I suppose historical holidays make me a bit nostalgic, so I’m taking a week away from my series on the relationship of history and archives to look back at an essay I wrote in 1994.

Early in the morning on Friday, the 7th of January, a fire ruined Kimbrell’s furniture store in downtown Durham.  Smoke billowed from the building and filled the downtown sky throughout the day.  Rumors circulated that the blaze had also damaged the neighboring fifty-eight-year-old bookstore, the Book Exchange, but no one knew how the fire had started.  My heart sank when I heard a similar news report on public radio.  I felt the need to go to the site and mourn the loss of a friend because I have been a loyal customer of this bookstore for years.  I consider it my sanctuary where all books can be reverenced.  But I didn’t think I could face the tangles of rubbernecking news hounds and redirected traffic.

When I did finally summon up the courage to drive downtown on Saturday, I was prepared for the worst.  I had visions of the charred shell of the bookstore, black soot licking the few portions of remaining wall, the back of the building demolished, revealing a feeble surviving interior structure and a few books carelessly tossed by the flames onto the recesses of the ground floor.  As I approached the building, I could detect no visible damage to the front of the Book Ex, as it is affectionately called by its regular patrons.  When I drove around to the back side, I found a fire truck and several firemen tending to the smoldering Kimbrell’s building.  But other than black soot marks on the back of the building, I could still not see much significant exterior damage.

As it turned out, the Book Ex suffered mainly from smoke and water damage.  So once they reestablished electricity early the next week, the store reopened.  However, the main two storefronts were closed due to the damage inside, so all customers had to wait in line to be served in the third storefront.  The line twisted around in the tiny space not covered by book racks or books stacked on the floor.  Despite the hint of smoke still in the air, the distinctive Book Ex aroma — a somewhat musty but pleasant used book smell — reassuringly filled the store.  I sometimes feel guilty about going because I don’t want to give the idea that I’m going there to buy cheaper books, thinking that they will be useful to me only for four months.  I actually keep all of the books that I buy rather than selling them at the end of the term, and I frequently reread them later.  Many times if I have not been able to finish a book during a hectic semester, I will even go back later to read it, confident that it will be of some value to me.

When the bookstore reopened, the salesmen not only greeted people with a “Who’s next?  How can I help you?” but also with a flashlight because electricity was only restored to the one portion of the store.  As people listed the books they wanted, sometimes the salesman would despondently shake his head.  “Sorry, that didn’t make it through the fire.”  At other times, he was uncertain and would come back after several minutes of searching, only to say, “I’m sorry, I remember seeing it now.  It was in the section that was scheduled to be moved the day of the fire.  It didn’t make it.”  Another time, a salesman told a young man, “Sorry, it’s in a pile of wet books in the middle of the floor over there.  The firemen must have seen that it was public policy and aimed the hose at it!”  The student replied, “Sell me the wet.  It’s just a book.”

“It’s just a book.”  The phrase rang through my head for days.  To me, it is much more than a book.  I don’t buy books just because they’re listed on a syllabus, just so I can have them in my possession and occasionally look things up in the index.  I consider books a key to my exploration of ideas and of the world.

I’ve had a reverence for books since I was very young, and my memories of childhood are punctuated by memories of the books which I read.  I remember the first time that I read aloud by myself.  I was about three, and we had company at our house.  I gathered up my Dr. Seuss books from the hall bookshelf and took them into the living room and started reading to everyone.  I can still see the box of little story books in my first grade room and remember going to the second grade room to borrow another box when I had finished reading the ones in my room.  When I moved to a new school in the third grade, I was given the regular level reading book, but by the end of the week, I had been moved up about three levels.  I remember participating in the Multiple Sclerosis Read-a-thon for many years and reading about forty books in a month, listing them alongside the people who unwittingly pledged donations based on the number of books that I would read.  I can pick out the special books bought on trips, like an old collection of Lewis Carroll’s books that I found in Oxford where he lived for many years.  Once when I went into a bookstore and saw a display of the most frequently banned books — such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Diary of Anne Frank — I wrote down the titles so I could try to read them all later.

Now I own over four hundred books, in all shapes and sizes and subjects.  Hardback, soft cover, autographed, history, novels, poetry, mysteries.  I take very good care of my books.  I try not to break the spine or bend the cover of paperback books.  I like feeling the texture and weight of different papers.  I arrange the books on my shelves according to categories of writing, grouping all of the works of an author together within those categories.  I have always used my spending money to buy books, considering them an investment in my own personal evolution.  I cherish my collection as a reflection of my voracity as a reader.  I think I have a reverence for the written word because of the great effort that I know it takes to construct good prose, and I translate this reverence into respect for the tangible book itself.

It pained me much more that some of the books in the Book Ex were damaged than it did to realize that the entire contents of Kimbrell’s furniture were lost and the building would have to be torn down.  I know that there were no rare books housed in the Book Ex, and I know that the fire was caused by faulty wiring, not by an arsonist who hates books.  The information contained on the pages of the damaged books has not been lost.  But symbolically, I felt like I had lost an opportunity to delve into the breadth of material once collected in the bookstore.

In light of this fire, I have decided what books represent to me.  Imagination: the chance to become a part of the world of Will Barrett.  Memory: the remembrance of reading Steinbeck on a Scottish island.  Security: a book that I take with me almost everywhere I go, knowing that if I have extra time, I can entertain myself.  Freedom: the possibility of challenging new ideas on the pages of a book and of culling those that I find most pertinent to my life.  Admittedly, the physical form of a book is not most important.  But I cherish the object for the treasure that it holds inside — the ideas and the questions.  I know that fires cannot damage the knowledge which I already possess, but I will always look gratefully on bookstores as the providers of a sanctuary for my growth.

Although the Book Exchange did emerge from this fire in 1994, 15 years later, it joined the litany of great independent bookstores that have shut their doors as a consequence of competition from online retailers and big box stores and the changing reading habits among the American public.  I’m glad I had so many years to enjoy its greatness.

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