Today I walked the almost mile down to the only thrift store I know about in New Jersey. I’m sure it’s not the only one ever, but after moving here from a region populated by huge Salvation Army and Goodwill stores, not to mention America’s Thrift Store in Alabama, I have been sorely disappointed in finding one tiny shop the size of my living room. I am a great lover of used books, and thumbing through dusty stacks at the back of a musty store with a hot coffee in hand is my idea of a perfect afternoon. Perusing used book stores in light of having two very little girls has become, in the immortal words of Cher Horowitz, a total Monet: from far away it’s okay, but up close it’s a big old mess. So, I usually skip stores these days and go to the library, where I bribe Julia to not cry in the fiction section by slipping her rice husks and pray her munching isn’t pissing off the librarians.
This trip was different, though. Julia was strapped in the stroller, sedated with Tylenol because of her slight teething fever, and I was willing to walk in the heat to the tiny shop even though I was sure I wouldn’t find anything besides formula romances, of which I am not a fan. Actually, I was on a mission for a vest, but that’s an entirely different story. But I was so pleasantly surprised to find a stack of amazing books! I bought all these for $3.50, including a pristine hardback copy of Freedom, and I passed up several great titles – Atonement, Good in Bed, Wuthering Heights – because I already have copies. But one book in particular struck me. I found a yellowed paperback edition of Anne Rivers Siddons’s Up Island from 1997.
All my life I’ve been an intense reader, and through my high school memories runs a timeline of grocery store paperbacks my mom would buy, read, and leave in my room. Kay Scarpetta, the whiskey-drinking Chief Medical Examiner in Virginia, was my absolute favorite character, and my mama and I burned through those books as quickly as Patricia Cornwall wrote them. When I left for college I had a stack of books in my room about twelve across, towering upwards maybe two feet. Through many, many childhood moves, to which I’ve added a considerable number as an adult, I only have a handful books from childhood: The President’s Daughter by Ellen Emerson White (held together by medical tape), The Dancing Floor by Barbara Michaels, and Legend by Jude Deveraux. One of the books I had, but lost, was Up Island.
After reading so much for fun, and then reading for a living (what I tell my 4-year-old I do, which she seems to find unbelievable), I always turn back to these books when I’m sick or sometimes traveling, or when I just need a break from all the heaviness I have to read for school. Even though I could have typed in the title at Amazon or Abebooks any number of times in the past years, doing that would somehow cheapen the experience. I wanted the book to find me again, and it did. Taking it off the shelf, spending $0.20, pulling it out of my bag and stacking it on the shelf was more than a purchase. It was an act of recovery. Of finding part of my history on a shelf, bringing it home. As much time as I spend reading criticism, thinking about books, and writing my own criticism, nothing can truly quantify the value of a book that is woven into your life’s fabric. Later, when I put off all my reading for my exit exam, my thesis, and even the two works I’m reading to review here, all to pull out a book that won no awards and only cost $6.99, I’ll read without compunction.