The setting is that of a second hand book store - a family business run by a biographer and her father. The character tells of her passion for books, leaving her readers with the understanding that reading is almost as necessary to her emotional survival as breathing is to her physical existence. She describes "the smell of old books, so sharp, so dry you can taste it."
When I was a kid, my Dad owned a variety shop for about twelve years. It was on a popular corner in Montreal and he drew in regular crowds from the busy bus stops and transfer point outside, as well as from neighbouring homes. He had a near-steady flow of loyal customers who made a point of dropping by whether they needed to purchase something or not. Often they just wandered in to chat and have a laugh, as my father shared his latest joke.
My parents' devotion to their customers was strong, and they occasionally attended their weddings, celebrated births and birthdays and mourned their deaths. That loyalty was mutual. When my father passed away more than a decade after selling his store, our family was deeply touched by the number of past customers that came to his funeral.
It was a true "Mom and Pop" shop, and my parents worked long hours, seven days a week. Dad opened the store before 7 a.m. so that workday commuters could run in to buy their newspaper and chat with him before continuing their journey when the next bus arrived. Mom took his place in the afternoon when he would come home for lunch and a nap. He locked up for the night at 11 p.m. to come home, eat and settle in to watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In later years, my sister and I would each find ourselves helping out by working behind the cash and stocking shelves. Early on, Dad also hired Pat to work the cash during his off hours and rare days off. She too, became a close family friend, and my sister kept in touch with her until she recently passed away.
During the school year, if Mom was at the store in the afternoon, as she often was, I'd head over there directly after school instead of going home. First I'd have to do my homework in the tiny storeroom at the back, and possibly indulge in take-out barbecue chicken or a burger from one of the nearby restaurants. Then the store shelves were mine to explore and enjoy.
Looking around, there was much to see and do. The shelves were stocked with colourful stuffed animals, bubbles and Slinkys. Puffy pink and red Valentine's and glittery Christmas greetings would attract the eye, as displays changed for each upcoming holiday. Sometimes I'd grab a bag of Humpty Dumpty barbecue chips for a snack, and wash it down with an icy cold Nesbitt's* orange soda. The soft drink companies often held contests in which you were required to check under the caps for winnings. My sister and I would pull out the tray which collected the colourful, sticky caps, and go through them in search of prizes of "free bottles" or of treasures worth "10¢!!!" hidden behind the cork backings.
I loved being there when the daily orders would come in. Opened boxes would reveal the wonderful scents of chocolate, gum and other sweets required to replenish the two displays of candy bars and penny candy. Twice a week, comic and magazine orders would come in, and Dad would give me the task of removing the older copies from the stands and replacing them with the new editions. I'd often get lost between the covers of their shiny, new pages. I'd read anything. In younger years my tastes ranged from Casper and Richie Rich to Millie the Model, Archie and romance comics and Children's Digest. Later, I turned my attention to teen magazines like Seventeen and Tiger Beat, satire such as Mad and Cracked, and eventually Cosmopolitan and other fashion publications. I even bought the first editions of Playgirl and Viva, partly because the banners across the top right corners said they'd be valuable someday, but mostly because the guys inside were cute - and naked.
And then there were the pocket books. Our store had a large wall-rack which was loaded with the latest novels, from ceiling to floor. They were replenished semi-frequently and it never mattered if I didn't get around to reading one, or several titles that I had mentally set aside, because the book companies never wanted the unsold books back in their possession. They only needed the covers for their inventory, and to ensure that unsold, credited merchandise would not be offered for sale. Of course this meant that our home was loaded up with boxes upon boxes of books, hand-selected from the store's rejects. To this day, those books often come to mind when I open a new paperback novel.
Though not nearly as intense as the scent from old, hard-covered books mentioned in the above author's quote, there is still a certain smell to the ink in pocket books. When I open a new or used book for the first time, the scent that wafts up to my nose brings me back to the days of my father's store, and all its treasures that laid within. I can almost feel how my right hand rested upon a shiny back cover as my left hand touched the dry, rough paper of the title page beneath it.
I'm guessing I'll continue to enjoy The Thirteenth Tale. Both its scent and its verbal imagery have already succeeded in bringing me to a place and time when days were carefree, and my imagination soared. And that's exactly what a good story is meant to do.
Here's my Dad, where he stood proudly for many years, doing what he loved best - schmoozing with his customers, telling jokes, listening to life stories and making life-long friends. A bit of online sleuthing tells me that this photo was taken in April of 1970, which corresponds with the date of the TV Guide seen in the bottom right-hand corner.