For those of you who know me, you know that I have a fondness for books that borders on requiring the ICD Diagnostic code book to add a new code just for me, and my mania. It wasn’t always thus. When I was a child, I developed an early fondness for reading. I can’t recall when it really took hold, but I do recall that the first book that ever enamored me in a meaningful way was Laura-Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House In The Big Woods’. I recall my father, during one of our rare, and more memorable, interactions reading it to my brother and me. All the while, I not only enjoyed the story, but I allowed my mind to wander as I considered how little they had, and how happy they were. That singular work, as I’m sure it did for myriad others, took me to a place and time that I would otherwise never experience, nor comprehend.
A year or two later, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, Gordon Korman, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s works would do the same. For years thereafter, I made my way through every book that my parents had in the house, regardless of the intended age for which they were written, or the subject matter. Every one of them, in their own way, took me somewhere ‘other’, which was a blessing most days, as I was a heavily bullied kid without a lot of friends in a home that had begun to unravel.
I still recall trips to the grade school library at Summerdale Elementary, where Mrs. Lindhe, the librarian, would indulge my inquisitive nature, treating me not as a child, but as a conversational equal. She’ll probably never know how influential those conversations were.
My grandfather, seeing my borderline-sexual response to his library every time that I was at his home visiting soon began to allow me to handle his sacred volumes. As such, I spent a great deal of my time at his home poring over books I had never seen, nor heard of, before. Of particular interest was the occult. I may very well be the youngest individual on the planet to have read all of Hans Holzer’s works.
As these interactions progressed, he would surprise me with a volume or two to keep, as well as subscribing to magazines that might be of interest to me. It was like a Christmas crap-shoot each time we visited.
By the time I was sixteen, I had begun to seek out titles on my own. Now that I had the money to do so, the literary world became an oyster waiting for me to shuck the living crap out of it. One book would lead to others – sometimes entire series. I also, about this time, landed a job in Loves Park, at the local geek mecca: Tomorrow is Yesterday. TIY was a store that catered to everything I held dear (well – except Star Trek. I was never a fan: so sue me.) Novels, and technology non-fiction, began to share mind-space with the likes of Neil Gaiman, and the plethora of excellent writers in the DC backwaters. Marvel’s offerings never held a lot of appeal to me. To be fair, though, neither did DC’s heavy hitters. I read, instead, third-tier books – my favorite being ‘Dr. Fate’ – which would later spawn my BBS handle, and also give rise to the long-standing title of my blog.
As I continued my biblio-branch out, I learned more about a place that I had heard of, but was not familiar with in the slightest. With a fresh driver’s license in my pocket, I made my first trip to Toad Hall, on Broadway, not really knowing what to expect. I still recall entering the confines for the first time. The sense of history was physical, as I found myself surrounded by records, books, ephemera, and squillions of other rare and unique items. This first visit was, to be honest, a disappointment. However, it was a disappointment only insofar as that I had not developed the appropriate palate for what they had on offer. It’s sort of like drinking scotch for the first time, I suppose. One doesn’t really know what to expect, and one does not – typically – take an immediate shine to it. Still, after a time, once the flavor profiles are better understood, and the sampling of numerous types and ages is complete, it brings the whole experience to an entirely new level. So, in summation: I was a Boone’s Farm drinker in a Laphroaig establishment.
Over the ensuing years, I would pop back in periodically to give the place a new try. Larry, half of the husband and wife duo who owned the place, scared the crap out of me. As did Bev – his wife – with the extra added feature of making me feel like a bait fish in a piranha tank. This lasted for about three visits, mostly to purchase cheap, used CD’s. Then, one day, Bev was fiddling with some L. Frank Baum titles from the original print runs. I made a comment that caught her attention and, for the first time, she smiled. We had a short discussion about the Oz books, and I left feeling like I had broken down a barrier.
In the following years, I would make it a point to attempt to engage Bev in conversation, if she wasn’t too busy. Amazingly, she had some truly remarkable stories to tell, and seemed eager to take the time to share them with me. We talked about Tolkien, Baum, Pynchon, and myriad other authors, as well as her time in the store, landmark acquisitions, and any number of interesting things that I wish – for the life of me – I had had the foresight to tape record for posterity.
My final visit there, before the store changed hands, was in an attempt to find the best-selling novel of 1922 – the year my grandmother had been born. It was her birthday, you see, and I wanted to get her something thoughtful and unique. As such, I chose the novel, ‘If Winter Comes’ by A.S.M. Hutchinson. I figured, what does one get for the woman who has everything she wants or needs? It seemed silly to some folks but, to me, the act of seeking out the work – and presenting it – meant more than the comparatively paltry price. Unfortunately, I don’t think she appreciated the effort, or uniqueness, as I much as I might have hoped (I’m pretty sure, even after explaining it, I had still confused her a bit with the whole endeavor: live and learn.) Anyway, I walked in being about 90% sure that I was going to be faced with a blank stare by Bev, and be leaving empty handed. I was wrong.
Bev not only knew the book, she also knew it was the bestseller in 1922, knew of the other books that Hutchinson had written, and promptly directed me to a shelf containing not one – but TWO specimens of the work. It was a moment that I’ll always remember, because I was just so in awe that someone could have that much knowledge in their head. Bev was a mental dynamo at times.
As the years have progressed, I have refined my collection. I am no longer a ‘book owner’, but a true ‘book collector’. My collection has, unfortunately, eclipsed my ability to seek out titles locally. In fact, I am often forced to go out of the country, or go without entirely, with regard to the few volumes that I still pursue in the present. I sort of miss those heady days, though, of walking into a bookstore, browsing the used books, inhaling the singular smell, and reveling in the voluminous nature of all of the history and narrative surrounding me. I also miss the joy of finding things in books that folks use for bookmarks. I’ve found – well – bookmarks, certainly. But I’ve also found postcards, receipts, letters, recipes, tracts, odd ephemera, bawdy playing cards, and – on one singular occasion – a card written by an actress, to another actress, bemoaning the loss of Whit Bissell (whose obituary was laid-in), and recalling the good times that they had collectively had as a group, doing horror movies. She then went on to mention her new pet snow leopard, and what a ‘rascal’ he was. It was an intimate peek into a pair of lives that, while voyeuristic, I also relished having the privilege to have taken part in. I still have that card, to this day.
Today, Toad Hall, and Tomorrow is Yesterday are both owned by a new generation of proprietors (TIY, in fact, has an entirely different name as well). One of these days, I should probably head down to Broadway, and see about kindling a new friendship with the current owners of Toad Hall. One of these days, I know, I will.