On the twenty-third of February 1917, the year the United States joined the fighting in Europe, Robert N. Jones received a book as a gift. It was a copy of a five-year-old volume titled Charles Dickens as Editor and bearing an Edwardian subtitle: “Being Letters Written by Him to William Henry Wills, His Sub-Editor.” A handsome if unpretentious book of gray buckram with Dickens’s pompous signature stamped in gold on the cover, it held 404 heavy pages with spendthrift margins and crisp type. “From C.N.S.,” Jones noted on the flyleaf with a scratchy fountain pen.
Robert Jones lived and died, but this book lived on. Ninety years and four months later, on the twenty-third of June 2007, I was standing in Nashville’s BookMan/BookWoman when Saralee Woods, the store’s owner, handed it to me. The volume fit into the palm of my left hand as inevitably as G. I. Joe’s pistol into his permanent grip. The grain of its cloth caressed the soft flesh between my thumb and the rest of my hand. I turned it with its fore-edge pointing ceilingward, but the book had stood at attention on shelves too long to relax to a favorite passage. I tapped the deckle-edged sheets, and as they parted a ghostly browse stopped at the stiff backing page of an illustration. It turned out to be a photograph of Wilkie Collins—always looking, despite paramours and laudanum, like a drowsy terrier. I held the book up to my nose. It smelled like Mr. Badger’s bench by the fire. For a moment, the twelve-year-old part of myself felt safe from a scary world.
I shuffled pages and glanced at a passage: Broadstairs, Thursday, Sixteenth October, 1851. I have been looking over the back Numbers. Wherever they fail, it is in wanting elegance of fancy.
Saralee laughed at my expression: “I thought that one might interest you,” she said, adding it as free garnish to my stack of books about Dickens and Darwin and Paracelsus. I had driven down to Nashville from Pennsylvania with a rental car’s trunk full of books reluctantly pruned from my shelves, and Saralee had distilled them into a generous credit slip that I immediately exhausted as if eating a whole cake at once.
I moved from Crossville to Nashville in early 1986 to work at Mills’ Bookstore in Hillsboro Village, a friendly little community on the edge of the Vanderbilt University campus. Some of my best friendships were forged at Mills’, and when it closed in 1990 I was heartbroken. It was five long years before BookMan opened down the street. Saralee has always said that she and her husband Larry first went into the bookselling business as a way to sell his out-of-control book collection. Then they bought the store beside them, and the combined space morphed into BookMan/BookWoman. It became the haven I visited most often in Nashville, before and after I married and moved away in 2004.
I didn’t “shop” at BookMan. I searched. I prowled. Any corner bench might have sleeping face-down on it a volume that, awakened, would grab my soul by the lapels. My feet ambled down the fjords of high shelves, and I would eddy in bights and alcoves, nooks and bowers, but my body was merely a tether while my mind ranged from Rex Stout to Hesiod to Anne Sexton. Double-shelved, sometimes triple-, the bookcases vibrated with history—all those inkwells and bloody bandages, guffaws and keening. Good God, the daffodils and sweaty muzhiks! Tenement shelves groaned from overpopulation. But it was this gaudy Shakespearean excess, the Mumbai crowds of jostling books, that made it such a heady experience to visit the BookMan. It was the archaic opulence of it all, as if you might come home smelling of myrrh.
The slow river of traffic on Hillsboro Road would fade as you ventured farther toward the back of the store, to luscious art books high on the far-right wall, or shadowy rows of mystery novels. Alcoves like little caves filled with essays and theology, poetry and sports. A back room of children’s books, from original Hardy Boys to Heather Has Two Moms. And to visit BookMan was inevitably to run into friends—not just Saralee and Larry, but Carter Moody at the front desk and other writers browsing among the shelves: Susannah Felts in the fiction section, Alana White in European history. Hundreds of books on my shelves bear the notation BkMn and the date when I found them in that wonderful store.
And now the BookMan is closing its big creaky door the way the door closed at Mills’ in 1990, and books sprawl for the last time on the emptying shelves. The mental image gives me an ache like sunsets I am not witnessing on the Mediterranean, and Lord I am five hundred miles away from home. But I am lying on the sofa late at night, in a pool of warm lamplight a floor below my sleeping wife and son, and I am reading Charles Dickens as Editor and thinking about Robert N. Jones and his fountain pen and his life in the first World War, and how his now-dead hands once held this book, and about bearded Dickens and Wills scribbling notes at pigeonhole desks, and about the newsreel scurry of the years and how the BookMan lived for two glorious decades, and how I’m almost sixty.
I’m seeing all the times Larry and Saralee hugged me at the door, or pulled up out front with a carload of books while I browsed inside. I recall Larry’s easy laugh and Saralee’s knowing smile, and how Larry dumped heavy cardboard boxes on the floor like a pirate stowing bags of doubloons. I taste again the joy and enlightenment and distraction in long, messy avenues of books. The aroma of these foxed old pages in my hands becomes the smell of reading by candlelight ever since Gutenberg, and it’s so late I hear the last train over by the lake, but I’m still reading.
Michael Sims, a native of Crossville, is the author most recently of The Adventures of Henry Thoreau. In January 2017 Bloomsbury will publish his new nonfiction book, Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes.