I was walking down the street in an abandoned quarter of the city. It was late at night. I huddled against the rain in my brown coat, dodging the puddles scattered along the pavement. I walked with my head down, emersed in a sense of despondency engendered by the coldness of the rain, the shabbiness of my coat, the murkiness of the puddles, and the forsaken emptiness of the buildings around me. I came to a spot where one of the streetlamps was burned out, leaving a pool of darkness along the front of one the buildings. I was curious about what was there. I had a flashlight in the pocket of my coat, and I pulled it out and tapped it against the palm of my hand a few times to get it to work.
As the beam played off the walls in that dark space, I saw that it was an old book store. The windows were broken, and the shelves and the displays had all been cleaned out and overturned. There was no front door, just a cracked doorframe. So I crept into the store, feeling my way with the flashlight beam. Glass and splintered wood crunched under my feet. I could hear soft, lonely drips of rain falling from the weak spots in the roof. I traced the flashlight beam along the wall, and I found a single shelf, hanging crooked and nearly collapsing, that still held a few paperback books. The covers were tattered and the spines were broken in white bands from long use. But I saw a few books that I had been looking for for years. I pulled one with a brown cover down off the shelf. I flipped through the pages, illuminating the text with my flashlight.
As I stood there, getting lost in random passages and nearly forgetting where I was, there was a sudden snap and a low, groaning hum, as though someone had just powered up a generator. Dim lights faded on around me from the corners of the store. People, in coats even shabbier than my own, began to crawl out from different nooks and recesses in the walls, some of them knocking over shelves that were blocking their way. I swept the beam of my flashlight across their faces. They all squinted in the harsh glare, unaccustomed to the brightness. They were curious about the book in my hand and the other books still on the shelves. It was as if they hadn’t known the books were still there until I had come along and shed some light on them.
I handed out the remaining volumes at random, trying to explain what the books were about, what stories and ideas they contained, offering reviews and recommendations of a few spare sentences. The people just held the books in their hands like they were life-giving portions of bread, feeling their weight and substance, staring at the illustrations on the covers, not really heeding anything I was telling them. But they had the books. That was something. They clutched them fiercely and they nodded vigorously as they receded back into their holes. The lights went out as the last of them pulled a bookshelf back over the entrance to their lair, as though tucking themselves under a blanket. I was left there in the darkness to find my way out with the beam of my flashlight, still holding the two books that I had kept for myself.