The man approached us while we stood in line, our arms plump with books like old-time school children – bibliophiles that we are. I had come to the bookstore early that afternoon to stock up on several new manga volumes. A story sickness had overtaken me over the last few weeks, and my visits to the neighboring Borders and Barnes & Nobles could not arrive soon enough. After copious cups of iced tea and several hours wandering the stacks – limited funds led me to gather twice my current wares and replace half – I found my way to the check-out counter.
Our visitor held aloft a $25 gift card and offered to give it freely in exchange for a twenty.
“You earn five bucks,” he explained, while my fellow bibliophiles gazed nervously at each other.
“How do we know that anything’s left on that card?” the woman behind me asked.
“I’ll stay in line and pay for whatever you have there,” he said. “It’s all there. Does anyone want it?” I kept quiet and stared at a woman on the cover of National Geographic, her face glimmering in gold paint.
“I have a twenty,” a man in the back spoke up. “I’m not much of a reader, but I suppose that my girlfriend could use it.”
The man filed in beside his newfound patron.
“I lost my job last week,” the man confided. “Right now, I could use the money. Books are less important to me.”
My turn at the register had come. I walked away, paid for my purchases and left the store. Getting into my car, I regretted not talking to the man. I had no hard cash in my pocket, merely credit, but I felt ashamed at my silence.
Throughout my life, fear has always been my bane – ice cream too, but let’s not get into that. Of course this is true of anyone (of fear, not of ice cream unless you’re lactose-intolerant). I fear speaking up, speaking out, making myself known to the world. Thus, often it is turmoil merely to announce myself to others. Especially when I feel that my voice will do nothing.
People often wonder why I read fantasy and manga. Most individuals assume – wrongly – that I have a penchant for dragons, unicorns, and cat-eared forest girls. This is not so . . . . well, I do like my cat girls. For the most part, these are mere decorations, trappings that give a story color or excitement. The true whimsy lies in the characters, those few chosen individuals full of courage, strength, and fidelity that they risk all for the sake of others. Therein lies the true fantasy; those noble souls, these heroes are akin to manticores and chimaras, the stuff of legends and myths. Yet despite the impossibility for such creatures in the ‘real’ world, I continue to hope and prowl the bookstores. Perhaps one day a bit of their nobility will rub off on me in the reading.
Honestly though, in these tight times, I cannot say which is more important to me food or books. With my small paunch, I could probably last a week or so without meals, provided ample coffee or iced tea was available. Without caffeine, valuable reading time might diminish. There’s also a good chance of death too, which could really ruin that novel I’m reading.
I worry sometimes about a lot of things: the economy, my life, the arrival date for the next volume of One Piece, and whether I should try peach syrup with my iced tea. I mean, Border’s raspberry tea tastes quite good – unlike Nestea, which is actually lemon extract, excessive amounts of sugar, and toilet water – but I wonder if I should reach a little outside my comfort zone. No one becomes happy without being brave. Next time I visit a bookstore perhaps I should ask for something new, a mint-peach syrup combination maybe. It may confound the barista a bit, but the dissolution of weakness deserves the extra tip. Especially in these hard times, we need all the virtue that we can lay our hands on.