Neal Burroughs, a moth-eaten 39-year-old lifelong bachelor, shakes his rather thick oblong head and admonishes himself for being late as usual in opening his store.
Neal fusses with the keys and struggles to unlock the back door of his landlord’s two-story dwelling. The building, a turn-of-the-century modified split level, sorely needs new electric wiring and copper plumbing, but in lieu of dealing with an electrician and debating the expense of repairs vs. the value of updates, the owner opts instead to paint the foundation each spring the same color as the shutters, a shade of turquoise just dark enough to disguise the elongated cracks. Neal doesn’t mind the banging of pipes and the flickering of lights; he’s just happy that Mr. Hirtson doesn’t hike the rent or add maintenance fees with the mercenary fervor of some strip mall capitalist.
The small downtown bookshop—not refined enough to be classified antiquarian, nor ratty enough to be stigmatized as a used book emporium of unjacketed hardbacks and dogeared paperbacks—is surprisingly organized and well-kept to the public eye, all 800 square feet of it; the remainder of the space is for storage and bathroom breaks via a mini-obstacle course that requires stepping over piles of mostly clothbound stock to take a leak. The storage area itself consists of a curtained off back wall, a broom closet and the bathroom; every square foot of painted concrete floor is littered with books.
The storage area is quite messy and disorganized, and his regulars feel a sense of favoritism when Neal allows them to pick through stacks and stacks of unpriced inventory. Every day, it is as if they had stumbled upon the rummage sale of an abandoned estate library. These select folks to whom Neal confides are much like him, self-involved bookaholics adrift in the northeast Philadelphia suburbs. They are grateful to be counted “among the present,” as Neal calls out to them during his periodic roll calls. Neal particularly likes taking attendance during slow, rainy days when he can count the number of customers on one hand. Dismal weather may create foot traffic for some bookstores with higher visibility in a supportive community, but for Neal’s poorly managed operation, storm clouds and rainwater cause fewer cash register rings and “present” replies.
Neal’s regulars religiously remind him how thankful they are for his store’s “last man standing” mentality and his own gritty authenticity as a bookseller in the mold of previous Bygone Days owner Sam Stone. They don’t ever consider, nor worry, that Neal is spending every last dime of his mother’s small inheritance on this literary rat hole.
Neal’s store is stuffy—not elitist, nose-in-the-air stuffy, but humid and physically uncomfortable stuffy. He takes foolish pride in knowing that his throwback retail outlet is a slow-footed, thick-skulled dinosaur—a Colepiocephale, a name he ostentatiously knows to be Greek for “knucklehead”—amidst a changing landscape of hybrid corporate giants in a sterile, climate-controlled environment of big box efficiency. His cluttered, poorly lighted place filled with mounds of bound printed matter feels like home to Neal and his regulars, especially the few who now find it difficult to recognize this once thriving neighborhood of independent merchants.
Because of what Neal calculated on the back of a gently used napkin as basic economic survival, he chose an undesirable location, where real estate agents scrunch their noses and toy dogs are forbidden to play, no less piddle. The cheap rent district is barely a rundown hockey rink’s distance from the bustling shops of Main Street in the immaculately groomed historic town center. His shop may as well be two oceans away from town center, Neal readily admits to patrons, as it is far enough off the beaten path to host an average of four meager faces in the course of a weekday morning.
A tall, awkward man, Neal hunches partially under a slight aluminum ledge as a hard unforgiving rain pelts his bald, uncovered head. “Finally, success,” he announces with a sigh of relief and enters the semi-dark, narrow storage area, only to immediately trip over a pile of books.
“Dammit, Neal,” Neal says aloud, barely sidestepping the remaining stacks of hardbacks as he lurches purposefully toward the light switch. Mindful to first wipe his hands dry against his black polyester trousers, Neal flicks three switches up simultaneously. He then watches helplessly as one of the fluorescent tubes flickers and dies—without so much as putting up a good fight, he surmises morosely.
“I’m tired of always rushing,” he thinks for the umpteenth time, while cleaning his spectacles with a paper towel in the tiny, unclean powder room. He tosses the towel in an overflowing wastebasket and fills an unwashed 7-Eleven cup with tap water. He takes a sip, grimaces, spits in the toilet, and flushes.
“Haste makes waste, Neal,” he says fretfully, anxious that he may have just damaged some of his recent book acquisitions by carelessly kicking them to the floor. Neal is aware that he could ill afford to throw away money. For a self-proclaimed “prudent” bookseller of fine first editions, he estimates that a downgrade in a book’s condition could mean the loss of a few hundred dollars. That’s half a month’s rent in this sleepy part of Dopeytown, as Neal likes to call his adopted village. Neal is careless with what he calls “flea books,” but when it comes to his more valuable editions, he throws a fit if their spines become askew from poor handling.
Neal lumbers through an open doorway and ducks to avoid brushing his head against a cobweb. He’s accustomed to—no, he’s enamored by—cobwebs, dust, and general disorder. It’s his nature to let things pile around him and he believes the towers of books are comforting to his regulars, too. He feels the clutter adds an ambiance that only a used bookshop possesses, but he is meticulous about knowing where everything is. If a customer comes in and requests a copy of, say, John Dunning’s Booked to Die, he not only knows its location in the store, but also its edition, condition, and price.
Neal unlocks the wide front door from the inside and flips the Open sign in the case window to face the mostly barren street. He listens a brief while to the booming thunder and relentless patter of rain against the gray macadam. A distant siren arouses him into noticing a blanket of dust on the gilt edges of a 49-volume cheap leather set of Harvard Classics. Instead of allowing this symbol of neglect to depress him, he pictures for a spell that he owns an antiquarian bookshop in the heart of London. Oh how he longs for a sophisticated, cultured clientèle of highbrow taste (nouveau riche need not apply). He imagines a fanciful life where he would be appreciated and honored for his exceptional knowledge of Elizabethan literature.
Neal’s reverie is halted by the harsh sound of pipes kicking up heat from the cellar. Given his current state of finances, Neal is more likely to go bankrupt than abroad. He is two months behind in rent and quite possibly one month from an eviction. He dwells not on his misfortunes, however, as his delusions of grandeur won’t allow it. Because he falsely claims to whoever will listen that he is an expert who deals primarily in rare and out-of-print material, he perceives each day as a potential windfall. His dream is to purchase a library of such astounding worth that he could spend the rest of his days reading and writing and doing little else. “Every customer is a prospect for my retirement,” he often tells his regulars, most of whom are as broke as Neal.
“Good morning, Neal. I see you made it in.” Neal breaks from his daydream with a start, followed by a cringe. It’s Don Stempel, a creepy regular whom Neal abhors. Don, a thirty-something dishwasher who lives with his mother, is a passionate reader of True Crime books. Neal detests even carrying the topic but since Don is a loyal customer, Neal works hard to satisfy him. It sometimes means the difference between eating lunch and waiting for supper. “Good morning, Don.”
Don promptly checks the New Arrivals section and pulls out a soiled hardback of Among the Missing: An Anecdotal History of Missing Persons from 1800 to the Present by Jay Robert Nash. “I have the paperback copy at home,” Don says with a schoolboy gleam in his eyes. Even though he has no intention of replacing his paperback at home, Don pores with his dirty fingers through the book’s pages, irking submissive Neal to no end.
“Have you heard the story of Willie Guldensuppe?” Don asks. “In 1897, he is missing for a week before police fish his body parts out of the Hudson River.”
Neal, tempted to scream, “I don’t care, nobody cares, get out of my store and don’t come back, you fruitcake,” nods his head, which is beginning to pound, and acts disinterested. Don continues undeterred.
“What about Henry C. Koehnemann, a wealthy Philadelphia businessman? In 1900, he vanishes completely, leaving a wife and two sons.” Don then pauses for dramatic effect while Neal stews, wishing Don went dead or missing.
“Koehnemann is later found as Henry C. Schwenk, paralyzed by a stroke and not able to explain his disappearance.” Neal ponders lashing out at Don, telling him, “Your story is not that interesting, so why share it?” But Neal resists. Don may be a strange, revolting duck but his average purchase of four books a week is Neal’s bread and butter. “A guy has a stroke and is later found. Big deal,” Neal says sotto voce.
Don looks at Neal curiously then proceeds to rattle off meaningless facts from memory. He never directly reads from the book, only scans it, then delivers the inane blurb in a mechanical voice. Neal is both dazzled and horrified by Don’s uncanny ability to retain freaky, House of Horrors trivia.
Usually when Don’s in the shop, Neal prefers it empty. Don’s social graces leave a lot to be desired and his body odor leaves people—probably rich book collectors, Neal fears—sprinting for the exit. But on days like these with Don warbling on endlessly, Neal begs for a reprieve. His wish: perhaps another customer will come in and Don, depending on his mood, will become so alienated by another’s company, he’ll go away.
Neal reaches down underneath the makeshift checkout counter of empty milk crates and brings up a half-gallon jug of warm iced tea. He remembers the 7-Eleven cup in the bathroom and leaves Don in full fact-regurgitating stride. As Don spews on ruthlessly, Jim Lawson walks in. Now, Don Stemple may be crude and obnoxious, but Jim Lawson is a certified lunatic. In fact, he has shared with Neal that he is a diagnosed schizophrenic who often stops taking his medicine. Jim, a fifty-something boomer, is highly opinionated, but typically harmless. He has a “Fuck You” tattoo on his left hand, clearly visible to anyone holding a conversation with him.
Neal re-enters the crowded 400 square foot, front room with its narrow aisles and wall-to-wall books. Don has not stopped talking and now raises his voice in an effort for Neal to hear from the other room. The two rooms are separated by a blanket acting as a curtain. Neal seethes, not yet spotting Jim near the Physical Science section.
“In 1946, Carl W. Rockell is arrested in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for slashing Ernest R. Varney, Jr., fifty-four times in order to steal fifty-nine cents,” Don says.
“Who cares?” Jim says, from his alcove. Neal, stunned to hear another voice, spots Jim Lawson on the ground, sitting with his legs crossed Indian-style. He always has wondered what it would be like to have these two characters in his shop at the same time. He can stop wondering.
Jim, clutching a copy of The Origin of Species , confronts Don at the counter. Neal, now alarmed but fascinated, sits on a stool at the cash register. He counts the paper bills he can make for change, despite knowing it’s the same twenty-nine dollars he had left in the drawer the day before.
“I said, ‘Who cares’,” Jim says to Don, who ignores him while burying his head in a copy of Murder in Ordinary Time.
Neal, wondering if he should intervene, looks into Jim’s eyes and can tell that either he’s stopped taking his medication or he’s run out of money to refill his prescription. Like several of Neal’s customers, Jim is addicted to books as much as a drug addict who needs his fix. The world of knowledge is his heroin, his nourishment, his salvation. He patronized Neal a minimum of twice a week. He’s sane enough to know he can not possibly read all the books he buys, but he’s intelligent and ambitious enough to try.
“I said, ‘Who cares’,” Jim says again to Don, this time a little more threateningly. “Why don’t you discuss a topic that has meaning? Do you know that we’re about to return to the days when it was illegal to teach evolution in the classroom? Do you know that the right wing Republican think tank is so concerned with being perceived as moderate-conservative that it’s ostracizing the Christian coalition and that in the next presidential election, the third party will, in fact, be religious, not Independent or Libertarian? Do you care a donkey’s lick about these things which directly impact us, not to mention their implications on the future?”
Don, visibly shaken, places the book down and joins Neal behind the counter. It’s not the first time that Neal has permitted him past the invisible border that separates consumer from merchant. Don occasionally becomes so disoriented—and so insecure, he pretends to be an assistant clerk. Neal has never reprimanded him for this inappropriate behavior. After all, Neal figures, Don has enough problems without Neal becoming an authority figure, too. If Don wants to role play, Neal indulges him, as long as he doesn’t come too close to Neal and at the end of the day, he pays for his book(s) and goes home.
“You’re going to let him do that?” Jim asks, incredulously.
“Leave him alone, Jim. Now please. It’s all right,” Neal responds, surprised at his how impulsive assertion.
“What do you mean, “it’s all right’?” Jim cries. “What are you a supporter of anarchy? If everyone were to do what he pleased, where would we be? What is this country without laws? A customer can’t just walk behind the counter.”
“A customer in my shop can do what he pleases, as long as I say it’s all right,” Neal shouts.
“That’s insane. What’s gotten over you?” Jim says. “You’re taking his side. Who is this guy? He sounds like a parrot with an affinity for senseless crime statistics. You back him over me?”
“Jim, I’m not backing anybody. I’m just trying to sell some books here. Please, if you want the Darwin book, pay me and take it. If you don’t, I have to ask you to leave. This is getting out of hand.”
“You’ve let it get out of hand by letting that maniac behind the counter, Neal,” Jim says. “There are rules that can not be broken. Customers must abide by them. They can not cross that line. Once they do, we’re all dead meat.”
Don pulls out a revolver. “Can I kill him?” he asks Neal with cold sincerity.
“Holy … Don … what the … please, put that away,” Neal stammers.
“You sonuvabitch,” Jim roars and charges the counter. Don fires two shots, the first grazing Jim on the shoulder blade, the next hitting him in the chest and killing him instantly.
Neal sits dazed, squinting at the warm corpse of Jim with his “Fuck You” tattoo faced outward.
Don clears his throat and speaks blandly:
“In 1932, department-store executive Lee Schlesinger of Portland, Oregon, is thought dead when his car is found in the Columbia River off a Vancouver dock. He is found two years later living in South America under a different name.”
[About Dan Cafaro]
Goodness, Mr. Cafaro. When are you going to come out with your OWN novel / short story collection? Because judging from this, I’d devour it.
You’re very kind, Tolly. Thank you for the encouragement. If I ever find time to take a few gasps of air between other, more talented authors’ books, I may visit the idea.
I AGREE WITH TOLLY AND HOPE YOU MANAGE TO FIND THAT “FEW GASPS OF AIR”. LOVED THIS STORY AND LOOK FORWARD TO READING MORE OF YOUR WORK. CAROLYN
Thank you, Carolyn! I see you’re a friend of the “Independent Booksellers That Rock Our World” page on Facebook. We’re so glad to provide what we hope is a service to industry professionals. We figure, worst case, it gives our colleagues some added exposure and feeds our own addiction to books!