Popular Stories for Boys
Lord, I lived inside those books. And they were not books that, conventionally speaking, you would choose to live inside, were you choosing to live inside some books. You would choose smart, new volumes: coffee-table books on hibiscus or vintage Vespas, I think, or you would choose something well glossed and shrink- wrapped, written by someone unthreateningly attractive and slightly more clever than you, someone like, say, Elizabeth Gilbert or Calvin Trillin, with whom you could put up for a while, like a hiking partner on the Appalachian Trail. (Yes: you would choose Bill Bryson.) You would not choose those books I chose on rainy Sunday afternoons when my parents took us to the used-book store near downtown, a place with rows and rows of faded spines organized by arcane, sometimes confounding principles of sub- ject. "Paperback Fiction" covered the entire canon of, well, fiction published in paperback. But certain themes were diced and dis- tilled to microscopic specifics such as "Aviation/WWII History/ Allies/Lighter-Than-Air" and "Jewish Studies/Akron & Area." There were tantalizing subcategories of antique firearms but no hint anywhere of the corresponding violence and death that is the platonic craving of the American boy.
The store was in an old building one ring from the center of town, and during the drive there — tucked with two brothers and a sister into the backseat of a gray AMC Pacer — covering the four miles from our house near the edge of the city, I could sense the gentle downhill slope toward downtown. If you ran out of gas and were in no hurry, you could roll there.
Industrial cities almost invariably evolved outward from their lakes and rivers, guided by liquid muses. Akron originally evolved as a canal town — the main drag once made of water — and later as a factory town, and so its development was based more on the principles of gravity and flow than the engineered order of lines and grids. The center of town was low, where the canal found its easiest course, and the neighborhoods evolved up the gentle slopes according to the prevailing winds. The poorest people lived in the places that smelled the worst and where settled the high- est concentrations of soot, and the ascending classes followed in order, so that the castles (and some were actual castles) built by the wealthy founders and company presidents were just beyond reach of their own by-products of smoke and ash. Don't shit where you eat, the saying goes.
From where we parked for the bookstore, I could see the tall, round smokestacks of the B.F. Goodrich complex just yonder, and beyond that the tall, round smokestacks of Firestone. Viewed from this vantage, the spiked architecture of the smokestacks col- lectively formed a sort of bar code against the sky, as if they com- posed the imprint of our true self. Even on a Sunday, the air hung with a burnt pungency of sulfur, which I inhaled with equal shares of attraction and repulsion. It was like that glass jar of gumdrops on your grandmother's table: maybe sweet and maybe spice.
Inside the store was a cat that lay across the counter, obvi- ous as a stage prop, watching us wander into our places. The owner, Frank Klein, was built with the sturdy earthiness of a rus- set potato — thick fingers and brawny shoulders and rocky facial features studded with sharp blue eyes. He looked like a relief map of Maine. His hair and beard were of the same shape and consistency as that on my Kung-Fu Grip G.I. Joe, whose follicles were described in the packaging as "lifelike." Mr. Klein was highly social and often engaged my parents, and sometimes me, as we moved past the cat and into the store.
The store was called the Bookseller, the pun of whose name I had figured out myself at an earlier age when entendre represents revelation — seller ... cellar! — and which I still appreciated as I headed toward the downstairs. The basement, underlit, musty, and damp, was devoted to books that a book dealer wouldn't feel uncomfortable storing in such a place, and that's where I always headed because that's where I had previously discovered a green volume whose glue had turned to the prediluvian dust of saints' bones, a book whose title — Popular Stories for Boys — was ren- dered entirely ironic by time, as it was published in — well, I don't know what year because the unhinged spine had released the title pages and the first two pages of text. Suffice to say that the "boys" with whom this book may originally have been "popular" had likely read it by gaslight, in shirtsleeves and suspenders. Because of the missing pages, I started on page three, halfway through a word that soldiered on without the aid of its lost prefix:
... truding from the body. But there was no sign of this — only a tiny hole through the center of its forehead, from which blood was oozing.
I was hooked.
Popular Stories for Boys compiled four complete books: Bomba the Jungle Boy; Sky Riders of the Atlantic; Bob Dexter, Club House Mystery; and Wrecked on Cannibal Island. It ran on close to nine hundred pages and I read them all. This book, and those that followed, did many things for me in terms of imagina- tion and aesthetic and the rituals of reading and so on. But first, mostly, and most profoundly, they took me down with their smell.
As if in response to the olfactory challenge of the factory-town air, the books in that basement were pungent and complex — dust, pulp, ink, cotton duck, binding strings — and when I found myself alone, I pulled down a volume and buried my nose into the center crease, pulling the sage up into my nostrils until I needed to exhale and inhale again. Sometimes (first looking this way and that) I touched my tongue to the page for a taste.
Here was an invocation: however deeply I could draw the scent into myself — literal inspiration — I could then exhale my wish for the answers to all these sacred mysteries.
From The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt, by David Giffels. Copyright 2014 by David Giffels. Excerpted with permission from Simon and Schuster.