Monday, August 17, 2009

Bookstore Revolution

It’s true. If you went down to the Sunrise Restaurant any morning between nine and noon, you could find another mind with which to swap opinions, ideas, and the occasional lie.
Those gathered this morning seemed to be discussing local politicians who were unable to act, who showed no ability to make their own plans for the city and follow through. There wasn’t any strong argument against that basic claim.
Al the butcher, long retired and longer widowed, threw in a new twist. “We’ve got time and energy. I’ll bet if we concentrated on one or two issues we could get city councilors to hop to our tunes. Hey, we could run this town without even getting elected!”
“That’s not new, that’s the way it’s done already.” Young Mel, just sixty and only semi retired, sipped his coffee. “One hand washes the other, you know. It’s the businesses with the money that run this town. Any town.”
“You got inside dope, maybe? Money makes influence makes power. And that, my friend, is politics.” Harry took the last bite of his Danish.
“You guys talking politics again?” Mike had just come in and dragged a chair toward the common table. “Claire, coffee and a bran muffin please? You want politics, have I got a story for you.” He settled quietly, waiting for his coffee. The other men made grumbling noises. Harry voiced the common opinion. “What kind of fairy tale are you going to push on us today?”
“I have a story that will astound you.” He extracted a copy of Time magazine from the inside pocket of his coat. The waitress calmly placed his order in front of him. “And the story has its end right here in the international news. It began seven years ago when I still had my book store; in fact it began in my book store!”
“What doctor’s office did you snitch that rag from? And what could some story in an old issue of Time have to do with your used book store?” Harry was always the skeptic, always the one to ask questions.
“Here’s the story. Daniel Oruwonda, the new president of the small African nation of Buluwesi. Leader of the revolutionaries who seized power in a bloodless coup. Do you know how many bloodless coups they have in Africa?”
“Not as many as they have chicken coops,” chuckled Harry. “But seriously, Mike, what has this story got to do with you?”
“Curious now, are you? Look carefully at the last paragraph in the story. ‘Educated in Canada and Britain.’ What it doesn’t say is that the year he spent in Canada he studied at our university. Some of that time he spent in my book store. I knew him, personally.”
“What did you do, Mike, pat his head and tell him to study hard so that maybe he could grow up to be president? And now he has, you want a share of the credit?” Harry pushed back to get ready to leave. “How na├»ve do you think we are, that we’d believe you had anything to do with the president of Whatsis.” But then Al the butcher spoke up. “Let him tell the story, Harry. At least it’s one we haven’t heard before.”
“Yeah,” Young Mel piped up. “Let the man tell his story and try to impress us.” So Mike got to tell his story.This whole thing started, Mike said, about five or six years ago when I still ran that used bookstore. You know how it is in September when the kids come back to school. You have new people coming around, checking things out; a couple of weeks later they’re trying to find a book for a course second hand. Sometimes they become customers

It was on a Saturday morning towards noon when a bunch of kids stopped by, nobody looking for anything, just browsing. They spread through the place and I watched but not carefully; none of these were going to rip me off. One of the girls in the group was asking about Faulkner if I remember right, when a handsome black kid who was looking through the bargain bin let out a shout. He raised a small book in the air as if he had discovered a rare treasure. Sure, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure: I hadn’t seen any value in it. The kid babbled about how it was a collection of poems and essays by some hero who came from his part of Africa and, since the book had been privately printed in Jamaica and not many copies circulated, he had never expected to find one! And here was one! He would gladly pay the one dollar that I was asking. For him, the book was priceless.
Another guy snatched the book from his hand and inspected it. “Brossard may have been born in your country, but it was mine he helped set free from colonial oppression,” he said in a West Indian accent. “This book is more important to my people. I will pay five dollars more than any price this man is able to offer you.” The stricken look on the African guy’s face was something else, as if some bully had snatched his heart’s desire right out of his fingers. That and the arrogance in the other’s voice and manner made me grab the book back and proclaim, “This book is no longer for sale.”

“So you refused to sell a kid a cheap second-hand book,” grumbled Harry. “Sounds about your style.”
“Shut up and let him continue,” declared Mel to an affirmative chorus.


That shut the whole auction sale off before it even got started, Mike continued. They saw that they weren’t going to get anywhere trying to argue with me so they took their discussion or argument or debate or whatever they considered it out into the street and back to campus. Somehow, I figured, I hadn’t heard the last of this and put the book away in a safe place. My library at home, of course. I had to read it to find what the fuss was all about, no?
Well, the African kid came in a couple of days later with this bright idea. He wanted to get together a few other black students and start a study group, using this rare book by Henri Brossard as a guide. Since the book was still mine and neither he nor the Jamaican fellow could agree who should have custody of it, would I be so kind as to be an informal patron of the group, a “keeper of the book” so to speak? If I had the time and would be so kind, I could attend meetings with the book; otherwise they hoped that I would photocopy sections as they required them and make them available to members. Decisions as to the relevant passages would be made by the group’s leaders, under my supervision, of course. And I would be reimbursed for any expenses.
“Here we go,” said Harry. “I was a bookie for the . . .” “ Shut up, Harry,” sang the chorus.

Mike didn’t let the interruption deter him. It seemed, he continued, that the two of them, the West Indian who was not from Jamaica but some smaller island and this African guy by the name of Danny Oruwonda had made this deal, as long as I agreed. What could I say? Here these kids are working out an agreement worthy of the United Nations. I agreed and offered them a meeting space, that wide room in the basement with the sofas and easy chairs and the coffee-maker set up in a corner. They wanted a Monday evening but I made them agree to Thursday; I had to be at the store that night anyway, and that way they could meet for free. So, for most of two semesters I was the informal patron of an informal discussion group that probably played an important part in the formulation of the political philosophy behind the movement that made Daniel Oruwonda the current president of the free African state of Buluwesi!

“Bull,” said Harry. “How long did it take you to memorize that high faluting mouthful of garbage? How old is that magazine anyway?”
“Leave him alone, Harry,” Mel said. “It isn’t that often we get a Socratic lesson in the influences of minor incidents on the formation of almost cosmic events. Take it for what it is, and in the spirit in which it was offered.”
“And always consider the source. Socrates he’s not.”


Good-natured laughter rang through the coffee shop. The story no longer mattered; friends were able to get together over coffee and talk about things that count. To whom and for how long was not important at all.