I’ve been traveling a lot these last few days, and yesterday I found myself in Alexandria, a suburb of D.C., at a library sale. As I was browsing the shelves downstairs, an elderly man in the grey work clothes of a janitor glanced over at me as he made his way to the elevator and suggested I check out the books upstairs too. I assured him I’d be up there momentarily, and when I did make my way up the stairs, I found it to be a veritable treasure-trove of great books, many of which I hadn’t seen for sale at any other libraries. Quite a few copies were signed by their authors. Rock-bottom prices. Why, it was sort of like a dragon’s hoard, if dragons collected books instead of gold.
But I had only been up there for ten minutes or so when the woman at the desk said that they were closing the upstairs section now! We had been given erroneous information, and the sale was ending four hours earlier than we thought! Aaahhh! Quick! Mad scramble! There’s too much good stuff in here that I haven’t seen yet! But just as my panic level began to rise, into the room stepped the grey-clad janitor again.
“It’s okay, you can leave it open. I’ll close things up when I leave. I’ve got nowhere to be,” he said to her. And so he settled down into a chair and allowed us to keep browsing. “You sure I’m not inconveniencing you?” I asked. “No, no, it’s fine. I’ve got nowhere to be,” he repeated. “You look like you’re going to spend some money,” as he nodded toward the several canvas bags full I was dragging behind me, “and I’m not going to stop you.” And so we made small talk for the next 45 minutes as I had the room to myself, my girlfriend taking care of the outer area.
He told me he was a retired government worker who volunteered at the library because it allowed him time to browse through all the fiction that no one else was interested in. He claimed to have read every biography of Benjamin Franklin, having grown up in the first town in America named after him, where knowledge of the great man was drilled into you as a kid in school. He’d been around used books all his life, a friend of his owning a store that he spent a lot of time at. He said that when he retired, he thought he’d open up a store of his own, but he soon found it to be too much work. So it was the life of a library volunteer for him now. We talked about living the simple life, trying to avoid the rat race, the joy of finding rare and unknown (to us) books, and how much we wished finger cancer upon those stupid bastards who insist on writing inside of books and ruining their value. Finally, we added up all the books and I wrote him a check. My girlfriend came in with four more a minute later, and I got out my checkbook again, but he stopped me with a shake of his head. “Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said with a dismissive look. “You two alone have spent half as much as everyone else today combined. In fact,” he added, “you’re probably parked in the big lot, aren’t you? Tell you what; put all your bags in that blue bin out there and I’ll meet you down at the loading entrance.” We loaded up the bags into one of those containers on wheels that they use at the post office, and headed out to the van.
After situating them in the backseat and shutting the door, we chatted with him a bit more as he took a smoke break, told him where we were headed next, talked about the merits and drawbacks of different libraries, sales, and locations, and he wished us luck as we promised him we’d be back regularly, exchanged names and handshakes, and thanked him profusely for all his generosity.
So we called the library back this morning to confirm what days and times their sale would be next taking place, and mentioned what a great help Mr. Higgenbottom had been to us yesterday. “Mr. Higgenbottom?” the lady said with a puzzled tone. “Mr. Higgenbottom… why, he passed away thirty-two years ago, reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin at his desk in the office upstairs! Are you sure that was his name?”
“Uh… no, I’m sorry, I must have misheard. Thanks anyway; see you next month.”
Okay, not really. I’m just kidding about that part. Or am I??