I have a receipt written out by hand on paper lined with dancing ostriches.
It was written by a man with gnarled fingernails, a man who had to try to remember if the $7 for the two novels meant 66¢ or 67¢ tax. I still think he guessed wrong.
The man with the gnarled fingernails sat in a storefront that was always locked. There’s no sign, just a sheet of printer paper stuck in the door.
The storefront sat between a dry cleaner’s and a tailor’s. They all sat on Ashland across from a store selling Western wear to an entirely or almost entirely Hispanic clientele.
The man who wrote out the receipt with hands with gnarled fingernails did so under the ghouly glare of African tribal masks. He did so in a dense West Town storefront packed raw with books stacked ceiling high, back to the wall far. He wrote the receipt on the ostrich paper as two whippets — one he planned to name Foil after the sword — and another old hippie looked on. The two dogs and the hippie watched from the floor. The masks watched from the walls.
It was a bookstore that shouldn’t be, a valley of academic tomes packed slab-thick on a stretch of street meant for Hispanic services and, increasingly, hipster bars. It was open a few meager hours a week, the retirement pastime of the old hippie professor’s wife that the gnarl-fingered professor joined when he was done with UIUC. Anthropological texts raided from retiring professors’ libraries were the specialty of the house, but all sorts of academic texts lined those slab-packed walls, as well as a few authors they just liked. Wodehouse was one. So was Graham Greene.
The African masks came from dealers, he said. Foil the whippet came from New York.
The old hippie professor with his baseball cap and his T-shirt tucked into khaki shorts told me to explore when he let me in the locked door with no sign. “That’s how you find things,” he said.
“And ask questions!” he called to me as I prodded my way back.
His friend sat on the floor with the dogs, the other of which I picked up from context was named Fence. The masks stared from the walls. The old professor’s fingernails were gnarled.
A book published in 1858 collected the “Rambles” of a long-dead geologist. Every naturalist alive in 1858 knew the geologist’s fate, the introduction said. I didn’t.
It was a pitch of odd in a store that shouldn’t be, an old woman’s… hobby? Business? Comprehensive retirement plan involving web-based target marketing for the high-end consumer in need of the rarefied offerings the small shop had?
The man said they sold online most, but kept the costs in the store comparable, perhaps cheaper since there was no shipping or handling. That’s why my store-fresh novels were $3 and $4. But later he said someone stole their domain name so they had to get a new one. He said this in a room with masks, a room with slab-packed books, with a wire-haired hippie and two dogs named after sword fighting sitting on the floor. He said it with a mouth on a body with fingernails gnarled and a baseball cap covering gray, professorial hair. He said it next to a dry cleaner’s and across from a store that sold cowboy hats to Latinos.
The bookstore’s open just a few hours a week. There’s no sign, just a sheet of printer paper stuck in the door.
But I know it’s there — I have a receipt.
Written in June 2012