Goodwill Hunting

It’s a Tuesday, two days before Christmas, and I’m standing in front of the bookshelves at the Goodwill store on Highway 6.

In my pocket is the $15 I received after returning several months’ worth of empty cans to the Hy-Vee next door. I wanted a new frying pan but they don’t have anything I like.

Nothing looks like it’s been seasoned by good meals shared with family and friends prepared inside it. Every pan that’s for sale hasn’t been used much, if at all, and if it wasn’t worth using when brand new why would I want to buy it used? I want something that’s at least seen a few eggs inside it before, maybe some bacon or some chicken breasts. I need to know that it runs well.

Nothing in housewares speaks to me though, so I wandered over to the book section where my imagination springs to life. It’s easier to profile someone based on their used books than it is on their used crock pot or popcorn popper.

Paperbacks are only 88 cents on Tuesdays and Goodwill doesn’t discriminate between a TimeLife book on microwave cookery or an owner’s manual to a 1997 Honda Civic or a Steinbeck or Hemingway or Tim Gautreaux novel. Everything’s the same price today and this is why I like buying books here so much.

Seeing nothing I’d like for myself, I decide to do some early Christmas shopping instead. Two days before Christmas is still one day earlier than I normally do my Christmas shopping, but since I’m here I might as well. One less thing to worry about, right?

There’s no categorization to the display here, no order at all other than, perhaps, by size, so it’s pretty easy to discern that the books that are displayed together came in together and were shelved in that order. It’s a dead giveaway.

Looking at the wild hodgepodge of books lining the shelves here, you start to wonder about the lives of the people who held them in their hands before they were left on Goodwill’s doorstep swaddled in sweaters, pajama bottoms and jeans. Whose hands – whose lives – did they pass through before they arrived here? These are stories likely far more interesting than those told in any of the books themselves.

Sartre, Kant and Hegel: A college philosophy major who realizes the futility of a college degree in a world with no meaning, drops out of school and needs to unload some ballast before moving back home to take a job at his father’s heavy equipment company in Decorah until they have a fight about the categorical imperatives of regularly checking the oil levels in front-end loaders and he quits, takes up acoustic guitar, moves in with his girlfriend and gets a job as the night clerk at a video store and starts writing screenplays. None of which, sadly, will ever be as original as the story of his own journey to that very place.

Three well-worn picture books about N’Sync with more words than a Chinese take-out menu but not many: once the property of a teenage fan, now with a daughter of her own nearly the same age she was when she got the books. Her father rolled his eyes at her musical tastes then and her choice of boyfriends now. Her daughter begs her for the same kind of books about the Jonas Brothers when she sees them at the Wal-Mart, but mom can’t afford them on her on her salary as a part-time waitress with no health insurance.

There are four copies of Paul Reiser’s Couplehood interspersed among the other books on the shelves, the same number as were here several months ago.

Did the book’s humor not appeal to their owners’ sense of humor, or did the relationships themselves become uncoupled? Since the books are still here it seems that no one was willing to give Mr. Reiser – or their relationship – a second chance. I feel bad for the broken-up couples, less so for Mr. Reiser.

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A pristine hardback copy of Women Who Run With the Wolves catches my eye: bought by a just-out-of-the-closet college-aged daughter for her mother in the hopes that it would wake her up and help her cast off the shackles of the patriarchy to discover her true self outside the home, possibly through a sculpture class or a woman’s weekend where she could get in touch with her inner Goddess but, alas, it’s left untouched at her bedside under a stack of old TV guides whose crossword puzzles held much more allure to her.

I take this book from the shelf and discover that I was wrong – but not by much – when I open it and a greeting card that was tucked inside falls out.

The front of the card features a drawing of a multi-colored figure pushing a dark curtain aside in order to walk behind a light one that has Person Entering Another World At the Place Between Night and Day written on it. The back of the card indicates that this is also the title of the work, truncated as “A Pearson Entering.”

I figure the card came from some holistic gift shop heavy with incense and candles and bath salts and crystals – a modernized update on the shaman’s healing lodge that accepts both Visa and MasterCard and has its own website.

I open the card and see that it was more than a mere bookmark. It was given along with the book and has this message written inside it:

Lynn, Here are some stories to feed the spirit. This is one of those books that will sit by the side of your bed for a year or two as you read a few pages from time to time to remind yourself who you are and where you come from. These stories are meant to remind you that you are and always have been OK. It is the culture around you that is ‘out of balance.’ Tom was a jerk anyway, you deserve better. Be at peace, Heather.

I’m sure Heather meant well and it was a very generous gift at nearly $30 new, but Lynn, apparently, wasn’t interested. The spine hasn’t been cracked, the book jacket is not scuffed and no page shows any evidence of wear.

Were Heather’s good intentions squashed by all-nighters prepping for her GRE or cute boys at nickel beer night? Did Tom re-enter the story after being written out? I’ll never know the ending to this tale, but I’d like to.

Next to it is a copy of E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, bought, I imagine, by a freshman English major for his grandmother who taught him to love reading, sure she would enjoy its insight into the human condition as seen through the struggles of generations of immigrants. A book she read each night with her feet up on the coffee table after working double shifts at the laundromat – a life just as hard as any portrayed in the book. How much he could learn from her if he only asked.

There are so many stories here, not just in the books on the shelves, but in the lives of the people who held them in their hands, however briefly, before they arrived here.

There’s plenty of King and Koontz and McBain, lots of “airport fiction” much of it purchased at actual airports as evidenced by the receipts still tucked inside – diversions far more effective than any pill for taking your mind off the fact that you’re inside an aluminum tube six miles above the earth that could plummet from the sky at any moment.

Danielle Steel makes several appearances, as does Dan Brown–thrill-a-minute page turners about divorces, infidelities, Masonic conspiracies, Vatican assassins and other of life’s day-to-day tribulations.

Dozens of well-worn soft-cover fantasy and science-fiction paperbacks line the shelves – their covers featuring knights and their amply endowed heroines and the promise of journeys to worlds far beyond our own. Books read dozens of times by dozens of readers before they ended up here, all of them, however beloved, assured of the same fate once the chain of friends with similar tastes runs out of links.

The people who couldn’t bear to part with these escapist fantasies ultimately accruing little more than “clutter” in the eyes of their landlords – or their kids if they had them – when their own final adventure comes to an end and it’s time to clean out the garages and the closets before the apartment can be put up for rent again, the house put up for sale.

So many adventures, so much intrigue and romance and mystery shoved into black plastic garbage bags or a cardboard box and abandoned unceremoniously here, on Highway 6.

I have to believe that the people who read and reread these books and hung onto them until the very end would be pleased to know that their favorite characters will continue to live on every time a new reader invites them into their lives.

I hunt and peck until I have enough books in arm to deplete the $15. I don’t yet know who I’ll give them to – or if they’ll even read them when I do – but I’m more than happy to put a few more dollars in Goodwill’s coffers at this time of year.

Ultimately though, I’m confident that these books will find another life here or someplace similar once they’ve passed through the lives of those people and become some small part of their own stories as they’re written each day.