Saturday, March 24, 2012

Another Slice of the Literary Life

A story from our vacation I didn't have room to tell yesterday:

Tuesday evening, downtown Monterey hosted a three-block-long Farmers Market. As Karen and I wandered among the produce, arts and crafts, and street food vendors, we noticed a used book store half a block down a side street and stepped inside to find a small two-story shop packed with tomes both old and new, lit and smelling just right.

The proprietor was a distinguished older woman. We could tell from overhearing her conversation with another customer that she had read, and had a strong opinion about, every book in the place. I climbed the creaky dog-legged stairs, found an interesting book on the craft of writing (Stein on Writing by Sol Stein) marked $7, and brought it back down to buy. As I turned the corner onto the first floor my eye caught a trio of books high on a shelf, and standing on my tip-toes I was just able to pull down one of the three volumes comprising the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, circa 1770.

"Just out of curiosity," I said, "how much are you asking for these?"

"Oh no," she scoffed, as if someone asking the price of a book in her book store was the most absurd thing she'd ever heard. "No no no."

In the next half second, three possibilities occurred to me:

1. She had sized me up and decided I couldn't afford it, which was probably true.

2. She had sized me up and decided I didn't deserve it, which hurt my feelings.

3. It just wasn't for sale to nobody no-how. Which turned out to be the case.

Still trying to convince her I was worthy, I blurted out, "I love the Britannica. I have the ninth edition from 1892." It was passed down to me by my great-grandmother and holds a place of honor on our family-room bookshelves.

"No no," she said. "I've never seen a set like that and doubt I'd ever find another."

"I've never seen it before, either," I said.

"Did you look at that one?"

"Yeah, I thumbed through it."

"Now you've seen it," she answered, crisply closing the matter.

Still not sure where I stood with this formidable woman, I handed her the Stein book I'd found upstairs.

"Well, since you won't sell me the encyclopedia," I said as lightly as I could manage, "I'll take this instead."

She looked at the Stein book.

"Do you want to be a writer? Or are you?"

"I am a writer. Hoping this book will make me a better one."

She gave me another quick once-over.

"Five dollars."

A $2 discount. I took that as a sign I'd been deemed a little worthy after all, paid the lady, and stepped happily through her door back into the market.

The Old Monterey Book Co., 136 Bonifacio Plaza, Monterey.
I didn't think to take a photo, but found this online. Thanks to

L.D. at the Monterey Daily Photo blog. 


ronnie said...

That's a great story. Used bookstore owners tend to be... idiosyncratic.

Ronnie said...

A million years ago a friend played in an American Youth Orchestra under Stokowski. He told of the conductor calling for them to produce a FORM-ee-dah-bull sound at one point. Indelible memory of the use of the word. I like yours too.

Sherwood Harrington said...

ronnie-lower-case sez: "Used bookstore owners tend to be idiosyncratic." Yes, indeed, we have one of those right here in tiny Boulder Creek. Buck (that's him in the hoodie) used to sell his books on the street in front of the water company office until the taqueria owner gave him a wall.

ronnie said...

That takes idiosyncratic to a whole new level...

Rod McKie said...

Great story, Brian. I agree with Sherwood; we had one of those here too. In fact, with the connection of the comedy series Black Books to Edinburgh, I've always been convinced he was a bit of an inspiration to that show.

Brian Fies said...


Great to hear from you, Rod. Hope all is well!