The entrance to the weird, gloomy, magical kingdom.

The entrance to the weird, gloomy, magical kingdom.

by Hugh Gilmore

A fellow I barely knew had died, and I got called to take a look at his books. He had a lot of other stuff I might want too, his mother said. “Can you come over?”

Sure I could. From what little I knew of him he probably did not have books I wanted to buy, but for some reason, some mixture of admiration and sympathy, I felt obliged to say yes. I did not even know his last name till his mother called.

I ran an old bookshop back then in a late-Victorian building on Chestnut Hill Avenue. The guy who died used to come in with a couple of brown paper Acme bags filled with books he wanted me to buy. He looked about 50 and had a handsome, but life-beaten face– kind of a Lon Chaney Jr. look. He wore his thinning dark hair combed straight back in a style more typical of the generation before his. He also was missing several upper and lower teeth.

I mention this not because I care what people look like but because he had told me he worked for a suburban newspaper. Many of the books were reviewer’s copies. He seemed educated, so I imagined he was part of the writing staff. Back then I looked up to journalists. After all, they were Writers, something I’d hoped all my life to be, but had never dared seriously try.

I viewed journalists as smart, accomplished people who had an admirable facility with words. Accordingly, I also assumed they did well enough financially to dress well and afford to be well groomed. I wondered why this fellow looked rather seedy. Not shady, not craven – like he needed to sell books to get booze or keep the peace with his bookie. No, he seemed quite upright and straightforward. Clean shaven, but down on his luck, we’ll say. Maybe even a bit gruff. A take-it-or-leave-it kind of guy.

The books were never much. Too modern for me, but close enough to be salable that I always gave him what I could and took them all. One or two might make my inside shelves, the rest could join the books on the dollar table out on the sidewalk. He never bought anything. He never stayed and talked as so many Saturday shop visitors did.

But when she called, his mother had said that she’d found my card on his bureau after he died, so she thought I might be able to help her. He’d had a lot of books and she didn’t know what to do with them. I’d said OK, and so it was that on a cold afternoon, with remnants of snow still clinging to the ground, I walked up the short pathway over the small lawn of a suburban twin and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” said a woman’s voice from within. I opened the door and stepped into the living room, not able to see who had spoken until I started to close the door. Back in the corner, out of the draft and out of the way, sat an old woman in a hospital bed.

“I’m Mr. Gilmore, the book man, ” I said.

“Hello, Mr. Gilmore, thank you for coming,” she said, “My daughter’s out getting me some things I need. I can’t show you around. She comes every day to look after me.”

We talked briefly and then she said I could start upstairs, in her son’s room. I went up. In the small room a single bed was neatly made up. Near it stood a tall bureau. Three of the walls were shelved. Bookcases lined three sides of the room.

The bureau had no story to tell – no photos of a child he’d had, a wife or ex-wife, himself in an army uniform, anything like that. Perhaps they’d been removed, perhaps there’d never been any.

The shelves held a few reference books – none I could use – and hundreds of commercial VHS tapes of movies, most of them what are now termed “classics.” Films from 1940 to 1970: westerns, musicals, war, drama, comedies – all the tapes still in their cardboard sleeves.

A small television and tape player stood across the small room. No chair, so I guessed he watched his movies from bed. I wondered what kind of a dreamer owns so many old movies.

I went back downstairs and said, “Nothing for me, I’m afraid.”

“Oh that’s too bad. Would you just like to take them though? Take as many as you like.”

I wanted to help her, but the DVD revolution had arrived, and I also don’t like taking something for nothing when I’m on a business call. Not if I can’t find something to buy. I declined her offer.

“Nobody wants them anymore,” she said, “Maybe you’ll find something you like downstairs. That where he kept his books.”

Near the kitchen I found the door to the basement and went down the narrow wooden stairs. I cannot ever hope to accurately describe what a gloomy, weird and magical kingdom I found down there.

— Continued next week.