Every day, my ex-roommate and current best friend Eric—an infatuated collector of everything copasetic and beautiful—used to go to bookstores and record stores looking for rare finds. It used to be like a disease with him. The apartment where we lived in Thousand Oaks, California groaned under the weight of his purchases; its floorboards creaked every time you approached the living room bookshelf. He now has two kids, and they are his new obsessions, as it should be. But back then in the late nineties he would come home with a beat-up copy of, let’s say, Women by Charles Bukowski with an obvious wine or blood stain splashed all over the cover and when I would remind him that he already had four copies of this same book: a reading copy, an unopened one, a back-up and a just-in-case copy, he would wince guiltily and say: “I had to rescue it.”
I love bookstores; I love that they exist. I love that normal people can go in them and hang out and get to know the knowledgeable employees, get the scoop about some great find. If I were normal I would love to spend more time in those bookstores and talk with a community of readers, be a part of something special. But I’m socially awkward and afraid of crowds; this second part has been with me ever since I escaped the war in Bosnia.
Nowadays I prep myself psychologically before dashing into Powell’s City of Books in Portland, rush to their Blue Room and—checking the ballpoint pen chicken-scratches on the inside of my left palm—I pick up the titles I need, then run to the registers to pay. As I exit the establishment, smiling people ask me if I have a moment to save the planet, clearly assuming that I haven’t saved it already, and I raise my hands into the air as if they are armed and I mutter: “I don’t like to be approached.” Then, staring at the pavement, I hump down 11th and up Lovejoy all the way to my grandmamobile, parked so far from the store out of neurosis or habit. In there, with the doors locked, I finally open my books.
But one time, at the end of last year when it was becoming inevitable that my own novel would indeed see the light of day, I was careening down the aisles of the Blue Room looking for American Rust when my eye was snagged by John Fante’s Ask the Dust. Something made me stop. I picked up the book, flipped to the page I knew was in there, the page on which Fante’s alter ego, Arturo Bandini, goes into a public library in Los Angeles, and I found the following quote:
“A day and another day and the day before, and the library with the big boys in the shelves, old Dreiser, old Mencken, all the boys down there, and I went to see them, Hya Dreiser, Hya Mencken, Hya, hya: there’s a place for me, too, and it begins with B, in the B shelf, Arturo Bandini, make way for Arturo Bandini, his slot for his book, and I sat at the table and just looked at the place where my book would be, right there close to Arnold Bennett; not much that Arnold Bennett, but I’d be there to sort of bolster up the B’s . . .”
I’d never understood this kind of hunger. I looked around the room, at the millions of words put down to stop time, to leave a mark behind, to record slivers of past lives, thoughts, feelings, ideas, of miseries and dreams, of love and death, of slights and delights, millions of attempts to make sense of this world, and I got overwhelmed by it all. How could I add another wasted attempt as proof of how much we do not know and comprehend about life? Then, after awhile (it must have been the longest amount of time I spent in the Blue Room) I remembered Samuel Beckett’s wise words: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I sheepishly went to the P section and stared at the spot where my book would sit, where my book would fail, just like any other human endeavor to capture life does, and I felt good.
I rescued Ask the Dust for this reason. Bookstores are filled with books that need to be rescued if for no other reason than for their potential to do it in return to us. So, pretty please, go rescue some of these poor failed things, for we are them.
Ismet Prcic (ISS-met PER-sick) was born in Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1977 and immigrated to America in 1996. He holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and was the recipient of a 2010 NEA Award for fiction and a 2012 PNBA Award from the independent booksellers of the Northwest for his novel Shards. He is also a 2011 Sundance Screenwriting Labfellow. He lives in Portland, with his wife.