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Beverley Street

The historic district of Staunton, Va., is a mix of artsy shops and cafes tucked into crumbling old brick buildings.  On Beverley Street, the main thoroughfare of the business district, we found a small bookstore and went in to get out of the 90-plus degree heat. The bookshop was not what I expected from the outside. Through the windows I could see some magazines on a display and some merchandise in plastic that looked like toys.  So it was a magazine stand that sold toys? Not promising.

Once inside, I was still unsure.  There didn’t seem to be many books.  I am used to two, at most three types of bookstore.  There is the Barnes and Noble type, with tens to hundreds of thousands of new books, on displays, filling tables, divided by genre, like a supermarket of books.  Then there is the used bookshop, which can range from the Gotham Bookmart in Manhattan, where you can wander for weeks, to the bookswap type place half-filled with romance novels and beach fiction from thirty years ago.

But this place, called Bookworks, was a different type of bookshop.  As I wandered around I began to pick up books I had heard of and thought I wanted to read but hadn’t gotten to.  In most cases there was only one copy of each book, so in total, there may have been fewer than a thousand books, less than many people’s personal library.  And like a personal library, the books were selected and arranged at the owner’s whim. Science fiction was mixed with history, with travel, with literary fiction.  All they had in common was that I wanted to read many of them.

The toys I had seen from the doorway were literary figures in the shape of dolls, and the magazines were unfamiliar, glossy publication I had mostly never heard of.  No Martha Stewart or People to be seen.

As I wandered among the shelves with too many books in my arms, I could hear the owner calling people to tell them the books they had ordered had arrived.  That went on for awhile and gave me a clue to why he stocked so few books.  While we were there, several customers came in to pick up their orders.

Then, to add to my sense of confusion, a street person wandered in – to get out of the heat, I supposed.  He was an old derelict, small and white-haired, completely disheveled, wearing mismatched clothes that were all disarrayed and gaping.  His sparse hair stuck out helter-skelter, and he hadn’t shaved since whenever.

He went up to the owner standing behind the counter and said, “You called to say my books were in.” Then he reached way down in his drooping pants and fished out a wallet and credit card to pay for his books, one on the artist Edward Munch, and the other on the writer Samuel Beckett. Eighty-five dollars and change.

Anyway, I put back most of my books, but kept two – a great novel by Robert McCammon called Boy’s Life, which seems to channel the best qualities of Ray Bradbury, and Kingdom of Shadows, one of Alan Furst’s World War II espionage novels that have been acclaimed for their evocation of Europe in the thirties and forties.  I like a good bookstore, and I like having my expectations upended.

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