I’ve spent exactly one day in London in my life. It’s been a couple decades now. I was part of a group at my company attending a conference in Amsterdam (a story for another time). We had to connect through London so ended up taking a day there before continuing on. I believe it was a Saturday. We spent the entire afternoon walking the city, and at some point happened upon an outside street fair.
I only remember two things from that afternoon.
One, an older man playing violin in the square. His hair long, gray and wild, his beard shaggy. Wore a white, long sleeved buttoned shirt, open at the chest and a little grimy, deep burgandy pants that billowed and made his long legs seem longer. He played with passion, his eyes wide when they weren’t closed in communion with his instrument. I took him for a regular, if uninvited, character of the grounds. He was both oblivious and superior to the townspeople and tourists milling about. He danced as he played, in essence commandeering the entire square as his performance space. I was bewitched by his power and presence. He said not a word, yet the square was his.
The only other thing I recall from the street fair was a vendor standing behind a few really long tables of used books. Being a provincial kid from Uniontown on my first trip abroad, I remember being drawn to something familiar in this otherwise exotic place. While my colleagues explored elsewhere, I lost myself rooting through the tables. After a bit, my eye caught something by Kurt Vonnegut. I didn’t recognize the title. It looked to be some sort of television screenplay. I immediately thought of my friend, Bill, who was absolutely mad for all things Kurt. I forked over a couple pounds, put the treasure in my coat pocket, and went to find my colleagues.
When I got home, I wrapped up the book and sent it to Bill, along with a note of how I’d happened upon it.
A week or so later, he wrote me back. Evidently, he’d heard of the screenplay, but it had long been out of circulation. It was the one piece of Vonnegut he’d never been able to track down. He was absolutely over the moon and profuse in his gratitude.
Reading his thank you note was just the best feeling. To this day, I count it among the best gifts I’ve ever given, everything about it pure serendipity.
I was reminded of this decades-old exchange recently while watching Booksellers, a documentary streaming on Amazon Prime.
It’s a love letter to the characters still perpetuating the antiquarian bookseller trade in New York City, and the city’s shrinking ice floe of independent booksellers. The rare book profession is a relic of a pre-Internet time. One of the booksellers in the documentary mentions that in the 1950s, there were 368 bookstores in New York. At the time of the interview (a couple years ago), the number had shrunk to 79. The story touches hearts (or at least, mine) as it spotlights a motley collection of mostly irrational – though some quite rational – romantics.
Treasure hunters, they are.
As are their customers.
Though independent, they exist in a gritted-teeth relationship with the beast most responsible for the demise of their kind — the Internet. For all the Internet has done to efficiently and expediently connect rare book sellers with their buyers (the irony that I only discovered the documentary from an in-box recommendation from the friendly robots at Amazon Prime is not lost on me), it has, in the process, mostly extinguished the terribly inefficient and gloriously analog process of the treasure hunt.
The act of finding things you are not even looking for.
The investment of time for an uncertain and unexpected return.
Of rooting through stacks, boxes, losing yourself amongst shelves. Of being quite content with long odds. Of perfecting a fisherman’s patience. Of defining treasure on your terms, like a forgotten out-of-print screenplay on a London table, or an obscure 1961 album by the Belmonts, which my friend Doug unearthed during a recent pilgrimage to George’s Song Shop in Johnstown. My heart sings like the Belmonts when Doug tells me of his regular foragings and finds.
Yet I must confess to having long ago been easily and cheaply seduced by Amazon convenience. It shames me to say it, but, on occasion, I’ve actually snapped pictures of book covers in bookshops to potentially Amazon later. Not that this absolves me in any way, but I do it in part to curb my otherwise uncurb-able impulse-buying instincts whenever I find myself around book stacks. (I have a book problem.)
But it’s hard to watch Booksellers and not be moved.
Just as it’s impossible to listen to my friend Doug and not be stirred – whether in casual conversation or sitting in his congregation from 6-to midnight every Sunday night on WANB radio, where he’s been sharing treasure from his lovingly curated stacks of Rock and Roll for 27 years and counting.
But it’s taken a sweet bit of good-old-fashioned serendipity to inspire me to truly turn a page.
Out of the blue I received a package in the mail from my good friend, Jeff.
Accompanying it, this note:
But THE BEST part? On the back ….
At that, I felt what my friend Bill must’ve felt 20+ years ago holding that Vonnegut screenplay in his hands. The true gift as much in the thought that inspired it as between its pages.
I hope that Jeff is feeling at least a measure of what I felt when Bill received his treasure. And I hope that feeling stays with him as long as mine has.
I’ve been blessed to be on both sides of those feelings. To stumble upon something that makes you think of someone else. And to let the other person know.
The lesson? Never miss a chance to let someone know you’re thinking about them. Your timing will never not be perfect.
Driving home a few weeks ago from the grocery store I swung past the small college campus here in town. The remnants of winter’s last snow had finally melted, and the grassy hill in front of Old Main was a sight for my sore eyes.
In the middle of the lawn I spied an older man in a jacket and ballcap. Slowing down, I noticed he was waving a metal detector back and forth. He moved methodically in small steps, listening for small possibility in that sea of sprawling, soggy green. Involuntarily I was smiling thinking of the summers growing up when all the neighborhood Moms (mine included) procured metal detectors and conducted routine scavenging expeditions all over the neighborhood. And how we kids couldn’t wait to see what treasure they unearthed with their trusty trowels. By objective measure, their hauls were as paltry as you might expect. But, to us, a resurrected wheat penny was a gold bar.
I’ve seen him a couple times lately, most recently lonely strolling across the lawn of the high school.
I tipped my ballcap towards his oblivious, head-bowed meditation. To his investment of time for an uncertain return. To optimism and expectation. To the search for things you are not even looking for.
A few days ago I was writing a note to accompany a book I was returning to a good friend. Doing so made me think of a favorite read that he and his daughter might appreciate. Made my first penitent purchase from White Whale. I ordered it online, but am going to pick it up in the store.
So I can spend a few moments rooting through the stacks.
Still that provincial kid from Uniontown on his first trip abroad, drawn to something familiar and comforting in this otherwise exotic place.
“And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Elliot