Inspired by a true person.
I have always been captivated by book stores.
It doesn’t matter what kind. Old book stores, new book stores, second hand stores with bookshelves in the corner; the kinds that sell tea and coffee, or the kind that are dingy with piles of books and pages scattered all over the floor. My curiosity is piqued at such place, and I can never resist the urge to browse – or dig around – amongst the assorted volumes of treasures just waiting to be discovered.
This book store I had stumbled upon during my vacation was rapidly becoming one of my favourites. In fact, it wasn’t technically a “store”. It was a corner of the town square with rows of tables lined up on the cobbles outside of a tiny apartment which, up a short staircase to reach it, contained more packed shelves within. The whole place had a quaint, almost rustic French aura that appealed to my love of charming old-European settings.
Though I was planning on walking by, I dared to stray near the closest table and peer squinty-eyed at the rows of bindings to see if I could recognize a familiar face. Halting with surprise, I realized that I recognized many of the titles to be childhood favourites of mine. My mission of getting to wherever I was going was forgotten– I began running my gloved hand eagerly over the neat rows of tightly bound volumes; eyes eating up every label, my mind savouring the stories as I remembered them. Some were old, bordering antique copies; dusty and smelling of wood and a hint of smoke. Others were relatively new with only slightly peeling plastic edges where the covers had seen a bit too much sun. It didn’t bother me though. The vast collection of treasures would’ve kept me enraptured if they were bound in newspaper.
Glancing up, I noticed two more bookshelves against the wall beneath the balcony, and I eagerly drew closer to inspect them. Craning my neck back, I stared up at the shelves and my eyes caught a glimpse of a book that made my heart skip a beat. It was one of my very favourite books I had not yet purchased – Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. I had been waiting for the perfect opportunity and just the right copy before buying it. As I strained to get a better look, I was amazed to see that it was not one, but all three in the series were there. I could hardly believe my luck.
“Do you need a hand?”
The voice made me jump. I turned and saw a clean-shaven, smartly dressed young man standing just behind me. I blinked. Judging by his nametag, he was obviously the store owner but it surprised me to see such a young man in charge. Generally these kinds of shops were run by baggily dressed old men with grey hair and spectacles.
“Sorry, I’ve startled you.” he smiled and extended a friendly hand. “I’m Huon, I run the stall. I saw you come over; thought you might need a hand reaching the higher shelves.”
I took his hand and shook it firmly. “Elise,” I smiled back. “And I appreciate that.”
“So was there something you were interested in?”
“Uh…” I began, momentarily forgetting what I was doing. I looked back at the shelf and remembered. “Yes,” I said, pointing. “I’d like to purchase those three volumes by Wiggin.”
“Aha,” Reaching past me, he pulled the books down from the higher shelf. They were covered in a thin layer of dust which he blew off, and he wiped at the covers with his hand. On closer inspection I noticed that the plastic on the edges had curled up a little and the pages were slightly browned. One of them had a creased corner, and another a slight tear at the binder, but I didn’t mind. I hadn’t seen these editions since I was a girl, and to find them all in one place was nothing short of a miracle.
“I’ll take them,” I said. I couldn’t keep the eager gleam from shining in my eyes.
Huon frowned a little. “The covers aren’t in very good condition, are you sure?”
I blinked in surprise once again. This was certainly a new thing. Booksellers don’t care that much about their merchandise. Nothing would make them talk a customer out of a sale.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” I said simply. “The covers mean little, really. It’s the story on the inside that counts.”
We had moved, and were now walking up the creaking metal staircase to the purchasing desk. I was watching my feet as I spoke so that I didn’t trip over my skirt or the steps as they wound upwards toward the balcony. When he didn’t answer, I glanced up at him. A troubled look I couldn’t place flashed across his features and his shoulders hunched a little.
“You… disagree?” I ventured, wondering how anyone could.
“Can’t say I’ve really thought about it,” He answered shortly, but the little conviction in his voice made me think that he had.
Reaching the small verandah he walked directly to his desk, picked up a pen and began writing a receipt for my purchase, adding the figures carefully in his bill book. Then moving along the desk towards a roll of brown paper, he cut a length and began wrapping my books neatly into a square brown package; finishing it off by tying a length of string around it to keep it together.
I looked on in silence whilst he did, fingering the money in my hand somewhat awkwardly. I wasn’t sure what to say, but the silence felt heavy and full of unspoken words; words with meanings I didn’t grasp, yet wanted to. Before I could decide on what to say though, Huon turned back to me handed me the package with the receipt tucked under the string.
“One hundred and thirty dollars,” He stated briskly.
I frowned. “I looked at the price tags, they should’ve added up to one hundred and sixty dollars. These are pretty rare editions, after all.”
“I know.” He smiled. “You get a discount for being ‘customer of the day’.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Is that a real thing?”
“It is. But only right now, and only for you.” His smile stretched into a grin.
I chuckled and handed him several creased notes and coins. “Thankyou,” I said sincerely, and took the books.
“You’re welcome, enjoy the rest of your day.” He waved to me before disappearing through the double doors leading off the balcony as I moved to descend the stairs again.
I paused on the top step. Something stirred within me, and I looked back towards the open French doors. Something about young Huon troubled me, and I knew deep down that if I left I would never see him again. My hesitation stretched into minutes as I weighed my decision. Was I missing an opportunity to do something good? Would this be something I would forever look back on and wonder ‘what if’?
Perhaps being in the atmosphere of literature and books made me turn around, or maybe being in the company of so many old friends in the form of much loved stories emboldened me. Either way, I retraced my steps and peeked around the corner of the French doors into the small study. There were about three standing bookshelves in library rows across the room. To my right was a window to let the warm sunlight stream in, which caused the room to glow invitingly. The patterned carpet was worn thin, and there were a couple of padded antique chairs in one corner. The left of the room was darker; the sunlight not reaching as far, and up against the wall near the corner sat the young man.
His shoulders were slumped and his head rested on his drawn up knees. He was running a hand slowly through his ruffled brown hair in such a motion of dejection that my heart squeezed instantly inside my chest.
“Huon?” My voice caught in my throat. “Are you alright?”
At the first sound of my voice his head snapped up. Bewilderment at my presence met with the misery in his hazel eyes as his gaze fell upon me in the doorway. I took a few steps and entered the room as he floundered for words.
“Umm… did you forget something?” He began to get to his feet. “Did you find another book…?”
“No,” I answered hurriedly. “I just – for some reason I felt to come back and… see if you were okay.”
He let himself drop back down to the floor. “I’m… not sure.”
“Did I say something that troubled you?” I approached him somewhat haltingly as I spoke, wondering what I should do. Slowly I bent down to sit on the floor beside him, placing my new books in the space between us. I looked about from where we were sitting. The bookshelves blocked our view of the window from here, but the sunlight peeped in around the cracks of the books that filled the neatly kept shelves. The ceiling was high and majestic from this angle, and the carpet wasn’t too thin as to be uncomfortable. It was a rather pleasant little nook.
Huon was quiet a moment with his head leaning back against the wall. “Books and covers,” he said at length. “I’ve found people to be much the same.”
I glanced down at my paper-wrapped parcel. “How do you mean?” I asked softly.
“Well,” Huon’s hand came up again to rub at his forehead agitatedly. “Many of the people who come to my stall are wealthy tourists. They don’t like old things unless they are clean and in perfect, pristine condition. Almost everyone judges a book by its cover. I spent so long trying to sell antique books that were perfectly readable and plentifully enjoyable to those who came by, but the story on the inside was always secondary to the cover that held it.” His hand fell to pick at the carpet next to him as I listened.
“And…” his voice dropped huskily. “People have always judged me the same way. They prefer to see the outside – the educational degrees, the career choices, the company I keep, the way I spend or earn my money, the hobbies I have; even the way I speak and act… They care so much about how I should look, that they never bother to look inside to see the true story of who I really am. It makes me feel… not important enough to be known simply as me. Not even my family cares to know who I am, and it makes me wonder if even I know who the real me is anymore…” He trailed off, and there was silence between as I pondered his words. “I have no idea why I told you any of that,” He said at length, rubbing the back of his neck with embarrassment.
I let his words linger in my mind; his relief of having finally found someone to say them to seemed to hang in the air like a pent up breath that had finally been expelled. Thoughts bubbled to the surface of my heart with compassion, and I began slowly: “You are important, Huon. You were crafted by the most loving hands to be everything you are on the inside. This world… it loves to look at the outside. The outside is… safe.” I paused, trying to find a way to frame my words. “The outside hides the mess we can be. It lies to everyone by pretending to be perfect; having the right credentials or knowing the right people; having the right attitude, or speaking the right way. The outside can conform to the normalness the whole world hides behind because it knows that the story they have to tell isn’t a flawless fairytale.”
He was listening, so I continued. “Our stories have blights in them; what good story doesn’t have a villain, or a terrible situation to overcome? But God wrote us… we were written by the Author of the world to show everyone we can be more than a glossy cover photo with Him inside. We can be the change the world needs.”
“What does a useless bookseller in an insignificant town have to offer the world in terms of change?” Huon said wryly, sadness clouding his face.
I felt so moved that this young man failed to see the light he carried in his heart. My fervour compelled me and I reached out to lay a gentle hand on his arm. “You are here,” I said softly. “You are in this place for a reason. You spoke to me kindly – a stranger – and helped me. You were generous, and showed me care. If you were not here, who would have been my blessing?” Surprise, and then hope began to dawn in his eyes. I ploughed on, barely knowing what I was saying. “God is writing the story of your life, and who you are. He knows you better than anyone on earth. You are a cherished work of His, and you are on His bookshelf. Limited edition too, no less!” I exulted. “Only one like you in the whole wide world! He published you into this world for your story to be read by those who would find you, and for those you yourself would find. And when the people in it hear your tale, they will see the Truth, not the artificial falseness the world is accustomed to showing them. When they open the pages of your story, they will see that God is the Author, and they will know you are not of this world. That you have been approved, and you have no reason to hang your head. Those who scorn do not realize they are the ones hiding a cheap story behind a showy cover. In the end… an image is just a fake memory of all you weren’t. A true story that is well lived, lives on in the lives of those who read it.”
My passionate words bounced off the walls of the small room and faded away into the dying sunlight that was waning from the window. In the silence that ensued, I could hear swallows chirping on the roof, and the distant sound of people on the street. I looked across at Huon. My hand was still resting on his arm, propped against his knees. His head was up, and he looked to be studying my fingers, but there was a far off look in his eyes. I swallowed. Did I make a difference? I wondered. Was I able to say just how precious he is to his Father in heaven, and just how glorious the plan is for his life – how glorious it is now? Did I reach a part of his heart to plant a seed of hope – hope in the love of God, that that love could shine through him, and perform mighty things? My mind prayed quietly that hope would give way to trust – trust in the God who is writing his story, and courage to live out its truth, not be conformed to a lie.
Huon’s words broke into my prayer. “There are some people who don’t need to tell their own story for another to see the truth in it, too.”
I looked up to find him smiling at me, a light sparkling in his eyes and a peace in his face. My heart glowed warm with joy. He understands...
Patting my hand briefly, he stood and offered his own to me. Taking it, he helped me to my feet. He then bent and retrieved my parcel from the floor. “Thankyou,” he said simply as he handed it to me. I smiled. Impulsively, I folded my arms around him in a quick hug. When I pulled away, his eyes glistened with tears.
“Live a True story, Huon.” I said, and smiling one last time, I vanished out the door and down the stairs.
It was dusk, the city lights were starting to flicker on as I walked quickly up the street. I felt God smiling as the stars began to appear in the darkening sky above me. The Author was writing a new page.
I never saw Huon again, though I often thought of him whenever I looked at my copy of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Sometimes I prayed for him; generally when I bought a new book I would offer up a quick prayer for the young man who would always come to my mind. The receipt from that purchase had no address or number to reach him, so I could not contact him. I wasn’t sure I was meant to, anyway. I returned to the same book stall sometime later, however it looked to have been long since closed down; replaced by a small dry-cleaning firm, with all traces of anything bookish completely gone. My gut feeling had been right – it was a one and only opportunity to do something good.
I never thought I would see any result of the conversation held in that tiny apartment study. Until one day, many years later, I shuffled into a mega book store in a big city. It was crowded and bustling. Not many people had time for an elderly lady squinting over a table of old classics. After browsing a while, I looked up at a nearby shelf, and spotted a volume I thought would be perfect for one of my grandchildren. Before I attempted to reach it on the nearby shelf however, a young hand stretched up and took it down.
“Was this the one you were after, ma’am?” The young lady in her trim uniform asked me considerately.
“Yes, actually, it was,” I said, surprised and pleased by her kindness. I followed her to the desk where we chatted whilst she scanned the book into the computer. I commended her on what a wonderful store this was. “Oh yes,” she grinned cheerfully. “It really is. It’s been going strong ever since my grandfather first opened it. Always put the greatest importance on stories, he did. ‘Reflections of the True stories we are living out’ he used to say. Or something like that. Would you like this in a bag? Oh – are you alright?”
My hand clutching the money paused, suspended over the counter. “Ah… yes, dear. I would, and I’m fine, thankyou. Your grandfather said that, did he?”
She took the cash and put it into the cash register, selecting the change when the draw slid open. “Yeah, kind of. He had so many quotes about stories they kind of run together a bit. Although the one I do remember clearly was to ‘live a True story’. Couldn’t ever forget that one; he’d say it to us as a farewell after our visits. Don’t know where he got it from, but it was a good quote. Here’s your receipt. It was lovely meeting you!”
I took the bag from her hand. “It was lovely to meet you too, Lisa.”
And as I left the building, I smiled.
Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another, And the Lord listened and heard them; So a book of remembrance was written before Him For those who fear the Lord And who meditate on His name.
- Malachi 3:16
Your eyes saw my unformed substance, and in Your book all the days of my life were written before ever they took shape, when as yet there was none of them.
- Psalm 139:16