by Hugh Gilmore

I play the role of “The Bookman,” in the following story.

The drama begins, as usual, with a knock on the door. A large white dog came to the window and began woofing the news.

The front door opened and a slim, pleasantly smiling lady greeted me, “Hello Mr. Gilmore, I’m Elizabeth Gracious” (a pseudonym, as is “George” and “Lucy,” to follow.).

The front door opened into the family room, where my eyes couldn’t avoid being distracted by a giant television screen showing a World War II naval battle movie. An 80-ish man dressed in madras long pants and a Brooks Brothers crew neck sweater, his face puffy from medication, turned his attention away from the movie to notice me. Mrs. Gracious said, “George, this is Mr. Gilmore, the bookman, he’s going to help us out today with the books we need to get rid of.”

He smiled openly and welcomed me, more from residual good manners than comprehension I thought. He turned back to the movie.

“And this is Lucy, Mr. Gilmore.” I turned and said hello to a middle-aged African-American woman who sat on the sofa, a small blanket over her lap against the chill.

When a caretaker is sitting in someone’s living room at 10 in the morning, you have to know that person’s presence is the answer to a question. You may not know what the question is, but you know it lies within a limited range of possibilities, none of them good.

Mr. Gracious looked away from the movie again, this time staring at me with genuine curiosity, as though after a lifetime of problem -solving for a living he was confident he could figure out why a stranger was standing in his family room during a World War II movie. His missus reminded him again of who I was and why I was there. He nodded and smiled again.

I snuck a glance at the wall of books behind his sofa. The cases were the sort that had cabinets below. A fireplace occupied the center of the wall. I also registered that the books were mostly modern and not what I’d come hoping to find. Fortunately, Mrs. Gracious asked me to follow her and showed me two more rooms with bookcases.

“George is having a rough morning,” she confided as we walked through the house, “Maybe he’ll feel better later. He loved books. All his life. He’s read every one of the books in here. He can’t read them anymore.”

We were in the formal living room at the other end of the house, a room that spoke of casual elegance and years of happy companionship with family and friends.

Mrs. G. excused herself and left me free to work. My first goal at such times is to figure out if the seller was a book collector – someone who cared about editions and condition and rarity. Mr. G. was not.

In that case (the usual), I search the shelves systematically looking for anything unusual tucked among the “book books.” Mr. G, it turned out, quite obviously read in depth about several topics, notably adventure travel in the Middle East and American Indians and the settling of western America. Here and there I’d find a better-than-average nugget and set it aside.

As I browsed, I wondered if Mr. G. had eye problems now, or if he simply couldn’t concentrate long enough to read a book. Maybe some combination. I hoped I’d never know the experience myself. I think I’ve always taken it for granted that even if I couldn’t be physically active, I could always sit and read. How doubly deprived I think I’d feel if I couldn’t.

I left a little pile of books on the living room floor and went into the den, a small, dark room with bookcases on each side of the single window. A narrow bed occupied the space where you’d expect to see a desk. The books in here turned out to be literature. Interesting taste. A whole row of 50s paperbacks – Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Saint Exupery – probably from George’s student days. Including a paperback first edition of “Catcher in the Rye.” That would be nice except that the spine was missing a piece. In fact, all of the books, even the first editions, were too beat up to be salable. But that’s only the financial point of view. Books are for reading. “Well loved” we call the beat-up ones.

I went back to the TV room and found a handful. The cumulative stacks on the living room floor amounted to only about three boxes worth. I offered my buying price to Mrs. G and she accepted it. Then, not feeling I was removing enough books to have been of real help (and being genuinely useful to people is the best advertising I can do), I offered to take as many of the remainder as she wanted. I’d give them to libraries in the area or give them away for free at my curb.

She liked that idea and started pulling books from the shelves. As I carried boxes through the house and out to my van she began carrying armfuls to the TV room, wanting to help me.

Poor George couldn’t resist the sight of them. He got up and crossed the room, Lucy in tow, saying, “Watch your walker, George, watch your walker, you’re going to trip.”

He began looking through the books on the piano bench. Every time he recognized one he carried it back to the sofa.

“We should hold on to this one,” he’d say.

I continued carrying boxes out of the house, feeling like the Thief of Baghdad, as Mrs. G. behind me was saying, “No, George, we’re all through with these. We can’t take all these with us.” Then she’d put the book back in the outgoing bunch.

Finally I’d boxed the last of them and loaded the van and shut the tailgate. I went back in and shook everyone’s hands and said goodbye.

“Thank you,” Mrs. G. said, “that was a big help. I’ll recommend you to all my friends.” Music to my ears.

Except that I drove away in the bright fall sunshine conscious of my precious cargo – another man’s books – thinking of the stacks of unread books beside my own bed.

Oh my, I thought, this escalator is moving faster than I thought it was when I stepped on as a child. I can see the stairs ahead losing height, starting to flatten out. Weren’t there some things I had meant to do before I must step off?


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