Scraps, Part Two: The Things Books Carry

Scraps, Part Two

The Things Books Carry

by Gravity Goldberg

[Editor’s note: For part one of this story, please turn to Paper City, p. 49.]

One Sunday, a man was browsing through Adobe Bookstore while waiting for a table at Boogaloos—which used to be the breakfast joint on 16th Street—when he started laughing at something he pulled out of a book. I thought it was some sort of postcard, but for all I knew it could have been a map to El Dorado; he certainly acted as if it were. He flitted up to my desk waving the card around like wet fingernails. “Can I have this, please?” He lowered his voice, “But I don’t want to buy the book, OK?”

“No problem,” I said and smiled, always ready to please. “It’s yours.” He trotted out smugly. I suspected he thought it rare to find random objects in books; I could have told him otherwise.

Used books have secret histories. They contain hints of intrigue absent in the sharp smell of newly bought books with pristine, uncracked bindings. With a plane ticket to Cambodia, a bus pass from 1976, a photograph where everyone is clearly wasted (and looks awful), books can gossip on their former owners. To me, this is why secondhand books are inherently more exciting that new ones. I presume this copy of Middlemarch, with a Eurail pass left inside, was read on a train ride through Europe. My favorite scraps, though, are the letters: Dear Johns never sent, drafts of frustrated rants, love letters, broken-heart letters, or cloyingly sweet, and clearly insincere notes to family members. These left-behind manuscripts construct a partial narrative secondary to that of the books that hold them. When you find one of these fragments, you’ve lucked on a twofer: two stories for the price of one. As I come across such an artifact in the course of pricing or shelving, I chuckle and tuck it right back in. To separate the scraps from their book hosts would be like interrupting a seasoned storyteller in the middle of her tale.

I’ve worked in used bookstores for almost two decades. The first store, Safari, in San Diego, was co-owned by two eccentric men: one who was an auric body worker, the other an admitted strip-club addict. But what got them both off was attending auctions and bidding on unseen, unknown, unopened lots of books. They’d schlep their bargain booty back to the store, where we employees would excitedly gather around for the unveiling. Granted, most of the time the boxes contained only predictable westerns, mysteries, or romances, books we yawned our way through shelving. One time though, the auric body worker won a collection of pornography—a huge, encompassing collection of pornography, from Madonna’s then-recently released Sex book to original and reprint editions of Victorian smut. While digging deeply into one of the boxes, the body worker got a funny little smile on his face. “Are you ready for this?” He asked us. Then from out of the box he slowly withdrew something that he dangled reluctantly between two fingers: lavender, cylindrical, and battery operated. We all tittered in bemused disgust.

The owners of Safari once lucked upon the kind of collection that comes along maybe once in a career—a bookseller’s wet dream. They’d bid on and won a library previously owned by the most scholarly of readers: rare first editions, literary classics, history, art, culture. Some were even bound in brown Moroccan leather with marbleized endpapers. These books were so gorgeous that they might have served a purely decorative function, to create the appearance of an old-fashioned gentleman’s library, never having been read. Except that the man’s relationship with his library—his name, Henry H. Schmidt printed on bookplates glued inside—was obviously far more complex than that of the aesthetically motivated collector. Tucked in every book, he’d filed away articles, book reviews and his own notes. Neatly snipped L-shaped slips of newspapers, slightly yellowed, stuck to the inside pages throughout the books. As such, his books became an ingenious filing system, an intellectual discourse, a dialogue between the content of the book and its reception in the world outside of its pages: a pre-Internet hypertext.

Henry H. Schmidt clearly cultivated his technique. I had previously believed most items left behind served only as bookmarks. And let me tell you, anything smaller than a breadbox and flatter than a pancake can and will be used as a bookmark: old Greenstamp pages, receipts, chewing gum wrappers, and sometimes five, ten, and hundred-dollar bills.

Schmidt’s obsession inspired my own. I began to intentionally leave things behind in my books. What initially serve as bookmarks will over time take on an historical significance. Right now as I glance at my bookshelves, I can see these scraps protruding from the tops of books, waggling at me like tattling paper tongues. When I return to one of my books, I’m instantly brought back to when and where I was in my life when I last read it. This one has a flyer from a Haters show at the Kennel Club. In another I find a half-written rant to a now ex-boyfriend. I regard these bits of ephemera as map points in my own journey, so it is important to maintain the simultaneity of the scrap in relation to the time I was reading the book. I would never borrow the postcard I received in 1996 from one book to use as a bookmark in the copy of “The Wasteland” that I read in 2006.

One afternoon, while hanging out at On-Again, Off-Again’s apartment, he showed me something cautiously stowed away in a book: a thousand dollars. “For emergencies,” he confided.

“But I wanted to share this with someone in case anything should ever happen to me.” He is an obsessive book acquirer and thus his room is covered floor to ceiling in books. Should anyone go looking for the money, it would be like trying to find a born-again Christian at Burning Man.

Used books often pass through many hands, especially older ones. So if every one of the succession of owners leaves behind a bookmark, what happens to the one already left behind by the previous owner? Does the new owner regard it, as I do, as a sacrosanct object and allow it to remain, adding to it his own, thus intentionally compiling a palimpsest of accrued histories? Does he gasp with delighted surprise, like that man from Adobe that one Sunday, as if it were a Cracker Jack toy, and then slip it into a drawer already filled with other nifty odds and ends? I’ve witnessed On-Again, Off-Again flip open a recently purchased used book, look at the object, and then toss it casually aside. I suspect the last example to be the most common; the scraps change as often as the owners do.

Last year, On-Again, Off-Again presented me with a copy of Dark Back of Time by the Spanish writer Javier Marias to compliment another book by Marias called All Souls. Simply put, the plot of All Souls is the story of a Spanish novelist invited to teach for a year at Oxford University, and it describes the odd characters and events he experiences while there. Now, just like the protagonist in the novel All Souls, the novelist Marias had once been a visiting professor at Oxford. He had written the novel upon his return to Spain. Later, while returning to Oxford for an informal visit, Marias was chagrined to hear that his former colleagues believed his novel to be a roman a clef: a quasi-biographical account, or loosely based memoir of his time spent at Oxford. This so bothered Marias he felt compelled to explain himself at great length in the aforementioned non-fiction book, Dark Back of Time.

Marias is a writer of fascinating tangents, and he goes off on many throughout Dark Back of Time. One involves a string of coincidences around the presumably accidental death of a man who was hit by a stray bullet fired during a New Year’s revelry while standing on the balcony of his fifth floor room in a hotel in Mexico City, a place Marias identifies as the Hotel Isabel. I skid to a halt. Wait. Didn’t I, during my last visit to Mexico City, stay in a hotel of the same name? But I easily dismiss the thought, since I assume that Isabel is only another ubiquitous name, like how every city in Mexico has an Avenida Juarez. Then I come to this sentence, innocently perched on the last page of the chapter: “The Hotel Isabel still exists at the same spot, that is, the corner of the Republica del Salvador and Isabel la Catolica.”
Strangely, I had just noticed the hotel’s business card languishing in the bottom of my cosmetics bag—it had become a lipstick blotter. I climbed out of bed and rummaged through the case. Underneath the gouache of red and pink lip prints I could still make out the address: Hotel Isabel, Isabel La Catolica 63. 06000 Mexico, D.F. The next morning was Sunday, and after I unlocked the door to Adobe, I tried to sweep up some pigeon droppings, then pulled out my copy of Dark Back of Time. The night before, I had placed the card inside the book. I waited until some of the Salon arrived, while pretending to reread the book. When they got there, I told them the strange story of the book and the coincidence, and we all chuckled as I shelved it into the fiction section. Soon, but not too soon, it will be picked up by an unsuspecting reader, who will find this card, marking the page with the same address, and he will be awed by the lengths some readers will go to investigate the truth of someone else’s fiction.

Gravity Goldberg is a Bay Area writer and bookseller.

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