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Trevor Blake: Why Should I Speak of Them? The Strange Lives of Those who Sell Books to Those who Love Books

Circa 1997, previously unpublished.

A corrected and expanded version of this essay appears in Confessions of a Failed Egoist (Baltimore: Underworld Amusements 2014).

I have the great good fortune to be a used and rare book dealer in one of the best book cities of the world, Portland Oregon. I buy and sell children’s books out of my apartment, but this was not always the case. For many years I worked at stores around town, stores more public than my home. When you open your doors to the world, the world walks right in.

The store I worked at that had the highest concentration of characters is surrounded on three sides by bars and is only two blocks from a rehabilitation clinic. Across the street is an atheist community center (where, in another incarnation of the building, the Kingsmen recorded Louie Louie) but I don’t think that lends any direct weirdness to the spot. Only an indirect weirdness.

There were a steady stream of homeless people a the store, usually content to find a book and read in one of the back rooms for the day. But sometimes they needed help, or had something to share. The Nazi was one of the later.

I saw The Nazi on the way to work early in October, standing in front of another bookstore. I thought he was just getting a jump on Halloween, because he was wearing a full Nazi uniform and standing all but at attention. He came into my store later, and the closer he came to the counter the more I saw his uniform was his own creation.

He had taken a captains hat, pulled up the top, taped a white rope around the brim, sawed off most of the bill with a serated knife, and further taped a drawing of an eagle & swastika to the front. His shoulder strap was the thin plastic cord of a child’s purse or camera strap. He did have the colors of his shirt and pants correct, and a plastic eagle & swastika pin. His face and hands were mottled and large pieces of skin were hanging loose from them.

The Nazi pushed a shopping cart full of Harlequin Romance paperbacks into the store and asked if I could buy them. I think they had just come out of the Willamette River – they were not just damp, but leaving a trail of water behind the cart. I said unfortunately I could not buy them. He looked sad, so I asked what kinds of books he liked. “I like Nazi books” he said, and so I showed him the World War II shelves. There he stayed for quite some time (after moving his soggy books back outside).

Eventually he came up to the counter with a book on the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. “Ah, here’s one. Now I am only SS, but some day I will be Luftwaffe!” I told him that was great, and to work hard for what he wanted. He bought the book and left. I hear later he’d been kicked out of another store for shoving Judaica off the shelves, and the manager had told him ‘my daddy whipped your daddy in the War and I’ll do it to you now!’ I saw The Nazi a few more times, usually in the proximity of rehabilitation centers. Haven’t seen him in a while: perhaps he’s flown to more hospitable climes.

A man came into the store once with an influencing machine sticking out of his breast pocket. It had a dial, lights, wires, and a brief set of instructions that included a verse from the Bible. I wanted to learn more about it, but he seemed self-conscious about the device so I let it remain a mystery.

Another person had decorated his yellow and white striped shirt to read “I AM THE FREAK / WOMEN CUT OFF MEN’S PENISES TO MAKE THEM ALL EUNICS.”  I have never seen a more androgynous person.

One man, breathlessly, gave me the following note: “GALES CREEK. There is no record. It belongs to the state. It is no longer your because you lost your fair.”

Not all of the characters I’ve met in bookstores have been homeless. Book collectors and dealers have also stumped me with their requests. One day a middle-aged man and his younger colleague came up to the counter and said “I only have one question for you: pigeons.” What can one say to that? I told him where the bird books were and hoped that answered his one question. Another collector spent the majority of the day going through every section and nearly every title. He described himself as a stranger collector. He collected every book that had the word “stranger” in the title (except when used as an adjective, such as “stranger than fiction”). I asked if that was all he collected and he replied no, over the years he had branched out into “hospitality” books as well. And sure enough, when I was closing for the day he brought up a stack of books with “stranger” and “hospitality” in the title. I like to imagine what it would be like to be the bookseller called in to sell his books some day.

Sometimes a collector or dealer would have an agenda for their buying beyond just making money or acquiring books. On two occasions two difference couples came in and bought giant stacks of books on the Church of Later Day Saints, following a list of titles they brought in with them. The first couple stated they were saving the controversial titles from the Mormons, who bought them up to burn them. The second couple bought the controversial titles and left without comment. Makes you wonder.

One of the primary benefits of working in a bookstore is being able to handle thousands of books without having to buy them or return them to a library. I have had the chance to read (and at times photocopy) kook books by the armload, books that may contain one diagram or chapter that is a real jaw-dropper but over all may not be worth keeping. I know enough esoteric book happy types that if a book was really something special, I can make a call and get it into the right hands.

People leave all sorts of things in their books when they sell them. I’ve found a moldy bag of marijuana, money, book marks, photographs, postcards and, my favorite, letters and notes. Some examples…

Dear Loren: This book is a loan – hope you enjoy it. Give me a call when you are through & we’ll have dinner together. Love, Harriet

Dear Dad, hope this helps you to pass the time while you are recovering. Love, Greg.

Christopher, I you use this as a guide you will Read the whole Bible in the chapt & verse. Try to start & don’t miss a day. I’m sending it & it still has my name on the Front. Love you. Grandma Rosemary. the Bible has a planned guide to Read the whole Bible.

April 7th 1994 / Happy 84th birthday Clara from your loving husband Harry.

Why should I speak of them? It is necessary because of the extraordinary things they have blamed me for. And I? (deteste) (something like that) ridicule. Read, Read it aloud, and judge.

Dear Karen: I do understand how difficult it is to say ‘goodbye’ and that extends to not only to friends but possessions, routines & just familiar landmarks. I’m sorry I got on your case about doing things. Your doing your best and accomplishing lots. I guess we both have too much on our plates at the moment. We’re actually surviving alot better than I anticipated! Lots of things we’ve done / got will really help our transition into our new life. I’ll support & help & understand you as best as I can. I love you Karen your a very special person and my life is so much greater now were together! Love Brett.

in the 1900 a million Penguin were slotered. they come up for air like whale they eat Krill. They swim like the butter fly. The penguins are marked with paint. Penguins swim up to 35 miles per hour. Penguin have great courge. they dive like olimpic swimer. The whole show is about

Inspired by what I have found in books, I have left a note or two of my own. On the back of a photograph of a young couple I wrote “I KILLED THESE TWO PUT THEM IN A HOLE IN CANYON PASSAGE” and stuck it back in in a book along with a postcard from Canyon Passage. I won’t be around to see the reaction when that little treasure is found, but I can imagine…