Don’t put it back

I never go to bookstores. I never read books. I mean, I read, just not books, not physical books. It’s always either on my Kindle, or something on my phone. But, and I don’t even know why I was here, I think I had an hour or so to kill before my wife finished class, but I found myself downtown at this really cramped bookstore.

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“Can I help you with anything?” that was the lady behind the desk, which, it wasn’t even a desk, really, it was just another stack of books, only it didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling, so it looked like a desk. Nothing looked like anything. Every inch of wall space, it was just books. And there were milk crates on the floor overflowing with more books. It’s like, I could imagine people moving, changing apartments, they’ve cleaned out their closets, they have this really weird collection of old textbooks and random paperbacks.

“See if you can sell it to the bookstore,” someone might say, and of course they’re not going to pay anything for it, I mean, if I owned a small bookstore, I mean really small, I mean this place, I was getting uncomfortable just standing inside, but if it was my shop, and some guys brought a crate of books, I’d just motion to the wall, “Leave them over there boys.” And they’d be like, “Well, is this stuff worth anything?” And I’d just repeat, “Over there, by the other milk crates.”

It’s like, could there be something valuable buried under all of those unused cookbooks and twenty-fifth edition Lord of the Rings trilogies? Maybe. Probably not. So when the lady asked me if I needed any help, I almost wanted to throw it right back at her, I wanted to be like, “Me? Do I need any help? Looks like you’re the one who needs some help, organizing these books, getting rid of that really old book smell.”

Of course I wouldn’t say that, “Just browsing,” I told her. And I started browsing, in the fullest definition of the word. I couldn’t tell if the books in the bookcases were organized by author name or if there was some sort of a category in which everything was supposed to fall, but, I looked, I don’t think there was any system, it was just a bunch of books, wherever they fit, one book comes out, grab another from the milk crate, one that fits really tight.

I knew that my chances of finding something cool were pretty slim. There wasn’t really enough time to read the jacket covers of every book that I selected at random from the shelves. Mostly I was looking to kill some time, I nudged worn-out spines out from the collection and looked at the cover art. It’s interesting, most book covers, they fall into three categories: there are photographs, usually a memoir or a biography, there are cool artistic illustrations, these may or may not have something to do with whatever’s written inside.

And then there are the covers that don’t mess around, a solid color with the title printed in bold text. Don’t Put it Back caught my eye not because of what was on it, but rather what wasn’t. It was a plain blue jacket, the copy itself looked maybe thirty years old or so, and the title was written in a very simple yellow Helvetica.

It drew me in. I flipped through the yellowed pages, opened to somewhere just past the middle. I started reading at a paragraph on the center of the left page:

“Rob opened the book to a random spot and started reading. He still had twenty minutes or so until he was supposed to meet his wife, but that’s not a lot of time to be able to do anything, nothing meaningful, not really. Why was he in this old bookstore? He questioned his surroundings, but a background part of his mind calculated what it would feel like to be waiting somewhere else, outside, that would have been too cold, maybe for five minutes or so, but twenty, no, he would have started playing with his phone, gloves off, his fingers would be freezing. Starbucks? Coffee? Too crowded, he’d have to buy something. No, this was nice. Not nice, not exactly, but no pressure, he could just stand, look at stuff, maybe read something, he was always open to the long shot possibility that something might pop out, a good story. He’d buy it …”

This was crazy. This paragraph was describing exactly what I was doing at that very second, down to the thought process. It was uncanny. Like, my heart actually skipped a beat, like you notice someone staring at you from across a room, you think, is this for real? Is that person really staring at me? And you play it off like it’s not weird, like this is just another mundane moment, I can’t really compute such a dramatic turn of events.

I put the book back. I thought, was this a joke? Like some sort of a hidden camera thing? They have shows like that, they’ll put unsuspecting people in weird situations and film the reactions. That kind of made sense. Were all of the books like this? All of the paragraphs identical? I started picking out other random books.

There was a fiction collection, some nonfiction Civil War book, something with a painting of a seashell on the cover. I looked through all of them. Nothing. Regular words. I had to see the other book. Did it call me by name, Rob, or was that my imagination? What was the rest of the book about? But I couldn’t find it. It was right here but now I couldn’t find where I had slid it back.

“Excuse me,” I think I startled the lady behind the book desk. “I was just reading this book, it was blue, I think it was called Don’t Put it Back. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

“Well let’s see,” she stepped into the aisle and started looking at the titles printed on the spines. “Do you know the author? Maybe I could look it up online.”

This wasn’t going to be any help. “No,” I said, “It was right here, I was just reading it.”

She could tell I was getting impatient. She said, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t of put it back,” adding extra emphasis on the last three words, like, haha, that was funny right?

It wasn’t funny. I needed to know what was in that book. But my wife called. She told me she was ready. I tried telling her what was going on but she was all, “Yeah, yeah, I’m freezing, let’s go.” And I had to go.

I don’t even remember where that bookstore was. I was just wandering around. I made an attempt to go back a few days later and I swear, I couldn’t find it. It was crazy. Was that like the universe giving me a chance at some sort of important wisdom, something right there on the cover, Rob, don’t put this book back. And I’m just like, hold on, this is crazy. And I put it back.

I put it right back.

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