I grew up in bookstores.
When I was eight, my family moved back to the States after a couple years on a typhoon-ridden island1
. Back in California, with its lovely beaches and high cost of living, my mom had to get a job to help us make ends meet. Enter Books West, the only new book store in the five-cities area. She worked there for 15 years, until the owners retired.
Books West was my house for 10 years. Instead of being a latch-key kid, my mom insisted I hop on the bus and come down to her work. I read every book in the YA section, half the books in the mystery and sci-fi sections, and a smattering of books from farther-flung shelves, all for free. We even got to take home some of the ones that didn’t sell, their covers torn off and returned to the publisher as “proof” that we destroyed them.
It was paradise. I had my favorite hidey-holes where paying customers wouldn’t disturb me. Self-Help was largely unvisited in our beach town2. I would read from 3pm-6pm (closing), then we’d swing past Round Table and grab dinner before heading home.
Over the years, they employed me from time to time (as did the amazing used bookstore across the way), but for the most part, my hours in that house were full of lazy page-turning and idleness. I loved it. There’s kind of a golden haze over that whole period in my life.
Toward the later years, when I was no longer an indulged child and had to actually buy the books I read, I came across a very expensive, very enticing novel3
. It was in the mystery section, and, unlike some of the silly you-solve-it books that I loved that began that section4, it was in fact a novel. But it didn’t look like any novel I’d ever seen; text inside changed fonts, colors, directions. White space was used like crazy. It was huge: 9x6ish, with at least a thousand pages5. I wanted that book like mad. But $21 was well outside my budget. I re-shelved it, and vowed to remember it.
And I did. Mostly. Everything but the name. Okay, I forgot almost everything about it. But it haunted me. I described it to other bookstore employees, in that maddening-customer way (“you know, it’s big and black and… just weird”), tried to quiz my friends with similar reading tastes, even searched the blossoming internet for sign of it (but “big black and weird” leads you down an internet rabbit hole that will never lead to a simple novel).
Years later, I finally found a friend who remembered it, who loved it. She gave me the name; I diligently marked it down. But the pull had lessened over the years, and I didn’t seek it out.
More years later, I fell into a leadership role for an apocalyptic book group. While soliciting recommendations from group members, one hesitantly mentioned this book. “It’s not really apocalyptic,” he said. “But it kinda is.”
All this is to say: I finished “The House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski today. And I feel a little bit more mentally unstable for having done so. But dang, was it worth the wait.
1 Oddly enough, my most vivid memories from the island are book related as well. During Super Typhoon Kim, we had to abandon our house and run to the neighbors, during what we hoped was the eye of the storm (it was not6). I tucked a Judy Blume book securely under my shirt before the run, and was nearly unconsolable when I discovered the wind had whisked it away. I was only brought back from tears when the neighbors shared their stash of Garfield books. After the typhoon truly had passed, there was great adventure to be had and much work to be done. My job was laying out the wet books from our house, squeezing out the water, and thumbing through the pages as they dried to get them to not stick together. Our library, even after we moved back to California, smelled like wet books for years.
2 Self-Help was also where I first discovered sex7, which led me to a treasure hunt throughout the store, particularly to the western section8, and taught me to refine my ability to scan for naughty bits.
4 Ken Weber, Five-Minute Mysteries (Running Press, 1989)
5 709 pages.
6 During the run, my mom was physically lifted up by the wind, and blown into the neighbor’s banyan tree. She broke a couple ribs. I don’t remember this – but my sister assures me it happened. What I remember was my lost book. I was kind of a shitty kid.
7 Nancy Friday, My Secret Garden (Trident Press, 1973)
8 Wesley Ellis, Lone Star #35 (Jove, 1985); pp 52-56, 74-75, 112-114.