Chapter 22 It Might Have Been Otherwise, Or, I Wish I Were Immortal, Like Books


It’s my birthday. I won’t say which one — a lady never tells her age. I will spend it attending a big annual library sale in San Francisco in the late afternoon and then meet Thoughtful Husband and Tom and Huck in The City for dinner. I am truly a book geek, for I can’t imagine a better day.

Oh, wait! Yes I can. I should have mentioned that I’ll start the day with a cup of Earl Grey from my favorite book teapot and a bit of Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate bar. Don’t frown disapprovingly, all of you healthy eaters. I would normally wait until at least noon for my chocolate fix, but I figure I am entitled to splurge on my birthday. Then I’m going to the County Historical Association Book Store. Though I should be home cataloguing the Mt. Everest of uncatalogued books and working on my Dante catalogue, to say nothing of household chores, I get to spend the day hunting for books and attempting to call it “work” with a straight face.

Bookselling is a wonderful birthday gift. Making a dream into reality challenges a person; it is filled with the unexpected and it tests both your knowledge and your humility. Those of you who don’t know me personally might be wondering, “Why now? Why did she all of a sudden decide after years of teaching and then raising children to become an antiquarian bookseller?”

To use a Latin cliche (we ex-teachers just love to toss around Latin), carpe diem. I realized that I would in a few years be nearing a big birthday (one in which I can officially delineate myself as not-so-young-anymore-but-still-younger-than-many-antiquarian-booksellers). In recent years, I have seen a lot of new life with the births of my sons, but I was also witness to quite a few deaths and illnesses. The upshot is that I woke up from the adolescent dream of invincibility to the fact that I will not exist forever, and that, while health and circumstance allow, I should seize the opportunity to pursue a passion.

Some years ago, a high-school classmate of mine battled leukemia and beat it into remission. Two years later she was killed by a (very rare) great white shark attack at a beach in San Diego. The sickening irony of the circumstance of her death, which many of us had supposed might actually come from old age, is too much to contemplate even more than a decade later. In 2004, one of my closest friends was stricken with colon cancer when her kids (born the same years as mine) were only three and five years old. Fortunately, she is now three years cancer-free, but her illness revealed the uncertainty that life holds, even for those charged with raising small children. Early in 2007, another high school friend died suddenly of a heart attack. She was 38 — not young, but too young to drop dead. These events caused me to seriously reflect on the fact that I am not guaranteed the luxury of seeing my own children raised to adulthood or reaching old age with my family or my circle of friends intact.

I don’t mean to be morbid, and I am not by nature a morbid person. I merely mean to say that events like these made me think about what I wanted from my own life and how to get it.

Ok. I know some of you are thinking, “You experienced death and decided to, in the words of Thoreau, ‘suck the marrow out of life’ and you chose antiquarian bookselling?” To some of you (and you know who you are), being an antiquarian bookseller, painstakingly finding and researching all those books and then trying to sell them to the non-reading general public, is somewhat akin to scrubbing the floor of a great hall with a toothbrush.

Really, bookselling chose me, from the moment I read that wonderful history of book collecting, A Gentle Madness, and thought, “Why didn’t I know antiquarian books existed? This is so me. I need to do this.” I am besotted with books, and working with them in some way every day is a great gift. Though I can’t afford to collect them all myself, having great books pass through my hands as I sell them is a wonderful elixir that can cure the morbid thoughts of the worst of days.

I’ll end with a short excerpt from a poem called “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon. It perfectly sums up how fortunate I am to have been given the gift of living the antiquarian bookseller’s life:

“I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.”

It might have been otherwise.

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