Photos in a Thousand Words

POSSESS one of the most unusual photograph albums in the world. The snapshots contained within its pages are 35mm., 2 by 2, 120, 126, and a variety of film sizes no longer in production. Some of the photos are color but many are black and white. The clothing worn by the people in these photos are appropriately reflective of the eras during which they were taken, roughly from the turn of the century to the 1980s. So what makes this photo album so unusual? The photos do not depict family members spanning several generations; in fact, to the best of my knowledge, none of these people are even related. Perhaps I had better explain.

I own a second-hand book shop. The tiny building which houses The Second Reading (so named since the place carries only second-hand books) is crammed floor to ceiling with thousands upon thousands of old books. When the fire-safety inspector pays his annual visit, it's never a question of will the shop be cited for some violation but, rather, how many times will it be cited.

Patrons often ask me where I acquire all these books. They seem somewhat surprised when I reply that regional book sales account for only a modest percentage of my total stock. A sizable number of the books are gleaned from estate auctions and rummage sales, but many are dumped on me - sometimes quite literally - by people preparing to move and hoping to lighten their load a bit or, perhaps, just cleaning out their attics and basements. I've not infrequently arrived at my shop in the morning to find a box of books outside my door like an abandoned infant in a blanketed basket which has been left on a stranger's doorstep.

Of course I examine every book before placing it on the shelves since I must determine (a) a fair market price for the book and (b) whether I want to read it before offering it for sale to my patrons and thereby possibly placing its contents beyond my ken forever.

Before returning a book to the library, I always leaf through its pages to make certain it doesn't inadvertently contain something of mine. It just makes good sense and saves me no small amount of embarrassment. Once, for example, I discovered an unpaid utility bill wedged within Jack Kerouac's ``Big Sur,'' an item I would not have cared to pass along to the next person who checked out that book. So one would naturally assume that someone vending books at a rummage sale or donating books to a dealer would have assiduously examined each volume for trash and treasure.

Not so.

The customary inspection of new arrivals at the shop continues to yield a rich and diverse harvest of memorabilia, a veritable cornucopia of curios. I've found innumerable pressed flowers, delicate as butterfly's wings and so contorted as to be unidentifiable, and leaves whose faded crimson and amber hues speak decrepitly of some long-past autumn splendor. My wanderlust is continually whetted by the postcards these books contain although, strangely, those mailed from the better-known exotic climes and historical points of interest excite me less than shots of the waterfront and levee in Cairo, Ill., or Rock Eagle Mound in Putnam County, Georgia.

Movie and theater ticket stubs abound, representing every conceivable abode of the histrionic art from community theater to Broadway. Small greeting cards occasionally find their way into these books as well. I've stumbled upon cheery images of Santa Claus on the muggiest August afternoons and Valentine hearts at Thanksgiving. Once I found someone's draft card, apparently issued in the Vietnam era. I wonder if its owner had intended to burn the thing during a televised demonstration before misplacing it in Dostoyevsky's ``The Idiot.''

Perhaps the single most astonishing artifact I've unearthed from this literary debris was a letter postmarked April 5, 1944, which had never been opened. Efforts to locate either the person to whom it had been addressed or its sender failed, and the letter remains in my possession, making me an adjunct to the Dead Letter Office, I suppose. But why, why, had the missive never been opened? Had it been joyfully received and then simply misplaced? If the letter's recipient had refused to open it because of some quarrel with the sender, wouldn't she have destroyed the hurtful thing instead of placing it in a copy of ``For Whom the Bell Tolls'' and then leaving it there for the next 45 years?

With the notable exception of the mystery letter, all items discovered within the pages of my books which cannot be returned to their rightful owners are summarily relegated to the trash can - except the photographs.

Oh, I tried to be hard-nosed about it, telling myself that sentimentality has no place in the world of business and the photos should be discarded with the other flotsam, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. These aren't mere momentos of a mellow autumn day or an evening at the theater: They're images of people enmeshed in the joy, pain, and uncertainty of living. Each photo is a chapter from someone's life, a moment captured and frozen in time. To throw away even one of these snapshots would be an irretrievable loss; the wanton destruction of what could be the only tangible evidence of a particular occurrence. So I began keeping them in a special album.

My album holds photos of World War I doughboys and Vietnam grunts. A smiling young couple proudly stand beside a '47 Studebaker sedan which, one might surmise, had just been purchased. I was puzzled by a shot of a little girl dressed in what looks like bridal apparel until I realized it must have been taken on the morning of her First Communion.

There are also two teens who seem to have stepped out from a reel of ``American Graffiti'': the boy with a greased-back ducktail and his pony-tailed girlfriend wearing a dress which balloons out like a small parachute.

When this album is filled, I'll begin another ... and then another. Should I ever decide to sell The Second Reading, I think I'll try to include a clause in the sales contract requiring my successor to continue rescuing these forgotten photographs from possible oblivion.

Wouldn't it be ironic if the new proprietor someday discovers my photograph tucked within the pages of a book acquired for the shop?

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