Tobacco Row in Tampa, Florida, used to have a used bookstore, of sorts. I think it was called The Last Chance Bookstore, and they weren’t kidding. All the books were a dollar, regardless of what edition, volume or shape they were in. Just to make sure you understand what kind of store this is, this store wasn’t run by booklovers. This store was run by tabacconeers. You see, this store was the last stop for books on their way to be converted and added as filler to cheap Tampa cigars.
We’d been planning the family trip there for months. I was eleven years old and had saved up all the money I’d managed to earn (and not spend) from mowing lawns, weeding gardens, and attempting in vain to kill the unkillable kudzu that was smothering my Eastern Tennessee home. I had $32 and wanted to buy a Panama Jack shirt and some souvenirs from the beach. Panama Jack shirts were a sign of coolness. Everyone wanted them, but very few of the kids actually had them. And me, I was gonna be the coolest kid in school when I returned and the envy of all my friends.
But when we arrived in Tampa and my parents took me into that bookstore my plans changed. It was akin to the Last Chance Horse Ranch overlooking a glue factory, billowing smokestacks on the horizon, sad-eyed beasts imploring me to save them. I’d be hard pressed to let the horses die if it was within my ability. Likewise, I was hard-pressed to let the books die. After all, I had the means to save them, some of them... thirty two of them, actually. So my hard-earned money didn’t make me the coolest kid in school, nor was I the envy of any of my friends. What I did would have been considered geeky, had I actually told anyone. But it was something that I had to do. The very idea that the books would be made into nasty cigars, to be lip-wrapped by old men playing dominos or young men pretending cool was beyond my eleven year old comprehension.
So I spent two hours picking books-- Weston’s Choice --cognizant that those I didn’t pick would be condemned to an ignoble, terrible death. Each one I passed over was a moment to mourn. Whose sweat, blood, and tears went into the making of this book that would soon be smoked? What of the author? What of the binder and the typesetter? What of the editors and the publishers? Were books so easily forgotten? Did anyone care? Why was I the only volunteer in this dusty old hospice of dying words?
I didn’t cry, but I felt like it. In the end, I chose 32 books and hurried from the store. I didn’t look back because I couldn’t bear to see those I’d left behind. Today I have one of those books left. I gave the rest away over my lifetime. The one left is a 1857 Three Musketeers. Its leather cover is cracked and worn. Pages are falling out. The gold lettering has worn away. But I still keep it. After all, it might be old, but it’s a living thing.
As are all books to me. Long before I became a writer I was a reader and a lover of books. Bookstores are shrines to creativity. Used bookstores are museums to inspiration and commentaries on the times within which the books were written. I think the most tragic character I’ve ever encountered in popular media was Harold Bemis. A giant of the Twilight Zone franchise, Mr. Bemis looked forward to the end of the world and a lifetime of being able to read books, right up until the moment his glasses broke. With no one around to repair them, he was relegated to a life of starring blurry-eyed at all the books of the world, unable to read them and as indecipherable as ancient Egyptian.
If possible, the only thing worse than being Harold Bemis is going to The Last Chance Bookstore and being forced to decide which books live or die.
For all the terrible things that happened in the Twilight Zone, at least the books never died.