The courting process begins in the bookstore. Think independent bookstore in an old Victorian home. In addition to all the wooden bookcases, there are also books inhabiting every possible corner, window ledges and the worn wooden steps of all three staircases. Books that rest in every closet, are stacked in the claw-foot bathtub, and line the back of the toilet. Somewhere by the front door is a small am/fm playing the local classical radio station, Bach or Vivaldi. The sound rides up through the vents along with the heat.
A queen of a cat waddles about her territory. When she catches you watching her, she puts her face in a fern until you’re distracted again with the inventory. It’s a new and used bookstore. If you have 75 cents, you can leave with a slim book of Poe’s stories or Dickenson’s poetry. The smell of wood, the smell of lamps toasting their shades for hours during the grey fall days of the Midwest, a smell not unlike roasting walnuts, warm cider and bitter greens, which hangs thick in the air and moistens the faces of the readers. Readers in scarves and hats, with boots shedding snow cakes, huddled over open pages, dozens of them on each floor, sharing a silence as soft and fat as queen cat.
To enter a bookstore like this is to step into a sanctuary. As a child, when I entered a bookstore like this or a library, I was so excited by all the lives, voices, and stories buzzing in each neat rectangle, that I immediately had to rush to the bathroom. Even though my reading level kept me from comprehending most of the books I stared at with awe, I still touched them, weighed them in my hands, studied their jacket covers, fanned my face by flipping the pages in quick secession, smelled them and sometimes even licked a page—salty as my own skin. No one had to tell me these bound creations were beings.
I was the little mixed-race girl in a big white world who tried to see myself in the people who constantly interrogated me: What are you? Where are you from? The safest place to hide was among the books. Where I could be invisible but not alone. Each story was a hand reaching out saying, “Here, child, come with me for awhile.”
Books still excite me but it’s different. I read less like a passenger in the back seat and more like a mechanic. While books are still sacred, they’re much more utilitarian in their sanctity, but a recent inquiry got me rethinking my worn relationship with books. “Who is your lover, your literary lover, I mean, at the moment?” Isn’t such a question indicative of Santa Fe, where any act can be turned inside out and worn bohemian style?
I felt my body fill with heat, my heart quicken and I realized there was more than seeing books as caregivers and instruction manuals on how to write, more than even seeing them as the life sustaining beings that in so many ways they are. There is more, something deeply pleasurable about the sustained communion. Another’s story becoming alive as it enters me. I remembered a bumper sticker I’d seen on an out-of-state car, which declared, “Reading Is Sexy.” I dare you. Pick one up, run your fingers over its surface, spread it open, inhale deeply, notice the curves of its chapters and the crevices hidden beneath the narrative. Then lie back and experience an abundance of pleasure.