The bookshop keeper moves between the isles in a pair of tartan slippers, except they aren’t exactly tartan. They have the aura of tartan, green with thin yellow and red criss-cross stripes, but whether this is a genuine tartan belonging to some ancient Scottish clan, or a design invented by some manic slipper maker is anybody’s guess. Whatever the case, the slippers are old and their colours merge into the same green grey shade as mould.
The keeper is old as well, as old as time as young as youth in a middle aged sort of way that defies the normal logic of sand filtering through an hourglass. Old bookshops have this effect. Not modern bookshops, not that chain store type with bright lighting angled to spotlight the latest critically acclaimed literary offering. No, this is an old fashioned bookshop. The sort found down some cobbled alley hidden and forgotten by the progression of modern high street stores.
The interior is fitted with high oak shelves darkened by time. These shelves stretch upwards and outwards in seemingly endless aisles that join and criss-cross each other like some grey green tartan maze, the key to which is hidden within the grey green mould coloured dusty dinge that covers the slippers worn by the keeper.
As the keeper moves along the aisle he gently strokes the leather bound spines of his charges as if tickling a puppy dog under its chin. No, not puppy dogs. Books are not like dogs. People keep dogs as pets. Books are more like cats. A cat is only a pet if it allows itself to be. People don’t have cats, cats have people. People don’t have books, books have people. A book only speaks to a person if it wants. A person has to listen, has to read every word with care, has to think on every nuance because books are written by writers and writers are artists and the viewer has to understand the full conception that lays hidden within and behind any work of art.
Such writers are not the formula scribes striving to create their new tome according to some modern politically correct ideology as dictated by some publishing conglomerate whose eye counts profit above literary merit. No, these are books written by writers driven to write by the very energy of the book as it strives to free itself from the confines of the human mind. For any such story cannot be confined by human thought. It is something that exists in its own right, in the ether of contemplation and imagination where thought is bigger than the mind can comprehend or hold.
Once released, and this door only needs to be pushed ajar by the writing of one word, the story becomes bigger than the mind that gave it life. That mind only controls the fingers that write the words whether with quill, typewriter or some gadget of modern technology. The story and characters carry themselves forward demanding to partake of what action they desire.
Once born, the book, like the one who gave it life, continues to grow. Like a child, it outgrows the parent, outlasts the parent. What lives now, Dickens or the children of Dickens? What lives now, the Mill on the Floss or the one that wrote setting its place on that river’s edge?
The book is more, and books together have an energy that multiplies exponentially. Real books combined together in a bookshop have an energy that defies the natural laws of physics, for physical laws are bound by factual considerations whereas works of fiction are bound only by the laws of imagination and imagination is limitless.
And so the tartan maze of shelves in an old bookshop stretches up to limitless height, into the limitless distance and the owner strokes each one knowing its power and knowing the loss that each would feel if one were to depart. This being so, the timeless keeper of the timeless bookshop, for the power of fiction not only defies reality, it defies time. The timeless keeper is reticent of admitting customers for each would be customer has the potential to cause loss to the very power that brings the bookshop into existence.
Just as fiction defies reality, old bookshops and old bookshop keepers defy the traditional purpose assumed by many to be that of a retail establishment. A shopkeeper is a purveyor of goods. A shop is a place where goods are displayed for customers to mull over, handle and buy. Not so the bookshop and not so the ancient bookshop keeper. He is the keeper of books, keeping them safe, keeping them secure, keeping them for posterity, and the shop is their dwelling place where the rules of fiction abound.
Oh yes, he may turn the little folded card that hangs from a perished rubber sticker to the glass panel of the door so that it reads; ‘OPEN.’ This though is not an invitation for just anyone to enter. For whoever pushes the door wide causing the small brass bell above to tinkle had best beware, that tinkling sound, like breaking glass has immediately set each book on edge, fearful that it may be called on to depart from this its sanctuary.
The shop is open only according to the sign, which has been turned thus only to satisfy some council or trading guild philosophy that insists shops should open. Little do such high officials understand that the power of fiction also defies the reality of their market ideology?
Yet fiction does more than defy reality. Fiction not only defies, but also expands, for reality evolves from what is first created as fiction. To see the future one does not need a crystal ball or magic mirror. A book is more than these, more than the power of all those that claim to foretell what one day might be. Did Nostrodamus see the future or did his writings create the future from the power of their inscription? And Oh, Captain Nemo, the power of your great undersea ship defied the expectations of those scientists of the day, yet from such fiction modern maritime reality has evolved.
The power of fiction permeates the very existence of man. No book of history can be written until after that history has become reality, but fiction writes the facts of history yet to come. No invention exists that was not first well described in some fiction that fought its way to birth through the mind and thoughts of some writer bold. And once given birth, that work so valuable, is passed into the hands of a keeper who keeps a bookshop in some quiet alley, some secluded place, yet still they come, those customers who fail to understand.
Nary a word of welcome will the keeper state, not out of rudeness for there are those who do appreciate the true power of the written word. Venture in amongst the maze and the keeper will watch and see and judge. The sign of this secret society is that of the Keepers of Books. Its sign is not some mystic handshake, is not revealed by the wearing of some special tie, or even by the wearing of some old mould coloured tartan slipper.
Too many enter, pick, flick a page glancing mindlessly at the text looking for some superficial thrill and in so doing fail to see because the power of the book refuses the revelation of what truly lays within. And then, in dissatisfaction and haste, they replace the book, wrong shelf wrong place and depart.
The keeper shudders feeling the pain. All fiction is ordered, not by title, by author or by alphabet, but by its own power of place within the realm of fantasy, which is seen and understood only by such as the keeper. Such as these are not welcome for while they may be customers with money to spend, they are not ones who will keep a book as the treasure it truly is.
Against such would the keeper keep the sign that hangs precariously from its perished rubber sticker turned to ‘CLOSED’. Yet he knows that he must face the challenge and the books within must steel themselves for by chance a true customer may come. The one who gently roams the narrow space between the shelves barely touching, and if touching, gently stroking, calming each binding before sliding it forth and giving light to the secrets held within.
The sign of a true keeper is of the hesitant touch, not touching until the hand is drawn, and drawn only by the permission of the book to the enquiring mind. The power of the book allows itself to be opened and allows its words to be read and allows the revelation of their most deep meaning.
Such a one is recognised as such by the Keeper of the shop. Each book is more than a pet, more than the adage; a pet is for life not just for Christmas. A book is more. It lives, it breathes, it transforms, it creates just as from its own power it was created inside the mind of some writer who by now is long forgotten, yet the words of the book live on.
And when the book is chosen, its cover stroked for the one doing the choosing can feel the trepidation within the book, within there own self as they mull and contemplate the secrets to be revealed during that coming, sacred, reading time.
The keeper of the shop then takes and handles with care the book to be purchased, mourning its loss like an anguished parent, wrapping it in brown paper, protection against not only the elements, but also from the prying eyes of unknowing philistines. And all the books in the shop feel the power of the one departing as it ebbs into the hands of a reader who accepts the sacred duty to become the book’s new keeper.
The sign now turns to; ‘CLOSED’ no matter what the time of day for the power of true fiction has been agitated. The books excited in their trepidation, need time to rest and settle and the keeper must sit and mourn his loss, calmed only be his faith and belief that the book has gone to a better place.