Hard Times and Used Books

Last August, I did my annual "spring" cleaning and attempted to get rid of what we seem to accumulate the most--books. I got over any emotional attachment I had to my books several years ago, as our shelves started to warp under their weight. We made it a yearly habit of setting aside two days to visit some used book stores to unload some of our preloved friends. Day 1 was the Molière route. We visited a few stores on Mont-Royal, always a few bucks to be made there. Day 2 was the Shakespeare route, which took us to the McGill ghetto, St-Viateur and Park Avenue. Our last stop was always the Chaînon, a neighbourhood charity store, on St-Laurent, where we unloaded all the books that no one wanted. This year, however, the stores on the Shakespeare route were just not buying, even the new releases.

At the last English bookstore, I still had 13 English books, but like the previous two store owners, this one shook his head.
"Those are great books, but no one is buying any right now," said the owner, as we stood next to our car on the sidewalk on Park Avenue. The fact that he said my books were great gave me a glimmer of hope. I hesitated before putting the books back in the trunk, leaned against the car and looked him in the eyes. He relented.
"Tell you what," he said, "I'll write you a cheque for $50.00 postdated for October 1."
Well, that was good enough for me. I was relieved just to hear that I wouldn't have to donate a trunk load of books. Our Molière route had only yielded about $30. I happily hopped into the passenger side of the car with the cheque in hand.

However, at the end of September, I received a message from the store owner. As it turned out, he did not have the necessary funds to cover the cheque. He wanted to know if I could hold off a little longer. I agreed with a sigh. In December, I went ahead and cashed the cheque, which bounced. The bank penalty followed shortly thereafter.

On a cold, dark January afternoon, I trudged through the snow back to the used bookstore with my cheque and the insufficient funds notice. As I walked into the shop with the jingle of the bell, a short bald clerk looked up at me wide-eyed, exhaling smoke. He quickly extinguished his cigarette, fanned the smoke and shoved the ashtray under the table. As I walked over, I noticed two fluffy tabbies sleeping on the table pushed into the space by the store's bay window.

The clerk walked past several piles of books, knocking a few over. As he reorganized the pile, I briefly explained my situation to him. When I told him about the insufficient funds notice, his spread fingers came up over his mouth.

"But why did you cash the cheque!?" he asked.
"Well, I sold him 13 books in August. The cheque was for October 1," I said incredulously.
"Oh shit! Now, we're going to have to pay the bank $25," he said.
I stood there speechless, suddenly feeling as though I had done something wrong.
"Just a second," he said, and disappeared behind a curtain that appeared to be separating the bookstore and a residence. As I browsed, I could hear muffled conversation in the next room. It started out quietly. Only one person was talking, presumably the clerk. The owner asked a few quick questions, the clerk answered. Then I heard, "Fuck, hostie*!" and a slam of something, a cupboard door perhaps. The cats sprang from the table, heading for cover. I trained my eyes on the curtain, which was swinging back and forth.

A few minutes later the clerk emerged from behind the curtain.
"I'm sorry," he said. "We really haven't had any customers lately. In fact, you're the first customer I've seen in days."
"I'm sorry. The owner called me the last time to tell me not to cash the cheque. When he didn't call, I assumed that I could go ahead and cash it," I said.
"Never mind," he said, waving his hands. "Just take a few books, and I'll write you an IOU for $30. Come back next weekend, and the owner will pay you then."

Luckily, the selection of books on this particular day was great, and I left a few minutes later with six books and the IOU ironically penned in red ink. Suspecting that my chances of ever seeing the outstanding $30 were indeed slim, I chose to wait a few weeks to see if some more good books came in.

In the end, I'd played my cards right. I never saw any cash, but I got more than my money's worth in great books, which leaves us with the same problem--warped bookshelves.

I guess now is the best time to start visiting the neighbourhood library.

* To those of you who have never been to Quebec, "hostie" is indeed a communion wafer served up at mass on Sunday. It's about as intense as saying "fuck," and usually not said in front of small children.


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