Memories of Used Books

by Terri Alexander


There’s a bookstore in Scotland that I still think about. I was traveling alone by train across the Scottish Highlands, headed west toward the coast. I was searching for clues about ancestors from my mother’s side of the family. Outside the window, a patchwork of amber, purple, greens and browns rolled out like the quilt of an unmade bed. It was spring, and the grasses and flowers of Cairngorms National Park were showing their stuff.

That morning, I had left the tiny village of Insch with some regret. I wanted to stay longer so I could go back to the church where my great great grandmother had been baptized, so that I could sit on the mossy grass of the old cemetery and commune with the silence, so that I could climb Dunnideer Hill one more time to touch the stone of the ruined castle.

 I was headed for Inverness, which I’d been anticipating ever since I saw it on the map at home. The city’s geographic location caused a sudden intake of breath every time I looked at it. It was as if someone had taken a sharp knife to the United Kingdom and slashed it diagonally at its skinniest point. Inverness sat in the middle of this slice, land that connected the waters of Moray Firth and Loch Ness. I had no known ancestors in this part of Scotland. I was here for the geography alone.

I stepped off the train, and the city assaulted my senses. I’d grown accustomed to breathing air with hints of sheep and grass, hearing the lonely wind as the loudest sound. Gravity helped me down the hill to the Greig Street Bridge, which crossed the River Ness. Everything was cold and gray – the buildings, the sky, the water. I stood along the rail and watched the water flow beneath me. I was at the exact point on the map that took my breath away, and yet I felt … nothing special. I waited, certain that some significance would come along. I waited until the damp, cold wind drove me away.

Gravity was my enemy as I trudged up Friar’s Lane, frozen to the bone, free of epiphany. I took a left on Church Street and found Leakey’s, the bookstore that I still think about. It’s housed in a former Gaelic church built in 1793. I opened the door and was met with a wall of warmth that smelled of wood smoke and aged paper and dark roasted coffee. A slender stovepipe rose bravely through the middle of the vast space to the second story ceiling. The pot-bellied stove held a position of authority in the center of the charmingly disorganized customer service island. A spiral staircase along the far side of the store gracefully connected the two floors. Leakey’s is Scotland’s largest secondhand bookshop, and as I surveyed the chaotic layout, I decided it was a place in which I could gladly become lost.

I can’t remember which book I purchased at Leakey’s that day, or if I read it on the train to Glasgow that evening. I’ll often tuck a bookstore’s free bookmark into my purchase just in case I forget, like Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness that I bought at Myopic Books in Chicago or W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants that I found at the Abbey Bookshop in the Latin Quarter of Paris. I haven’t read The Emigrants yet, but when I paged through it, I found a phone number written in pencil on the inside back cover and the inscription, “Do people who dine alone enjoy their food?”  This makes me wonder who before me has pressed the ridges of their fingerprints into the book’s worn cover, and who will do so after I. 

One day, perhaps I’ll select a book from the shelf at home and find a Leakey’s bookmark tucked inside. Perhaps I’ll never find out which book I chose that day. I’ll probably even forget the name of the store. But I’ll never forget what it felt like to walk through the door that cold, gray day with no expectation of feeling anything significant.