Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My Escape

In the summer of 2002, I discovered my first used book store. I had been a romance novel devotee for almost two years, but until that summer, had only purchased my books at “regular” bookstores. I was home from college that summer, and missing my new friends terribly. I came home ostensibly to help my parents with their business’s corporate holiday sales (a job at which my mom excelled brilliantly, but that scared this lifelong introvert to no end). But fate had different plans for me.

I had only been home a few weeks and was still adjusting to real life (i.e. not college life) when my grandfather - the sweet and soft-spoken head of our crazy Brinn family - got sick. Very sick. I don’t remember much about the timeline of events surrounding his illness, but I do remember that it was scary, and it threw the summer into chaos. My sisters were at camp, my dad was dividing his time between the store and the hospital, and my mom was needed at the store. All of a sudden, I had nothing to do.

It was during those first few weeks after he got sick that I discovered a tiny little store in my neighborhood called The Book Rack. It was in a back corner of a sprawling shopping center anchored by a grocery store. Almost like it was hiding from all but the most devoted readers. I walked in, and was greeted by an elderly man and woman. Husband and wife - the owners. I asked where the romance section was. The woman just smiled and waved her arm in the general direction of the right-hand side of the store.

Behold. Shelf after shelf of romance novels. They covered 2 entire walls - floor to ceiling - and half of a third. 10 shelves devoted to Nora Roberts alone. I was home. I spent the next 3 hours sitting on the dusty floor, reading. No one bothered me. Not the owners; not even the other customers who had to step over my piles in search of their own heart’s desire. I tried to decide how many I could get away with buying. I think I settled on ten. Ten glorious Nora Roberts books to chase away the fear. The sadness. To help me find order in the chaos.

The woman rang up my selections - half off the cover price - and told me I could return the books when I was done and swap them for new ones. “I’ll definitely be back,” I said. “But I’m keeping these. I’ll come back to buy some more.” Just like that, I had new summer plans.

I spent the next week reading. I read in bed, by the pool, in my parent’s office, and while my car was stopped at red lights. When my unread stack dwindled to two, I paid another visit to that husband and wife and bought five more. Two weeks later I owned every single Nora Roberts book on the shelves of The Book Rack. They didn’t have her entire collection, so I scoured the yellow pages for another source. A woman on a mission.

Next stop, Chamblin Books. 50,000 square feet of used books. They had a cushy chair and ottoman in their romance section, right in front of the Nora Roberts shelves. As if inviting me to sit and stay awhile. To snuggle in to the comforting embrace of the books. To lose myself in these stories with impossibly happy endings. And to be happy. And I did. And I was.

For the rest of the summer, a couple times a week I would make a stop at The Book Rack to see if they had anything new, and then head across the river to Chamblin Books to restock my collection. It was a comforting routine. One that carried me through some dark and lonely days during those long months.

That summer was a roller coaster of emotion. There were days filled with impossible sadness, and times of incredible relief. There were sleepless nights and exhausted days. Through it all was that whisper in the back of our minds. Putting words to a fear we couldn’t yet express out loud. That we didn’t want to believe. That this man - this strong, loving and fiercely loyal center of our incredibly full lives - was ready to take his leave. He was not just a part of our family. He made our family. And it was time to say goodbye.

That summer, my romance novels became an escape. A welcome respite from days of terrifying uncertainty. Haunting the used book stores in my neighborhood in search of the third book in a trilogy became my singular mission. And finding that third book filled me with indescribable happiness.

He died on a Thursday. I remember the book I was holding when we got the news. One I had read before. It was almost like I knew I would need the familiarity. I stayed up late that night. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so I didn’t even try. Instead, I kept my light on until the sun started to rise. Reading. Taking comfort in the story. In its happy ending.

I am forever grateful to the used bookstores in Jacksonville, Florida for carrying me through that summer. Sadly, The Book Rack closed a few years later, but we discovered Black Sheep Books to fill the void. And when I went back to college in the fall, I searched out a used bookstore close to campus that I could walk to when I felt like taking a break. Or being alone with my thoughts for awhile.

I never returned a single book that I bought during those frenzied months. They are all still a part of my permanent collection. Sometimes in my rush to get to the story I flip right to chapter 1. But every once in a while, a rubber stamp on the inside cover of the book catches my eye. The Book Rack. Chamblin Books. I run my fingers over the stamp, and I remember. I remember my grandpa. A hardworking family man. A man who simply radiated love for his seven grandchildren. A man who wore to his fitness center every day a Brandeis hat I bought him on my first day of college. We were incredibly lucky to have had him. Incredibly sad to have lost him.

As I make my way through this messy, beautifully imperfect life, I learn to delight in its pleasures. Friends. Family. Lazy Sundays. First snow. The moments, both simple and grand. And most of all, a great romance novel. I like to think he would be proud.

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