I have a problem. Not that it is inherently harmful or detrimental or that it shall become your problem. It is certainly not a problem in the “please help me fix this” sense of the word, if you follow. It is more like a benign obsession. For books. Specifically, used books. I am newly addicted to used book stores. OK, I know exactly what you’re thinking: Boring. [Flip the channel].
I am currently sitting in the sunroom, of which there is plenty of sunshine this fine morning, of the McDaniels family, the kind and gracious folks who are hosting myself and eventually Randall Goodgame for our thus far tumultuous tour in eastern Nebraska, of which we have yet to play a single concert. Things already got off to a rocky start before either of us have played a single note (one last-minute show cancellation, one lost guitar). I’ll spare you the details. All I know is that I fell asleep last night to starlight clear skies, and I awoke this morning to iris-blue skies. But somewhere in the middle of dream’s proceedings it snowed. A lot. I can no longer make out the pavement of the street or any of the lawns in this quiet Lincoln neighborhood, occasionally littered with the cawing of crows or the blare of snowblowers. Atop the deck balcony, all piled in white shoulders, sits a good 2-3 inches of snow. It is a strange thing to wake up to, if you’re like me, an unaccustomed soul to the downpours of winter. It passed through the night, this visible ghost, unleashed its bravery, and ebbed away to some other unsuspecting land. I digress, snow does that to me. Now, back to my problem.
At some point near about when the calendar conspired to 2008 I somehow morphed into a used bookstore hound. I am borderline obsessive about it. I suppose I should have seen it coming. My dear wife laughs at my preposterousness, but not fellow songwriter and friend, Andrew Peterson, who very nearly shares the same degree of passion and obsession and is quick to join me on used bookstore jaunts. It is good to have friends in your life who share and understand one’s own similar quirks and foibles. It has gotten to the point now where when I travel to far off cities, instead of searching for movie-plexes or malls I scour the yellow pages and internet for local used bookshops. I suppose this might be considered a good thing. I don’t know if it’s a newly-obtained old man tendency (of which I have quite a few) or if I have simply turned into someone worth ridiculing. All I know is that I am hooked to the point of obsessive-compulsion. I dream of, and wake up thinking about, used book stores. Like I said, I have a problem.
It is the elusive hunt for those rare, personally treasured authors’ works which gets the antiquarian blood flowing and the heart palpitating much akin to the eager anticipation of seeing a loved one after a time apart. The thought of stumbling upon any work – specifically, first editions – by Frederick Buechner (always my first priority), Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Kathleen Norris, J.B. Phillips along with a few others is enough to get the adrenaline pulsing and the heart rate up a notch or two. The outlandish beauty of such a search is that I never, ever know what I’m going to find in these papered stores, and that is exactly what I love about it, the impeccable unpredictability, and is what draws me in time and time again in city after city past shelf after ever-blessed shelf.
I am coming to the not-so-well-defined conclusion that a truly great city should not necessarily be defined exclusively by its housing market, economy, mass transit system or other mind-numbingly boring sterile data, but also by the number and quality of used book stores which inhabit its incorporated borders. This may be a tad far-fetched for many of you, I realize, but, still, I can’t help but think there’s an inherently good quality to which a city, however large or small, affords the value of literature, to the written word, to the rare, collectible and unwanted. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Flea markets, antique stores, dumpsters and used book stores all have this in common. A quality used bookstore is a window into the heart and soul of a city. Just look on the shelves and you’ll see what people read (and discard), what is taken in, what is tossed out, and is very nearly a quiet and pensive pulse of its civilians. I mean, how can you NOT want to enter shops with alluring names like The Yellowed Pages, or BookMan BookWoman, or A Novel Idea, or my favorite in Nashville, the obvious, unglamorous and simply named Books?
Yesterday at a great shop in downtown Lincoln, for example, I bought a first edition of Frederick Buechner’s Brendan. It is a book I never imagined I would ever happen upon, and yet there it was, its clean spine staring me in the bearded face. An audible “Oh my gosh” escaped my lips when I saw the book sitting on the ground-level shelf, apparently – obviously – awaiting my arrival. “I am sorry to have kept you waiting, my love. I am here now to rescue you from these dusty shelves and ces autre livres. Come and find peace, rest and admiration in the temple of my home.” Seeing this book on the shelf, I was beside myself in a near out-of-body experience; such is the degree of nerd-dom I have attained. There are far more dangerous obsessions in life, to be sure.
I have a dream of building my Buechner collection of first editions of his entire authorial work. On the shelves they shall long rest, be read and perused, perhaps eventually one day to become my son’s treasured possessions as well. To pass on a love for the written word is my hope for him.
Two final things worthy of mention: the generous McDaniel family loaned Randall and I one of their cars for the entire weekend. On the back windshield they created one of those stencil stickers that you see on car windows as advertisements. The one on this Honda reads, “Eric Peters Tour Vehicle. March 6-9, 2008. www.ericpeters.net”. Essentially, I am driving a car with my own name on it. I don’t know how I feel, or how I should feel, about that, but I figure if someone asks, I’ll just talk about myself in the third person: “Oh, he’s great if you like folk-pop singer-songwriters.” To wield such power.
Last but not least, one of the McDaniel’s sons, whom I met years ago in my touring travels, is a professional mortician. Ironically, his name is the same as that of the aforementioned book I purchased. Brendan, the mortician. Brendan, the saint. Brendan, the McDaniel. To say that one is friends with a mortician – with no intended disrespect to either the living or the dead – is a mighty unique declaration.
Eric Peters, affectionately called “Pappy” by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He’s a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he’s not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he’s touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.