I’ve been kicking around the idea of starting a blog and decided this is the best time, since I’m cooped up like everyone else during this pandemic. To be fair, I live in a crowded city and have an immunodeficiency disorder (chronic illness — type 1 diabetes) so I’m scared and at greater risk than the general public even though I’m just 29. Basically my anxiety is through the roof and I can’t sit still though that’s exactly what I have to do — as a librarian I’m still doing work from home, things like updating our social media nearly hourly with local news and links/initiatives going on that can help our patrons, as well as online resources they can access, etc. and doing some research for our longer-term local history project the New Haven Story Project, but I’m using this time to put more books on my site as well, building up No Other Book Like This even more now that I’ve got my own website started.
Needless to say I’m a writer and feeling wordy and nostalgic and nervous and isolated, so I decided I might as well write about my life—a rare bookseller, librarian, book collector, writer, reader, a bibliophile in the highest degree—so that others might read it and find it interesting.
These stories / blog posts will each be about one experience I’ve had—either focusing on a book or a customer or an exchange or interaction or experience I’ve had along the way, because there have been many, and all sort of fateful in their own way, like I was meant to find that book, meant to meet that person, meant to have that moment, you know?
First, my favorite. It is a book that (sorry guys) I’ll never sell, so special to me and meaningful to my life—Audubon, a Vision by Robert Penn Warren.
I got it for 2 dollars. I found his signature in the front. The way this worked out is pretty nuts, I’ll be honest. Here—read on.
Now, first, I’ll say it’s not my favorite book by him—in fact I like his prose better than his poetry, though I have a quote from my favorite poem of his, Tell Me A Story, tattooed on my calf. It reads sideways on my outer left leg, sticking up just outside my socks or boot, and is simple black text on the white of my skin. It is in this book, actually, making it an even more apt discovery and perfect thing for me to have found. It reads: “in this century, and moment, of mania, tell me a story.”
I love that, especially during this time of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic when the world has seemed to fall into mania, this moment, this century that I’m alive in, and all I can fall back on is what makes life worthwhile, for me at least, but maybe for you too—stories. Writing them, reading them, sharing them, they are always there to escape to when the world is manic like it is now, and will be for months and months on end, it looks like.
So this book. I hate the cover. That’s another reason this is a weird and special book hunting story. It’s this odd unsettling blue color with an ugly picture of a bird on it, and I don’t even like the title or the poem it is named for. Why did I pick it up—I could have left it. In fact, I had seen it before, the exact book, and had left it on the shelf.
What shelf, you ask? The where is exciting—my favorite place. I feel a peace there I feel nowhere else—it is a little place in Niantic Connecticut, not far from the house I summered in every year as I grew up and where my parents live now—a special historical monument of a house with a bright red door and shutters cut with flower imprints and a small brass mail slot and all kinds of other 1800s details you just can’t help but love—and this place is even more magical than that.
It’s called The Book Barn. An expanse of land dotted with open houses and shacks and carved through by paths lined with outdoor bookcases and wagons full, it is a bibliophile’s dream. There are goats in the pasture nearby and so many cats wandering around they have a cat-spotting guide right up at the front when you come onto the property, if you’d like to spend a lazy afternoon looking around for the big fat orange one and the skinny little white fluffy one and such.
But I go for the books. There are different houses for the different genres, a spooky mystery house at the back with “beware” signs and fake gravestones, the romantic chick-lit covered walk-through with the comfy chairs, the basement of the main barn housing local history down a path of steps I’ve skipped down so many times…I walk slowly through the new acquisitions section to see what they’ve just got in for donations and sales, looking to see if anything catches my eye either for myself or as a book to be sold to someone I know will love it, somewhere out there. I then move to the cart marked “Parnassus on Wheels,” and yes, it is on wheels, teetering to the side behind a table with a forever-unfinished game of chess and two chairs. There I look through fiction and the little section of poetry on the side, spending much time drawing my fingers along the spines and inspecting each one with my neck cricked to the side.
The shack nextdoor is the large literary and fiction section, my favorite, and so I go there with a feeling of excitement, a strong knowing that I will find something, at least one special book, in its stacks. Though it is organized alphabetically, I go straight to two places every time first to see if anything new is in—the W B Yeats section, all the way at the end, and then of course, my favorite author, my absolute writing inspiration and a person I so wish I could have met when he was alive, Robert Penn Warren, just before it.
There aren’t many. I’ve bought most of them already. The ones there all seem to be ones I own (down to the edition, not just the title, as I have nearly every edition of every book he ever published) and I recognize their bindings and covers like old friends. There’s one book I see often that I never pick up, though, because it’s ugly. I want an edition of that book I find beautiful, but I know my favorite poem is in there, the one on my calf, and I know I should probably get it and maybe take the cover off. Maybe.
I’ve thought this before. Something nagged at me this time, that familiar nagging, “get it, get it, get it” that I feel whenever I happen upon a book of his I don’t have, and I succumb, sort of. I’m not sure I’ll get it but I pick it up, this time.
It’s a slim volume that almost disappears between the thicker ones, and I kind of scowl at the cover, but look through to see if it’s a first edition anyway, because of course I do—that’s what I do. If it is, and I’ve looked it over this long every time I’ve gone there, I’ll feel stupid. I’ll have to add it to my collection, notwithstanding that weird blue birded cover.
It is a first edition, and in the front there’s a scrawl. It looks haphazard, rushed, like my own handwriting that I’m sure no one will be able to read in the future if they happen upon anything I’ve written. I read it easily anyway, understanding it without trouble.
It says: “To Trudy, Warmest Regards, Robert Penn Warren.”
I read it, and read it again, and then hyperventilate and sit down on the small wicker loveseat I’ve sat in a million times there to skim books and read them and make piles of the ones I want.
No piles, this time. Just this one book, so thin and suddenly so fragile-seeming in my hands as I hold it open gently on my lap.
I read it again, reread it, keep reading it and I see that though he wrote it quickly, surely quickly because it is on a slant and hard to decipher, and maybe he knew her well and didn’t care to take the time to sign it “officially”—I decipher it with ease. I know his signature by heart, as I wanted to get it tattooed before I decided on that snippet of poetry instead, and though it’s wobbly I know it’s his real signature without doubt. It’s him.
Two dollars. It cost two dollars, and I didn’t find any other books—how could I look at anything else when I had this in my grasp?—but ran to the big main red barn and checked out immediately. Then I went and sat in my car, and cried. I’m a baby, give me a break, and it seemed so meant to be, like he’d given it to me himself through the cosmos from the afterlife. Like he knew how much I loved him and his work and cared that I cared, cared that I was so inspired by his words and his life and somehow reached out to notice me and give me something, a token. A present from him, it felt, and I hugged it to my chest.
It now sits in one of my bookcases behind glass doors in the living room of my apartment, which itself is basically a library for the amount of bookcases and books it has, and I don’t have a special place for it, so it stays stuck between two other books I love, ones I will write about some other day.
I take it out every so often, and I took it out today, and I ran my hand over the binding and front, and opened it to the blue endpapers and read the “To Trudy” and imagined it said “To Colleen.” His words, “in this century, and moment, of mania, tell me a story” mean so much to me in this uncertain time where death could be hiding outside around the corner, waiting for me, waiting for the elderly or the others who have underlying medical issues too. Again I cry looking at it, holding it, but again, I’m a baby about stuff like this. Words, books, stories. They hit that “cry” chord in me like nothing else.
So finding this book became a story in itself, one of my favorite stories of bookselling and book hunting, and of my life. And yes, I took the cover off and stashed it somewhere away (I didn’t throw it out, don’t worry, but I like the book so much better without it), and yes I have no one to really show it to who will understand truly, but telling this story helps me get it out into the universe, and that is enough.
And maybe you’ll be that person who understands.
Tell me a story, he said, and so I did. And I’ll keep telling them here, so check back if you like—I hope you do.