Mr. Bookish Blows His Horn
The Call to Reading

Folly by
Robert Wilfred Franson


March 2013

Between the pages of night and dawn

In the small, dark hours between midnight and dawn, Mr. Bookish was driving his wife home from her rare late-night shift at the university library where she worked. The weather was fine and only mildly cool, the highways and streets were quiet, almost deserted. The Moon was down; the auto radio relayed, via orbital satellite, old-time music with neatly-turned melodies and lyrics.

On the home stretch, they were drawing abreast of the solid two-story building that was the landmark used-book emporium in their neighborhood, on the avenue known as Antique Row — or even more exotically, Book Row. The store was closed for the night with only a small light in its display window; the sidewalk as empty of the reading public as the avenue was empty of automobiles.

"Haven't been in there for a while", said Mr. Bookish. "It's so easy to buy via the Internet nowadays. At least the store seems to have good Internet sales themselves: when I'm in the Post Office, I often see someone from the store bringing in an armload of packaged books to mail out, or even unloading a car-trunk full of them."

"Why don't we go there tomorrow?" suggested Mrs. Bookish pleasantly.

"Good idea!" said Mr. Bookish, looking appreciatively, and a little longingly, at the bookstore as they passed by. "I think they open at 10 A.M." He glanced at the dashboard clock. "It's getting on to 4 A.M. now ... say, maybe there's someone inside working."

"At this hour?"

"Why not? They'll need to be ready for the weekend."

"They'll be asleep", protested Mrs. Bookish, sounding justifiably sleepy herself after her night helping proto-scholars among the university book-stacks.

"Then we'll wake them up!" Mr. Bookish said, with the confidence of the anytime-will-do lifelong book-hound. Adroitly he made a U-turn at an empty intersection, and drove the short distance back to the bookstore. They parked along the avenue in front of the store, and gazed at the modestly-lit display window. As far as could be seen, the interior of the store was quite dark.

"There's no one in there", said Mrs. Bookish.

"We'll see about that!", said Mr. Bookish, pressing his thumb down hard on the automobile horn.

Mrs. Bookish jumped in her seat. "Don't do that!"

"Don't worry, someone will come." Mr. Bookish held the horn down.

"Yes, but — "

A bright flashlight shone in the driver's-side window. A policeman's face peered in, and Mr. Bookish saw another one behind the first.

"Uh-oh", said Mrs. Bookish.

"It'll be all right", murmured Mr. Bookish reassuringly, and rolled down the window.

"Sir, is everything okay?" the policeman asked. "Late to be blowing your horn."

"No, it's all good", said Mr. Bookish.

The other policeman leaned forward. "Not a medical emergency, anything like that?"

"Oh, much more than that." Mr. Bookish waved toward the mostly-dark bookstore. "A reading emergency."

The policemen both glanced at the store. "A what?"

"A reading emergency." Mr. Bookish repeated. "A learning emergency."

"Would you step out of the car, please? You too, ma'am."

Mrs. Bookish made a small sound of dismay.

Imperturbably cheerful — and incongruously so, for four o'clock in the morning — Mr. Bookish said, "Sure!" One arm fished behind him on the floor of the back seat. "In fact, I want to show you something."

To Mrs. Bookish he added, "Just picked this up — you haven't seen it yet."

She frowned, tilted her head warningly at the policemen who'd immediately gone into ready-alert stances

Mr. Bookish's cheerful manner and conversation shielded him, for the moment, from lawful mayhem as he pulled up a narrow chamois-leather bag, opened it, and slid out a small musical instrument. It was a horn, larger than a flute but smaller than a clarinet. Its color was the warm white of old ivory, flecked or dotted with rows of tiny black marks running lengthwise.

The policemen looked at each other, exchanged shrugs.

"A horn?" said Mrs. Bookish. "Where did you get that?"

Mr. Bookish looked at her slyly. "Remember me telling you the other day about my dream of being in the hall of the Book-Mountain King? Well ..."

And without further ado he put the book-horn to his lips and blew.

Mrs. Bookish jerked back, startled. So did the policemen.

After a few moments of listening to the book-horn's long notes, melodious and enticing, Mrs. Bookish got out of the car and went to stand in front of the modestly-lit display window, looking in.

One of the policemen was on his radio, saying, "Yes, we need the manager and any employees of the bookstore" — he gave the store's name and location — "to come immediately and open up their store." He paused. "Yes, emergency! ... A reading emergency."

The other policeman was on the sidewalk, talking to nearby residents who already were joining Mrs. Bookish in front of the store, with more people coming around the corner and along the avenue. Many were dressed in their sleep-ware: still a little drowsy but waking up. "Hold on, folks; we'll have it open in a few minutes."

"The sooner the better", said Mrs. Bookish, calmly keeping the newcomers from pressing against the window-glass.

Mr. Bookish got out of the car, still blowing at intervals on the book-horn. Shortly the store manager appeared, keys in hand, and opened the door.

Mrs. Bookish stayed by the doorway, saying calmly over and over, "Take your time. Plenty of good books for all, reasonable prices." In an interval she reached in and extracted a book for herself from the nearest bookcase.

With a snappy twirl Mr. Bookish tucked the ivory book-horn under his arm, and smiled benignly on the crowd still filing with orderly eagerness into the bookstore. He glanced up at the night sky as though at some distant mountain which only he could see, beyond the dark horizon.

"Whom the gods would inform they first teach to read," Mr. Bookish said to no one in particular. "A very old saying", he added; "or ought to be."

In his mind's eye, on bright pages of an attainable future, Mr. Bookish visualized people returning to reading, and new folks taking it up. Not just a few bookshelves, as it were, of readers; but bookcases, whole bookstores and warehouses and distribution-depots of readers and new readers. All bringing new light to their minds, joy to their souls, and learning to understand and solve and manage the problems of the world.

Mr. Bookish caught his wife's eye, nodded with the deep satisfaction of literate optimism. "See? I said it would be all right."


© 2013 Robert Wilfred Franson

Good books (guarded by cats):
Adams Avenue Book Store

Jane Austen in the South Seas
  or, Centrifugal versus Centripetal Criticism

"Thus one goes to the stars"

Follow-on, July 2018.

The used-bookstore street in walking distance here — Adams Avenue in San Diego — used to have about fifteen bookstores. Finally only the best one survived, now vacating its shelves: Adams Avenue Books (1965-2018), whose owners also owned the property it sat upon. The last of the best on Adams Avenue.

Several decades ago the city labeled Adams Avenue as “Antique Row”. Now the antique stores are gone too.

To the Internet, thou reader. — Mr. Bookish

A number of books on my shelves are the only copies I’ve ever seen of them, which is a major reason I haunted used bookstores: not low prices but the vast range of titles, considering the stores as a group. Each used bookstore had an individual and often idiosyncratic selection.

For some years, on AbeBooks I often have been able to find at once several copies of a rare title offered across America and Britain. AbeBooks of course helps keep alive many independent bookstores, and unlike Amazon’s minimalist descriptions of used-book condition, AbeBooks' often are detailed, and occasionally helpfully knowledgeable as to the contents or editions.

Horizons less tactile or social, but far wider.

© 2018 Robert Wilfred Franson


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