Of books, booze and boyhood memories

When the last week in July finally rolls around, with My Home Town’s Stellar Literary Event a week away, I find myself as excited as I was as a mere poppet.

What’s MHTSLE, you ask?

Well, if you had to ask that, it’s obvious you’re not a townie bibliophile. Because if you were, you’d know MHTSLE is the SL Free Library’s Book Fair.

I’m proud to say my participation in the fair is as old as the fair itself, having been shlepped to the first one by mother at the tender age of five. And in the 70 years since, the only times I missed the fair I was either out of town or out of the country.

The fair, like the rest of us, is a shadow of its former self. Not that they have fewer wares — they still have a great selection of books, tchotchkes, baked goods and the rest. But what they don’t have is the crowds. Used to be, by the time they opened the door, there was a line halfway around the block. And once the door opened and the mob stormed in, they were two or three deep at the tables for the rest of that day.

But no more. Now the line is miniscule, if non-existent. And consequently you no longer need either a sharp elbow jab or a Birkenhead Drill to belly up to the tables and examine the wares.

Obviously, the Book Fair was a focal event — if not the focal event — of my youth because I always loved to read. But one vital factor we no longer deal with made it so important: Until very recently, books were very hard to come by.

We did have a bookstore in town, Gray’s, and a fine one it was. Mr. Gray was the very picture of erudition and dignity: He was tall and slim and always wore impeccable suits. That said, his store couldn’t serve my needs: His books were hardbacks, in editions as elegant as Mr. Gray himself — and completely unaffordable.

Paperbacks were sold mostly in drug stores, in those revolving steel racks, and were almost all mystery or adventure novels — the ones usually with lurid titles, and equally lurid covers. And though they only cost between 35 and 50 cents, they were still beyond my paltry budget. And while nowadays you can pick up free books by the carload, back then they were nowhere to be scrounged.

But at The Fair, the paperbacks cost only a nickel and were in huge supply and variety. Hardbacks cost two bits. Because I salted away my nickels and dimes during the year, when The Fair rolled around I had enough in my poke to lay in a book stash that’d last till the next Fair. I had so many books that by the time I made my purchases and lugged them home, I was on the verge of both wild anticipation and a double hernia.

When misery doesn’t

love company

At this moment, only one incident comes to mind when I think of The Fair, and involves my mother.

My mother approached almost everything in life with caution and common sense, except for the library fair. She was a compulsive reader, l a teacher, and a fanatic when it came to supporting the library. As a result, she was a stalwart member of The Friends of the Library, which given her maniacal devotion, I dubbed The Fiends of the Library.

When The Fair rolled around she went into full shakedown mode. Her specific area of focus was, ironically, The Fair’s fabulous Basket of Cheer. I say “ironically” because my mother didn’t drink.

Anyhow, first, she had to get contributions for the basket itself. Keep in mind, back in them days, Bunkie, there were a lot of liquor stores in town, which of course was because there were a lot of tipplers in town as well. So my mother made sure the liquor stores donated nothing but top shelf booze — Johnny Walker Black, Dewar’s, I.G. Harper, Gordon’s Gin, Crown Royal, Courvoisier — a dipsomaniac’s dream-come-true. There was no rotgut like Kessler’s, Imperial or Old Mr. Boston in that collection. And for sure there was no wine, since the popular town opinion about wine was it was drunk only by sissy boys and skid row bums.

After she’d collected the basket, her hustle went into Phase Two, when she made sure every adult in town not on life support bought a book of chances. It wasn’t a hard sell, really, for two reasons. First, since most peeps in town always supported the library, buying into the raffle was regarded as a donation. And second, given the size and quality of the prize, the winner had their bar stocked for at least a year … and a helluva lot longer if they committed the travesty of adding ice, water, soda and mixers.

I remember only one year’s winner because he was a real doozy. He was a miserable old S.O.B. who never seemed to like anyone or anything. Moreover, to use a James Jones quote, he “was a good man with a bottle.” Every year he bought a book of tickets from my mother, and when he found out he didn’t win, he always griped about it. And my mother always had the same reply, which was the next time he needed to buy more tickets.

So when he won the raffle, my mother could hardly wait to tell him since she knew he’d finally be delighted about something. But, alas, that wasn’t to be.

When he answered his phone, my mother told him he’d won the basket of cheer. There was a long pause on his end, then he fairly yelled, “Dammit to hell!”

“What? What?” my mother said, completely confused.

“I just found out I got diabetes,” he said, “and I gave up drinking.”

A long moment passed, then my mother tried to console him.

“Well,” she said, “it’d be a great present to give one of your friends.”

“You kidding me?” he said.

“No,” said my mother. “You could make someone really happy.”

“Oh yeah?” he said, ever the perfect curmudgeon. “And why the hell would I wanna do that?”


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