If you are ever in Steubenville, Ohio, that plucky burg of seedy steel mills and fresh-faced Catholic youth, it is to be hoped that you may chance upon the old main street, where there is a very remarkable bookshop. It is the only bookshop in town, and you can tell it is a real bookshop because a cat lives there, classical music plays on the radio, and it is haunted.
Now when I say haunted I don’t mean that anyone has seen skeletons clacking their calcanei after-hours, or found a pale Abraham Lincoln gliding past the theater books. And yet every day I see my customers summon some ancient spirit off my bookshelves and go home possessed. In some cases, the haunting never quite leaves them.
C. S. Lewis said that the sign of literature is that it bears re-reading; we hunger to return to certain books. I say that the mark of literature is that it haunts us—the great books are the ones that, once read, don't leave us alone. Sometimes the effect is explosive. There is dynamite in these dusty old volumes. I see Tolstoy on my shelves and shudder. How many lives have been shaken out of their complacency by his words? “Ivan Ilyich’s life was most normal and most according to fashion—and therefore most terrible.” How many young lovers have been haunted by Sergei’s failure to propose on that mushroom-gathering expedition, and have sworn, “I will not merely gather mushrooms in my basket; I will ask for love, ask for marriage, ask for life! I will not be silent when the moment comes!”
My wife and I purchased this Steubenville bookshop—called Bookmarx—to keep it alive, as the former owners were retiring and threatening to liquidate their stock. It’s named for the former owner, Peter Marx, a worthy man with no relation to the Communist Manifesto (though there was dynamite in that book, too, of a different sort). Peter said to me, “John, I’ve been in the book business a long time. You can never get enough of great classic literature in your shop. Other stuff comes and goes. But there will always be people that have not read the classics and want to.” We have taken this as our business plan.
Now the books are my companions on drizzly October days—the books and the ghosts who haunt them. The titles call out to me as I pass—spine-tingling spines. One can hardly imagine how these little packages of dried-out wood pulp could enchant us so. I see my customers go home with The Count of Monte Cristo and Sherlock Holmes and Jane Eyre; they cross the glaciers with Frankenstein’s monster and stand at the crossroads with the woman in white. They come to the Lonely Mountain with the hobbit and talk of poetry and revolution with the man who was Thursday.
Sometimes the haunting brings sorrow. Someone asks me for a good C. S. Lewis book, after reading Narnia and Screwtape; they go home with A Grief Observed, and good old Jack sits by me the rest of the long afternoon in the shop. Quiet as he is, and as much joy as he has shared with me on other days, his grief now casts a shadow in the room. “Kind people have said to me, she is with God,” he finally says of his dead wife. “In one sense that is most certain. She is like God, incomprehensible and unimaginable.” I don’t have anything to say in reply, and let him sit there.
Other times the work is all joy. We have little book events, and I put out the wine and plant the chairs in rows; after our talker talks, we fold up the chairs and I hear the laughter of happy people and see the empty cups join the books upon the shelves. The ghost of Fezziwig stands by my side, making of my little business a place of pleasure for those who work here and those who visit. Or I see my little children checking out customers—they love the bar-code scanner and they love bagging books—and am happy that they will grow up among these shelves.
The Great Books are widely known even if not widely read. But there are also Good Books, which delight but never gain broad currency. I love to introduce readers to Christopher Morley, as a way of repaying old debts. Perhaps I am a bookseller now because a friend gave me a copy of Morley's The Haunted Bookshop from the fifty-cent rack outside the Strand. Other days when I’m paying the bills I blame the spirit of Don Quixote for leading me here, and I feel that I’m no knight in shining armor but just an old fool with a pot on my head and hardly a penny to my name, running a bookshop in a burnt-out old town where nobody has much to spend and our only hope is in heaven. Sometimes when I get through a month and lose money, the ghost of Mr. Micawber furrows my brow: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”
We bought the bookshop on April Fools’ Day. “For in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom.” Folly is the surer means of reaching mankind—so says the shade of Erasmus. His books don’t get much attention from customers, but we feel our shop is better for having a place for him. Every day we strive to make it a shop where the ghosts of great literature can haunt our shelves all year round. Some books we add and they stay—no one much notices the copy of Rome and a Villa that whispers to me of the Eternal City, or Irving’s Sketch Book that brings England before my eye. But I’m glad they’re here. Part of the job is being proud of your shelves.
And mostly we are impressed by our readers’ taste. Steubenville is a college town and mecca for Catholic converts, and our customers have the passion of people finding beauty for the first time. Our bestselling authors are Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, Dickens, and John Paul II. We keep bringing in The Brothers Karamazov—in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, by preference—and it keeps going out the door. Same with Flannery O’Connor. And Evelyn Waugh. Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, Latin breviaries, Jane Austen—we bring them in, and like ghosts they vanish off our shelves.
We sell books online too. But in our store, we sell serendipity. Or help out fate, or serve Providence—however you wish to conceive it. People find things here they were not looking for—either because we have prescribed them, as a doctor might prescribe a new diet, or because a book they might never have otherwise seen called to them from the shelf (from the grave, you might say). The Jews spoke of the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob; Jesus said that this was proof that Abraham and Jacob were still alive, for God is not a God of the dead but of the living. The great bookshops are like that: a kind of indication that the dead are not truly dead. And that’s why we hope that this season and every season you will support the real bookstores of the world—the haunted ones.
John Byron Kuhner owns Bookmarx Books in Steubenville, Ohio.
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