Early in the morning, before I’ve opened the store for the day, during those few solitary minutes of calm and quiet before the shoppers crowd into the aisles with their banal chattering and dirty soles scruffing the linoleum floor boards that I’ve just mopped, the shelves around me creak ceaselessly, grunting from their noble attempts to carry such a weighty, precious burden. If I close my eyes, breath deeply and slowly of that wondrous scent in the air––the bibliosmia of leathbound spines, fading ink, and rustling paper––and listen to the shelves creaking, after a moment or two I can begin to discern a melody in the wooden groans; wearied, inanimate sighs of exhaustion, oh yes, but there is a musicality to it, nonetheless. They hum a hymn to the texts they bear, a whispered ode to the volumes resting upon them; a gasping alleluia in awe of that infinitely expanding space of which they shoulder and disclose only the smallest fraction: the human imagination.
There is a holiness to it, those brief moments of peace while I listen to the creaking concerto around me. As I open my eyes, dreading what will come a few minutes later when I’ll have to unlock the front entrance and the quiet is shoved aside by the impeding customers, I always gaze around the store one last time, sitting upon my stool behind the register, and hear the shelves sing their chorus, marveling at the beauty of their susurrated refrain. Of course, it’s not just them that I stare at, but also the muses to whom they sing, the printed weights laid across their backs: the books.
I look at the books, too.
The books are quiet, declining to join the ensemble, for they have little need to; the titles imprinted down the spines of the ones in the general browsing sections, or the bold and beautiful covers of those displayed on the gondolas reserved for new additions, or the weathered and beaten amalgamation of both of these in the books stuffed into the bargain bins, all hint at the wondrous knowledge and/or ideas hidden within, offering a silent, deafening accompaniment for the shelves, with each volume providing an operatic aria of its own without ever making a sound.
Perhaps you assume I’m being poetic, that I’ve granted myself an egregiously large helping of artistic license and am nearing the very edges of its already overextended limits, but I assure you, I am not exaggerating in the slightest; I opened this bookstore many years ago, but it was only after a couple more years passed when the shelves and books began to sing to me. And yes, I eventually started to think that they were singing to me in addition to the books (though, of course, the books weren’t singing to themselves, nor were they even singing, but that’s beside the point), if only because not long after I first started hearing them, I once asked someone else if they could hear it too and they said no, then looked at me like maybe they suspected I was finally going senile.
I spent a few weeks wondering if that was the case, contemplating if what I was hearing was actually the sound of neurons snapping, but quickly realized that that just wasn’t true, couldn’t be true. In my opinion, the song was too beautiful to just be a product of a breaking mind, too majestic and holy to be anything else but what it really was: a thing of magic. Somehow, for reasons I can’t fathom and in ways I can’t imagine, my bookstore had become infused with magic. Or, possibly, it’s the books that were magical, and had imparted their powers onto the shelves, granting them the ability of song; or maybe the shelves were made of a magic wood, harvested from an ancient, secret forest in a remote sector of the world, which only a lucky handful have been fortunate enough to see, and an even smaller number allowed in. Whatever the cause, whatever the reasons, I’m just grateful that I, too, have been permitted to hear the magic.
Well, I say “too,” but in truth, for all I know, maybe I really am the only one that hears it; as the customers idle through the aisles, I sometimes detect snippets of their conversations, hoping that at some point I’ll overhear someone say something about the chorus lilting through the air, but it hasn’t happened yet. In all fairness, I must profess that I lose track of the music as well, once the door has been opened and the shoppers have barged in, and the peace and calm has been eradicated for the day; the books and shelves need quiet before they will start their song. I don’t blame them, for I suppose that if I were a performer, I would also wait for my audience to quieten down before beginning my concert. Yet, I wish others could hear what I hear, in part because I still yearn for some sort of proof that I’ve not gone crazy, but also because that it isn’t fair to everyone else; no song this beautiful, this magical and mystifying, should ever be kept from any creature capable of loving music.
However, I must admit that on a few occasions I’ve thought I had caught a glimpse of realization glinting in the gaze of a customer, their eyes having stopped on a specific book while they were browsing, their brows furrowing or their jaw slackening and lips parting ever so slightly as they read the title or noticed the author or eyed the cover, and their mind was instantly flooded with the warm waters of a fond, distant memory, or the excitement of finding and exploring a new, sunny patch of unfamiliar territory. In that moment, frozen while they stared at the marvelous book they had discovered, I was sure that I could see that they actually weren’t entirely motionless; they were swaying, almost imperceptibly, but as if they had been compelled to, as if they were hearing some faint but powerful tune so extraordinary that they had no choice but to dance along to its glorious rhythm.
Maybe if these customers had been here during the quiet, before the store has been opened for the day, and if they had had years to just sit and listen, like I’ve had, then maybe those moments would last longer, but they always ended the same way: the customer would shake their head and come to their senses, realize they were neither wading through some memory nor pioneering new land, nor hearing some distant song, then would either reach for the book and inspect it for a bit before selecting it to purchase, or would move on and continue browsing as if they had never stopped at all. With the ones that did end up purchasing the book that had rendered them temporarily motionless, I always wanted to ask what had stopped them––had they heard something, perchance?––but I’ve never had the courage to; I only needed that one instance of someone doubting my sensibilities to ever risk having another person question them, too.
Though, to my credit, a great portion of my hesitations of asking were not due to cowardice––if it could even be called that––or from some foolish, futile act of vanity, in which I was needlessly concerning myself with the assumptions and prejudices of others, but rather, because it would have been inappropriate for me to ask. The majority of them were children, accompanied by their parents, and if a complete stranger nearing middle-age––the store owner, no less––said they saw the twinkle of realization in a child’s eye, then started suddenly rattling off questions towards the child about a mysterious, magical song floating around, audible if only one cared enough to hear it, it’s reasonable to assume that people would never return to that store. As magical as this place is, it is a business, after all.
Still, I can’t deny how delightful it is to see that look in a child’s eye, that dawning awareness of the thousands and thousands of realms and kingdoms and planets and universes––and all the sensational characters and creatures and stories contained within––at their very fingertips, waiting to be picked up and opened, allowing their spellbinding contents to spill out and transport the reader to the furthest borders of their dreams. This happens with adults too, of course, but on a significantly lesser scale, and it didn’t take me long to notice that the adults were also lacking in another manner: that look typically occurs for an adult after they've browsing for a while, but for the children, that moment occurs almost instantaneously, right as or just after they've entered the store. Once, I recalled that as a child I used to feel the same way upon entering a bookstore, and then I immediately understood something else about that moment, that look of rapture that only a book can inspire: like the song apparently meant just for me, that sensation of finding a great book is absolutely magical, to the extent that one can already feel its effects by simply being in its presence.
Knowing this has helped me to cope with never receiving confirmation that the song is, in fact, real, and that I’m not slowly losing my grasp of reality. I’ve only to see that look in the eyes of someone perusing the volumes awaiting selection to know that, in some small way, my enjoyment––that reverence I feel when I hear the shelves creaking their melody and the books silently declaring their existence––can be shared with someone else. Plus, after a child has found a book that they absolutely must have, and has begged their parent(s) to buy said book, it’s all I can do to keep from chuckling out loud as I ring them up, smiling to myself as I work the cash register and watch the child from my periphery as they gleefully hop in place with a grin so big it almost reaches past the edges of their face.
Like some of the books lining the shelves, these transactional interactions are brief, most of them to be never relived again, but that doesn’t make them any less dear to me. The same can be applied to the shoppers who don’t purchase a book, regardless of their age, or even those upon whom I never detect that rapturous moment; the beauty of magic is that it is not dependent on being perceived or believed, or comprehended, and I’m sure, in some capacity, those people were affected by, and still carry, some part of the magic which they had come so close to discovering. Eventually, I began to wonder if it was possible that it wasn’t just my bookstore that was magical, that perhaps all bookstores are magical, in an equal, if not varying manner; frankly, I’ve never confirmed this either, but like that glorious music I can hear every morning, sitting with my eyes closed upon my stool, I am steadfast in my assumption that it is real––I doubt anyone could ascribe this belief to senility, though to be truthful, I wouldn’t be surprised.
In any case, as much as I’ve enjoyed the music this morning––in fact, I’m going to attribute some of my loquaciousness to it, though I’m sure the shelves and books know I’m only joking––it seems that it’s time to open the doors and disrupt the melody for the day; I can spy shoppers already lined up outside, eagerly and patiently waiting to be let in, but their patience is clearly beginning to wear thin. As always, as I hop off my stool and amble my way towards them, key in hand, I dread unlocking the door and allowing them all to interrupt the chorus; but I must confess that while I will, of course, miss the music for the dozen or so hours during which the store is open––the shelves silent as long as shoppers walk the aisles, abstaining from singing until resting for the night and being greeted by the dawn’s soothing sunbeams––I’ve actually grown fond of a different sort of music, one that only plays when there are customers inside the store: a murmured oratorio composed of people voicing their admiration of all the books around them, in whispered basses and crooned tenors, plus flowery sopranos and comforting altos––a magnificent harmony composed from a communal love of reading.
It, too, is a magical song.
And so, like a conductor transitioning from one movement to the next, it’s time for me to unlock this door, bid farewell to the sweet refrain of the creaking shelves and silent books, and let the next song begin. You, too, can be a part of this wondrous ensemble, and like me unlocking this door, it takes very little effort to join in. Just come inside, walk the aisles of this bookstore––any bookstore, really, though again, I’ve never confirmed that––and pick a book; read its title, flip the pages with your thumb and listen to them flutter, and breathe in that spectacular scent wafting towards you.
Believe me, do this, and I’m sure you’ll feel the magic, too.