I was reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and stumbled upon a few sentences that reminded me of a something that I experienced. It’s a story that celebrates the beauty of literature and reading and everything that makes it possible.
“I love seeing the bookshops and meeting the booksellers -booksellers really are a special breed. No one in their right mind would take up clerking in a bookstore for the salary, and no one in his right mind would want to own one- the margin of profit is too small. So, it has to be a love of readers and reading that makes them do it… along with first dibs on the new books.”
A little more than three years ago I went to Victoria, BC with my mom, sister, and my mom’s friend who’s like my aunt. An avid reader, even at age 12, I was thoroughly enchanted with books. Victoria is a wonderful city for a girl like I was, and in a way, still am. Books, gelato, hot chocolate, high tea, and a view of the water. One bookstore in particular really captured my attention. There is a kind of romantic quality found solely in old books. This shop was an antiquarian bookstore down by the ocean, you’ll find it next to a sculpture of massive metal tulips and buckets of gelato shops. Walking down towards the water, at your right will be a little alleyway. When I went, there was a large sign, “Renaissance Books.”
Entering the shop, I found a grumpy old man behind a desk. (What really drew us in was the 50% off sign hanging outside. Shh… don’t tell any respectable reader or especially the grumpy old man). Behind him from floor to ceiling, were piles and piles of old books. Some in bookshelves, and where the shelves failed to hold more books, stacked up on the ground. It was amazing, I felt as though my eyes couldn’t open any wider. Running -or rather walking as fast as is socially tolerated when around books- to the nearest bookshelf, I scanned every section, grazing my hand across the spines. I plopped down on the carpet next to the poems section. After leafing through a few volumes, I realized that poems weren’t really capturing my attention. So, I moved on to the Virginia Woolf section. That was the first time I had ever heard of her. I picked up To the Lighthouse, because there was at least three copies and I decided it might be the most popular. Though I only had about ten minutes of reading, I managed to skim through the part about Lily Briscoe painting. (No, I’ve never tried reading it any more than that little bit. I did start Mrs. Dalloway, before I found Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence series, before I found Guernsey).
Anyway, then was when I realized why this old man was so grumpy. He was the bookstore clerk and the sale was caused by his having to give up his bookshop. My heart broke for him and all the readers who might never find this little Victorian antiquarian bookstore.
About one year ago, my heart found a fix. I was in Victoria again. Here is an excerpt from my diary the day that I found that fix:
It was strange because we were walking along the waterfront and there it was, the sign “Renaissance Books.” I thought to myself “it’s closed.” But, a curious excitement rose in my heart. After getting tea at Venus Sophia in Chinatown, I asked if we could go check out the bookstore. We walked up the steps, passed the tulips towering over our heads, and turned into the little alley way. On the door to the red brick building, an open sign hung. I stepped inside. Everything was there. Books lined the walls, reaching all the way to the ceiling. The librarian’s desk stood across the room. My eyes moved up, and there was someone else there. Not the same old man, but a younger woman with dirty blonde hair barely brushing her shoulders. She smiled at us.
“Last time we were here, it was going to close. What happened?” My mom asks.
“Yeah, I bought the store. Things will mostly stay the same, but I’m going to make a couple changes.” The lady explains amiably.
“Will the name change or is it going to stay the same?”
“Well I was thinking of keeping the name, but he still has more than 3,000 books online, so it was better to choose a new one. It’s a- Bastion books.”
“Sorry what was it?” I ask, joining in to the conversation.
“Bastion, here, why don’t I give you this.” She hands me a business card.
“My mom used to own an antiquarian book store when I was little. When she owned it there were ten book stores in Victoria. Now, there are three. When my mom told me this one was closing, I just had to do something.”
My heart was stitched back up that day. I didn’t even know it had needed any stitching until then. It’s amazing how you can live so long with something broken and not realize it was broken until it’s fixed. Now, I’m not saying that all dreams come true. But, I learned that there are a million reasons to hope. Hope. That’s what kept people going during those horrific years of the World Wars.
Reading stories like Guernsey is painful, but there’s a hope that’s found among the characters and their experiences that makes it oh, so worth it. The members of the Guernsey Literary Society found that very emotion in their own books. Their books kept them going, they each had their little haven in those pages -the pages that could have been burning in the hearth to bring them much needed warmth. Those times when they couldn’t seek hospice in others or anything else, they found peace in words written from a world away. In between the lines of Essays of Elia, Wuthering Heights, Letters of Seneca, or The Pickwick Papers, there, they found serenity amidst an ever turbulent world.
Let me know…
- What did you think of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society?
- Have you had any similar experiences to mine?