Olympia, Washington poet and essayist Lucia Perillo was recognized earlier this year with a 2013 Pacific Northwest Book Award for her poetry collection On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths. We thank her for this original essay in celebration of that award (Previously, fellow winners Jonathan Evison, G. Willow Wilson and Eowyn Ivey have submitted pieces. We also look forward to essays from Sherman Alexie and Cheryl Strayed later this spring). Lucia Perillo will receive her PNBA Award plaque tonight, March 15, at an appearance at hometown indie, Orca Books.
It’s unlikely that I ever visited a bookstore as a kid. My parents were too molded by that great trauma of their youths, the depression, to buy four children’s- worth of books. Especially not when we had a perfectly good public library.
Though I will get around to bookstores, I want to talk first about this library because of the sensual beauty of it. Set in an old building on top of the police station, you accessed it by climbing almost a full flight of stone steps, which there were wide stone banisters on both sides of, wide enough for a child to sit on, though the stone was not slippery. You had to use your feet to creep downhill.
All the details flood me now, with such clarity! More steps inside the building, turn right you could pay the bill for your garbage pick-up or your property tax, turn left and you stepped into the library with its creaky wooden floor. The interior was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, with heavy, mission furniture stained so dark it was almost black. Flourishes like small blue tiles on one wall and stained glass sconces.
And of course, the smell, the phantasmagorical smell, a concrete manifestation of the accumulation of the years. The grand abstraction of the past summarized in less than an instant. An emanation of time made part of my body with every breath. Was this a good thing? Now that I write it, I realize how terrifyingly it could be construed. But that was part of the glory of the smell, its tiny pinch of terror.
As for bookstores, one existed two towns over. But even as a child, I must have had a sense that it was too twee to be taken seriously. Why did they call it a shoppe and not a shop? Must we have corn husks in the window every autumn?
And that was it as far as bookstores went, and it seems inconceivable to me now that I don’t remember the first time that odor ever hit me. Certainly it did either in Montreal or New York City. Of course, the smell is easier to detect in a used bookstore, but you get a whiff, an inkling of it, even in a store where new books are sold. It’s as though the concentration of words, stacked face to face, laid one over another, is so dense that some distillation of them must naturally seep out.
Now I live in a town with several stores that sell used books. One sells both used and new, which seems to me to be the best of both worlds, the past diluted and the present infused. Not too much terror, but enough that you feel you’re doing something against the rules.
I think this sensation of rule-breaking also has to do with time. The scent steeps us in the knowledge that time is passing, and yet we are somehow barricaded from haste. In bookstores we are urged to linger. Willingly coerced. Maybe that’s the reason why it feels just a smidge forbidden. The pages with their density, telling you that you have all the time in the world.
When you know that is not true.