The steam curled up like foggy fingers from her coffee. Essie took a tentative sip then put the mug down. It was going to be a cool day, unseasonable cool for May—but Indiana had seasons within seasons.
She looked at the colorful stalls lining the street. Some familiar faces smiled and nodded in her direction. She lifted a think spotted hand in acknowledgement.
Always the same. Farmers with baskets filled with radishes, tomatoes and asparagus; red cheeked teenagers cooking up kettle corn; Mennonites in white caps and grey dresses serving fresh pastries and sour cream raisin pie; middle-aged hippies with homemade soaps which she doubted they ever used, and lots of artisans selling handmade jewelry that all looked the same to her, with twisted wires and shiny bits.
She hobbled around the table rearranging stacks of books, and then straightened the sign on the wall of her stall.
ESSIE TUTTLE, PURVEYOR OF FINE USED BOOKS
Essie smiled to herself. Fine books indeed. They were used books, mostly classic literature and poetry, all from her home library.
She started collecting after finding a 1896 book at a flea market titled “Stepping Stones to Literature: a Reader for Seventh Grades” at a flea market. As a middle school English teacher, she was amazed at what students had been expected to read and recite.
Essie made it her mission to collect works from every authors included in the book. Those fifty authors soon become a hundred. Then more. Her devoted and indulgent husband supported her passion, since he was also a lover of poetry, particularly Whittier.
Her library had floor-to-ceiling bookcases with mahogany veneer and a brass railing at the top for a rolling ladder. It was quite pretentious for their modest house and for books that came from second hand stores and yard sales. Many were cast offs from small colleges she found searching dumpsters. But her husband had insisted they give a beautiful home to her beloved books and so the library was built as a 20th anniversary gift.
The books in her collection were well worn, which pleased her. This meant they had been read, possibly savored; that the stories, ideas and a piece of the writers had been passed on and immortalized. To quote Whittier, “The dead souls woke; the thoughts of men whose bones were dust revived again.”
Essie believed that a book that had never been opened amounted to negligent homicide.
She hoped to read every book in her library; and often read herself to sleep in the cracked leather arm chair by the fireplace. That hope died several years ago, when she spent her days reading Whittier aloud to her ailing, bedridden husband.
The last passage he heard was: “Immortal, Love, forever full, Forever flowing free; Forever shared, forever whole; A never-ebbing sea!”
After cancer took his life and most of their savings, she had to sell their house and furniture, but hated to part with her books.
At first she told herself no one would want them since they weren’t first editions. But gradually the thought of her beloved books moldering in boxes in the basement of her apartment building was more than she could bear.
There had to be someone who cared about tatty old books as much she did. Essie decided that the best way to find out was by trying to sell them, starting with public venues like street fairs and farmers’ markets. The results thus far had been discouraging.
“How much is this book of Whittier’s poems?”
Startled out of her reverie, Essie blinked at the dark haired young man in front of her. He was gazing intently at her 1891 anthology of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poems, gently turning the brittle pages.
“O Brother Man, fold to thy heart thy brother; Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there,” she said, quoting from one of her husband’s favorite poems.
The man looked up at her and without skipping a beat responded, “To worship rightly is to love each other, Each smile a hymn, each kindly word a prayer.”
She smiled, picked up the book and handed it to him. “For you, son, it’s free. You’re giving a loved one a good home. That’s payment enough.”
He hugged her and thanked her profusely. Opening the book, he silently read as he walked away…and into the table of hippie soaps and pottery.
The noise was deafening.
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