Our Book Cellar

The first book I bought from The Book Cellar was Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward, which cost me a folded-up one-dollar bill from the back pocket of my jeans. I came to the store in June with a blue post-it note. On it, I’d scrawled the titles of the books from my eleventh-grade summer reading list that had sounded the most interesting. Salvage the Bones was the only one they’d had in stock that day. There were actually two copies; the one I had picked off the fiction shelf and another one a volunteer remembered from the $1 section. Having forgotten a bag, I walked up the stairs to the first floor of the library with the bare book in my left hand and carried the novel the three hot blocks home.

My father and I had been in The Book Cellar a handful of times before to donate old books we’d had lying around. The store, which occupies the basement of my local library branch, amasses its entire inventory from donations. All proceeds from the volunteer-run shop go towards the library. The Book Cellar has been around since before I was born, but until Salvage the Bones,  I had never purchased a book there myself. It’s easy to miss a small basement store like The Book Cellar in a city so cluttered with places to shop.

Salvage the Bones was a hardcover that had grown slightly soft. Its peach-colored pages had turned limp enough that they couldn’t give papercuts anymore. Little white spots of varying sizes, perhaps from the sun, speckled its faded green paper jacket. I was used to reading books that fell in one of two categories: sleek and new from Barnes and Noble or clothed in clear plastic from the New York Public Library. I had never read a book that had been owned by someone else before. I hadn’t expected the experience to feel any different from reading the other books on my shelf. Yet as I read the words, I also read the creases and the pencil marks. Whenever I came across a dog-eared page, I wondered why it had been singled out. Someone had held these pages. Someone once ran their finger over these words. Maybe Esch, the book’s narrator, was scrawnier in their imagination. Maybe her voice in their head was lower. Maybe when they pictured her house, they remembered a house they’d once walked through. Maybe they knew what a hurricane really sounded like through windowpanes. I wondered if the other reader’s storm was closer to the truth than the feeble recollection of cable news that played in my mind.

I returned to the Book Cellar because of the $1 novels, but also because of the worn-in books. I started to prefer the weight and scent of books that someone else had once possessed to the sterility of my Barnes and Noble purchases. Library books also became somewhat limiting as I grew to love writing in my books, underlining and scribbling notes. I liked to believe that the books from the Book Cellar had been loved before me, even if their previous owner had given them away. You could tell that someone had cared for them by the warped covers and the creased spines; the first names and “Summer 1994”’s scrawled on the inside covers.

Over the next year, the Book Cellar became a place for quick study breaks during which I could just browse, even when I didn’t need another book. Open four days a week, it is marked outside by a small A-frame sign with the bookstore’s logo. The black letters rest against a light yellow background; the ‘C’ in “cellar” has been given the tail and the head of a curled-up black cat. Inside, the store smells of dust, a little too dull to pass for the scent of old books. The ceiling lamps give off a feeble yellow glow, which, combined with the grey ceiling pipes and the brown, wooden shelves, produces a coffee-stain like color scheme. The books are shelved by category: “literature” sits on a different bookcase from “fiction,” which has been distinguished from “short story,” “mysteries,” and “mass-market books.” The texts are loosely grouped together by the first letter of their authors’ last names, yet not precisely alphabetized; in the Fiction section, McCann can be resting next to Morrison, which could be leaning on Marquez. Occasionally, books that overflow from a particular shelf are stacked horizontally on top of the books that had been donated first.

It takes work to find a particular book at the Book Cellar. You have to sift through the shelves, reading the titles on every spine. You have to be open to older editions, different covers, and faded jackets. Sometimes, if you ask, a volunteer will recall seeing a copy in the hallway just outside the store, where recent donations wait to be sorted. Yet the flow of donations is unpredictable, and a book is never guaranteed to be in stock. I take it as a small accomplishment, then, whenever I leave the store with a book in hand and go home to make room for it on my bookshelf. I’ve earned those books, after having searched for them through all the randomness.

After all that searching, the Book Cellar books seem to belong on my shelves in a way that a new book never does. Whenever I open a book from that store, I can’t help but think that I’m the only one who has ever owned this book in this way. I read them with their pencil marks and dog-ears, their initials in the inside covers. You can’t manufacture a book like that. And then, as I move through the story, I make my own marks: scribbles in the margins and circles around words, and sometimes a careless tear at the top of a page. I tell myself that the annotations are helpful to me as I read, but I wonder if part of me leaves them as evidence, as traces of thoughts that only belong to me.

I used to believe that the used book store in the library basement was my own secret spot in New York, a gem of a store that no one else had discovered. It wasn’t that I thought I was alone; other customers were often browsing in the story alongside me, and I knew that someone had to be donating all of these books. Yet the Book Cellar had become a landmark for me in a way that I’d assumed was unique. It was part of a collection of landmarks, really; a collection of places I could tell myself I knew, places I’d grown so attached to that I felt as though they knew me. The bus stop closest to school. The branch of the Hale and Hearty restaurant chain that became a tradition for me and a friend. The pharmacy a block away whose neon lights are half-burnt out, where Chapsticks are always on sale. The Book Cellar. These landmarks were part of the home I’d carved out for myself in this city that’s constantly moving and changing. It seemed to me as though they would last forever, in spite of the hectic world that they had always been a part of.

I think it’s necessary to cultivate landmarks like these if you want to find a home in New York. That sense of belonging in this city  –– or really, that sense that the city belongs to you –– isn’t easy to find. Finding a set of landmarks takes work, but I think it’s worth the effort. Eventually, you come to regard the little New York that you’ve scavenged for yourself out of this big city as a New York that’s yours, a New York that no one else knows like you do.

Sometimes, though, in The Book Cellar, I hear snippets of conversations that tell me otherwise. “I get all my books from here,” someone once said to a friend there; another person came up and told me, “This is the best place.” I’ve begun to notice that the store has become more and more crowded, the shelves more and more packed. More volunteers seem to work there now. Or maybe The Book Cellar has always been this frequented and I’ve only imagined that it was ever different. After all, the store has a twenty-five year history and I’ve only been a customer there for a couple of years. Of course many people have known it longer and more deeply than I have.

I guess that’s true of everything in this city. There’s always someone who knows it more. I read a short story, once, called “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.” In the story, a tourist has been travelling from place to place in Brooklyn, picking neighborhoods whose names he likes the sound of. The tourist assures the narrator –– a native New Yorker –– that he’s been learning his way from place to place using a map. But the narrator laughs, because the city’s a stranger, and it always outlives you, and even when you’re dead, you’ll hardly know it at all.

Sometimes the books from the Book Cellar feel like mine more than any other book. But sometimes, when I touch their worn-in covers, they don’t feel like mine at all. Sometimes I think about how they have been in someone else’s home before, in someone’s hands, in someone’s mind, and the book starts to feel borrowed. It sits on my bookshelf like a roommate, marked with its own history that I won’t ever truly know, as much as I can imagine it. And then I remember that a printing press mass-produces these things, anyway. That, probably, someone halfway across the world is reading the same book as I am. She probably hears her own voice, like I do, when the narrator speaks.

Laura Glesby is deeply attached to New York, but every so often, she considers the prospect of spending a few months in a vegan commune in Israel. Her parents would be grateful if you emailed her the reasons why this is a terrible idea at laura.glesby@yale.edu. 

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