Down on My Knees In a Bookstore

I WALK to the counter with a small, leather volume of Francis Bacon's essays in one hand and a silver flashlight in the other. The price is penciled inside the book's front cover - $20.00. Not bad for an early 19th-century edition in good condition, but I already have one from the period. That's exactly why I've selected this book. I figure I'll offer him $10 - no, $15 - $10 may seem too cheap. We have a tradition in my family: Never pay the marked price for a used book. My father started it, and I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't lived up to it often enough. Once I find a book I really want, I'm usually willing to pay a reasonable price. When I try to negotiate and the owner says ``No,'' I usually just fold. That's why this time I picked the Bacon essays: I don't really care if the bookseller takes my offer.

I acquired my used-bookstore instincts from my father who would occasionally crawl, hands and knees, flashlight in hand, through the store.

As a child, five or six years old, I vividly recall being dragged whining in and out of a dozen bookstores, old and new. Not that I didn't enjoy the trip, but I'd usually reach my limit after two or three stops. I'd try to sabotage the journey with numerous bathroom requests interspersed with a dozen pleadings for lunch. Finally, with a shopping bag full of delightful old tomes, we'd stroll to a restaurant.

Another family tradition centers around the flashlight. My father had at least a dozen different-sized flashlights conveniently located in every room of the house including the attic and basement, in the garage, and in each car glove compartment and under the seats. This doesn't include the numerous pen lights he kept in each shirt and jacket pocket. Only half of these flashlights worked at any given moment. Every drawer in the house possessed at least three batteries.

Thus, the family tradition: Never enter a used bookstore without some type of flashlight. One could enter without money, shoes, or a shirt - those obstacles could somehow be overcome. A flashlight, though, was a necessity.

Years ago, when I first started following in my father's footsteps, I felt foolish - flashlight in hand, on my hands and knees, searching the dusty, cobwebbed bottom shelves of cavernous used bookstores. I don't feel foolish anymore. I accept another old family motto: Never be embarrassed by your actions in pursuit of a book. Leave squeamishness to amateurs. Professional book lovers know what treasures hide in corners, beneath piles of dusty magazines, and on the grimy bottom shelves of dark, narrow book-lined corridors.

While on a bookstore tour through western Massachusetts, my father and I emerged from his battered gold Plymouth Duster. A decrepit barn with open doors and a sign that said ``Old Books'' had caught his eye. It would obviously be dark inside. He opened the car trunk and took out a monster flashlight. No penlights for this job.

After more than an hour, half spent on hands and knees, we emerged by the owner's register brushing and pounding the dust out of our clothes. I paid the marked prices for my books, trying to avoid my father's stare of disbelief and disappointment. My cowardliness spurred him on.

The owner, dressed as if he'd just gotten up, had a ``no deal'' expression on his unshaven face. That had been enough to scare me off but my father plopped a well-worn volume of ``Plutarch's Lives'' down on the counter. ``How about $2 for this?'' he asked. The marked price was $5.

The owner slowly thumbed through the book, halting at that ominous front page with the price on it. ``Sorry,'' he said. ``I couldn't make a profit if I operated like that.''

``Yes, but don't you think I'm owed a discount?'' my father challenged. ``After all, I had to use my own light.'' He held up the monster flashlight.

For a moment the two stared at each other in silence. Finally, the owner's mask crumbled and he slowly grinned. ``OK, OK,'' he laughed. ``How about $3?''

For some strange reason, that's the exact amount my father had in his hand, and he quickly placed it on the counter and snatched the book. For an instant, the owner's eyes squinted, but he just shook his head and smiled, accepting his defeat.

So here I stand again, gripping Bacon and flashlight, beside the sales counter waiting for the owner. And it happens again as it almost always does. Am I sure I don't want this book? Maybe I should get it. I could always use it as a gift if I decide I don't want it. It's too good a deal to pass up.

I gave the owner a twenty and walked out.

My father would have had a field day in that bookstore.

Maybe next time, Dad.

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