Another second-hand bookstore appears on our stroll down Latrobe Terrace, and I enter helplessly. I’ve been on a hunt for the infamous Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl, and since I’ve found no luck on the Kindle store or in the major chains, it’s these little stores that I now turn to in my search. I hear it’s one mother of an expedition novel.
I scan the interior eagerly, then hone into possible sections, relishing the task. There are so many titles to savour, so many crackling spines to trace. Eventually, I realise that it’s more practical if I bring my inquiry straight to the shopkeeper. “It’s a very old book,” I add politely, almost apologetically. Almost beseeching them to dig a little deeper into their armamentarium. I get a thrill when their eyes light up in recognition, and they start to describe the cover, the Scandinavian moniker rolling effortlessly off their tongue. So far, though, no one has been able to help me locate it. More often than not, I still go on browsing. I keep thinking that I’ll make an incredible find. I envision picking it up, and rehearse how triumphant I would feel. Little pleasures.
I had come across the title on daytime television. When it’s not the Real Housewives of New York City, or the Shark Navigator Vacuum, or Entertainment Tonight making me roll my eyes with their special exclusive feature: ex-CIA interrogator giving his two cents on the latest human tragedy, some of the sound waves and images that come out of that dratted box do actually hold a portion of value or interest. “Kon-Tiki,” the movie, is about to be released. There was a boat on open seas, then the camera dipped underneath and I saw a flash of the most beautiful sight on Earth, the whale shark. Gliding close to the surface, its blue skin deepening around the glowing white spots. Based on a book, which was based on a true story. How could I not be intrigued?
My online search turned up over-priced hardcover editions from overseas sources, as well as a handful of other titles on various expeditions by the same intrepid author, each one as exciting as the next. The Kon-Tiki itself was a balsawood raft used in a daring experiment to prove that it was possible for present day Polynesians to have originated from South America, as opposed to the popular theory that they had come by boat from South East Asia. Here and there were short previews of the books, which gave me a sense of this extraordinary person, and the life that he forged on the back of good, honest curiosity.
And as a bookworm unable to swim, I went in 1937 to Polynesia to live for a year on the jungle island Fatu Hiva, severed from contact with the outside world.
The realms of possibilities suddenly opened wide for me in a space that is somewhere inside of my chest, for here was a man with ambitions so grand, taking on the unknown and then writing about it with a smile, and here I was, little me, a bookworm most able to swim!! From that moment a little bit of sunburst has been dancing within my ribs, and I’m looking forward to finding this awesome book.
I may not have found what I’m looking for – yet – but crouched beside those rows of books, head cocked to one side to read the titles off the vertical spines, I have found an environment which is blissful to be a part of. By walking into a second-hand bookstore, the trappings of the unsatisfactory world that I had entered with dissipate as I stand between the shelves, humbled by the noble knowledge carried in these books. Petty arguments, uncertain plans, the horror of violence. A difficult conversation, worrying about fish in the sea, that twisted knot that’s hurting. They start to go away.
Occasionally something singularly magical happens in stores like these; do you remember the last time you made that sublime find? There was one such bookstore in Taunton, where I spent my housemanship year. Browsing slowly on one occasion, I pulled up “The Mountaineer’s Week-End Book” by Showell Styles. It was a collection of stories, poems, pictures and practical advice to keep you entertained on your climbing trip. It was published in the 1960’s, then spent 4 decades in and out of young boys’ backpacks, bedroom shelves, moving boxes, until it came to rest in my hands that day, elegantly faded. There were still train chits tucked between the pages, and an old grainy picture of someone’s favourite uncle, with an inscription on the back. A find so perfect, I needed to share it. I found a picture of me, K and J togther in the Egyptian dessert, dusty after a weekend of chalk and rock, and slipped it into the pages, willing it to age gracefully. The book was posted to J for his birthday. From those pages, this stayed with me:
Death’s a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
Something more equal to centuries
Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.
The mountains are dead stone, the people
Admire or hate their stature, their insolent quietness,
The mountains are not softened or troubled
And a few dead men’s thoughts have the same temper.
– Robinson Jeffers
During our Sydney years, bookstores were our winter solace, once the beach had become too blustery, and we could no longer bear the pain of peeling away our warm clothes to brave the icy cold seas. My most precious find was at Berkelouw’s, a timeless pearl for the paltry price of 5 schmackers: Khalil Gibran‘s “The Prophet”, in a monochrome, paperback copy, tattered at just the right places.
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh,
but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
I have dreamt on more than one occasion of opening my own bookstore. I could upcycle wooden slatted doors into rustic bookshelves, and paint the insides a bright baby blue. I would use wooden souvenirs and masks as bookends. I would stencil constellations on the lampshades. I drool at the very thought of the next batch of books coming in, to be examined, inventoried, categorised, and devoured.
I would have chairs, of course, the wooden types from an Enid Blyton childhood, and hang beads of jewellery off their straight backs; a tribute to the fact that every second hand bookstore I’ve been to in the past month seem to be a few doors down from a beautiful jewellery store. There will be photographs on the walls, printed on canvas, Modge-Podged on wood, in frames made by Yama Pot. There will be postcards and free stamps, coffee and coasters. There will be a box for book exchange, and once a week, a second box for the exchange of other items people would like to recycle within our community. Except for, perhaps, Belinda’s mom’s hard-boiled egg. ;)
I would resist the temptation to name it something pretentiously esoteric, like the lesser-known niece of a king in a hoity toity classic, or a secret vale in the land of short-sighted dragons. I’d name it something warm. Something that rhymes. I promise I’ll go to therapy to deal with my love-hate relationship with hardcover books. I will hire bookworms to help me with the shop, both swimming and non-swimming ones, and I would only ask that they open the shop each morning and close it down each evening with a thankful prayer for a blessed day.
It would be a wonderful place. People will saunter in and out with books and books will float in and out with people. Inshallah.
But first, I have to find a copy of Kon-Tiki.