This week, dear readers, I decided it was time to make a serious effort at finding some decent wifi—or even a little indecent wifi—within the borders of Prism Bay. It isn’t just that driving twenty miles to the nearest Starbucks every time I want to check my email or post on social media is a pain in the butt—though that is definitely Reason Numero Uno. I’d also like to find a regular workspace in town. Being a writer involves many hours of solitary labor, and sometimes a little change of scenery—maybe even a shift to scenery that includes other people—can be helpful. It would be nice to have a bar or café where I can order coffee or tea knowing I’ve got someone trustworthy around to watch my laptop while I use the washroom. So to that end, I took my show on the road to scout a few possible locations.
What seemed to be me the two most likely sources of free Internet, national food chains and public facilities, were both nonstarters. When in urgent need of wifi, places like McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and IHOP (or, I guess, IHOb?) are all excellent targets (as is Target, now that I think of it), but I have yet to find a nationwide corporate food establishment within the environs of Prism Bay. Same goes for any large-scale public amenities: libraries, municipal offices, schools, hospitals. All notably scarce. That left Option Three: local businesses. Of these, the vast majority are located in and around the Town Center, so that's where I began. My plan was to just stroll through, watching my phone, until I detected a wifi signal, then investigate and find out what was necessary to connect. Maybe I would have to buy something, but previous experience had taught me simply asking for the password would probably be enough.
One thing I am learning—slowly, readers—is that experience with the outside world is not terribly applicable in Prism Bay, and this excursion was yet another lesson. I walked up and down the main drag for over an hour, spending at least a few minutes in every establishment, including ladies’ fashion boutiques and children’s toy stores, where I received looks ranging from amusement to dark suspicion, all without registering a single blip of wifi. I began to wonder whether wireless internet access might actually be outlawed—maybe to promote civic togetherness or an overall “unplugged” atmosphere. Perhaps moral panic over the spread of violent video games and/or electronic pornography had incited a local ban to protect the public virtue.
Whatever the reason, there was no wifi whatsoever to be found in the town center. I had a few candidates elsewhere in Prism Bay, but they were all some distance away, and before I moved on, I wanted to stop into a few shops that had piqued my interest while canvasing the street. In particular, a place called Prism Bay Literary Merchants had caught my eye, not just because it was the local bookstore—always a preferred retail stop—but for its tagline: your resource for the printed word in all matters factual and fictional, historical and speculative, verifiable and fraudulent, someday to come and never to be. These were bold claims, readers, and if I did not quite expect Prism Bay Literary Merchants to make good on such grandiose pronouncements, I was more than willing to extend a little creative license, especially to an independent bookseller.
My initial impression of Prism Bay Literary Merchants had been positive, despite the lack of wifi: a place of tall ceilings and winding shelves, where books seemed as much a part of the architecture as items for sale. As I returned, I noted a sign in the window that read, “summer help wanted”, and wondered whether there was an intended double meaning there. Were they simply seeking additional staff for the summer rush, or did they want help in the sense I had occasionally desired it since my arrival, as when faced with a young man armed with a dirk standing between me and a refreshing dip in the ocean, or stalked through the woods by a sinister pack of ornithologists?
The front of the store featured a small retail counter and a reading area furnished with tables and overstuffed chairs, all of it a bit squeezed together—so that as much space as possible could be devoted to books, presumably. The place had been seemingly empty when I first came through, and as this hadn’t changed on my second visit, I showed myself straight to the stacks. I was glorious, readers: a labyrinth of books, where each turn and corner created its own little world, twisting alleys and narrow nooks that felt all the more secluded for the way the shelves seemed to stretch up and up forever (though the place could not have been more than two stories tall, if that).
It had everything I look for in a bookstore, with one notable exception: I couldn’t find a copy of Ninth City Burning, my one published novel, anywhere. The thrill of seeing my work in print, and on the shelf of a real live bookstore, has never faded for me—even now, two years after NCB first came out. I hope you will not judge me too harshly here, readers. I’m aware how vain it is to go around looking for myself like this—not to mention counterproductive, at least in terms of stoking my ego, because as often as not there isn’t any sign of me. I hold no grudge against booksellers who choose not to stock my work; I understand shelf space is limited, and omissions must be made somewhere. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a little disappointing to find myself left out, but it is a disappointment I’ve learned to accept.
What did surprise me, readers, was who else had gone missing there among the stacks. Long before I could look myself up in a bookstore, I developed a habit of seeking out my favorite writers, just to read a passage or two while browsing the shelves, but at Prism Bay Literary Merchants, this was not as easy as I’d expected. Part of the difficulty arose from the way the store was set up—a method of organization I would describe as “entertaining but inefficient”. Many sections had no labels at all, and those that did were often collected along themes that drifted significantly from the usual standbys of biography, self-help, literary fiction, and so forth. For example, I found at least four different shelves labeled “history”, but also ones entitled “forgotten history”, “pre-chronological history”, and “future history”—all variations on “alternate history”, I assumed, though it wasn’t obvious these were being presented as fiction. In a similar vein, there was a section of memoirs divided into “lies told by memoirists” and “true but uninteresting stories”. A few more sections I recall from that weird little tour: “stories to traumatize young children”, “romantic mistakes”, “books about talking cats”, “books written by talking cats”, “home improvement projects you will injure yourself while attempting”, “books that will look awesome on your shelf”, and, my personal favorite, “books that could really teach you a lot about what it means to be in a mutually respectful and trusting adult relationship, Jonathan”.
It reminded me a bit of the first chapter of Italo Calvino’s book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which describes the experience of buying the very book you are now reading, having passed by a great many other books, including “Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread” and “Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them”. I can’t be sure, readers, but I think I might have passed one of these sections, too. What I could not find, however, was anything by Italo Calvino himself. Nor could I locate Borges, or Bulgakov, or Márquez, or Murakami. In fact, a great many writers I'd have expected to be waiting for me just about anywhere failed to turn up: Stephen King, Maya Angelou, Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood. Agatha Christie? Not a clue. Tom Clancy? Missing in action. J.K. Rowling? Wingardium levios-no. (Sorry, readers; I couldn’t resist.)
It’s possible they were there, somewhere—I’m still not sure. Part of my trouble—most of it, probably—arose from the peculiar way the place was arranged. Maybe if I’d been more familiar with the overall organizational scheme, I’d have known whether to look for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights under “symbolic weather” or “heroes who deserve a good, hard slap in the face”. What I needed, readers, was the assistance of a knowledgeable employee—and as it happened, one did show up, eventually. As I was browsing a section labeled, “nonsensical dictionaries”, I was approached by a woman whose nametag identified her as “Pippa”. She asked if I needed help finding anything—and we all know I did, readers, but I didn’t ask for it. The reason is very embarrassing, but I’ll tell you about it anyway, since we’re friends.
What prevented me from asking Pippa’s advice in navigating the shelves of Prism Bay Literary Merchants was the fact that Pippa was alarmingly gorgeous. Debilitatingly handsome, readers. Bewilderingly comely. Generally I prefer not to dwell on attractiveness as a descriptive attribute; there is more to a person than appearance, and more evocative ways of describing appearance that to say simply that someone is or is not pretty. I do so here only because her beauty was impossible to ignore—striking in an almost physical sense. I wouldn’t even say that I was attracted to her per se. A similarly beautiful man would probably have produced the same disorienting effect. It was more that people who look like this just aren’t generally found walking around in the normal world.
So, with that said, let us return to the shelves of Prism Bay Literary Merchants, where I am staring, befuddled, at this distractingly good-looking bookseller. She has asked if I need any help. Again, readers, we all know I do. This bookstore is largely a mystery to me. I am on a mission to find a connection to the Internet. There are many things I might have asked, readers. But what did I say? What I said was, “Do you have Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black?”
If I am making you cringe, readers, I sincerely apologize. I’m cringing a bit myself, just at the memory. It was a boneheaded thing to say for several reasons, and not just because I was referring to myself in the third person, or asking after a book I had written, a book of which I had no fewer than a dozen copies at home. I also knew it wasn’t there—or, I was reasonably sure it wasn’t. So why did I ask? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s why I thought it important to explain this distractingly good-looking bookseller’s distracting good looks: because I hoped also to explain (if not actually justify) a number of unusually stupid things I did or said. Pippa, meanwhile, was polite and professional. She confessed that she didn’t think Ninth City Burning was in stock, but said she would be happy to take a look.
“It’s really a great book,” I said. “It’s science fiction. And fantasy. Science fiction and a little fantasy.”
“Sure,” said Pippa the distractingly good-looking bookseller. “Anything else you can tell me about it?” (In retrospect, I wonder whether she was trying to pinpoint which of the store’s esoterically themed shelves would be her most likely bet.)
“Well, the author isn’t that well known,” I said, “but he’s very respected among those familiar with his work.”
“Great,” she said. “Just hold on a minute. I’ll ask our inventory parakeet and see if we can turn it up.”
She left me there among the stacks, and I had just enough time to begin getting embarrassed (while also thinking, “inventory parakeet”?) before she returned. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t find it anywhere,” she said, with what sounded like real regret. “Would you like me to see if we can order it for you?”
I was feeling regret, too, readers, and with much more justification than Pippa the distractingly good-looking bookseller. “No, thank you—I’ve already got a copy,” I said, not wanting her to waste any more time on my foolishness.
To her credit, Pippa was not outwardly upset with me—if anything, she seemed more interested than before. “It must be really special to you, if you’re looking for another copy.”
“Yes, it is,” I said honestly. I’d recently reread a few passages, actually, and it is still quite special to me.
“I’ll make sure to keep an eye out for it,” she said. “Is there anything else I can help you find?”
I told her no, thank you—I would just stick around and browse a little more. I didn’t like to imagine what would happen once Pippa went looking for my book. Possibly she wouldn’t find it at all—who knew how her inventory parakeet operated?—but maybe she would. Either way, I would look like an idiot, and it would be difficult to come back here. I decided my best course of action was to own up to the truth, that I was a vain and silly writer, and to me this seemed best done while purchasing a book. Every time I go into a bookstore, I try to leave with a book (one I have paid for, readers), and I’ve found this to be an excellent way of ingratiating myself to booksellers, who I like as a matter of principle anyway. I picked a hefty and impressive-looking volume from a shelf labeled “books better left alone” and brought it to the front, where Pippa the distractingly good-looking bookseller was waiting by the register.
“Essays in Eternity by Honorius Holt,” she said, examining the cover. “Careful with this one.”
“You’ve read it?” I asked.
“I’ve heard of it,” she said. “It’s one of those books people are always going on about.”
I had a pretty good idea of what she meant. In college, I knew a kid who seemed constitutionally incapable of getting through a conversation without making some reference to Infinite Jest. Essays in Eternity looked almost as long, but I wasn’t planning to attempt the whole thing from end to end. As far as I could tell (I’d only really perused the table of contents), it was the sort of outdated pseudo-academic text I find makes amusing reading in a certain mood, like treatises on phrenology, the now wildly discredited theory that a person’s psychology can be determined by mapping the contours of their skull. I just hoped it wouldn’t be too expensive.
“So it isn’t on your list?” I asked.
“Oh, sure,” she said, “but everything’s on my list, and the summer’s only so long, right? I’ve got to prioritize.”
“You don’t read in the winter?” I wondered if maybe she was a teacher, too busy with her students to read for pleasure except in the summer.
“Well, I try, but it’s hard,” she said, a little sadly, and held up her hands. I thought this was a sort of “what are you going to do?” gesture, until she said, “Also, no hands, you know?”
I did not know, readers. This comment made pretty much no sense to me at all. Thinking back, I wonder if it might have been some kind of idiom referring to how difficult it is to find reading time when your hands are always full with something else. In the moment, I just went for sounding sympathetic. “Oh yeah, definitely,” I said, or something to that effect.
Essays in Eternity was not very expensive at all—or, at least, I don’t think it was. The price was six dollars and one opinion about literature. My opinion, “I fear Calvin and Hobbes is in danger of being lost to future generations”, was recorded on a small green note card and sealed in a small green envelope. It was sort of a fun gimmick, I thought, like Dave Eggers’s Pirate Supplies Store in San Francisco, where kids can barter drawings for pirate-themed products. Anyway, it felt like a lucky break, since six dollars was exactly the amount of cash in my wallet, and the place didn’t accept credit (almost nowhere in Prism Bay does, I’ve noticed).
I retired to the little reading area across from the register and set up with my new book, not just to check out Essays in Eternity, but to try a sneaky sketch of Pippa the distractingly good-looking bookseller. After going on the way I have about her appearance (I was planning this post even then), I thought I owed you a picture, readers. It was a bad idea for several reasons. The first was that my art skills are not yet up to the demands of realistic portraiture, as you will see from my less-than-perfect attempt. The second was that I got totally busted mid-drawing by a young woman who had been sitting, unseen, behind an extravagantly huge book. I’d thought I was alone, and so hadn’t been all that discreet about what I was doing. From the front, anyway, I might have looked like I was taking a few notes on my reading, but from the back, it was obvious I was trying to get a rendering of Pippa the distractingly good-looking bookseller, and doing a less than proficient job.
“That doesn’t look like her at all, you know,” said the bookish young woman, peering over the top of her book. She had been perched at one of those small desks, all but invisible thanks to the breadth of the great tome before her.
“What?” I shouted, guilty but also annoyed, and turned to face her. “Hey! It’s rude to read over peoples’ shoulders, you know.”
“I wasn’t reading, I was looking,” she said, not unreasonably. “That’s rude also, I know, but you were sitting right there. I mean, come on.”
“Well, thanks for your input, but—”
“And I just wanted to warn you,” the bookish young woman went on, with an air of inarguable authority, “that your whole drawing is out of proportion, and the nose is way off, and the perspective is wrong. Also you should really watch out with her. Or didn't you notice she’s a fox?”
This isn’t a word-for-word rendition of the conversation, readers, but that last line at least is accurate to the syllable. I remember it clearly, because of the bookish young woman’s unusual choice of vocabulary. I have already described Pippa to you as distractingly good-looking, but I would never have thought to call her a “fox”, and I was quite surprised to hear such a term coming from someone probably not past her early teenage years. Really, I can’t recall anyone born after 1950 using the word “fox” in this way, meaning a particularly attractive person. Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” began to play in my head, guitar riffs and all. “Right on,” I said, grinning, “now excuse me while I kiss the sky.”
For this attempt at humor, I received a very teenage roll of the eyes. “Dude,” said the bookish young woman, with a snort of exasperated derision, “I mean she’s literally a fox.”
Much has been made, dear readers, of the word “literally” and its sometimes careless use. For me, hearing “literally” used to mean “figuratively” does have something of a nails-on-chalkboard effect, but I won’t get preachy on the subject. Words are elusive, mutable things, and my meaning might not always be yours. Let us just say that Pippa is most definitely not a fox in the sense of a four-legged mammal with red fur. She does not belong to the taxonomic category of vulpidae, or even canidae. She does not have a fluffy tail, or pointed ears, or amber eyes with slitted pupils. She is a human woman who works in a bookstore with a very nonstandard method of shelving, and also possibly a schoolteacher.
There is a time and a place for long digressions on the word “literally” and its uses over the centuries, but this, readers, was not it. I might also have asked what this bookish young woman was doing inside with that prodigious book on such a pleasant summer day, except that I myself had once been a bookish young person, and was thus familiar with a few of the potential answers, and knew too that she would not want to discuss any of them with me.
“Thanks for the heads up,” was how I chose to answer. The bookish young woman only shook her head and returned to her prodigious volume. I, meanwhile, concluded that it was about time to move on. I had my attempted sketch, and I’d read enough of Essays in Eternity to feel pleased with my purchase. It turned out to be what might be described as “weird fiction”, with elaborate chronicles of long-forgotten times, places, and beings. I found the world building especially impressive, even if the story, such as it was, seemed a bit dry and meandering.
If it was new to me, however, Essays in Eternity certainly got a reaction from the bookish young woman. As I rose to leave, she looked up from her reading, catching sight of my book. Her eyes grew wide, and her mouth dropped open. Possibly she’d been wanting this very edition for herself. I couldn’t help feeling a little smug, after the way I’d been treated. I hefted the big, leather-bound volume, so there could be no mistaking the title. “Can you believe it was only six dollars?” I said. “Think this was the last copy, though. Sorry.”
On my way out, I stopped at the front to talk with Pippa the distractingly good-looking bookseller one more time. It seemed cowardly to run off after that awkward conversation among the shelves, and I was feeling contrary after having been warned off because of her literal foxiness. “Thanks again,” I said, waving with my new book. “I’m already enjoying it.”
“Oh, great!” she said. “Come back soon—I’ll be sure to look for that one you mentioned. Ninth Burning City?”
“Ninth City Burning,” I said, “and don’t bother, really. I’ve got plenty of copies already. I wrote it, you see.”
Most booksellers I’ve met have mixed feelings about people who introduce themselves as writers. Perhaps they’ve encountered a fellow lover of literature, but more often, especially when they have not heard of this writer already, it signals someone seeking free publicity, or possibly just a crazy person. But Pippa at least seemed to take me at my word. “Oh, you’re an author?” she asked, without any obvious skepticism. “I’ll make sure to look you up!”
It was a pleasant way to end my visit, but it became pleasanter still as I headed for the door. There, tacked just beside the threshold, was a card that read, “password: thoomhbustah”. Yes, readers, a password. I must have walked right by when I came in.
“Is this the password for the wifi?” I asked Pippa.
“Oh,” she said, smiling, “it’s the password for the whole place.”
The password for the whole place, readers. I still didn’t see any wifi networks listed on my phone, but when I clicked on “other network” and typed in “PrismBayLiteraryMerchants”, I got a password prompt, and just like that, I was in. I didn’t even have to try “PrismBayBooks”, which would have been my next guess.
What luck, readers! This time next week, I'll be posting to you from Prism Bay Literary Merchants. Until then, have a literally brilliant day!