It’s in the mid-1960s. I’m not ten years old. It’s Friday, noon. Every Friday noon my mother picks me up from school and we go out for lunch. Sometimes it’s Howdy BeefBurgers (long out of business), most often it’s the lunch counter at the Valley St. Plaza’s Woolworth’s. The lunch counter women know me, we show up so often. Mother gets to gossip, I get extra coleslaw. They know I like it and give me two scoops (I immortalized this lunch counter and these women in the “About the Cover” section of Reading Virtual Minds Volume III: Fair-Exchange and Social Networks). Once lunch is finished, we go grocery shopping at Champaign’s. Sometimes we go the S&H Greenstamp Redemption Center and mother has a separate bag of all her completed stamp books. Usually something for the house. Once she got me a recorder and I played it on the way home. Sometimes we go to the Rexall’s so Mother can get her medicines.
The Rexall’s has a section down aisle 5, near the middle. Books. Rows and rows of books. Magazines, too. I buy my first Doc Savage book here. Also Choice Cuts, The Dreaming Earth, countless others. Champaign’s has magazines and some books at the end of the medicine aisle. Not very good books. Not my kinds of books. I wonder if medicine and books are linked somehow.
I’m already hooked on books, on the magic of them. My sister, Sandra, got me started.
I also got hooked on books for another reason, a primal, almost primitive reason. I’ll get to that at the end of this journey. Bear with me.
Stop&Shop opens a grocery at the south end of Elm St. Much closer than Champaign’s. Stop&Shop has an attached Bradlee’s. Bradlee’s has a big book section. The War Against the Rull, The Seed, Wake Up Screaming, many Doc Savages. The Stop&Shop has one book rack. Philip Jose Farmer’s Flesh taunted me as I entered puberty. It stayed on that rack for at least a month before I got up enough courage to buy it.
The newspaper has an article about the new mall – actually the only mall in the Manchester, NH, area in the late 1960’s – in Bedford. Grand Opening! Come on by!
I walk in behind my parents, not to be seen with them. They turn right to Grant’s. I turn left because I’m preteen defiant and cool.
There’s a Paperback Booksmith two-thirds of the way through the mall, on the left, towards the Purity Supreme.
I didn’t know any one place could have so many books and not be a library. My knees are weak. I lean on a display for support and almost topple it.
I walk in, my three dollars getting clammy in my hand. At 50¢-60¢ a book that’s a week’s worth of reading! So many books! Who’s coming home this week? E.E. “Doc” Smith. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Bests of. Nebula Award Winners. Anthologies (didn’t know what an “anthology” was, just knew they had great stories in them). Tolkien. Le Guin. Budrys. Asimov. Herbert. Lester. Aldiss. …
Every week, my allowance in hand. These books, please.
Then back home or in nearby Stark Park or on endless bus rides through the city read read read. Mostly science fiction and fantasy. Verne. Wells. Sturgeon, Dick, Anthony.
I am so hungry for what’s in these books. Knowledge. Language. People.
Years later these stories are still fresh on the tongue, the taste of an incredible meal enjoyed with great friends.
Because those books on the shelves?
They were my friends. The characters in them. The authors who wrote them. The people who sold them. They took me places, they filled me with experiences (imagine being twelve, maybe thirteen years old and reading the couch scene in No Tears from the Widow!), all of it just one page away. They opened doors, made me welcome, taught me right from wrong, hooked me on science, mathematics, language. I never excelled in school. Too busy reading. But I could solve math and physics problems that stumped the teachers.
Imagination. Curiosity. Curiosity beyond school books. Curiosity that got me a job at Lincoln Labs when I was sixteen. Imagination that had me study things years before science gave them ology names. That got me so far…
Those books on the shelves taught me to escape. Not as the term is used today.
Escape to wonder. Escape to joy. Escape to wisdom.
Those books on the shelves.
Doorways to forever.
Last Friday, Susan and I took a drive. We stopped for lunch. “Are there any bookstores nearby?” “Yes, right up the street on the left.”
I always ask about bookstores now. Can I set up a signing? A presentation? Anything?
I went in and made my pitch. The manager’s staring at me. “Joseph CAREabis?” I don’t mind the mispronunciation. Just have me in for a signing. “The Augmented Man?” He sits at his computer, taps some keys. “We got in ten copies this morning. They’re probably on a shelf by now.”
My insides leap. My heart takes a walk around my chest. “Really?” My voice cracks like the adolescent seeing all those Paperback Booksmith shelves the first time. “Could you show me?”
I now do for others what others did for me; provide an escape to wonder, to joy, to wisdom, to knowledge, to understanding, to imagination. “See? I know the kinds of things you like! Here’s one! Read it! Let me know what you think!”
A young man, a boy, early teens, tallish, thin, eyeglasses, pale complexion, neatly combed hair, waiting to grow into his jacket, picks up my book, reads the backcover copy, scans some pages, reaches into his pocket and walks to the checkout.
I look at Susan. “Today I am a man.”