Dangerous Books

Bear Jack Gebhardt

“Oh yea, that’s a real classic,” Herbie said to the burly man next to him who was using a hand-held electronic scanner and had a canvas bag mostly full of books at his side. The man was holding and scanning a hard-backed copy, with dust jacket, of A Place to Come To, by Robert Penn Warren.  The shopping mall was carnival crowded, noisy, elbow to elbow with book browsers, buyers and volunteer staff.

Herbie used to joke about the Friends of the Library Used Book sale. “That’s a dangerous place,” he’d grin. “All those little gems, for just a buck or two or three. After an hour or two, you got thirty or forty bucks worth of books. And even less room on your book shelves. Mine are already sagging.”

Twice a year the Friends of the Library took over the center walkway of the Jenson Fashion Mall and set up five dozen or so eight foot tables to display the many thousands of books that had been donated, discontinued or erroneously acquired. An earnest attempt was made to loosely categorize the books, starting with fiction and non-fiction, then history, cooking, biography etc., or science fiction, romance, mystery. Volunteers had placed small red, green or orange stickers on the front, indicating one, two or three dollars.  For prices, volunteers used their own book knowledge, or asked each other. So both prices and categorizing were always spotty, hit or miss, and gems could be found on almost any table. Dangerous or not, Herbie seldom missed the twice a year event. After all, it was for a good cause, and he couldn’t help himself.

The burly man nodded at him. “Don’t much care,” he mumbled. “Just checking prices.”

“You don’t care what you’re buying?” Herbie asked with a smile, not really believing the man.

“Nope. Don’t read this crap.  Just doing business.”  The man stuck the Penn Warren book into his canvas bag, and picked up another book, quickly scanned it, looked at his monitor, set it back down.

“So that thing tells you what they’re worth?” Herbie asked.

“Yep,” the man said, picking up yet another book, scanning it, looking at the read-out, setting it, too, back down. He was very efficient. He obviously did not want to talk.  Herbie picked up Somebody the Sailor Man, by John Barth, which he didn’t really have an interest in, since he’d already read it, but pretended to read as he watched the man move through the books with his scanner, sliding every eighth or ninth book into his canvas side bag.  When the man’s bag was full, he walked over to the wall and emptied it into a larger box sitting on the floor next to a music store, then headed back to the tables.

“Say, excuse me,” Herbie said, interrupting the scanning. The burly man looked up, and then went back to his scanning.

“If it’s all the same to you, I’d kind of like to buy that Penn Warren book from you. It’s a classic, I haven’t read since college, and . . .”

“Not for sale,” the man said, still scanning. “Well, it was just a minute ago,” Herbie laughed. “I know it was just two bucks, like the sticker said, but I’ll give you whatever your little do-dad said it’s worth. I’m a Penn Warren fan and. . .”

“Not for sale,” the man said again.

“Well you said this is your business,” Herbie said. “Do you already have a buyer for it, or are you planning to read it before you sell it, or . . .” “Like I said, never read this crap,” the man said, turning a hard eye on Herbie.  “I never read books. This is just how I make my living.”

“You make your living selling books but you never read them?” Herbie was dumbfounded.

The man turned to him, full frontal, leaning in. “You want to make something of it, asshole?”

“No, no,” Herbie said, backing up. ”I just . . . It seems strange . . .”

“Strange? That I work my ass off to make a few lousy bucks?”

“Okay, I believe you,” Herbie said.

“I don’t make shit off these things. I’m barely scraping by.”

“Sorry to hear it.” “I gotta work,” the man said, turning back to the tables.

Herbie watched him for a moment.  “Okay,” Herbie said, ”I’ll give you five bucks more, no ten bucks more than whatever your doo dad says it’s worth.” He was trying to help the guy out.

“Not for sale. I’m not selling here, I’m buying,” the man said, still scanning.

“But . . .”

The man threw his scanner down on the table of books, turned and grabbed Herbie with both fists and lifted him up on his tip toes.

“Listen asshole, quit bugging me. I don’t need to go to college or know how to read these damned things in order to make a decent living. But I do need my god-damned time. I need my space.”

“I never said . . .” Herbie started to say.

“Oh fuck it,” the man said, throwing Herbie back. Herbie tripped over a box of books behind him and landed on his ass.  The commotion caused the crowd to stop, stare.

“Sorry,” the man said. “Take your fucking book. I can’t tell you which one it is. I. I gotta get outta here.”

He looked for the exit sign, knew it by its green light, headed that way, dropping  his bag full of books as he left.

Bear Jack Gebhardt is Senior Librarian at Heart Mountain Monastery—an offline/online community of Buddhist Methodist artists, pilgrims and fellow travelers. He’s been a free-lance writer for many decades and has published hundreds of articles, stories, essays and poems in well-known, somewhat-known and little-known places. He has also published ten books, including three stop smoking books and, most recently, a collection of flash fiction, A Wave of Thanks, and Other Human Gestures: 31 Quick Stories He keeps studying and writing because, he says, “I can’t help it.” He welcomes contact at bear@heartmountainmonastery.com.

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