture bio of Leonardo DiCaprio, circa the movie Titanic and cashing in on his then heartthrob status.
That could not possibly be considered a rare book by any definition, and I was about to take it up to the front and ask the guy at the desk how much they wanted for it when a beautiful blonde in a black pencil skirt and high heels brushed past me, heading for the front. I was suddenly really glad I’d taken refuge at Ozymandias’s.
“Has Jude come in yet?” the blonde asked the guy at the desk, which meant she must work here, though she didn’t look the part. She looked like she should work at Bloomingdale’s. Or Vogue. And Ozymandias’s didn’t look like it could afford any staff at all, let alone three people.
“Have you heard from her, Arthur?” she asked. “We’re swamped back there.”
Back where? I couldn’t see anybody else at the back of the store. And come to think of it, where had she come from? There was no door to a back room that I could see, just more shelves lining the rear wall, and if she’d been in the aisle, I’d definitely have noticed her.
“Jude said she’s going to be late,” Arthur was saying. “There are delays on the subway.”
The blonde made a sound of disgust. “Of all days,” she said. “Bryn Mawr had their annual book sale yesterday, and Lucille DePalma died.”
What that had to be do with being swamped with nonexistent book-buying customers I didn’t know, but their being engaged in conversation gave me a chance to go look at the back of the store.
I’d been right—there wasn’t a door. The shelves went all the way to the back wall and then turned the corner. The middle aisle of shelves ended a couple feet short of the wall, and I crossed over to the other side, but there was no door there either, just a spiral staircase leading up to a second floor and a sign with an arrow pointing up that read, “More books.”
The blonde was coming back. I hurried back to where I’d been, grabbed a book off the shelves, and pretended to be looking at it. She passed me without a glance, walked over to the far side, and shot up the stairs, heels clattering on the metal steps. After a minute, I heard a door slam, and, curious, I went up the spiral staircase. The second floor looked exactly like the first except that the back wall was only half-covered with bookshelves. The other half was a door marked “Storeroom. Employees Only.”
Which explained the “back there” comment. Except an upper floor was a peculiar place to store books, which are notoriously heavy. And what exactly would they be swamped with? Not preparing books for sale, since they didn’t even bother to put a price in them, and I refused to believe they were swamped with orders. There hadn’t been a computer—or even a phone—on the desk up front.
But she had made Jude’s arrival sound desperately needed, and Arthur hadn’t pooh-poohed her. What if Ozymandias’s was a front for something else—a smuggling operation or a drug ring or black ops? That would explain how it could survive in the middle of Manhattan on the sale of fusty old copies of antiquated boys’ books and Rex Stout mysteries. But if that were the case, Arthur would have discouraged me from looking around, wouldn’t he? And the blonde wouldn’t have advertised where she was going by slamming the door.
As I stood there trying to figure it out, I heard another door slam. It was somewhere behind this one and below it, and I wondered if instead of a storeroom behind the door, there was instead a stairway and the storeroom was down on the first floor after all, or in a basement. But why would the door to it be up on the second floor?
Maybe there was a door downstairs, but it’s blocked by bookshelves, I thought. That was certainly more likely than some clandestine operation. And maybe the blonde always sounded urgent, and the work that was swamping her “back there” was a copy of The Vagabond Boys Go to Carlsbad Caverns that needed to be boxed up and taken to the post office.
But she’d said “we’re” swamped, not “I,” and she didn’t look like the histrionic type. Her walk, her manner, her no-nonsense tone of voice had all denoted efficiency and organization. Boxing up the entire bookstore wouldn’t have fazed her.
No, something else had to be going on, and after another minute, my curiosity got the best of me and I put my ear to the door for a moment, listening, and then tried the doorknob.
I’d expected the door to be locked, but it turned easily. If it is a storeroom, and she’s inside, I can always say I thought this was the bathroom, I thought. But the shutting door I’d heard made me fairly sure she wouldn’t be there.
She wasn’t, and I was right, it wasn’t a storeroom. The door opened onto a stairway leading down, and just the kind you’d expect behind a bookstore like this: a narrow, rickety, poorly lit, Dickensian staircase with open wooden risers so you could see between them all the way down to the bottom. Where there was another door, just like I’d thought.
But I’d been wrong—the door didn’t lead back into the bookstore. It was on the other side of the staircase, leading into whatever building lay behind the bookstore, and it wasn’t on the first floor. The stairs zigzagged down at least two full floors between landings to reach it. And the blonde wasn’t the one who I’d heard slamming the door, because she was still in the stairwell, standing in front of the door talking to a chubby guy in a T-shirt and jeans. “When’s Jude getting here?” he was asking.
“Soon, I hope,” the blonde said, glancing up at the door behind me.
I ducked out of sight, thanking God I’d thought to shut the door and that the staircase was so dark, and crouched there, listening.
“She should be here in the next fifteen minutes or so,” the blonde told the chubby guy. “Why? Did something happen?”
He nodded. “Tornado,” he said grimly. “In Alabama. Town museum and the library.”
“Oh, God,” the blonde said, exasperated. “Just what we need. Was it a Carnegie?”
She sighed. “Can Greg stay late?”
“I’ll ask,” he said and disappeared through the door.
The blonde pulled out a cell phone and punched in a number. “Fran,” she said into it, “Is there any chance you can come in? We’re completely overwhelmed. Adelaide Westport died last week, and her niece flew in yesterday to clean out her house.” A pause. “From Cupertino.” Another pause. “It’s in northern California.”
And what the hell did this have to do with a tornado in Alabama—and what did either one have to do with selling The Dionne Quintuplets in Hollywood?
The blonde was still trying to persuade Fran to come in, even though a glance at my watch showed me it was nearly three o’clock and hardly worth the effort. Bookstores closed at five, didn’t they?
“Well, can you think of anybody else?” she asked.
Apparently Fran couldn’t because the blonde snapped her phone shut, stood there tapping her foot and looking down at her phone for a minute, and then went through the door.
As soon as it shut behind her, I racketed down the stairs, feeling like Alice chasing after the White Rabbit, and over to the door. As I put my hand on the doorknob, it occurred to me that what I was doing was beyond stupid. If Ozymandias’s was a front for a smuggling operation or the NSA, then there were likely to be guns—or Bengal tigers—beyond that door.
But neither the blonde nor the chubby guy were criminal types, and spies didn’t talk about Carnegie libraries and nieces from Cupertino even in code.
You don’t know that, I thought as I turned the knob. And if there is a Bengal tiger in there, nobody will ever know what happened to you. Nobody knows you’re here. I pulled out my phone to call Brooke and tell her, but I didn’t have any coverage, and if I took the time to text her, I might lose the blonde.
There wasn’t a tiger behind the door. There was another staircase. This one was neither rickety nor Dickensian. The steps were solid and cement and so were the walls, and it looked exactly like those stairwells in a parking garage, except that this one was brightly lit and clean, and there were books piled on nearly every step.
I went down a few stairs till I was at eye-level with the stack on the top step. They seemed to be more of the peculiar mix that I’d seen in the store—Remodeling Your Patio, Edgar Allan Poe’s Deep in Earth, Stewart Meredith Keane’s The Lone and Level Sands, a biography of Rutherford B. Hayes, and a banged-up paperback of Follow the Boys with Connie Francis on the cover—and just as randomly organized. Maybe Ozymandias’s didn’t have a storeroom, so this stairway had to double as one, with the blonde sitting on one step and using another as a desk.
Or not. Because as I stood there, looking at the titles, I could hear the staccato of the blonde’s heels far below me, obviously going someplace. I took off down the stairs after her, trying not to make any noise and to calculate how far below me she was. Three levels at least, though the head of the stairs was already at basement level. Did Manhattan building foundations go down that far?
I doubted it. More likely, the cement walls were making it sound like she was farther away than she really was, and the bottom was only a single level below me.
It wasn’t. I passed one landing and then another, and no floor, no blonde. Just lots more books, and, as I descended, more and more of them. At first there’d been only a single stack of half a dozen or so books on any given step. But as I went down, the stacks got higher and more numerous, and I had to work my way carefully between them so as not to knock one of them over and alert her to my presence.
Her clattering footsteps came to a stop far below me, and a heavy door slammed. I waited a minute to make sure she’d gone through it and then hurried down after her, no longer caring whether I made noise or knocked over some of the books. I didn’t want to lose her.
The door she’d gone through had sounded like it was at least two flights below me, but either she was better at maneuvering between the maze of book piles or I’d misjudged the distance again, because by the time I made it down to the next door, the landing outside it and the steps below were completely blocked by books. There was no way I could make it down another dozen steps, let alone down another floor.
And there was no way she could have picked her way through these books quickly enough to have made it to the next landing. She must have gone through this door.
I worked my way to it, stepping over and around the piles of books, and pushed on the heavy handle.
It opened onto another staircase, almost as filled with stacks of books as the first one, but this one had open metal steps that zigzagged down at least two more floors into a vast, cavernous warehouse filled with aisle after aisle of books stretching in all directions for what seemed like miles.
I stared down at it, stunned. It was huge. It had to extend the length of the entire block, and, according to my calculations, it was at least five levels below the street. What the hell was this?
It must be a company like Amazon, which did most of its business by mail order. But if so, why hadn’t I ever heard of it? And since when was there that big a market in used books? According to everybody I’d interviewed, public domain downloads of e-books and Google Books had cut into their sales so much that even Powell’s was being forced out of business.
And if this was a mail-order operation, where were their shipping facilities? All I could see was Receiving, which consisted of a long metal slide that looked like a cross between a post office mail chute and an airport baggage carousel. Books were coming down it in a steady stream.
The blonde stood next to the carousel with a clipboard, supervising three burly workmen in overalls who were scooping the books up as they came down the chute and piling them onto big metal library carts. But not fast enough. The men were working at top speed, but they still weren’t able to keep up. Books were piling up on the carousel and beginning to fall over the edge.
In my surprise, I had let go of the door, and it shut behind me. The blonde glanced up hopefully, as if she thought I might be the late-to-work Jude.
Shit. What would she—or worse, the burly workmen—do when they saw me? I backed against the door and felt for the handle, ready to make a quick getaway, but the blonde only looked disappointed that I wasn’t Jude and then mildly annoyed. She started briskly over to the staircase, frowning. “What are you doing in here?” she called up to me. “This area is restricted to employees only.”
I clattered down the steps to her. “The guy at the desk told me to come tell you that Jude had trouble getting a taxi. Because of the weather. Wow, this is some operation. How big is this place?”
“Not big enough,” she said disgustedly. “Did he know how soon Jude would get here?”
“Oh, of all days for this to happen,” she said, and at my questioning look, “We’re absolutely swamped. Two used bookstores went out of business yesterday, and three libraries had their annual book sales.”
“And you bought all the books that were left over?”
“No,” she said.
They must have given them away. That would account for the motley assortment. “And you grabbed them for your bookstore to sell?” I said.
“This isn’t a bookstore,” she said.
I stared at her as if she were crazy. Not a bookstore? Then what the hell were all these books doing here?
“Then what is it?” I asked finally. Some kind of library?” The New York Public Library was in midtown, wasn’t it? Could this be some sort of storage annex? Or the place where they processed books that needed to be checked in? Though if the ones on the shelves I was standing next to were any indication, there wasn’t much processing going on. They were as randomly shelved as the ones upstairs. An ancient-looking New Theories of the Atom, The Vagabond Boys Go to Yosemite, Sylvia Plath’s Double Exposure, Iris R. Bracebridge’s The Daring Debutante. “Is this part of the public library? Or Columbia’s library?”
“Hardly,” she said scornfully. “Libraries are one of the biggest reasons we’re here. Do you know how many books they destroy every year?”
“Destroy?” I said. “I thought librarians were all about preserving books.”
“They believe that in principle,” she said, “but in practice, they destroy hundreds of thousands of books a year. They don’t call it that, of course. They call it ‘retiring books’ or ‘pruning’ or ‘culling.’ Or ‘de-acquisition.’”
“Yes, it’s supposed to sound like the benign counterpart of ‘acquisition,’ but it actually means getting rid of works that no longer ‘serve the needs of the reading public.’”
Like The Daring Debutante and half the books upstairs? I thought, unconvinced that a little selective pruning was a bad thing. And it wasn’t as if they were eradicating them. “Selling them isn’t exactly destroying them,” I said.
“They only sell a tiny percentage of them,” she said, “and they’re swamped with donations they can’t use and not enough space for the books they already have, so most of the ones they discard end up getting sent to landfills—or recycling centers where they get pulped. And it never occurs to them that they might be the last copy of a book.”
“And so the purpose of this place is to make sure that doesn’t happen?” I asked, but she’d turned away to confer with one of the guys from the baggage carousel.
I didn’t really need an answer. It was obvious from what she’d said and from the hodgepodge assortment of volumes coming down the chute that this place was some kind of home for books nobody else wanted, like those no-kill shelters for abandoned cats and dogs, and to a certain extent, I could sympathize. Much as I tout digitizing books, there’s still something disturbing about the idea of shredding a physical book and/or dumping it in the trash. It’s way too close to Hitler and his book-burnings for comfort.
But high-minded as the idea of saving orphaned books was, even an enterprise this size couldn’t take in a fraction of the books that must get thrown out. There were thousands of libraries in the country, not to mention all those independent bookstores the radio guy had said had closed. And she’d made it sound like they took in books from people who’d died, too. There was no way a single warehouse could accommodate all of those.
Though this place was bigger than I’d first thought, I realized, walking to the end of the row of bookshelves to peer down the cross-aisle. Rank after rank of crammed-full, twelve-foot-tall bookshelves stretched into the distance on either side of it.
What must the rent on this place be? And in Midtown Manhattan, too, let alone the equipment and the staff. Some eccentric book-loving millionaire must be bankrolling it. But if that was the case, why hadn’t anybody heard of it?
“Stunning, isn’t it?” the blonde said, coming back over to me. “Would you like a tour?”
“Yes,” I said. “But I thought you said you were swamped.”
“We’re always swamped. Hang on another minute, and I’ll get someone to cover for me.” She walked over to the carousel, calling to the guys, “Were you able to get in touch with Anthony?”
“Yeah, and he said he’d try to get here, but he’s over in Brooklyn, and the rain . . .”
“What about Thaddeus? Is he here?”
“Yeah. He’s downstairs.”
Downstairs? How many levels did this place have? I definitely wanted a tour.
“Well, tell him he needs to come up and fill in for me.”
“But, Cassie, the Wallace estate sale just came in—”
Cassie, I thought, glad to know her name. Was it short for Cassandra?
“I know.” She said. “Tell him it’s only till Jude gets here, and that I’ll send somebody down as soon as we finish with Mrs. DePalma’s books.” She didn’t wait for me to answer. “I suppose it should be libraries. I can show you what I’ve been talking about. Come this way.”
She walked quickly along the bookshelves I’d been standing next to, gesturing toward the baggage chute and carousel as she went. “This is where the works come in, and these rows of shelves are where we store them till they can be catalogued.”
She strode to the end of the row and turned down a cross-aisle that seemed to stretch for miles, with aisle after aisle of bookshelves.
“Wow,” I said. “How many books—I mean, works, do you have here?”
“Too many,” she said, and turned left into an aisle that looked exactly like the one back by the baggage chute, with the books just as randomly shelved. “This is still part of the unprocessed section, right?” I asked.
“No, this is Private Collections.”
“You mean like the stuff they sell at Sotheby’s?” I asked. “Lord Such-and-Such’s priceless collection of first folios?” They didn’t look like it. Half the books appeared to be paperbacks or old textbooks, and they certainly weren’t leather-bound. Or organized in any way I could see. They definitely weren’t in alphabetical order. Or Dewey Decimal. I spotted Shakespeare’s Cardenio next to Irwin’s Maida’s Little Market as we passed.
Cassie was still walking along the row. “We occasionally acquire works from a bibliophile’s or a rare-book collector’s estate, but the vast majority come from books people had in their attics or cellars or in an old trunk.” She stopped next to a trio of clothbound books. “These were Everett Hudson’s, 34 Mott Street, Greenwich Village.”
I remembered her talking about Mrs. DePalma and Mrs. Westport dying. “He died?” I asked.
“No. Dementia. He had to be moved into a nursing home, and his only son lives in Tokyo and couldn’t get time off to come clean out his apartment and get it ready to sell, so he hired a removal service to dispose of the contents. And these,” she said, pointing at the books next to them, “came from a barn.”
She leaned over, I thought to take one of the books out to show me, and instead pulled out a stiff manila card tucked like a bookmark between it and Everett Hudson’s books. “Barn, Rouse family farm,” she said, reading from the neatly typed print on the card she was holding, “Clay County, Nebraska.”
She tucked the card back in its place between the two groups of books and walked rapidly on, indicating various shelves as we passed. “These are from garages and attics and these over here are from hoarders.”
Hoarders. I hadn’t even thought about all the books they’d have, though whether they’d be salvageable was another question. I’d known a guy who was a hoarder. Between the dirt, the rat feces, the cat urine, and the mildew, I wouldn’t have even wanted to set foot in his house, let alone scrabble through the disgusting mess for books. But from the number of shelves we passed, these people must have.
Unless these volumes were from some other kind of private collection. They had manila bookmarks dividing them, too, but there was no time to read their labels. Cassie was walking too quickly.
After several more aisles, she turned into a side aisle, went down two aisles, turned into the third, and stopped. “Here we are,” she said.
“So these are the books the libraries got rid of to make room for Nicholas Sparks’ latest romance novel?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said bitterly, “plus the ones that didn’t pass the double-fold test and the ones that were deemed to be ‘too old,’ as if books were like cartons of milk and had a sell-by date after which they went bad. And,” she said, moving farther down the aisle, “the ones discarded during library relocations and renovations.”
There were divider cards here, too, each with the name and location of the library and a date, presumably of when they’d acquired it. But what a bizarre way to catalog books: by the place they’d gotten it from. It had to be hopelessly inefficient.
Though Cassie seemed to know where every single one was. “Blackthorne Public Library,” she said, without even looking at the identifying cards. “Lincoln Park Library, Franklin County Library.”
“Nothing from the Library of Alexandria?” I asked jokingly.
She didn’t even crack a smile. “We’re English language only,” she said. “And they wouldn’t be in this section anyway. They’d be in Fires.”
No, they wouldn’t, I thought, because the whole place had gone up in flames. There hadn’t been anything left to save.
“East Lake Library in Paul Harbor, Florida,” Cassie was saying, pointing at sections. “Mitchell Library in Sydney, Australia, Golden Library at Eastern New Mexico State University—”
“University? Colleges and universities de-acquisish, or whatever it’s called, too?”
“Yes, especially since the advent of InterLibrary Loan. They assume their students can borrow the work from some other library, so there’s no reason to keep their own copy, and it doesn’t occur to them till too late that theirs might be the only one. And Project Gutenberg and Google Books have made it even worse.”
Oh, here we go, I thought. “You don’t approve of digitizing books.”
“Oh, no, I’m grateful for it. Without it, we’d be even more swamped. But the libraries assume that all books are online and that therefore they don’t need to have a physical copy, and they dispose of theirs. Only they’re not all online. Just a fraction of them are. And there’s also the problem of data corruption. And of putting books onto microfilm, which cracks and deteriorates, or into a digital format that can be accessed only through technological means, and then those means becoming obsolete, like the floppy disk or twelve-inch video disks, like they did with The Domesday Book. Putting books on an inaccessible platform is nearly as effective at destroying books as the shredder.”
I was afraid from here she’d go off on accidental deletions and the dangers of putting all your eggs in one basket like the guy at WMNH had. I said hastily, “But there’s always the Cloud. And the Library of Congress. They have a copy of every book that’s been published in the U.S., right?”
She shook her head. “They didn’t start doing that till the 1860s, and more than seventy thousand works are lost to decay and disintegration every year. Plus, they’ve had three major fires, with a combined loss of three hundred thousand volumes,” she said, “quite a lot of it due to the water damage that occurred when trying to put out the fires. Water damage is the second most common cause of book destruction.”
“What’s first?” I asked, but she’d already turned down another aisle.
“Water damage is along here,” she said. “Leaky roofs, broken plumbing, flooded basements. And down there are the floods—the Ohio River, the Republican River, Yancey Creek, North Carolina . . .”
I looked at the books as we passed. Most of the sections had only two or three books, and Yancey Creek had just one, which was, fittingly enough, Noah’s Ark on Ararat.
It didn’t have any signs of water damage I could see, and neither did any of the other books, which meant they had to have been subject to some kind of advanced salvage technique.
I revised my theory of eccentric millionaire up to billionaire. Technologies to salvage waterlogged books cost big money. I’d researched the big 1966 flood of the Arno that had destroyed Florence’s National Library in connection with a pro-digitizing post I’d written. Their vacuum freeze-drying and other book-salvaging equipment had been wildly expensive.
Or maybe these were just the few that hadn’t gotten soaked.
“Flash floods,” Cassie said. “Sheffield; Big Thompson; Rapid City, South Dakota; Fort Collins, Colorado.” She paused a moment to indicate a shelf of books. “That one was particularly bad because the university library was being remodeled and all the Colorado history books and doctoral dissertations had been moved to the basement.”
Which explained why the books all had titles like Irrigation Techniques in Use in Dryland Farming and The Narrow Gauge Railroad in the Rocky Mountains from 1871–1888.
“Landslides,” Cassie said, still walking, not even glancing at the bookmarks as she passed, “mudslides, sinkholes.”
Shelving the books this way, by the agent of their almost-demise, was crazy, but it certainly highlighted the dangers facing books. Just like a nature preserve putting up signs telling what had decimated the particular species: poaching, acid rain, loss of habitat, pesticides.
There seemed to be just as many ways to wipe out books. As we walked, Cassie pointed out sections for censorship, changes in taste, academic trends.
“Academic trends?” I said.
“Yes. Some authors, like Dreiser and Alexander Pope, go out of favor with academics and are no longer taught. Or a book’s wildly popular and then just as quickly goes out of print and is forgotten.”
“Like The Bridges of Madison County, you mean?” I said, hoping they weren’t trying to rescue it. It was the perfect example of all those things society was better off without.
“Not yet,” she said. “I mean books like The Sheik and Elinor Glyn’s novels. And Charlotte Yonge’s.”
“Charlotte Yonge? I’ve never heard of her.”
“Exactly. At one time she was the most popular author in England, even outselling Dickens. And now no one even recognizes her name. And then there are books that disappear because they’ve become outmoded or discredited, like Dirigibles: Our Future, and Using Your K+E Slide Rule.”
Or that surviving the Y2K apocalypse book, I thought.
“Or because they’re badly dated,” Cassie was saying, “like Flossie and Her School Friends and Ambush in Apache Canyon—
Ambush in Apache Canyon?
Finally, a book worth saving. “I remember reading that when I was a kid,” I told Cassie. “It was my favorite book. My uncle gave it to me. “I’d kill to read it again.””
I had no idea what had happened to it. Could my mom have given it to the library and it had ended up in this place?
“You have a copy of Ambush in Apache Canyon here?” I asked Cassie.
There was a pause, as if she thought I might try to steal it if she said yes, which convinced me it was my copy, and then she nodded. “Would you like to see it?”
“Yeah,” I said, looking over at the books, searching for the blue and brown and red cover.
“It’s not here,” she said. “It’s in the Children’s section.”
Oh, of course. That made sense. Kids’ books would end up in library discard piles and estate sales and attics, too.
“That’s over here,” Cassie said and led the way quickly down four rows, over an aisle, down another two rows to another aisle in a zig-zagging trail just like the one the kid had followed through the red rock canyons in Ambush in Apache Canyon, searching for the missing cattle. Except he’d ended up trapped in a box canyon with a band of Apaches leaping suddenly out at him from the rocks.
God, I’d loved that book. It had had everything a boy of nine could want—horses, six-shooters, war paint, cattle rustlers, the cavalry riding to the rescue. But I wasn’t surprised it had ended up in a library sale. Westerns had already been old hat in my uncle’s day, and as I recalled, the book had been full of politically incorrect language like “marauding wild Indians” and “red savages.”
And the book had been cheaply printed, on that paper that turns brown and brittle in a matter of months. It had already been in bad shape when my uncle gave it to me—the dust jacket torn, the binding half-detached, the pages coming loose—and in even worse shape by the time I’d finished reading it. Definitely a candidate for the landfill.
And no doubt the radio interview guy would cite this as an example of good things being lost, but it wasn’t. It was here, which was proof that if society needed something, it found a way to make sure it survived.
Cassie had gotten a long ways ahead of me. I hurried to catch up before she disappeared down one of the rows and I lost her. “Is this Children’s?” I asked as I approached her and she turned into an aisle.
But it clearly wasn’t. No picture books, or fairy tales, just more of the same kind of thing in all the other sections: Macleod’s Trout Fishing in the Hebrides, Milton’s Adam Unparadis’d, Henry Calvin Russell’s Marooned on Saturn, P.T. Hicks’ Chickens is Chickens, even what had to be another doctoral dissertation, Microbial Biosynthesis in Karstic Sediments, by Darryl A. Krauss, Ph.D. Not exactly Dr. Seuss.
“So how much farther to Children’s?” I asked.
“This is it,” Cassie said, and began pointing out divider cards. “Peanut butter. Spilled Kool-Aid. Melted chocolate.”
Oh, books destroyed by children. Of course. I’d forgotten their weird method of categorizing.
And now that I looked closer, I saw that there were some children’s books sandwiched in among the others. I spotted The Tale of Little Flinders and Tommy Toad’s Birthday Surprise and L. Frank Baum’s Molly Oodle and The Vagabond Boys Go To the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jesus, how many of those damned Vagabond Boys books were there?
“Left on the beach,” Cassie went on, ticking off the sections as she moved down the row. “Left on the bleachers, played catch with—”
“Dropped in the bathtub,” I put in, remembering the incident that had made me decide to get a Kindle.
“Yes,” Cassie said, continuing along the row. “Spitup. Teething. Torn up by a toddler. Colored in. Scribbled in with Magic Marker—”
Which would be even harder to remove than the stains of water damage, I thought, pausing to see how they’d gotten that out, but before I could look at it, Cassie called from the end of the row, “Here it is!” She held up a book.
Even from that far away I instantly recognized it. The blue and brown cover with the boy on horseback picking his way between the narrow, red-rock walls of the canyon was exactly the same as the one on my copy, but it definitely wasn’t my book. This copy looked like new, the dust cover untorn, the colors unfaded.
“That’s it, all right,” I said happily. “Just like I remembered it. Have you read it?”
“No,” she said, “it just came in,” and put Ambush back on the shelf. “I was going to show you the Fires section,” she said, heading across the aisle and then over to another cross-aisle and down it, pointing out the various sections: “Earthquakes, Volcanic eruptions, Shipwrecks.”
And how exactly had they managed to recover those? A submarine thing like the one they’d used on the Titanic? And was the Titanic one of the ships she was talking about? It had had everything—a gym, a bowling alley, a post office—which probably meant it had had a lending library, too.
I asked Cassie if it had.
“Yes,” she said promptly. “Four hundred volumes, plus the books the passengers and crew brought along with them—including Selden’s Modern Ocean Travel and The Plight of the Vicar’s Daughter, which we have here, and a priceless jeweled copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.”
Wow. “Is it here, too?”
Cassie looked taken aback. “No, of course not. There are still thousands of copies of the Rubaiyat in existence.” She bit her lip. “I don’t think you understand what this facility—” she began and then stopped, looking over my shoulder.
I turned. One of the guys who’d been unloading books from the baggage carousel was standing three aisles back with a clipboard and a worried expression.
“What is it, Greg?” Cassie called to him.
“Problem,” he said, waving the clipboard at her.
“Sorry,” Cassie said to me. “I’ll be right back,” and started toward him reluctantly, as if she wished she could finish saying what she’d been telling me first.
But I’d already figured it out. This wasn’t a no-kill shelter for books that had been thrown out. It was an endangered-book archive, like those gorilla and elephant sanctuaries or those repositories for rare types of seeds, to keep them from going extinct. And it was the scarcity of a book that determined its place here, not its collectible value or literary quality.
The books here were the last of their kind, or close to it. Which meant that my falling-apart copy of Ambush in Apache Canyon—and all the other copies—must have been thrown out. Or washed away or burned up or de-acquisished by some librarian to make room for more copies of Harry Potter.
But at least there was still a copy here. And it proved that what I’d told the radio interview guy was true—that if something had value, society would find a way to keep it around.
Ambush in Apache Canyon definitely deserved to survive, though I wasn’t sure Leonardo DiCaprio did, or Flossie and Her School Friends. Or all those doctoral dissertations.
But it explained why they were here. Only a handful of copies of those had ever existed. A flood could have cut the numbers in half.
What it didn’t explain was why they hadn’t recovered the jeweled Rubaiyat and sold it to finance this place. Which had to cost a fortune. We’d walked what?—half a mile?—already and were no closer to the end that I could see.
“Sorry,” Cassie said, coming back. “We just got hit with another deluge. Bookstore closing.” She shook her head. “We were already overwhelmed, and now this.”
I was afraid this was leading up to her saying she’d have to cut the tour short, but she didn’t. She started off again in the direction we’d been headed before, still talking over her shoulder to me. “And as if that’s not bad enough, Jude called and said she’s going to be at least another half hour. It’s apparently still raining hard outside, and the subway’s flooded. I told Greg to tell her to take a taxi, and we’d reimburse her, but I’m afraid she won’t be able to find one,” she said, sounding worried.
She should be worrying about this place instead, I thought, tagging along after her. We were at least as far below ground as the subway system. A warehouse like this was likely to flood, too, and she had to know the danger, what with the survivors of all those past floods on the shelves we’d just passed.
But Cassie’s main concern seemed to be how long it would take for Jude to get there if she had to walk. “The taxis all vanish whenever it rains!” She said.
I looked down toward the end of the cross-aisle, but we were too far away from any walls for me to see if they were wet. I looked down at the floor. It was bone-dry, and I couldn’t see any puddles, or worse, trickles of water in the aisles. But I couldn’t see any pumps, either.
They must have some sort of built-in waterproofing—floodgates or something. But I remembered, post-Sandy, seeing photos of a flood-proofed, temperature-controlled, top-security wine cellar for rare vintages. The priceless bottles had been bobbing in six feet of water, their labels floating beside them.
And since they’d already had to dry these books out once, you’d think they’d at least be checking for leaks—or be setting in motion a plan for moving the books upstairs if necessary.
I hated to admit the radio guy who’d interviewed me was right about anything, but this place was another Wheeler’s Field waiting to happen.
But Cassie was only worried about Jude getting here now to deal with the books coming in from this latest bookstore’s closing. “It’s Elliott’s,” Cassie said, which was the one the radio interview guy had mentioned. “It had been there since 1899.”
Translation: it had a bunch of old books that might be endangered. I wondered exactly how they figured out which ones they needed to bring here. Was that the job of the old guy at the desk upstairs in the store?
But one person wouldn’t be enough for a job like that. Finding out how many copies of Fairy Tales for Wee Tots or The Vagabond Boys Go to Mount Shasta were left in the world would take tons of research. And how exactly would you go about it?
I wanted to ask Cassie, but she was still going on about Elliott’s closing. “There used to be other bookstores who could buy up their stock when one closed,” she said, “but now, with so many having already gone under, there’s no one who can take them and see to it they survive.”
“Except you,” I noted, but she’d already taken off again, saying, “I want to show you the Fires section.”
“Fires?” I said, getting a sudden upsetting image of Cassie charging into a burning building to rescue books.
But she had her hands full here. There must be a whole other team—or teams—who did that, and that went and picked up the books from all those houses and storage units and bankrupt bookstores. Plus researchers to determine whether a book qualified as endangered. I upped my estimate of the cost of this enterprise another digit.
“Fire’s one of our biggest sections,” Cassie stopped to say. “As you can imagine. Lightning-caused fires, faulty wiring, arson, playing with matches, accident, civil disobedience. Or both.”
She nodded. “The Michigan State Library fire was caused by a student who was trying to burn the state draft board files so he wouldn’t be drafted and ended up destroying twenty thousand volumes.”
She started to walk again and then stopped, and I saw she was standing in front of a divider labeled “Dresden.”
“So this is the Fires section?” I asked, gesturing at it.
“No,” she said. “War. But there’s considerable overlap. That’s why they’re shelved next to each other. These rows are High-Explosive Bombs,” she said, walking me quickly past several rows, rattling off the names of the bombed buildings as she went: “Westminster Abbey Chapter Library, Allen and Unwin, Holland House, Lambeth Palace, the British Museum Reading Room—”
“My God, how big is this section?” I asked.
“Big,” she said. “Twenty million volumes were destroyed by bombs in the London Blitz alone.”
“So is war the biggest?”
She turned to look back at me. “The biggest?”
“Cause of book destruction. You said water damage was the second biggest. Is war the first?”
“Then what is?”
For a second I thought she wasn’t going to answer me, and then she said, “Time.”
She nodded. “Decay. Paper deterioration, ink degradation, glue oxidation, overuse.”
“Being read so many times the book falls to pieces.”
Like I’d done with Ambush in Apache Canyon. I could see its browning, brittle pages and its broken spine in my mind’s eye.
“Bookworms,” she said. “Dry rot, moths, mildew, mold. And attrition.”
“The gradual destruction of one copy after another over the years through a whole variety of circumstances. The ravages of time.”
I could see that. One copy lost at sea, another chewed up by the family dog, others sent to the landfill and put on no-longer-readable microfilm, and pretty soon there would be hardly any left.
“It doesn’t affect us here as much as at the other branches because English hasn’t been around as long as some languages,” Cassie said, “but it’s still our number one cause. Though war certainly contributes. These books are from the Library of Louvain.”
“It was bombed?”
“Yes, but not by the enemy. The Library’s Tower provided a landmark for the gunners to adjust their sights by, so the defenders destroyed it.”
She walked on. “This next section is Paper Drives. During World War II, they collected scrap paper to make into ammunition, including, unfortunately, old books. And this next section is—”
“Yes. I told you, we’re English language only.”
“So how many other branches are there? And where—?”
“Cassie?” a male voice called from the cross-aisle. “Where are you?”
“Here, Greg,” she called back, and the guy from before appeared at the end of the row, looking apologetic.
“Don’t tell me,” she said. “Jude can’t find a taxi.”
“Yeah, she said she’s been trying for fifteen minutes and there’s not a one to be found, so she’s going to have to walk it, and, in the meantime, we’ve got another problem.”
Aha! I thought. This place is leaking.
But Greg said, “Today’s the twenty-first.”
“You’re kidding!” Cassie said. “I completely forgot.”
“We’ve got to get more people in here to help with it,” Greg said, “and I’ve called everybody I can think of.”
“What about Rita?”
“She said she’s already worked overtime every day this week, and—”
“I’ll talk to her,” Cassie interrupted. She turned to me. “Sorry, I need to go take care of this. I’ll be back in a minute,” she said and hurried off with Greg, while I wandered along the War aisles, wondering what was special about the twenty-first and looking at the books and the divider cards—Sarajevo National Library, Bosnian War; Library of Strasbourg, Franco-Prussian War; Library of Congress, War of 1812—Jesus, how long had they been doing this?—and then, since she still wasn’t back, went on to see if I could find the Fires section on my own.
She was right about the overlap. There were a half-dozen rows of shelves marked “Fire-Bombings” and “Incendiaries” and two more that, judging by their dates, could have been either, and then fires that had clearly been civilian—the Windsor Castle fire, 1992; the Capitol Fire in Albany, 1911; Birmingham Central Library in 1879. . . .
The sections were all small here, too, including sections like “Los Angeles Public Library Fire,” which I remembered as doing major damage. But apparently only a handful of them had been books that were rare enough that they qualified for archiving here.
Or that was all they’d managed to rescue. I walked down the rows to see if I could find a section with more books in it.
Here was one. It took up two full shelves and half of a third. I peered at the divider card to see where these books had come from. “St. Paul’s,” it read.
St. Paul’s? Didn’t these books belong over in the War section with the other London Blitz stuff? That was when Hitler had tried to burn the cathedral down.
But he hadn’t succeeded. St. Paul’s hadn’t burned. So why was this section here? This must be some other St. Paul’s—St. Paul’s Catholic School or St. Paul’s College or the St. Paul, Minnesota Public Library.
If the titles were any indication, it must be. The titles weren’t those of religious books—John Ogilbie’s The Carolies, Sir William Dugdale’s Origines Judiciales, The History of Embanking and Draining, Sir Thomas Urquhart’s The Jewel . . . And anyway, what books would St. Paul’s Cathedral have besides hymnals and tourist guides?
I pulled out the divider card to take a closer look. No, it read, “St. Paul’s Cathedral, London,” and there was only one of those. It must have been hit by some incendiary bomb at some point that caused a minor fire. But that still didn’t explain what all these secular books had been doing in a cathedral.
“And call Terence,” Cassie’s voice said. “Tell him we’ll pay him double overtime,” and I heard the tap of her heels coming toward me. I went out to meet her.
“Sorry,” she said. “It never rains but it pours. California just changed the period of time before unclaimed storage units can be legally auctioned off. It used to be three months, which meant the first, but they just changed it to twelve weeks, so now they hold the auctions on the twenty-first.”
“Storage units? Like on that TV show, Storage Wars?” I asked. “Where dealers bid on the contents and then sell them?”
“Or try to, can’t find any takers, and then toss them in the dumpster,” she said grimly. She turned to look at the books. “I see you found the Fires section.”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “And I think I found some mis-shelved books.”
“Mis-shelved?” she repeated in a tone that said clearly, “That’s impossible.” She came over. “Which ones?”
I led the way down the row to the St. Paul’s section. “These. They’re marked ‘St. Paul’s Cathedral.’ Shouldn’t they be over in the World War II section?”
“No,” she said, without even looking at the divider. “These are from the Great Fire of London in 1665.”
“The booksellers and publishers in the surrounding area moved their books into the cathedral for safekeeping.”
Which had obviously been a good idea, considering how much of the rest of London the fire had destroyed. Including, apparently, most—or all—of the other copies of these books, since there were so many of them here. And it made sense that Ozymandias’s would have known they were the last copies when they acquired them—they’d have had hundreds of years to check on their rarity.
But it didn’t explain how they could afford them—the last extant copy of a book from the 1600s would have been pricey even for a billionaire, and they’d have had to outbid the Folger and the British Library, and there were dozens of them here—or why, if they were as priceless as I thought they had to be, they were just sitting out there on the shelves for the taking instead of being locked in burglar-proof cases.
And it didn’t explain how they knew the rest of the books here—The Daring Debutante and Follow the Boys and Ambush in Apache Canyon—qualified as endangered, how they knew there weren’t dozens of other copies stashed in barns and hoarders’ houses and storage units people were still paying rent on.
“How exactly do you select the books for this place?” I said.
“Select?” Cassie repeated blankly.
Copyright © 2017. I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land by Connie Willis