A Bookstore in the Shape of a Back
The bookstore was near the University of Ottawa campus, where I was striving for an arts degree while working as a full-time translator for the Federal government. I was also under investigation by Canadian intelligence as a potential security risk due to my past involvement in a Marxist organization. The shop was called the Basement, although this was not—I never learned why—the name on the sign by the street-level doorway. That name escapes me now. The store boasted a random community of buyers, browsers, shoplifters, aspiring scholars, and literati, all addicted to the aura of used books. There was also a CD section in the back near the toilet. At certain times of the year and day, the place would be pierced with shafts of light that made the dust from a turned page spin like subatomic particles. The Basement was a capacious labyrinth permeated by the strains of string quartets or postwar jazz emanating from the back, not to mention the patchouli scent emanating, presumably, from the shop owners, an ageless couple forever absorbed in the business of unpacking, dusting, and arranging books (including, it was whispered, the ledgers), all the while skimming and arguing over them through the ebb and flow of often glib, sometimes sparkling conversation. The Basement was a perpetual intimation of the miraculous coursing just below the skin of the day.
I went there one tired afternoon in early September, circa 1985, hoping to find a clean copy of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. The tree-lined streets had already begun to shift to deepening shades of decay. I was approaching the screen door that kept the alley cats from sneaking down the stairwell, when I was stopped short by the shape of a woman’s back. She was leaning toward a lanky teenager standing with one shoulder propped against the brick wall. He was giving her a slantwise look of filial disappointment. I was astonished to recognize this back, which, except for a thin gold chain glinting under coils of dark brown hair, I had always remembered as unclothed. I took the plunge: “Mishou?” She turned her head. Mishou’s head. I guessed she was squinting behind her sunglasses, trying to discern my features with the sun drifting down behind me. “Mishou? It’s me, Lazer.” She squinted harder. The kid looked up, trying not to squint, his disappointment morphing into suspicion. Had I eyed strangers that way at his age, the age of seduction by books not yet understood but already they were squatting an apartment in my cortex? In high school she had introduced me to George Brassens, lychee nuts, and Salvador Dali. She would earn pocket money minding the toddler of a mismatched pair of oversexed neighbours who devoted their weekends to experiments in unconventional behaviour. Some years later, I happened to be on a West Coast beach where she came to recuperate from a short-lived eastern marriage. We were both twenty-two. I don’t recall visiting a bookstore that summer, but we spent long hours reading each other’s body language, often in a handcrafted bed with the distant Coast Mountains looking on.
After an opening gambit of caution and courtesy by the Basement entrance—her adolescent had soon grown bored and shuffled away—we negotiated the steep stairwell plastered with ancient layers of movie posters. By the time we reached the bottom it was hard to know what to say next, and the talk turned to books, naturally. The owners, meanwhile, were up to their necks in an expensive-looking linguistics collection, arguing sotto voce about the subjunctive and why it was a mood. We eventually arrived at W in the Fiction room. There were several titles by Woolf, but all the copies of To the Lighthouse, the owners told me on my way out, had been snapped up at noon by a gaggle of undergrads. I eventually lost touch with Mishou, and I heard that the Basement had been supplanted by a restaurant.