There are times when I think I know what it must be like to be fictional. I, too, never feel more at home than when I am surrounded by pages and sandwiched snugly between two covers, four color print and cloth binding optional.
You see, I am only at home among books -- lots of them. I need them the way arteries need blood, the way teenagers need Twitter, the way the BBC needs Helen Mirren. My devotion is desperate and unequivocal. Nelly, I am books, not as a pleasure to myself but as my very being!
I have prowled shelves for hours at Nine Lives, where I gasped when I found Edna Ferber's long out-of-print Giant and bought my first of the three copies of Atlas Shrugged that I have owned so far while orphaned kittens up for adoption twined around my ankles at the cash register. I have dug through piles of abandoned Harlequins at Goodwill just in case, you never know!... I know all my local Half Price Bookstores and what makes them each special. I go into spasms of glee over the glossy covers in the richly populated Bargain aisles at Borders and B&N, and I lodge myself so deeply in the library's Book Cellar that they have to threaten me with boxed sets of Sweet Valley HIgh before I'll leave.
But in all my years of ditching mom at the mall for the tiny Waldenbooks by Luby's, of compulsively paying full price for a gorgeous hardback because I couldn't wait any longer, of walking in for one book and leaving with nine, plus a "Discover New Artists" brochure -- I never met anyone quite like Jean-Claude.
I first saw him collapsed in an armchair like one of those dolls with all the joints that fold every which way, rubbing his nose and mumbling over a punishingly heavy volume of Tolstoy. My only thought then was a mental note never to sit on that chair unless I personally witnessed its steam cleaning. I wasn't there to look for a book -- not technically, anyway. That day I was there to meet my sister, who had landed at Barnes and Noble for her first job. That day walking past Jean-Claude in my second circuit of the store, I saw her marching into Bargain -- honey hair tied messily back, chin scraping the stratosphere, employee ID bouncing jauntily off her chest. That ID...to me, it was a coveted backstage pass with VIP access. That bookstore was her domain, and I was just a general admission groupie. I rounded the corner and handed her a cup of the coffee she'd only just started drinking. (Natural consequence of being a bookie. Reporters smoke, detectives drink scotch. Bookstore employees inject Starbucks by the Venti.)
"Ready to go to lunch?" I asked, reading the cover of the astrological encyclopedia she was stacking.
"Almost," she grunted, heaving the last ten. "Sorry, I got behind. Jean-Claude went swimming in the bathroom again and I had to shut it down and clean up his mess."
I wasn't sure I'd heard her right. "Swimming? Who's Jean-Claude?"
She straightened and squinted at me, one eye squeezed shut. "Jean-Claude? He's our crazy Frenchman. He comes in in the morning and leaves when we close."
"He works here?" I asked stupidly, not getting it.
My sister snorted. "He lives here."
With that, we went to lunch, and I didn't get back to the bookstore for a while. After that, though, I couldn't staunch my curiosity. It took a few more visits to the store to get a better glimpse of him, which at long last, I did.
Jean-Claude smelled of overripe, sweaty upholstery and milk starting to turn. His hands and face were the cleanest things about him (a fact which didn't inspire confidence) and his hair resembled an attempted crop circle gone awry. He was French, faked a questionable command of English, and lived in a van.
I say he lived in a van, but that's not true. Jean-Claude slept in his van. He lived in the store, lived all over it. He wasn't overly picky. At any given time, you could trip over Jean-Claude anywhere. I spotted him in Religion and Philosophy, in Cooking, History, Art and Literature. I don't know what he ate, although with enough experience you could guess from the smell. I don't know where he got any money to eat -- I never saw him begging. There were times when I thought he didn't really care.
All Jean-Claude cared about was books. I saw him chewing his fingernails over a copy of Jane Eyre and sneezing over a manga book. I saw him stack book after book in front of his armchair and burrow in like a gopher, settling in for a long day of reading.
I know he drove the store employees crazy. They tolerated him, but they foamed at the mouth about his pretense at bad English when he devoured books all day, at his smell and dirty clothes, his bathroom messes, the stacks of books he left any old place. He'd be waiting at the entrance when the manager came to open, and they had to shoo him out at night.
I didn't see him often. I'd come to Barnes and Noble to shop, to see my sister, to get away from home. I came to meet my writing partner and an old friend from high school I hadn't seen in two years. I wasn't even sure I'd recognize him, but somehow knowing I'd be seeing him amid rows of books made me more confident. (I never did sit in that armchair, especially after my sister described what she'd caught a couple doing in it one evening, followed by a comment on how rarely that upholstery was decently cleaned.)
I learned to recognize types of people in those years. After a while I knew instinctively which girls would pull every bridal magazine out to flip through, giggle over and leave scattered all over the carpeted aisle. I knew which guys were furtively trying to sneak Maxim into the bathroom, and which boys were trying to look at FHM and Stuff while trying to act like they weren't. I learned about the Chronic Returners, the Oh-This-Isn't-A-Library? patrons, the But-I-Ordered-It-Last-Week tantrum throwers, the comic lovers, the research paper writers, the craft book addicts and the romance novel lushes.
And then there was always Jean-Claude, grumbling in French while flipping through Love in the Time of Cholera.
Then one day I stopped back in. I'd been broadening my booksploring, discovering independent bookshops and developing my lasting love of used bookshops, but on my way home the green sign beckoned to me. My sister was handing over the register to a co-worker and waved me over. I could see the circles under her eyes from the door -- it was almost Christmas, which in the book business says it all. We walked over to the attached Starbucks to sit, and she started spewing the minute she sat down. Long day, gift card lines, tons of returns, and the police on top of that--
I interrupted her. "Police?"
She rolled her eyes. "Jean-Claude."
After months of living in the store, apparently, Jean-Claude had been caught stealing books from the store. The store employees had suspected it for a while, but today at long last he'd tripped an alarm, and the police came to escort Jean-Claude from the store and subsequently ban him from the parking lot. As a collective whole, the staff of Barnes and Noble heaved a great sigh of relief, to be free of their squatter.
I never saw or heard anything of Jean-Claude again, from my sister or anyone else. There's no way to know where he wound up, if he moved on to torment another bookstore staff or if he simply disappeared into the swirl of the city.
I can't imagine being without my books, much less being homeless. Imagining myself in a world without the sound of turning pages, without the smell of fresh paper and glue, the feel of the tooth under my fingers and the gorgeous contrast of print on a page makes life seem gray-tinged and musty. I don't understand the love of electronic books, the rage for Kindle and e-readers -- there's nothing there to hold, no way to breathe and absorb in the words as you read them, no beautiful cover to catch your eye and make you smile at the memory of the story inside as you walk past your shelves.
And I don't know much about the little man who crouched in every corner of that store, but in him, I saw a flicker of recognition -- that flame that burns within book lovers. Maybe, just maybe, for Jean-Claude, that bookstore was about more than a warm place to sit and a free place to wash up. Maybe he, too, didn't want to live in a world where there were no books.
Causes Kyla Perry Supports
National Fibromyalgia Association