By Dave Macpherson
We were in Wordsworth’s Books in Harvard Square, where we had been many times before. We were going through the stacks of poetry and I stopped, looked again at what I thought I noticed, and said, “Ah, shit.” Heather came over, no doubt ready to admonish me for swearing in public, and I stopped her and said, “Look.”
She looked around and saw it too. There were large empty spaces on almost every shelf. Books were leaning on angles, slouching down like models from a GQ magazine shoot. There were less books. We had seen this before. This was the spot of Dutch Elm Disease. The canary in the mine shaft. It was the harbinger resting on the shelf saying, “When you come back next, this place will be empty with a for lease sign telling you the obvious.”
Without discussing it, Heather and I both bought more books then we had planned on, as if our purchases would stave off the cancer, like it was an offering at the feet of an idol. We had seen this before, if a bookstore can’t fill up their shelves with books, it means they have no money to replenish their stock.
There was that time at Macawber’s Books in Princeton, New Jersey. It was one of the most beautiful bookstores I have ever seen, a bookstore from your dreams. This time, not only were there spaces on the new acquisition tables, we heard the manager on the phone with his distributor explaining how this ex-employee misused funds and they don’t have the money to honor the entire bill but if the distributor could extend credit and let them order books for the next semester they can pay the full amount. “We have been good customers for years. Decades. And our relationship has….”
Of course, Macawber’s was gone next time we visited.
This would be the part where I list all the bookstore I loitered in that are no longer, but the list is long and we are weathered by the telling. This naming of the dead. This is the dry season. This end of the dinosaurs. We are not perusing books, but kindling for the pyre. Maybe it’s better the shelves are half empty when the final match is lit. God knows how large the conflagration would be otherwise. Would it take out the cities? Would we still laugh ironically and say, ah well?
I have spent years of my life floating joyfully through bookstores. Touching spines of books, suckled by opportunity, by the potential. Every title, a chance to change. Even if I never did, there was that hope, that silent beckoning.
Now, in this receding age, what shall I tell my son when he is old enough to listen? How shall I explain this dead thing? This long ago panacea? I remember when my father used to tell me when he was a kid in the 1940s, they didn’t have television; they had radio for entertainment. He would spend his afternoons listening to The Shadow, The Green Hornet, The Inner Sanctum. How he would lean into the radio, entranced for hours.
And I was baffled by what he told me. Listening to the radio like it was anything other than background noise, how strange, how quaint.
Will I fill my son with the same bewilderment of a long ago past? Some dead ritual? Once books were made of paper and we went to shops to buy them and browse and we just enjoyed being there with them. And will my son smile and pat my hand at the silly story, unsure of what I meant with all that radio static coming from my words?
Dave Macpherson is a writer who lives with his wife, Heather, near Worcester, Mass.