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Old Books
April 19, 2000


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It was Friday Afternoon, bordering on evening, and we were down in the Portsmouth area. We being myself, Mason and Van, generally hanging out and doing our rounds. I was looking for shelves. We were looking for fun. We didn't want to spend much money. You know. The usual.

We were driving along Route 1 Bypass, heading out towards Jumpgate, a store we frequent on these trips, being that we're geeks. To our left was an old store in a brick building we often remark on. "Old Books" it's called. Apparently it was once called the Antiquarian Book Store, but that's given way to "Old Books."

We remark on it because we've never been there, because it's never, ever open. If we go by at ten in the morning or four in the afternoon or seven in the evening, it's still a no go. We finally decided it was a mythical place, not a place of business.

I note it today because for the first time in two years of driving past the thing, its front door was open and an "open" sign was up. We were so shocked I nearly plowed into a telephone pole. Well, that plus I've been playing a lot of Crazy Taxi lately.

"We have to go there," I said. Mason and Van agreed. This was like being confronted with Brigadoon, after all.

We pulled into the parking lot, laughing and joking. We decided that one of us would have to find the ancient book of arcane lore in there, sequestered on a back shelf. Depending on the genre of this movie, it would either empower us for a fight against evil or we'd summon a demon that would consume our bodies and devour our souls, and younger, handsomer men and women played by guys like Ben Afflick and Neve Campbell would have to stop the thing.

We went inside.

The place was packed with books. Shelves overflowing with them. And huge stacks of books and boxes of books piled haphazardly on all sides, to the point where relatively thin people needed to duck into aisles to let people by. It had that dusty, musty smell of the old books bookstore, where books have had a chance to shed their skin and release the powder underneath. Right in front there was a pile of old Astounding magazines from the forties or fifties. I felt my pulse race. I've always had a weakness for the old pulps. Mason and Van made similar noises.

A large bald man rounded a corner. I noticed the jazz playing as he did. He saw us eyeing the Astoundings. "Five bucks apiece," he said.

"Thank you," I answered. Hm. I was trying not to spend much money, but if I could go through these things and find a few first printings with Heinlein stories in them--

"Five bucks apiece," he repeated, somewhat curtly.

"Thank you," I said again, nodding. "Got it."

"No," he said. "Five bucks apiece. Like on the door."

We collectively blinked. Van ducked back out and looked at the door. "Huh," he said. "There's a five dollar browsing fee."

Mason and I looked at each other, then looked at Van. I could hear the same thought run through all our heads. Five dollars to look at old books?

So we paid. It was too surreal not to. And, because we paid, we resolved to look at every book in this freakin' store.

There were tons of books, all crammed together. One aisle was closed off, full of books and boxes of more books. There were terse signs everywhere. "Do not disturb piles of books. Ask for assistance." There wasn't a lot of rhyme or reason to where books were put. You might run into a chunk of children's books in one area, then have it bleed over into engineering books, and then biographies. The science books were piled into the Hollywood Exposes. And there were multiple pockets of any given subject. Van actively looked for Peanuts collections, and found them in three different places in the store.

And then there was the porn. And there was a lot of it. Old porn. In books. With "double book" titles like Sandra's Hidden Treasures/Not Too Young For Pleasure. Bondage books. And an aisle half-filled with stacks and stacks of old Playboy and Penthouse magazines. Old as in the glance-over I took of them showed lots of sixties and seventies, and I didn't notice (not that I looked that hard) any of the square bound Playboys of the eighties or nineties, when they eliminated staples through the girls in the center. So, the magazines didn't much interest me -- hey, they weren't the porn I kept under my bed. Mason and Van said there were videos too, but I missed those.

And there was an air of... non-congeniality. All right, rudeness. The terse signs everywhere. The put-upon owner with his vague air of complaint. The prices. Oh yes, the books were pricy, for what they were. An Engineering Manual from the fifties would be a curiousity, not a working handbook, but they were priced in the $20-$30 range, generally. That stack of Astoundings? Was only being sold as a (non-sequential) set for $1,200. The note tag that declared that (which was taped to the cover of one of the magazines) also declared they were in "mint to near mint condition," which was a bald-faced lie. They looked like Our Boys had carried them into World War II and back, then gave them to their kids for teething toys, then left them in an old attic in a moist climate until they were carried to Old Books.

In the end, Van bought some stuff, and Mason and I didn't. We walked out, all a bit stunned. From the mustiness to the incredibly cramped quarters to the porn we were just amazed.

"He can't make any money doing this," Mason said.

"It's why they charge at the door," Van said. "It's not like most people buy anything. And he was kind of ripped I did."

"Maybe it's all his private collection," Mason said. "I can believe that of the Porn."

"Was it worth five bucks," I asked.

We pondered that as we pulled out.

"Yes," Mason said. "It was an experience."

"Hey, I bought some stuff," Van said. "So I must think so."

"True," I said. "And if nothing else, I'll get a Journal Entry out of it."

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