You know when you’re in a proper bookstore – one of those shops where the shelves are full, and overflow piles everywhere? And you notice someone else in that bookstore, and you wonder: “What is that person looking for?” And you kind of keep on eye on them, and possibly even follow them around, to see if you can figure out what they’re looking for, or to see which book they have in their hand? Because there is something about that person, and you want to know what they’re reading?
Well, not so long ago, I was the one being watched. And I could tell that this woman was watching me out of the corner of her eye, casually a few steps away in my aisle.
There are always a few books I look for, whenever I stop into a bookshop, and one of them is “The Last Unicorn.” I’d seen the movie when I was about 4, and it stuck with me. Several decades would pass before I’d be reading the introduction of the graphic novel that I would realize that it was based on a book. I borrowed it from the Calgary library, and loved it. The first paragraph won me over, and I’ve often said that it is my favourite first paragraph in a book:
“The Unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.”
I love that line, and I love that book, and I’d always been looking for my own copy of it. The copy I’d had from the library was perfect, from a book design point of view. It was just the right size and thickness, and wonderfully flexible. It was a pleasure to hold and a pleasure to read. Since it’s a bit taller than a standard paperback, it is often stocked in the oversize section.
And when I dipped into ‘Over-Sized Science Fiction and Fantasy’, I didn’t see it. Which wasn’t surprising, because it’s a popular book, and doesn’t stick around on a used bookshelf very long. The woman was still keeping an eye on me, wondering what I was looking for, crouched at the bottom shelf.
And then I caught something — I noticed the arrangement of books had created a blindspot from my angle, and so I peaked behind a tall, wide hardcover, and there it was: The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle, the yellow floppy edition that I loved so much, in perfect condition. I audibly gasped, and the woman abandoned all pretenses, turned her head and looked right at me. My quiet gasp was certainly startling in the almost silent book store, and I found myself apologizing.
I actually hesistate about taking this book, as I always do, but who was I kidding? I wanted to have a copy of this book, so that I can pick it up and read it any time. And hear it was. Beautiful.
But when I get to the counter, the man working there… there is something about him. Not only does he strike me as an older man that may still be living in his mother’s basement. He also strikes me as a man that has been working here for decades.
I pay for the book.
And this store. When I first moved to Vancouver, I didn’t know my way around very well. So when I saw that book about Telepathic Spiders from Space, I wasn’t sure where I’d been (if I’d ever been there at all), but I was always pretty sure that it was here — at Pulp Fiction Books on Main Street.
So I ask. I ask about a book I may or may not have seen in this very shop (or not) many many years ago. “It was about Giant Telepathic Spiders from Space? That had taken over the world? And…”
“Spider World, by Colin Wilson,” he says, and looks over my shoulder, “We don’t have it today. It would be there.” He points.
I was so excited to discover that a) the book existed and b) I now knew the author and the title. But then…
“Oh, is that the ‘New Arrivals’ Section?”
“But isn’t Science Fiction over there?”
“Is Spider World not a Science Fiction book?”
“Then why wouldn’t it go into Science Fiction?”
“Because, it’s Colin Wilson.”
“Oh! Does he have his own section?”
At this point… At this point I decided to back up and try again, “I’m sorry. I’m just a little confused.”
“I can see that. Let me explain. We file our books by author and genre here. So, for example, George Orwell wrote a gardening book — we don’t put it in the gardening section. It goes in Science Fiction.”
“Because if someone is looking for Orwell, they don’t go to Gardening.”
(I did not point out that, similarly, if someone is looking for a gardening book, they will not go to Science Fiction)
“And so,” he continues, “Wilson writes in LOTS of genres. Poetry, Literary Criticism, the Occult. He doesn’t have a main genre. So we put him there.”
“Okay, thank you for explaining.” I didn’t really want to potentially frustrate him by asking what exactly they called that section — the section over there, where they keep Colin Wilson.
The conversation had been awkward enough, and I already had the two most critical pieces of information: the book existed, and they didn’t have it.
Not only was it Easter Sunday, but it was also April Fools’ Day, and this conversation was getting weird. It seemed like a good time to count my blessings and leave.
I had The Last Unicorn, and the Author and Title of the long-sought-after Telepathic Spiders from Space. The hunt was on.