The Idler: The Haunted Upper Room

Tom must have been relieved by the time it was over. The telephone line had been disconnected days before. Most of the shelves sat empty and bare as though ravaged, and the last few books leaned at random angles. Tables and chairs were shoved aside with the latest exodus. Boxes, the most telling and undeniable of signs, were stacked precariously in the middle of the floor. Two tarnished brass candlesticks lay on a window sill without their candles. A stranger would not have known whether this place were being built up or torn down; the white rooms were incomplete and oddly vulnerable now. Doors hung ajar. Outside, Tom leaned on the brick porch wall clutching a wet bottle of beer. Shafts of coolness touched the late September heat of high afternoon with a breeze when clouds blocked the sun.

“Well,” he said, “here’s to it all. We gave it a good shot.”

“A good shot,” I said, and raised my bottle and took a long drink. He watched the last pieces of furniture toted out and loaded into trunks and onto truck beds. “We just couldn’t get enough people to make that turn up at the corner and come down here.”

These were the last days of Tom’s second-hand bookshop, his brave 18-month venture in commercial independence. A year-and-a-half ago he had moved here where his store occupied the first floor of an older house on a side street in a university neighborhood in Cincinnati. The hardwood floors creaked and shone. He made the sturdy shelves himself. The large sign, lovingly designed and made by his wife, Andrea, proclaimed him open for business. Here we had drunk gallons of coffee and smoked bags of tobacco. Here he had welcomed customers with invitations to browse his small and selective collection of literature, history, art, and a smattering of mysteries. “This is a used bookshop. Feel free to sit down with a book and relax. We serve coffee, tea, and espresso.” Here he had introduced writers and poets like Hugh Kenner and Richard Howard, who read aloud from their works to scores of intent and sweating listeners crammed into four mid-sized rooms. Here the two of us had sat and talked of many things.

Our talk was cheerful yet sober this day. Better ones we recalled stridently, zestfully. But now the words were heavier. A poignant sadness hangs about a flame in its final moments of life; here was the flicker, I thought.

What had been for Tom a modest realization of many years’ hopes and anticipations stood as something else for us, his friends and (few) customers. Tom and the bookshop became in a way inseparable: his personality so well and so completely pervaded the bright and book-filled rooms that one came to signal the other. Losing the store didn’t mean losing Tom, of course. But it did mean losing some visible, concrete part of him, and, as it turned out, of ourselves as well. Now there would be no more bookshop, as it was merely the latest on the long and lengthening list of failed small businesses.

Tom had become a friendly and trusted companion to many who crossed his threshold and said, “I didn’t know this was down here. Just thought I’d stop in and take a look.” He was ever accommodating and would refer a customer to a competitor if he didn’t have the book being sought. He set aside books for anyone gladly, sometimes with irking inconvenience to himself. One customer, a kindly local eccentric whose shirt was never in, would shuffle about and gather several books whose total would come to $7.00, ask Tom to store them while he paid them off, and proceed to pay seven cents a day. (Yes, come to think of it, Tom’s patience did stretch thin with this one.) Customers knew they would always get a glad look and an honest word from him.

It is a lucky thing when like minds come together. A glance, a joke over-heard, an offhand comment—and that instant comradeship, secured and inviolable. Friends are drawn by common interests, a common ground upon which both stand and walk. Understandably, Tom and I found our first common interest (there were others) in books. We talked about them endlessly. The old standards and the newer deserving of merit: my Conrad and his Kerouac. The firm feel in the hand of a well-made book, the beckoning smell of the newly printed. It’s a bond that Montaigne understood. And Cicero. And all the sages, in fact, for whom strong male friendship brooked no shame and demanded no apology.

Discoveries lie around every corner in a bookshop such as this one. One afternoon we came across dusty volumes of Christopher Morley lying in the depths of a large box just bought from a patron. Within a few days we had pored over Morley’s Roger Mifflin books, Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, which came to represent for us the carefree mind alert, fanciful excursions into the joys of reading and the apt appreciation of ordinary days. Lines of dialogue seasoned our broad and bantering conversations. Roger took on flesh for us; we knew him better than most we met in the street. Something there was about his vital spirit that we found intoxicating, though we never knew what it was exactly. The world of musty books hidden in ancient stacks awaiting new life, certainly; the mild aroma of smoke rising off the brim of a briar, assuredly. But as with most enduring impressions, the whole comes to more than the sum of the parts. Impressions work that way. Memory works that way, too.

I never tired of seeing Tom’s kinship to Roger, one that went beyond beard and balding head. We first see Roger clattering along the lonesome countryside with horse and wagon, the travelling Parnassus, selling his books for a pittance, giving away a few, preaching the power of the written word to quizzical farmers and wayfarers. Yet Roger is no scholar, no man of higher learning. His message is for everyone; no one is excluded; all can be healed. Roger and Tom move with the same energies and possess an abiding fondness for the small, tactile things of daily life: a warm jacket, a walking stick seemingly fitted to one hand only, hot coffee, a solid mug, a slim flask of Courvoisier, a well-cleaned pipe. A quiet and steady embrace of the here-and-now. He especially liked Roger’s large, framed sign hanging just inside the door of his Brooklyn bookshop, Parnassus at Home:

This shop is haunted by the ghosts

Of all great literature, in hosts;

We sell no fakes or trashes.

Lovers of books are welcome here,

No clerks will babble in your ear,

Please smoke—but don’t drop ashes!

Browse as long as you like.

Prices of all books plainly marked.

If you want to ask questions,

you’ll find the proprietor

where the tobacco smoke is thickest.

We pay cash for books.

We have what you want, though you

may not know you want it.

Malnutrition of the reading faculty is a

serious thing.

Let us prescribe for you.

by R. & H. MIFFLIN,


We memorized and recited these lines out on the porch on slow afternoons. He would utter them deliberately with a glinting eye as if he were inventing them. The burnished words wafted upwards with the smoke from his pipe.

Tom, like Roger, had followed a different path. His had been a long and varied journey to the bookshop. He had been in Vietnam, kept the freedom to work odd jobs in many places (the kind of thing many of us wish we did later), and claimed never to have read a book until college. Whether the last be true or not, Tom is a man of rare depth, capable of acknowledged cynicism at times, but also of the enterprise and idealism to set out and open a business not especially known for its financial promise. He opened the bookshop, he said, because people should have a place of retreat from the dogged life outside the front door; a place to sit down with the richer spirits of the world, whether they be found between the covers of a time-worn book or in the chair across the room. A place to wander, to imbibe that certain kind of innocence which is wont to find what it doesn’t know, to open oneself to the promptings of chance in an overly-planned culture. A place for better things.

Morley wrote elsewhere of the same simple purpose. A second-hand bookshop does not invite the frenetic souls, the busy ones who always know exactly what they want. There is a time, apparently, to discard intention and follow other impulses. “The lack of intelligence with which people use bookshops is, one supposes, no more flagrant than the lack of intelligence with which we use all the rest of the machinery of civilization. In this age, we haven’t time to be intelligent.” Nor, it seems, to be adventurous. We should visit these salutary places not on “casual errands of reason, but . . . necessary acts of devotion. We visit bookshops not so often to buy any one special book, but rather to rediscover, in the happier and more expressive words of others, our own encumbered soul.”

These things we remembered as the last boxes and tables were hauled away. Sincere patrons, the final few, said goodbye. We suddenly recalled Roger’s being asked by another businessman which advertising firm he used. Roger replied, “The people who are doing my advertising are Stevenson, Browning, Conrad and Company. My advertising is done by the books I sell. If I sell a man a book by Stevenson or Conrad, a book that delights or terrifies him, that man and that book become my living advertisements.” A fine thought, that one. As the last chair was carted off, I wondered if the firm still operated.

And then, quite simply and predictably, life went on. Tom got another job, his former boss welcoming his return. I continued my teaching and scribbling. Customers struck his name from their directories and some no doubt forgot the bookshop. Our local eccentric went on to assail other shopkeepers. We found other ways to fill our idle hours.

Three months later it was Christmastide, and Tom and Andrea invited several friends to their house for a bright evening of talk, drink, and Christmas readings. Amid candlelight we drank the eggnog, heavy with rum, and ate from the massive array of cookies and cakes. A good Christmas party—everything done with that bountiful moderation of the season.

Late into the evening, most guests having gone after the last reading, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Tom pulled me aside and said, “Maybe you’ll want to go upstairs and see the study. You haven’t been up there lately.” He turned away, and I tried to guess what I would find. I climbed the stairs.

There, clean and ordered and true, it was spread out before me in haunting familiarity.

In this upper room, in miniature, the bookshop lived on. Two compact shelves on opposite walls faced each other and contained the neat, carefully selected rows of the saved. In the middle of the room sat an old wooden desk, hard and polished, which had belonged to Tom’s father, and upon it high candles burned with quiet dignity. A single floor lamp cast a yellow light into each corner, under it a comfortable chair. Tom’s pipe rack sat on top of one of the shelves with several jars of finer tobacco. I then understood the earlier phone call pressing me to bring a pipe: it was to be another evening in the bookshop, the bookshop that remained where it always had been, deep within each of us. For me this would be my last evening in that house, at least for a while, as I would be moving away in two days.

I sat in the desk chair and lit my pipe with some of Tom’s tobacco. Then came Tom and others behind him as the party moved with the remaining few upstairs. Our friend Jim tried a pipe for the first time and, to our astonishment, liked it: he rarely smoked, and never before like this. We sat on chairs and lounged on the floor. Faces were softened by candlelight. The wine poured, the smoke permeated, the laughter penetrated.

“It just may be time for one more reading,” Tom said, looking my way. I knew the one. Walking over to one of the well-membered shelves, I found, appropriately, a book of Morley essays called Pipefuls. I took another sip of wine, relit my pipe, turned to “On Making Friends,” and read it aloud. Friendship, he aid, is that “complete frankness of communion, based upon full comprehension of mutual weakness, enlivened by a happy understanding of honorable intentions generously shared. . . . Not until a time comes for saying goodbye will we ever know how much we would like to have said.” How much, for us, to have said about that bookshop—for it was loved and missed—and to those people.

It wasn’t that the bookshop was alive again somehow; it was that we had never died. We started to see what it had meant to us, up there in that room, “haunted by the ghosts of all   great literature.” It had been a place to re-order ourselves. To walk among the shelves at a slow pace and spot something we hadn’t known existed when we got out of bed that morning; to handle it, flip the worn pages, and walk on. Or to find something that had held us enthralled years before and that we had forgotten, and we would stand struck, amazed that it had returned to us. It had to do with leisured time and the expansive soul. A rich life with time to settle with a book or a friend and listen to the muffled traffic swish by outside while we are momentarily and contentedly unaware of its summons. The bookshop was a failure, perhaps, as the world judges such things, but as Tom says, you give it a “good shot.” Besides, we had retreated from that world for a few precious hours that evening. And it occurred to me as I drove off into the frigid night, almost in passing and after the goodbyes, that Tom is among the successful men.

Over and again now, in harried moments and rushing days, I think of those candles that burned atop the solid old desk up there that night, their flames still and columnar, and of Auden’s “affirming flame.” The wind still blows apace. But some flames will not suffer themselves to be extinguished.

  • Tracy Lee Simmons

    At the time this article was published, Tracy Lee Simmons was a writer living in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to Crisis.

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