I answered my cell on the second ring. “Hello, this Shawna Slater.” “This is Sam Hyde of Hyde Brothers Bookstore in Fort Wayne, IN. I have some books and boxes here for you.”
“What books? What boxes? I never ordered anything from you.”
“Didn’t your Uncle Larry tell you? Typical.” He said this last word under his breath. I guess he knew my uncle’s, shall we say, eccentricities well.
“Well, long story short, a few years back I bought a rather large collection of books and stuff from an estate up in Chicago. I was able to sell most of the books but the rest was too damaged. I was telling your Uncle about it one day when he dropped in and he asked how much I wanted for it. Since I would probably have to just pitch it in the dumpster I made him a sweat deal but he asked if I could just keep it here until he found a place to store it.
“Well, yesterday I got an email from him saying that I should call you and ask where you wanted it.”
Typical Uncle Larry I thought.
“Well Mr. Hyde, I really don’t know anything about. But since I’m trying to take over my uncle’s publishing business I guess I should come down and take a look.”
“Good. I would LOVE to get this stuff out of my hair. When can you come down?”
After giving him a time and learning the directions to his store I hung up and started to think of how I could not only pick up God knows how much junk but where I would put it all.
So, it was that just after 1:30 in the afternoon I arrived at Hyde Brother’s Bookstore on North Wells Street. Although rather large for a used bookstore, taking up two adjacent businesses, it was rather run-down with the floor buckling in places from the weight of the bookshelves.
Sam Hyde was very nice and with his oval face and jovial manner he reminded me a little of Santa Clause. He greeted me from behind the high countered-front desk and then walked me to the basement. I stumbled down the too narrow for comfort stairs and into an almost claustrophobic basement with its ceiling low enough even I felt like ducking my head in places. Way in the back we went, stepping over small piles of books yet to be shelved and around rows and rows of books. We ended at a wooden door with a metal knob that looked as old and paint-bare as the rest of the building. When Sam opened the door, and pulled the string attached to the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, I looked upon a room crammed with stacks and stacks of badly decaying boxes. After inquiring further, Mr. Hyde told me that this is all that remained of a once thriving publishing business in Chicago during what we would later call the Gilded Age.
Let me back up just a bit for those who are not that familiar with used bookstores. There are few used bookstores left in this age of online book selling, too few bookstores of any kind for that matter. Having one of the biggest in the Midwest just down the road is a God-send to an independent publisher. My Uncle Larry had somehow fashioned himself as some kind of religious publisher interested in republishing long-forgotten but still inspirational religious books and selling them on Amazon. Of course, they hardly sold at all but it really was more of a hobby then a real business anyway. Still, that never seemed to bother Uncle Larry or he would have given it up long ago like anyone with any business sense would have done.
When the dust had settled from opening the door, I whipped off a footstool to sit on and began sorting through the boxes. They had obviously been stored in a damp area over the years and all their rigidity was long gone. Being very careful not to tear too much of the cardboard I began to look through them. There seemed to be lots of old paper wrapping, the kind with an oily feel. I think they used to called oil-cloth. I pulled out one small bundle of papers neatly tied with twine and discovered it was a collection of daily accounts of someone named Mattie Mae. As I began to read the beautifully penned entries, time faded away and I was transported back to that other time and place. Filled with names and places, it looked to have been a history of events but it read more like confessions of a struggling sinner and seemed just as sacred. Indeed, some of the entries did dwell on religious topics, and irreligious topics and all those topics in between. I’m talking about no holds barred, gritty as sand, bare-heart revelations from a woman well acquainted with the realities of life. I felt like a little kid eavesdropping on an “adult” conversation. There were also letters from someone named Violet, a sharing views and experiences between kindred spirits what they could not, should not, share with anyone else. These were lives lived to their fullest, deepest and to use a single word; sensual; yet at the same time sanctifying those same experience with an honesty and striving that quickly inspired me.
I had to finally put down the bundle of papers and the small stack of letters and looked up. Where once I was living in the midst of turn of the century, the nineteenth century, I now sitting once again in the dusty basement of a used bookstore in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
God only knows how many bundles of papers and personal correspondences there were in those boxes along with a scattering of original manuscripts, postcards, and who knows what. But somehow, I knew that this was just the moment Uncle Larry, and now I, had been waiting for our entire lives.
But my Daddy didn’t raise no fool and I knew I should gather everything up and take them off Mr. Hyde’s hands ASAP.
We came back upstairs and I stood in front of the chest-high counter that was also his Mr. Hyde’s desk as he went behind the counter and plopped down in his padded chair by the window. Not knowing the business arrangement Uncle Larry had with Mr. Hyde I was afraid that Uncle Larry had not only left me with a great treasure, albeit one that had to be mined and refined, but he might have also left me with a bill.
“So, Mr. Hyde, what type of arrangement did my Uncle have with you about these boxes?” “I’ve kept them long enough for your Uncle and as you saw I need all the room I can get. So, like I said before, if you schlep those boxes up and out to your pickup, we’ll call it even.”
I felt like I had just won the lottery.
Keeping a poker face as best I could, I quickly went out to the pickup and enlisted the help of my baby brother Ryan who I had dragged down to the store with me. We both would make many trips up and down those narrow basement steps, carrying up all the boxes without letting too much leak out through the rips and tears. Ryan thought the boxes smelled like puke but to me they smelled like the sweetest perfume, the kind only afforded by the elegant ladies of a long ago Victorian age.
It took a while but finally we had all those wimpy cardboard boxes piled high up in the back of the pickup with a tarp tied over them. I thanked Mr. Hyde, who looked relieved, and we headed downtown to the Coney Island Hot Dog Stand. Two conies with everything, some chili soup and a Coke in a real glass bottle for my brother and I. It was my uncle’s favorite spot and his favorite meal and it was only fitting that we go there to celebrate a job well done.
But really the work was just beginning. When we got all those stinking piles of cardboard back home we had to put it all in the garage so it wouldn’t smell up the house. Then, one by one, I had to go through each carefully wrapped bundle of papers, each crumbling stack of letters and what not, to see how I could turn them into something I could share with others.
But instead of trying to go through everything first and then start much later publishing them in chronological order, I decided to go out into the garage and take the closest box and start with what was inside. Sure, the papers may be from different times and the letters may be out of order but does that really matter? They read like little snippets of real people’s lives as they live and struggle and share each day. At times, you may have to work a little to make sense of their meaning, as we all do with our own lives. In doing so I hope they help you to discover who YOU are and find your place in history.
Yours truly, Shawna Slater