Excerpt from the novel “The Twelfth Dialogue”
Another six-aspirin day, concedes Sonya Gore, owner of the second-hand bookshop BIBLIOPHILE. Grimacing, she reaches for a slim paperback from a pile on the counter. Early in the morning she drove to a market on the other side of town, where, compulsively selecting from the vast range on offer, she filled two large suitcases almost to bursting. She considers the paper-back for a moment, a collection of poems. Does it have any worth? What price should be set on it? She confronts the same dilemma over each book: how to reconcile intrinsic worth with a realistic price. As though a sixth finger, the cigarette in her right hand releases a line of smoke that curls and twists and spirals into a cursive script, covering her face with its uncoiling before drifting away to infiltrate the pages and add meaning to books pressed hard against each other on the shelves. If only this were an ideal world. Books would be free, or at least of equal worth. As it is, she must view them as commodities and appraise each for its resale value. Poetry! she now admonishes herself, scratching away the fossilised remnants of a silverfish on the title page. If only she had seen the circular coffee stain on the back cover. What possessed her to buy it? She knows only too well that poetry does not sell, particularly self-published work. Was she perhaps drawn by the cover, a charcoal sketch of a burnt tree with its roots in the sky? Or by the sound of the author’s surname, Pepel? Turning pages almost as brown as fallen oak leaves, she notices an old train ticket, the sort that disappeared years ago. She is about to throw it away, but is checked by a whimsical thought: the book has travelled through time on this ticket, and is perhaps yet to reach its final destination. How far and how much longer will it travel on this ticket? she muses, replacing it precisely in its outline on the page.
In the chilly pre-dawn dark, as stalls were being set up and vendors of all sorts playfully cursed each other, the sentiment of several poems appealed to her and, without thinking, she dropped the book into her suitcase. Prudence, she now counsels herself. Be more circumspect in what you bring into the shop. This business requires an intuitive feel for prevailing tastes and trends, a sixth sense for books that flit from hand to hand. To survive the present recession you must be resolute with books crying for sympathy. Avoid pity that offers long-term shelter to self-published authors. The downhill road to bankruptcy is littered with good intentions. And this book of poems? It will find a place among the established poets and remain there until it is culled and taken back to a market – a painful but unavoidable practice necessitated by a chronic shortage of space.
Three years ago, when Sonya leased the vacant building between what was then a butcher and a bank (both now vacant), there were few second-hand bookshops in this part of town and business was brisk. At thirty, after seven years of teaching English to adolescents who were more interested in McDonald’s food than Macbeth’s words, she resigned, took out a second mortgage on the house she had bought the previous year, and became self-employed. The change was just what she needed: a spark to a withering life. Miserable in teaching from the very outset, she had doggedly persevered not in the hope that things would improve with promotions and seniority (in fact, she never applied for positions of responsibility), but more from the grim reality that she possessed no other skills or talents. Apart from the obligatory meetings and exchanges about unruly students, she had little contact with the other teachers, preferring to spend the lunch hour at her desk bent over a novel, or strolling the elmed paths of a nearby park, her face concealed by the covers of a book. Who knows, she may have endured another thirty years of quiet misery, but for the sudden and random attacks of panic she felt at the approach of her thirtieth birthday. Each attack triggered a shower of white stars that shot into her field of vision, and when they subsided a headache struck its spike between her eyes. The attacks culminated in a feeling of burnout, which made the very thought of packing her black briefcase a nightmare. Stress, her friends said. She ought to take a holiday, be more outgoing, meet someone who would sweep her off her feet. To Sonya, a holiday was nothing more than a temporary escape; as for a man, she much preferred the company of books. And that was precisely where her cure lay.
Within a week of resigning, the panic attacks stopped and she felt ready for a new life. Methodical by nature, she had studied a number of likely suburbs and shopping strips, researched the demographics of the area, spoken to shopkeepers, and settled on a single-storey building with a large front room, a smaller back room with an open fireplace, and exposed brick-work on the internal walls. The landlord, Lev Simkin, was a seventy-year-old tailor whose own shop was nearby, on the same street. After they had agreed on the terms and conditions of the lease, Simkin offered Sonya a few words of advice, speaking with a lisp. In business your best friends were paper and pen. The devil’s haunt was the human mouth. Black on white, he said, venting his anger at the previous tenant, an accountant who had been charged with embezzling clients’ funds and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, leaving Simkin considerably out of pocket (though thankful the fellow had not set fire to the building in a desperate attempt to conceal the evidence of his crimes).