My first bookcase was a simple affair: four shelves made of boards of pine stained a reddish brown. My father built it one weekend; I would have been nine or ten years old. It held my Golden Book Encyclopedias (purchased one a week by my mother at the A&P grocery store); my Hardy Boys stories (usually placed in the vicinity of my Trixie Belden mysteries); several Tom Swift books; and the books I ordered each month at school through the Scholastic Book Service (oh, my barely contained excitement to see the monthly SBS box sitting by the teacher’s desk).
The first bookcase ended up traveling; it followed me to Texas, and then it followed my wife and me to St. Louis. It was joined for a time by the college student’s need for cheap bookcases (cinder blocks and board, again of pine but unstained), then by the set of three-you-could-buy- fairly-reasonably at the furniture store (the set you knocked together yourself).
Actually, it was followed by several sets of three over the years. Some of those sets have come and gone; others still reside in our basement, holding a host of non-book things. The good bookcases are upstairs, occupying most of one bedroom and part of another. Oh, and there’s that small shelf in still another.
The original bookcase, now more than half a century old, sits in our basement. It’s still just as sturdy as it ever was. It’s never needed repairs. And on its bottom shelf sits that same set of Golden Book Encyclopedias that my mother bought at the A&P. (If you look closely, we can see them in the picture above on the bottom shelf, to the right of my high school “Warrior” yearbooks .) Years ago, when we were visiting my mother in New Orleans, she asked me if I still wanted them. If not, they were headed for the next garage sale. Since the Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden had already walked the plank at one of her garage sales, I took them back to St. Louis.
I suspect that the only reason she didn’t set them out to be sold was that she remembered buying them a volume a week at the A&P, trying to remember which volume to get, occasionally marking it down on her grocery lists, sometimes buying the wrong one and having to return it. Yes, she had a lot invested in those encyclopedias.
The bookshelf they sit in, that bookshelf they first sat in, is a bit worn, sitting rather quietly as it does in the basement. I can still remember watching my father build it. I can still remember my excitement. I can probably imagine my mother’s relief at having a place to put my books.
My father and I did few things together, outside of working at his printing business. The bookshelf project was one of them, even though my participation consisted of watching him. But that was sufficient; he was building it for me.
And those encyclopedias – they’ll likely end up eventually as a donation to Good Will, or sitting in a box on the driveway as part of a garage sale. But not in my lifetime. They may be meaningless to my children, but I know what attention and focus my mother brought to their acquisition. Just as I know the effort my father put into that bookcase.
In Finding Spiritual Whitespace: Awakening Your Soul to Rest, Bonnie Gray talks about a bookcase, one she kept in her bedroom until a friend convinced her to move it to the living room. The bookcase represented safety and escape. It blocked memories of bad experiences. Moving it was an act of embracing vulnerability.
And there’s my bookcase, sitting in the basement, holding those encyclopedias, among other things. It’s a reminder of things my parents did for me, ways they recognized that they had this voracious reader in the family and weren’t quite sure what to do with him, but they would at least build him a bookcase to hold his books.