When my family relocated from Phoenix back to Austin in the spring of 2014, the unbelievably competitive real estate market compelled us to lease a home and put the vast majority of my library into storage. The plan was to rent for one year, but that turned into almost two. As a lifelong bibliophile, the absence of a library in the home was something I hadn’t experienced for decades, and it would be mild to say that I didn’t take it well. I had downscaled my collection by a few hundred books before the move, and so I had something just approaching 9000 volumes in storage. I found room for a small shelf in our temporary home, and here I kept a carefully selected collection of items consisting mainly of my old Quartet Encounters softcovers, New York Review Books editions, some of the more recent Penguin Classics, and a variety of smallish volumes from Pushkin Press, Wakefield Press, and the like.
While these books did keep me occupied in the rare quiet moments as our family adjusted to new jobs, schools, etc., I would have to confess that a mild depression set in, occasioned mainly by the absence of the surrounding womb of books that I had grown to know and take comfort in. I devised some strategies to boost my mood whenever I got too low. I could visit some of the used bookstores in town, one of which was fairly close to our home, I browsed Amazon for new titles, I read from the wonderful volumes with which I had stocked the small shelf, and, most therapeutic of all, I’d drive the short distance to the storage unit, that sad monument to lives in transit, roll up the metal door, and sit perched on a stepstool amidst the hundreds of cardboard boxes wherein my library was held in suspended animation. I’d rummage through a box at random, pick up some interesting and somewhat forgotten book and spend an hour or two with it before the light grew dim and the heat of the shed became too overwhelming.
It didn’t take long to unpack a few boxes onto the bookshelves that were (obviously) also in storage. So now I had something to look at besides the stacks of light brown boxes, even though I barely had room to place that little stepstool. I kept a wary eye for vermin (apart from the occasional black widow and some random crickets, my light treatment of the space for insects seemed to work adequately) and any sign of moisture. Although my trips to the unit were far between, they did have a pleasant effect on my mood, and if by chance whatever item I picked up was engaging enough (and most, frankly, were – I’m a bibliophile, as I said) it came home with me for further perusal. This led to another, small bookcase in the house where these refugees sat, along with the random new purchase.
I did gradually come to realize that, yes, I could exist in a home without an overwhelming supply of books close at hand, although whether I actually wanted to was another question. Still, finally the day came: after looking at and falling in love with a succession of new homes, which we made generous offers on only to have them shot down, sometimes in the most insulting manner (is there a lower form of human being than a greedy homeseller in a ultra-hot market?), the right place came our way in March, with an actual, honest to god human being willing to sell it for a generous - rather than an obscene - profit. There were two handsome rooms at the front of the house that would do nicely for a library, even though a remarkable number of books would, by necessity, have to remain, as they had in Phoenix, boxed in the garage. Shelves were ordered, along with some decadent leather club chairs, a nice rug, and a lovely copper hanging lamp. The shelves were built over a long weekend while my family was travelling, books began to be unpacked and sorted and, gradually, a library took shape – the kind of place where you could soften the lighting, pour a nice glass of wine (or better, Jameson’s), and spend an hour at the end of the day in a quiet house. As Nero famously said: “Now I can live like a human being!”
I mentioned above my Wakefield Press volumes. These are one of my more recent book enthusiasms, a selection of surrealist, Dadaist, and decadent rarities long out of print – or never before published – in English. During my book exile, I scoured Amazon for these, greedily looking at forthcoming publication dates. These are not the sort of thing you will find in Barnes and Noble, and even Austin’s most prestigious and eclectic independent bookstore, BookPeople, didn’t typically keep a generous supply on hand. That changed a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I visited Malvern Books on 28th Street in Austin. A clean, well-ordered shop, it stocks just about every small press that I’m interested in – even Green Integer, the worthy successor to Sun and Moon Press. If you are a resident, or one of those tourists who love to visit Austin for the humidity and the traffic, you should do yourself a favor and stop by, say hello*, and buy something.
*The staff is actually friendly – at least they were on the day I visited.