“Is this the gullible tourist bit?”
There was a catch; there always was. But there wasn’t a con I didn’t know. This was another sleepy seller of overpriced mildewy books, like the rest, with an outdated gimmick.
“No catch; just an offer,” she replied, winding through the rows as she straightened books. “You remind me of someone.”
“I remind you of someone?” I replied. Here it comes, the bait.
Wrinkles deepened around her eyes as she smiled. “You remind me of myself. You are looking for something. I could tell the first time.” She was by the entryway, flipping the sign that hung on the door.
“We just met.”
She laughed. “You’ve been here before. Many times. But you are correct, we just met. Mind if I lock the door? It’s almost closing; might want to avoid any interruption.”
“I didn’t realize”, I replied too quickly, “I will go.” Stay calm. She doesn’t know why you are here. The lock on the door already clicked into place, and she began turning off the storefront lights. She moves fast for her age.
The bookshelves grew taller in the darkness as she walked toward me. “You aren’t a bookworm at all. You are a bookmole. You nose around shops, looking for clues. For hidden things. Your job is to know how old books look and feel and smell for the fakes you sell to naive buyers with too much money. Or that you switch when you think an old woman like me is not looking. Such a tired scam. You have no appreciation for the life of a book.”
She paused, now standing directly in front of me, “What’s your decision?”
It was a peculiar question, but I was willing to take the bait. “You are offering a stranger a suitcase that you claim has $20,000 inside for reading a book? No fine print? Because I remind you of yourself?”
“Well, no. It’s the other way around. I am offering to let you read the rarest book I own and then you can leave with a case full of very real money, no catch. If you still want to afterward.”
“After what?” I asked.
“After you read the book. Keep up.” She smiled again, not a fleck of irony on her face. She seemed harmless, but what was she hiding?
“Sure, yes. Let’s see this mysterious book.”
She pointed toward an armoire, “Over there.” I stepped next to the large wardrobe. “Is it in here?” I asked.
“Move it to the left. Try not to scuff the floor.”
“You want me to move your furniture?"
“I want you to push that armoire because I am an old woman with bad knees. Behind it is a hidden door. And behind that is the book I want to show you.” I did as instructed; the old woman stepped forward. “When I can’t find it, I feel for a little bump about here,” she ran her hand along the wall. A hidden panel opened. She pulled the door wider.
Soft light spilled from a thin hallway. “Follow me”, she said as she disappeared into the wall.
Despite my unease, I followed. A narrow corridor led into a room with floor-to-ceiling glass cases and a carved wooden desk with a lamp. “I don’t even know their value anymore," she chattered on as we stepped into the dimly lit room.
“Some collectors hoard books simply for their rarity—because they have hidden paintings or gilded edges, or just because they are eight-hundred years old, but they overlook what truly makes them priceless. Of course, language is always a barrier...” her voice faded away. My ears no longer heard any words.
I was surrounded by the impossible. Volumes thought to be lost in time or destroyed by war. Manuscripts that were rumors, legends, supposed hoaxes; all here. Inches away. Rows of first-editions, lost editions, one-of-a-kinds: preserved on linen, papyrus, bones, bark, runestone, quipus. A need to know their secrets tingled like an itch inside my brain.
Her voice came back into tune, “still with me, bookmole?”
“Sit down there”, she interrupted as she motioned toward the desk.
I took a seat. The old woman pushed a ladder connected to the rows of shelves. “It will take just a moment to find. Poe was always a favorite. Did you read his ‘Raven’ in school? Or perhaps The Cask of Amontillado?” A chill exhaled from the hidden hallway, and a dreadful thought crept into my mind. I stood up and slowly backed toward the tiny exit.
“Sit back down,” she commanded like a scolding teacher.
“That was far too obvious to be foreshadowing. Forgive the poor example. I wanted to show you a copy of Tamerlane and Other Poems. It’s signed and dated. According to the person I collected it from, Poe was tricked in a tavern into autographing it. Come closer.”
Not convinced by this strange woman, I stayed in place. A smile again moved across her face, “Look behind you on the wall.”
I slowly turned my head, and on the wall was a large button and a lever. “This is an old panic room, made for protection during the war. That controls the locking mechanism. And we have already established that I cannot move the armoire myself. You can’t be trapped in here, my dear.”
Her eyes were as gentle as her voice. I believed her, but I knew she was still withholding something.
“That's it, there”, she pointed at the desk. It was unassuming, no title upon the outside. It was slightly worn along an edge, but it had no other mark to distinguish it. It was just a simple black book.
“It doesn’t look rare—or even very old”, I remarked.
She sighed, “It doesn’t matter what the book looks like or how old it is, it’s the contents of the pages that make it rare. The rarest of books contain powerful truths. Do you think people could always just walk off the street and buy a book? People have died for owning books; governments have banned them while committees censored them. And we take it for granted now. When you walk into a bookstore or library, that is no small miracle. No persecution, no prejudice. It took a lot of progress for things to be so.” Fire flickered in her eyes.
“It is my rarest book; not my oldest or most expensive. There is no other copy, and very few will ever see it. Those pages will change you, as promised. Take as long as you need.”
“You trust me here, alone, with all of this?” I asked.
“I do", the woman faded into the hallway, her voice trailing, “When you are done, I’ll be waiting.”
I opened the book and began to read the handwritten pages. It was a short volume, it did not take long to finish. Then I read it again. Each time I read it more questions filled my brain.
I am not sure how long she waited for me. It was late. The store was dark except for a ribbon of light illuminating a door marked “Restricted”. I opened it and stepped inside.
She sat drinking tea. “So you’ve finished. And here we are”, steam rose from the cup accentuating her words. On the table was a black case and next to it, a key.
“When I said there was no catch to all this, I wasn’t being entirely honest. If you decide to walk out that door with the case, and with the money—you’ll be agreeing to never speak of what you saw or read tonight. Consider it hush money or a monetary NDA. If even one little mole crosses my doorstep asking the wrong questions, my shop will disappear and you’ll never find it again. I’ve had many locations over the years until I learned who to trust.” She paused; searching my face, trying to read it.
“Or, you can ask about the key.”
So many questions were multiplying in my head, I couldn’t divide a single one to ask. I could only stare and listen.
She sipped her tea. “You want to know the ‘why’. The real answer is that change, just like power and control, is often very subtle. So quiet you don’t even notice what is happening. Things are changing again, and history likes to repeat itself. Whoever controls the information controls everything. It's always been this way.”
She continued, “I was like you a long time ago—a procurer of books, very rare and very old, for people who valued them but did not need them. I sought out the last written mysteries of this world for buyers who only cared about bragging rights. Never read or shared, the greatest works kept hidden away in secret rooms, like my little library. Then one day, I realized I was a thief. And the worst kind: the kind that steals knowledge, that steals potential, the thief of truth. So I decided to use my abilities to do something different.”
“I save books from gathering dust on mahogany shelves, forgotten and unread. There’s not a scam I didn’t learn to accomplish this. I switched out my fakes for the real McCoy. I kept the authentics safe and shared them with the right people who I knew would not hoard their wisdom. Along the way, I met more people who had become disgusted with selling these rarities to moguls who lost them in bets or to the new-money who cultured their toddlers with first editions that were destroyed in temper tantrums. We rescued the works however we could. We translated and made copies so that more than just a few could enjoy these masterpieces. But most of my contemporaries are gone now, and I am old. I don’t think I can keep up with the changes anymore. It's time to pass the torch.”
“I think it’s safe to assume you aren’t interested in the money. And you are interested in the key.”
“Yes,” I whispered. “What do I do?”
She stood and opened the case on the table. Inside were stacks of fresh bills. The smell of real money is impossible to duplicate; it’s in the ink. “If you thought I was lying”, she said as zipped the case shut and slipped the strap over her shoulder. She stepped to the threshold of the room with the door marked restricted.
“It’s a new era. I left something under the table. The key is a master and fits every lock. Read the books in the library, you'll know what to do. It’s almost funny isn’t it?”
“What?” I asked.
“That perhaps Huxley was right. Maybe your generation will change that.” Then she was gone. I sat down at the table and looked underneath. There was a box. I opened it; inside was a Packard Bell 386 DX with Turbo. It's a new era.
The years went by. Hairs turned gray, and wrinkles appeared around my eyes when I smiled. Everything had changed and then changed again. Then one sleepy, rainy afternoon, I saw a face that reminded me of someone. Someone I had not seen in a very long time. I switched the digital sign off and straightened the e-readers as I moved through the rows.
I got closer, and I leaned in, “Would you like to read a book that will change everything? I’ll even put some money on it.”