The bookshop bell

PEOPLE with dreams, even if they are strangers or nearly strangers, have a certain knack or way about them. You know who they are: In their presence, no matter how quiet or dull the setting, you feel a little tremor. It is as if you opened a door, and a little bell hanging above it had gone off -- something to remind you that you had crossed a border, that you had come in from the chaos of the outside world to a place of direction and assurance. The particular bell I'm thinking of hung over the door of a bookshop in the town where I spent my teen-age years. The shop is now defunct, the owner departed; I never even learned her name. But something about her caught my attention early on, just as her resonant, old-fashioned bell startled me the first time I opened her door.

I was a high-school freshman, at an age when reality was supposed to conform to my preconceptions of it, and my preconception of a bookstore was a place that didn't startle you the moment you crossed the threshold. I knew I was out of my element when I opened the door and a jangling ``Hmm . . . what have we here?'' noise alerted everyone to my presence.

Fortunately, as I discovered, everyone included only the proprietor; I was the lone customer in the store. I pretended to browse for a moment in the section nearest the door -- the Cooking section, a detail that I'm sure did not escape her -- while considering her somewhat disconcerting appearance. Though much smaller than I, she had thick black hair which she pulled back in a kind of capacious and careless ponytail. The effect, which I caught at first from behind, was one of great youth and vigor . I thought that I was about to face a high-spirited young woman; and when she turned around I found that, although I was wrong, I was also right. She was 50, or perhaps 25; I was perplexed.

And yet there was that bell again going off quietly in my head. I was intrigued, and as time went by I believe she was too. She was taciturn; she did not ask if I needed help; but she watched me, from her perch near the antique cash register, as I made other visits to her shop. At one point I decided she seemed much like one of those oddly affectionate gargoyles I'd seen in pictures, ringing Chartres or Notre Dame, keeping the congregation safe from harm. But suddenly I was deeply embarrassed: I c hided myself for coming so close to insulting an adult, even in thought.

The proprietor had one of the few collections of French books in the area, a fact I knew through the grapevine at school. Though I read French about as well as I read my high-school physics textbook, I grew braver with practice and finally decided to consider investing in a livre de poche or two. Since the proprietor and I had hardly spoken to each other, I thought that I might break the ice by showing interest in her obviously special stock. But I was wrong. She ignored me. Only when I beg an to take books off the shelves and leaf through them did she come by. She rearranged some novels behind me as I looked over the Alain and the Camus, the ``Princesse de Cl`eves,'' and other titles I had never heard of.

``You really should read `La Princesse de Cl`eves' when you have a chance.'' As I looked around, it was almost as if she had not spoken. She was shuffling novels, not looking at me; then she looked.

``I know something about you,'' she said. ``Warren's told me about you.'' Warren was my English teacher. ``You're the one who writes poetry. But you behave too well. You'd learn some of the risks of being too good from that book.''

I bought the book, which I did not read for years, though I returned fairly often to the store. On these subsequent visits she was generally quiet. Only when I mentioned my desire to go to Paris did she spend some time on me again.

``I will be in Paris after awhile,'' she said as if she were moving to the next town. ``It's not for everyone to know. But Paris is the heart's home. One day I will wake up and know it's the right day. I'll pack, sell these books and this shop, and go. That will be that.''

When, in college a few years later, I heard from old high-school friends that she had sold the store and departed, I did not need to ask where she had gone. As it turned out, someone told me anyway -- someone who found her remarkably daring, this shopkeeper who would choose to uproot herself on the basis of a dream and plant herself in retirement in another part of the world. But to me the news was no more remarkable than the bell above her door -- a bell that I had grown to look forward to over the yea rs, with its tone so similar to that of a boulangerie or a patisserie or a librarie francaise. Like an idiosyncratic music box, it played out a dream, repeating it in little tremors over and over many times each day until -- just as she had said -- the right day had arrived, and the tremors had become an irresistible force.

I thought about her for awhile, and about Paris, which I had visited by that time, and about the Mus'ee de Cluny, which I loved, and Notre Dame. Recalling suddenly, then, what had once privately embarrassed me, I smiled, and wished her well in the gargoyles' care, as they stared out over the city of Paris, their wings back behind them, eyes wide open, faces thrust forward, provocative, protective, and affectionate.

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