I could browse at will

It was Friday and none of the family was coming home for dinner. That thought occurred to me late in the afternoon, converging with another coming from the opposite direction.

The used-book sale opened today.

Looking back, I'm sure that these thoughts did not creep up on me unawares. I think, instead, that I knew about them, savored them, and left them unheeded for a while, the way one does a coin lurking in a coat pocket - as proof against a later need.

I settled the dogs in the house, gathered wallet and car keys, and went off with the extravagant feeling of time stretching out around me. I could browse at will, with no one tapping his foot or his watch; linger in the fiction aisle, knowing that the child standing by the door, first on one foot and then the other, whining, ''Come on, it's time to go,'' wasn't talking to me. I could, if I chose, stay until the sale ended for the day, rummaging there like some bibliophilic bag lady. And I found as I approached the armory, falling into step with others going in the same direction, that I was hurrying to catch up with something that had already begun.

The room inside was hot and I took off my coat, tucking it up onto a windowsill next to an empty Pepsi can and a broken yardstick, then stepped out onto the floor. All around me I heard the sound of shuffling feet as people moved silently, with heads bowed and eyes down, along the aisles, pushing close to the tables. I watched as two men, coming from opposite directions, met and stood firm until finally one stepped around in back and they continued on without speaking.

There was an occasional conversation, flaring briefly like flame from a match. A woman came by with a list of books she hoped to find and I marveled at her efficiency, all the while trying to remember just what it was I had planned to look for the next time I was surrounded by secondhand books. I followed my own haphazard path: literature, fiction, biography. I nudged an empty carton out from under a table and put my books inside, carrying it on my hip as I went on to children's, paperbacks, mystery and sci-fi, reference, travel.

I gave science and technology a fleeting glance and skimmed past mountains of National Geographics.

A kind of urgency came over me as I added book after book (one tends to become a little reckless when $2 is the top of the line). Never a rare-book collector, I hadn't come hoping for a ''find.'' I didn't expect any treasures, but found myself enchanted with ''Practical Up To Date Plumbing'' (copyright 1911) and ''Manners and Social Usages'' (1887).

I lingered over books that had been inscribed so long ago that the ink was now a pale translucent brown: one-time gifts to Molly, Beth, or young George from Aunt Nellie, Grandpa, Uncle Bill. I picked up a copy of a book I had rather liked at one time, dismayed to see that someone had scribbled ''b-o-r-i-n-g'' across the back. I added it to my collection, for old-times' sake.

For a minute I stood breathing in the warm, musty smell, reveling in an atmosphere that was at once intense and laid back.

A man leaned on a push broom and I stepped around him, moving past a box with a partial set of the ''Encyclopaedia Britannica,'' a stack of college yearbooks, Playbills, librettos, and more National Geographics. I held my breath as I saw a woman linger over a book I just might want: suddenly did want: had to have. I waited, shuffling my feet beside her, and when she put it down I reached for it casually, lest she see my eagerness and reconsider.

After one more circuit of the room I headed for the checkout, listening as a man read out the prices and his partner tallied them up.

At home I let the dogs out, then in again. I put the kettle on the stove and while I waited for its whistle I carried the box of books into the living room, upending it onto the rug. I settled down on the floor, the big black dog beside me, as I sorted the books into piles: those to be read as soon as possible, reread, saved for a later day. And I leaned against the couch, choosing at random, turning the pages of ''Manners and Social Usages,'' idly at first, then with greater care. It was all there: ''Chaperones and Their Duties,'' ''Etiquette for Elderly Girls,'' ''Matinees and Soirees.''

The clock ticked, the dog shifted in sleep, and I thought I heard, beyond the sound of turning pages, the rustle of a ball gown and the sounds of an earlier time.

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