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Amber Paulen

In Times of Shortage

Oh! Used bookstores! Books wall to wall, two walls, three walls, three floors, four. If I had a plane ticket, a wad of spendable bills in my pocket, and a pleasant cool and rainy fall afternoon, I would submerge myself, without thought or regret, into the musty air of old pages and deteriorating bindings; into book spines called to attention; into names of authors and titles and subjects and… books, books, books. I would walk the aisles like woman unleashed, hungering for the myriad of ideas always laid before my feet and my hands, at the breach of my fingers, if only, if only, there was a used bookstore.

Bookstores are like food for the hungry writer; bookstores are fecund thought in old objects; bookstores are a collective history of forgotten geniuses, are the lodestone upon which I hunger to lean. Oh, for a plane ticket! A wad of cash! And a rainy fall afternoon!

This is the unfortunate boon in quaint Italian living. The one used semi-English bookstore in Rome has one wall of English books. I bumped into a girl several times as I gyrated back and forth along the wall, making sure I got at least a bit of a fill. But, and here’s my problem, I still want more; I want an afternoon or two or maybe a week.

I make promises to myself during the times I’m in foreign speaking countries: I tell myself that I will never let a used bookstore and a beautiful used book pass the chance of my possession. But when I’m in countries of my mother tongue, I always do, I let masses of nostalgic quartos and mass paperbacks pass between my fingers as if the pages were mere paper. After all, I only read one book at a time; after all, in English speaking countries, my shelves are laden with books I’ll probably never read. In these times of used bookstore shortages, I will always be assured that every book to grace my shelf will be read.

At the used bookstore in Rome the other day, I picked up Henry Miller’s Book of Friends. For Christmas and on my birthday, my dad orders for me beautiful hard cover books, the type of books I would never buy for myself but the ones I have promised I will. These intermittent arrivals of unknown splendor are absolutely thrilling, so in that way, I will survive.

God save the second hand bookstores!


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