Sometimes my day job as a newspaper reporter brings me in touch with someone who is inspirational – not in the sappy Hallmark sense, but someone who provides an inspiration.
In 2002, they sent me to interview Joe.
Joe owned the only bookshop in the town I covered. It was a used-book store on Main Street, and at that time there were no chain stores anywhere near us. You could go to Barnes & Noble in the city, or one tiny independent about 20 minutes away. But for Our Town, Joe’s Books was the only source.
To look at Joe, you wouldn’t think he was a literary man. He was an older Vietnam veteran who worked two jobs and was missing his front teeth. He looked like the sort of guy who reads the newspaper, but would pass on a novel. But if you asked Joe about his shop, you’d best settle in for a long listen.
Joe’s Books had about 40,000 books on display, and another 500,000 in storage. “There’s boxes of books down there I’ve never opened,” Joe told me, stacking books in the hallway. Joe claimed he could rival any three libraries in the county, and he was probably right.
I was supposed to interview him about a big-chain discount store that was planning to move onto Main Street a block away. Main Street looked like most of them did at the turn of the century: plenty of vacant shops with yellowing “For Lease” signs. There were a few retail shops between lawyers and insurance agencies who didn’t care about foot traffic.
“It’s like a child playing with a set of blocks with the ABCs on ‘em,” Joe said. “Only all the vowels are missing.”
He could have been talking about himself rather than Main Street. Joe didn’t learn to read until he was 12 years old.
“I wasn’t a slow learner or anything,” he said. “It was the teachers. They called it ‘progressive learning.’ They showed you a picture of a cat, and said, ‘What is it?’ and ‘What does it sound like?’ K-A-T.”
In the sixth grade, a reading test held him back a year, and he became determined to read. Finally, one day, he was able to open a book and understand what he was reading.
“It was like someone hit me on the back of the head with a two-by-four,” Joe said, and his gaze drifted back to the rows of books that filled his shop to bursting.
Joe’s Books had everything. A bibliophile could get lost in the stacks and never come out. I flipped through a stack of magazines and found a copy of TIME with the cover interview of Neil Armstrong. It was worth $75 back then. His encyclopedias dated to the 1880s, and the science fiction paperbacks would have made any fan drool.
“You go to Barnes and Noble, Borders, Waldenbooks, and they’re all the same,” Joe told me. “There’s no two used bookstores just alike.”
Although Joe had many more books than he could display, much less sell, he brought in truckloads all the time. He rescued them.
“The publishers, the big bookstores, the distributors, when they can’t sell them, they destroy them,” he said, and it hits you hard, the thought of all those books lost.
I learned to read when I was three years old, and up until that point, I had never given away a book. That summer I donated 26 books to a library in preparation for moving. Destroying a book seems beyond comprehension to this day. Granted, this might be why every room in my house is full to bursting, but in my opinion, the only books that deserve such philistine treatment are Cliffs Notes.
Yet Joe had rescued books published in 1704. How could people even think of throwing out a 300-year-old book? I thought of Joe again, all these years later, when a friend of mine posted an emergency notice on social media last week. An estate sale had filled a dumpster with books, some rare or antique, and rain was threatening. A group of my friends converged on the scene, filling a truck bed with the books – rescuing them, much as Joe had done.
In one of my favorite childhood movies, The Neverending Story, the magical world created by human imagination is being systematically destroyed by The Nothing, people beginning to forget their dreams and leave the books on the shelf. We have become a culture that values the written word, yet ignores the richness of literature. We read magazines and nonsense on the internet, and pass by the used-book store on the way to work.
We have made strides against illiteracy, though it still exists, even in Our Town. But I believe there is more than one kind of illiteracy. The cataclysmic illiteracy means you cannot read street signs or the menu in a restaurant. Then there is the illiteracy we foster in our own lives, when the dishes and the laundry overpower the book on the nightstand, and our children’s rooms all have televisions instead of bookshelves.
That is the battle Joe fought on Main Street. Given his own history, it was perhaps not surprising that Joe hoped people would find a book in his shop that would hit them over the head with a two-by-four.
Many years have passed, and Joe’s Books disappeared. Joe disappeared with it, at least as far as I am aware. But who knows? Perhaps he found a new place for his rescued books, and perhaps he is still wrapping paperbacks in newspaper for a “mystery book’ sale: buy a book, and find out what it’s about when you get home.
You never know what you’ll find beneath the surface.
About the author: Elizabeth Donald is a writer fond of things that go chomp in the night. She is a three-time winner of the Darrell Award for speculative fiction and author of the Nocturnal Urges vampire mystery series and Blackfire zombie series, as well as other novels and short stories in the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres. She is the founder of the Literary Underworld author cooperative; an award-winning newspaper reporter and lecturer on journalism ethics; a nature and art photographer; freelance editor and writing coach. In her spare time, she… has no spare time. Find out more about her at elizabethdonald.com.
Book Synopsis for Nocturne Infernum: Nocturne Infernum includes the original three chapters in the Nocturnal Urges series, an alternate version of present-day Memphis in which vampires walk among us, but are not treated as our equals. They work the night shift, the jobs no one else wants, and they’re not too happy about it. Meanwhile, humans take advantage of the pleasures vampires can provide, but call them friends? Lovers? The gap between human and vampire stretches wide as death rises in the streets of Memphis.
Nocturnal Urges. It’s the most popular club in the Memphis nightlife. Part legal bordello, part feeding ground for the city’s vampires, Nocturnal Urges offers pleasure and pain in one sweet kiss. It’s the ultimate addiction: both drug and sex at once. For the vampires, it’s the only way to survive in a world where the creatures of the night are a dark underclass, ignored until the humans need another fix.
Into this world comes Isabel Nelson, a young woman seeking only a night’s pleasure. But after Isabel’s lover takes her to try the bite, she cannot stop thinking about Ryan, the dark vampire with whom she shared her lifeblood – and who is now suspected of murder. Isabel falls into a world where passion and love are miles apart, where life and unlike have little meaning… and someone is hunting in the shadows.
A More Perfect Union. Samantha Crews has lived a long time in the shadows of Memphis, working at Nocturnal Urges and hiding from the vampires that darken her past.
Det. Anne Freitas is stuck with a new partner, a young woman with a chip on her shoulder. Now they’re assigned to investigate a series of threats against congressional candidate Robert Carton, for whom Samantha volunteers.
But Samantha is falling for Danny Carton, the candidate’s son – an idealist who wants to make life better for humans and vampires alike. But there’s a lot Danny doesn’t know about Samantha.
He doesn’t know she’s a vampire.
He doesn’t know she works at Nocturnal Urges.
He doesn’t know his own father is one of her clients.
And he doesn’t know what’s stalking her…
Abaddon. The Lady Zorathenne requests the honor of your presence at a celebration. A toast, if you will. Followed by a feast.
Beneath the dark Memphis streets, something is stirring. Filled with ancient fury. Seeking revenge on the ones who live above. A revenge born in fire.
The fires are ranging in Memphis and no one is safe. Ryan and Samantha must descend into darkness beyond their imagining to find answers to the mysteries of the past, as Detectives Freitas and Parker seek the truth about the present.
And the return of an old foe could make the future a dark place indeed… save for the flames of Abaddon.
Amazon Links for Nocturne Infernum
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