The last meeting of the Central Avenue Readers Group did not happen in the usual place. There was no collection of chairs gathered from throughout the store and placed in a circle near the big front window of Central Avenue Books. There was no dimming of the lights throughout the stacks, a signal that the register was about to close and the space would revert to a meeting place to discuss the book of the month. There was no scramble to be sure everyone had coffee and a place to set it during the discussion. There was no gentle, gradual muffling of the noisy outside world as the sun set and everyone exchanged greetings.
There was no more Central Avenue Books.
In the weeks before the last meeting of the readers’ group, the store’s space was filled by a textbook store. The shelves were pushed behind a counter and partial wall. Their warm, time-worn edges now wore taped labels for classes: BIO 6105, ENG 302, ANTH 460. The sconces and odd old lamps were replaced by fluorescent tubes that gave off a cold, white light that almost hurt. Titles that were loved and kept in stock in spite of their places in educational canons and publication status had been boxed. Some of them sold as large lots to other stores or collectors. A few boxes found their way to Sam and Tab’s store. And so did the Readers’ Club.
“Was it sad?” I asked.
“A little,” Tab said, sighing, “Most of them live a county or two away. Some of them don’t even live in the same town as the store. It’s a monthly day trip for them. They were pretty dedicated.”
“So this was their last meeting?”
“Well, yes and no. They’ve taken it online. They’re going to be Skyping from the comfort of their living rooms, kitchens, and basements. Welcome to the modern age. You know there’s going to be a lot of shelf porn going on.”
Ah, the shelf porn… It started with people blowing up pictures to see the titles on the shelves and went to websites devoted to nothing but pictures of shelves. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. It was fun and given that this was a group of book lovers, it was delightfully inevitable.
“The real story here is the owner, or rather, the former owner.” I could hear Tab ring up a customer and waited for her to come back. “He was getting up there and figured he’d retire or die running his store. Then things got dicey. There were serial months of operating in the red. At one point, someone got desperate enough to try to rob him. Then one Saturday after almost a week with no customers, a woman came in with her little girl. They were visiting relatives and the airline had lost their luggage and with it, the girl’s book stash for the trip.
The mother told handed the little girl a canvas tote and told her the limit was what she could fit in the bag. For the next hour, the girl, who told the owner she was nine, packed and repacked the bag with a couple of missing L’Engle novels, some Marguerite Henry horse books, Pratchett’s last Tiffany Aching novel, a biography of Beatrix Potter, two Terry Jones fairy tale books, and Peter Menzel’s “Material World” and “What the World Eats”.
When she lifted the full bag to the counter, her mother asked her if she’d be able to carry all of those books.
The little girl grinned.
“Remember what you said about those high shoes you wore to church? It hurts but it’s worth it.”
The bookseller rang up the books and then carefully packed them back into the canvas tote. Before the woman had a chance to lift the bag, the little girl slid it from the counter, looped the straps over she shoulders and adjusted the bag. She looked from her mother to the seller and nodded.
“Thank you!” she said brightly. The mother shook her head and laughed.
“If someone gave me the canvas bag equivalent to a blank check in a book store, I would have done the same thing.”
Our friend agreed. After they left, he sat there, looking at the shelves and watching the setting sun give everything a wash of bright orange light. That was when he realized this was the perfect high note for him to call it a day and close the store. He put a note on the door thanking everyone for thirty-eight wonderful years. Then he called Sam and Tab to ask if they’d host his book club’s last meeting, called to book club to tell them about the change of plans and after that, he called his son to tell him he wanted the guest house at his place after all, and to bring two trucks, one for his personal things and one for his inventory.
“He didn’t try to liquidate his inventory?” I asked.
“Why should he? His son is a book seller. Like he said when I asked, it’s in the blood.”
As this year draws to a close, I want to take a moment to wish our readers a happy new year. Your bone-deep love of books and the people who can’t enough of them inspires us. I want to thank our resident Grande Dame, Diane Plumley, Web Czar Bruce Hollingsworth, and my fellow writers: Carrie Bailey, John Hendricks, Caroline Scutt, and Matthew Singleton. All of you delight me and make me feel among friends when it comes to our shared passion for books. Happy New Year, all!