This morning, after a meeting with a client, I found myself wandering into a secondhand bookstore downtown, tucked away on a side street I don’t usually take. It’s tiny; the whole thing could fit into my living room twice over.
The person at the counter was a long-haired guy in his mid-40s, by my best guess. He smiled and told me that if I wanted anything, I should just ask. After a few moments of browsing, I noticed the sounds of old Leonard Cohen wafting through the space. Soon after, the scent of some mild incense. Why the atmosphere all of a sudden? Whatever. I was focused on other things.
By that time, I’d found the tiny Sexuality section – how pleasant that even the little stores seem to have one, however modest – and was browsing via my usual intense method: cock head to the right. Read each title one after the other, not skipping any even if they look cheap or outdated. Then go back and pull out the ones that interest me – in this case, three hefty tomes on the history of sexuality, one highly academic, one more popular entitled Sex In History, and one published by Playboy. (The back cover of the academic one, entitled simply Sexuality, tells me that people seem to think sexuality’s history is only a century old, and it aims to correct that misperception. The Playboy one provides the history of sexuality split by decade, from 1900 to 1999. The irony makes me smile.)
Next, flip through to find the table of contents. Chapter topics? Contributing writers? If all is satisfactory, check the price. Acceptable?Add to the mental list of today’s purchases. If there are many, make a tally, check against my mental bank balance; if it makes me cringe, decide which books to sacrifice for the moment, or whether it’s worth a bit of a splurge.
Then, look around. Make sure nobody’s watching too intently; by experience I can tell you that people sometimes get a bit weirded out by the next step. Lift and smell each book between the pages, so that the scent of old bindings and paper pulp hits that lustful area of the brain and spins all sorts of promises about what comes next. They are soon to be mine. Other hands have touched them, other eyes have read them; no problem. I’m not the jealous type. What’s that Starhawk poem? “I bless all who have shaped you / The lovers whose delights still dance patterns on your back, /Those who carved your channels deeper, broader, wider, / (…) I bless those who have taught you / and those who have pleased you / and those who have hurt you, / All those who have made you who you are.”
Yes, they are almost mine, with all their unknowable secondhand stories ghostwritten on their covers and page corners. Marked by their pasts, they’re all the richer today.
Once I own them, I may even lend them out to a discerning soul or two, people who know how to treat them right and appreciate them in all their glory. But they come home with me.
Three books. I brought them to the counter; no interac. Okay, I said; hold them for 15 minutes until I get back from the bank machine. No problem.
When I came back in a few minutes later, cash in hand, the counter guy (owner?) was engrossed in Sex In History, glasses sliding down his nose, hunched over the tiny counter. “Interesting stuff, eh?” I asked. He looked up at me and said, “I’m very interested in this. I mean…” and he gestured ruefully at the piles on his counter. That was the first time I noticed the titles: Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure, with cover art depicting a dildo aimed at a closed mouth. Josey Vogels’ latest book, a collection of her “My Messy Bedroom” sex columns. A book about sex and aging. Another about female pleasure.
He asked me, “Are you a student? Or a collector? Do you have a library?” I answered, “Collector and student of sorts. I have a very big library.” His face lit up, and he said, “Teach me something! Tell me what you know. I read, you know, all the time, but books are one thing, and reality is a different story. Do you have anything to recommend? I want to know, I want to learn!” He eagerly handed me a little black book and a pen so I could write down a title or two. I asked for a bag to carry my three heavy books.
More questions. “What do women want?” I answered, “Most of the time, we just want someone to listen to us. Can I have a bag? I need to go.” I had a date with three books.
But he was too busy asking his questions to hear me. “It changes so much! No matter how many times you ask, the answer’s always different… You do one thing, and that’s not what they want after all, now they want something else. It’s like we have to always be alert, always…”
By this time, I was stacking my books myself, and reaching for the bag he’d halfheartedly pulled out of his drawer. “Oh! Okay, here it is. But… stay a while, talk with me. Do you have to go?”
Yes. Yes, I have to go. I have three new books to explore, and I’m not your girlfriend or your therapist, and I don’t hold the key to all women’s pleasures and desires. And I like Leonard Cohen and incense and long-haired bookshop owners with smudged glasses, but I don’t want to sleep with you. And I don’t want to give you answers when you’re more interested in drowning in your questions, and trying to build a life raft with your books.
“Will you come back?” he asked, reluctantly handing me my books, bagged. Mine, mine, my glorious new old books. “Will you come back and talk to me again?”
“Yeah, I’ll come back,” I said.
“Really, you will?”
“I’ll come back.”
If he had asked me what I might be coming back for – if he had asked me, as a woman, what I wanted – I would have answered, “I want your books.” But he didn’t ask. In essence, he didn’t need to; the answer was right in front of him the whole time. But I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to read it.