Bookman’s Alley Lament
Tracking earthward across the hand-painted sign, droplets of rain diverge and reassemble at the lower border before staining the planks beneath a mottled russet. Just a few steps to the west, then north into the alley within the alley, the white coffee-cupped pedestrians are left behind, the strains of commercial radio escaping the pharmacy now evaporated. Scalloped edges of a weathered awning flutter above old French doors painted black, momentarily animating the print, “Bookman’s Alley.” Upon entry, the man seated behind the desk slowly looks up to point and say, “Please leave your wet umbrella there.”
Is it a desk? Perhaps it is only a menagerie of hardcovers, a literary-architectural feat in the shape of a desk. Impossible to say from this angle, as the octogenarian with the white, Carl Sandburg coiffure is himself buried beneath four or five editions. Roger’s smile reaches up toward the pencil perched behind an ear. To the young, it reads, “You are welcome here. Go explore.” To the collectors, the academics, the introverted, the voracious and the inquisitive, it is the threshold into a literary labyrinth. Like C.S. Lewis’ bewitched wardrobe, it appears to be without terminus, with room opening onto room opening onto room. The palpable magic of this place lies not in the volume of volumes, though, but in the curios and mementos tucked into the shop’s innumerable nooks and alcoves.
On a bookshelf, a diminutive team of eight white horses speed a nobleman’s carriage across it, a fine layer of dust underfoot. Behind the travelers towers a crimson-trimmed schooner, its rigging still taught as though ready for a Van Allsburg-ian flight once the shop’s lights are switched off for the night.
Guarding a corner deep within the maze is Theodore Roosevelt, or a stuffed military field jacket sprouting from the collar of a disintegrating styrofoam head on which Roger has drawn his best likeness of the Rough Rider. Shouldering an intimidating leather holster, the mustachioed figure leans against a better-known portrait of himself in a more polished, presidential pose.
And what of the many paintings and prints and vintage WWII propaganda posters? The most arresting of these is the one hanging in the burnished gold frame. A dark-haired woman unhurriedly arranges flowers in her bedroom, her dressing gown a cascade of vermillion, crimson and gold. Her reflection in the bedroom mirror is the thing. Perspective is suddenly stretched far inside the canvas, a portal. Roger tells us he’s closing his shop for good, and that he holds no regrets in letting these collected wonders go. At a certain moment, though, he intimates his love for the painting as it resembles his mother. Our melancholy at the disappearance of this place is shared for just those few seconds.
The damp trail of footprints is followed back to the book-desk. Already the locations of the tiny brass canon, enameled polar bear, intransigent printing press, battered cornet, and brightly hued kachina doll are lost in the mind. They have been discovered and then whirled together in a magnificent blur. The dripping umbrella is retrieved, the door pushed open, exhaling with its visitor the wonderfully musty, enchanted air of this place.