Hard Way on Purpose CoverLord, I lived inside those books.

And they were not books that, conventionally speaking, you would choose to live inside, were you choosing to live inside some books. You would choose smart, new volumes: coffee-table books on hibiscus or vintage Vespas, I think, or you would choose something well glossed and shrink-wrapped, written by someone unthreateningly attractive and slightly more clever than you, someone like, say, Elizabeth Gilbert or Calvin Trillin, with whom you could put up for a while, like a hiking partner on the Appalachian Trail. (Yes: you would choose Bill Bryson.)

You would not choose those books I chose on rainy Sunday afternoons when my parents took us to the used-book store near downtown, a place with rows and rows of faded spines organized by arcane, sometimes confounding principles of subject. “Paperback Fiction” covered the entire canon of, well, fiction published in paperback. But certain themes were diced and distilled to microscopic specifics such as “Aviation/WWII History/ Allies/Lighter-Than-Air” and “Jewish Studies/Akron & Area.” There were tantalizing subcategories of antique firearms but no hint anywhere of the corresponding violence and death that is the platonic craving of the American boy.

The store was in an old building one ring from the center of town, and during the drive there—tucked with two brothers and a sister into the backseat of a gray AMC Pacer—covering the four miles from our house near the edge of the city, I could sense the gentle downhill slope toward downtown. If you ran out of gas and were in no hurry, you could roll there.

Industrial cities almost invariably evolved outward from their lakes and rivers, guided by liquid muses. Akron originally evolved as a canal town—the main drag once made of water—and later as a factory town, and so its development was based more on the principles of gravity and flow than the engineered order of lines and grids. The center of town was low, where the canal found its easiest course, and the neighborhoods evolved up the gentle slopes according to the prevailing winds. The poorest people lived in the places that smelled the worst and where settled the highest concentrations of soot, and the ascending classes followed in order, so that the castles (and some were actual castles) built by the wealthy founders and company presidents were just beyond reach of their own by-products of smoke and ash. Don’t shit where you eat, the saying goes.

From where we parked for the bookstore, I could see the tall, round smokestacks of the B.F. Goodrich complex just yonder, and beyond that the tall, round smokestacks of Firestone. Viewed from this vantage, the spiked architecture of the smokestacks collectively formed a sort of bar code against the sky, as if they composed the imprint of our true self. Even on a Sunday, the air hung with a burnt pungency of sulfur, which I inhaled with equal shares of attraction and repulsion. It was like that glass jar of gumdrops on your grandmother’s table: maybe sweet and maybe spice.

Inside the store was a cat that lay across the counter, obvious as a stage prop, watching us wander into our places. The owner, Frank Klein, was built with the sturdy earthiness of a russet potato—thick fingers and brawny shoulders and rocky facial features studded with sharp blue eyes. He looked like a relief map of Maine. His hair and beard were of the same shape and consistency as that on my Kung-Fu Grip G.I. Joe, whose follicles were described in the packaging as “lifelike.” Mr. Klein was highly social and often engaged my parents, and sometimes me, as we moved past the cat and into the store.

The store was called the Bookseller, the pun of whose name I had figured out myself at an earlier age when entendre represents revelation—seller . . . cellar!—and which I still appreciated as I headed toward the downstairs. The basement, underlit, musty, and damp, was devoted to books that a book dealer wouldn’t feel uncomfortable storing in such a place, and that’s where I always headed because that’s where I had previously discovered a green volume whose glue had turned to the prediluvian dust of saints’ bones, a book whose title—Popular Stories for Boys—was rendered entirely ironic by time, as it was published in—well, I don’t know what year because the unhinged spine had released the title pages and the first two pages of text. Suffice to say that the “boys” with whom this book may originally have been “popular” had likely read it by gaslight, in shirtsleeves and suspenders. Because of the missing pages, I started on page three, halfway through a word that soldiered on without the aid of its lost prefix:

. . . truding from the body. But there was no sign of this—only a tiny hole through the center of its forehead, from which blood was oozing.

I was hooked.

Popular Stories for Boys compiled four complete books: Bomba the Jungle Boy; Sky Riders of the Atlantic; Bob Dexter, Club House Mystery; and Wrecked on Cannibal Island. It ran on close to nine hundred pages and I read them all. This book, and those that followed, did many things for me in terms of imagination and aesthetic and the rituals of reading and so on. But first, mostly, and most profoundly, they took me down with their smell.

As if in response to the olfactory challenge of the factory-town air, the books in that basement were pungent and complex—dust, pulp, ink, cotton duck, binding strings—and when I found myself alone, I pulled down a volume and buried my nose into the center crease, pulling the sage up into my nostrils until I needed to exhale and inhale again. Sometimes (first looking this way and that) I touched my tongue to the page for a taste.

Here was an invocation: however deeply I could draw the scent into myself—literal inspiration—I could then exhale my wish for the answers to all these sacred mysteries.

From the time I learned to read I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and I knew exactly what that meant: I had committed myself to an insoluble mystery. I had no idea how books were made, nor any manifestation of who made them. Half the time, the name of the person on the cover turned out to be a pseudonym, fictions within fictions—Samuel Clemens mingling with Poor Richard and Theodor Geisel and for God’s sake Theo. LeSieg—all of them pouring stories through their funnels of deception.

Following the direction of Popular Stories for Boys, I took particular interest in books on the subjects of the American past, but more specifically, I sought books written in the American past, so that my childhood library and the vocabulary I absorbed by osmosis was markedly anachronistic, with titles such as Arthur M. Winfield’s Rover Boys Out West from the “Rover Boys Series for Young Americans,” published in 1900 by the Mershon Company (a used book, inscribed “For Byron in the hope he may enjoy reading about the Rover Boys Out West,” and signed “Uncle Bob, May 14, 1932,” an inscription that seemed oddly redundant).

I also read Winfield’s Poor but Plucky from the “Bright and Bold” series and some of the Jerry Todd books he wrote: Jerry Todd and the Purring Egg, Jerry Todd and the Whispering Cave, etc. (The prolific Arthur M. Winfield turned out to be the pen name of a man known to the civilian world as Edward Stratemeyer. Mysteries within mysteries.)

I read The X Bar X Boys at Nugget Camp (1928) and The X Bar X Boys in Thunder Canyon (1926), installments in a series by James Cody Ferris, which if that was his real name is awesome.

All these books had certain elements in common. They began with fanciful frontispieces, black-and-white illustrations captioned with a snippet of text:

In her hand the woman held a long barreled rifle. Walter sprang in to save the lives of the horses. Bomba brought the paddle down with all his force.

Nearly every chapter ended with a cliff-hanger, which often literally included someone hanging off a cliff.

Yes, sir, the Cap’n had been knocked out by a loaded catchup bottle. And the mysterious humpback who had committed the deed had escaped into the night.

Eventually, I recognized that many of these books were published by Grosset & Dunlap. I can’t say that I went specifically looking for that imprint on the spine, but by early adolescence, I could be best described as a “G&D man.” I carried the belief that “pluck” was among the most desirable personality traits a young man could possess, and also that it was not unusual for boys to drink black coffee nor to whittle as a pastime, nor to have friends named Red and Stumpy and Slim and High Hat Frank (a tramp, an actual tramp!) nor also to be heroic orphans. I called skunks polecats and knew that when the time came to put my acquired knowledge into practice, I would be able to identify fool’s gold by pressing it between my teeth.

I also believed that normal human conversation was conducted in highly expository back-and-forth exchanges of quick wit and hyperbolic dialect:

“And what do you think about it, Pop?” Roy asked at length. “Any pronounced opinions on the subject?”

“You mean about goin’?”

“I mean about the chances of striking gold at Nugget Camp.” “Oh!” The old puncher rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well,if you really want to know, Roy—I think the chances are pretty blame good!”

These books led to an interest in fanciful history (The Life of Kit Carson, The Oregon Trail, With Crockett and Bowie: Fighting for the Lone Star Flag), and then led sort of accidentally to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, and then by calculated chance to Laura Ingalls Wilder. I may be the only heterosexual boy in Ohio history who not only read all the Little House books, but also as a result took up sewing because the skill seemed absolutely necessary to my survival here on the lone prairie. (Which was actually the twin bed in the room I shared with my late-twentieth-century, middle-class brother.)

These books, most of them, shared one other common trait. In their opening pages, on that thick cottony paper, were lists of other titles. By 1927, for instance, Arthur M. Winfield had written a “first” Rover Boys series consisting of twenty titles, and a “second” series of ten more, and also, apparently in his downtime, six titles of a Putnam Hall series, which I’d never even seen. This list wasn’t complete. It didn’t mention Winfield’s Bright and Bold series, published in the late nineteenth century, a series at whose scope and breadth I could only guess, because the list on the Poor but Plucky title page indexed a few titles followed by “etc., etc.,” suggesting that Mr. Winfield’s prolificness was best not expressed in finite terms.

Leo Edwards, meanwhile, had already published eleven books in the Jerry Todd series, plus eight Poppy Ott books, three Trigger Berg books, and four Tuffy Beans. (A previous owner of this copy of Jerry Todd and the Purring Egg had penciled marks next to the titles—check marks and little circles, apparently to indicate those read and those yet to be read, an accounting of desire whose echo carries into the Amazon Wish List.)

The bit of copy that preceded the list indicated a body of work filled with “Pirates! Mystery! Detectives! Adventure! Ghosts! Buried Treasure! Achievement!”

The list of books in the X Bar X Boys series ended with a pre-emptive strike: “Other volumes in preparation.”

Books were being written everywhere, at every hour of the day and night, in the mystery of creation, but with such speed and efficiency that they could not be accounted for by anything but the promise that they would come, they would come, they would come. Mystery! Adventure! Buried Treasure! Achievement! Etc.!

All of this combined to make two things quite clear, both of which were ultimately depressing.

1.            I would never be able to read all the books.

2.            If I wanted to be a writer, I was already dreadfully far behind.

The idea of choices was complicated in the industrial Midwest.

It wasn’t just that this was a land of plenty. It specifically was a land of plenty for a newly mature and uniquely American set of consumers, a deeply nuanced middle class that begged for equally nuanced ways to indulge its proud discretionary income. The suburban shopping mall had almost completely replaced the urban downtown department store, and its concoursed  nooks and honeycombs catered to increasingly concise stratifications of patronage. (Think a Chess King man would be caught dead in a Frye boots outlet? Think again, hombre.) Mail order found its sweet spot in the era between the Sears Wish Book and the Inter- net. We received catalogs in our mailbox by the rubber-banded bundle: Lands’ End, Sharper Image, Renovator’s Supply, Best Products, and on and on.

K-Mart, meanwhile, as the proletarian standard-bearer, was deepening its sensitivity to its own micro-demographics and would soon, depending on the locale, evolve into Super K, Big K, K-Mart Super Center.

The first two K-Mart Super Centers were built in suburbs of Akron. We were the national test market, and we embraced that like an honor. In the same way that Ohio seems invisible and irrelevant to the rest of the country until it comes time to elect a president, so too is it the kind of place whose clientele might seem nondescript until it comes time to put a mainstream, middle-class, mass-market shopping concept through its paces. Then a little eureka-bulb lights up.

Ohio!

As a rookie small-town newspaper reporter in 1991, I covered the opening of the very first K-Mart Super Center in the suburban town of Medina, Ohio. It was a huge event locally, with a ribbon cutting and throngs of curiosity seekers, and it also drew national media coverage. The news of the day included a woman’s wandering through the parking lot, crying and lost, unable to find her car in the vast acreage of automobiles. The police finally got involved, and after an extensive search the two were reunited.

My dad, a civil engineer, designed the parking lot for the second location, and I’d like to think that my Sunday-dinner consultations with him helped stave off another such misfortune.

I’m sure the K-Mart corporation chose industrial Ohio to launch this concept based on the area’s public perception as quintessentially working class. But in places such as Akron and Cleveland and Detroit and Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, we understood that term with a different nuance than its usual usage, in which working class implies the next tier down from middle class, and probably a couple of tiers down from white collar. Here, the working class had for decades been the most stable, most prosperous, most highly regarded local demographic. In Akron, tire builders referred to themselves as the “kings” of the rubber industry, without irony. They were highly paid, backed by an extraordinarily powerful labor union, and thanks to years and years of hard-nosed contract negotiations, they enjoyed exceptional job security and benefits. In Akron, the working-class families were the ones with the Cadillacs and the vacation homes and the high- end kitchen makeovers. My dad had a college degree and was a partner in a small engineering firm. Yet people like him—small- business owners, nonunion professionals—were far more susceptible to the swings of the economy and didn’t have the same clout as the factory workers. My dad wore a suit to work, but he’d never owned a new car.

Before K-Mart’s cultural revolution, smaller regional chains were more likely to cater to that middle class of consumers with a sort of midsize mom-and-pop style. In the region around Ohio, the Gold Circle discount stores established themselves as a dominant consumer force in the 1970s and ’80s. Gold Circle could be compared to K-Mart on something like a three-quarters scale, but it carried itself with the distinctly bourgeois personality that comes from marketing mass culture to a willing middle class, an up/ downscale suggestion that quality is necessary, but only so much and then it becomes a liability; this same philosophy was employed to great effect by Timex watches and the Steve Miller Band.

Gold Circle was the first chain of stores to use bar codes on all its merchandise, a mark of facelessness in the name of efficiency that seemed particularly well tuned to people who worked on assembly lines. It seems no coincidence that the very first commercial scan of a UPC label took place here, in an Ohio grocery store, in 1974, just about exactly the moment our identity was spiraling into oblivion.

My  parents  loved  Gold  Circle  because  it  carried  a  broad range of merchandise that approximated the A-list offerings of suburban-shopping-mall department stores, but at a considerably lower price. As a result, I had a pair of sneakers that looked to my parents exactly like the supercool Adidas Country running shoes (white leather; green stripes, suede yokes on the heel and the toe) that I not only coveted, but needed if I was ever going to achieve any level of cultural relevancy. My Gold Circle sneakers were indeed white running shoes, and unabashed knockoffs of the Adidas Country, but they were made not of leather but of a substandard polyvinyl that cracked prematurely, and worse, they had not three, but four stripes down the side. I may as well have shown up to gym class with an extra leg.

In an era when a down-filled ski jacket was a very particular status symbol (pretty people skied), I had a Gold Circle coat that was clearly a cheap approximation—not puffy and robust as in the resort photographs, but instead insulated with stitched rows of flimsy polyester batting. I was therefore marked by my garment as the industrial-Midwest version of an upper-subcaste dalit.

The winters were long and harsh, and I actively avoided going outside in that coat. So I holed up with my books instead. Even this attempt at dignity and freedom was complicated by my parents’ having found, at Gold Circle, sets of Bancroft Classics, abridged versions of the Western canon. These books came in boxed literary six-packs, like those beers of the world, where you like four of them very much and tolerate the rest simply because they’re beer. So I’d get a set that included Around the World in 80 Days and Kidnapped and Robinson Crusoe and The Man in the Iron Mask, but also included Heidi and Great Expectations.

I read them all and then others too. I read The Lone Ranger and the Mystery Ranch lying on my bed inside a sleeping bag one Christmas break. I have never been more comfortable. I read Where the Red Fern Grows propped in the limbs of a backyard apple tree. I have never been more uncomfortable.

I read in sunbeams and in a hammock and stretched out under the dining room table and in an old, exceedingly ugly swivel chair that smelled like dog.

I’ll never know if I was a natural introvert, or if I had simply found something preferable and contrary to public life: the secret confidence of Grosset & Dunlap.

The bookstore was on fire.

I suppose I smelled it first, though that’s hard to say. The fire’s announcement came whispering to almost every sense before it revealed itself whole. It got to my nose before I’d stepped into my car, nearly a mile away, but I thought little of that, preoccupied as I was with the end of the first day of my first serious job, writing for the local newspaper, the Akron Beacon Journal. Even if I’d taken greater notice, it likely wouldn’t have raised concern. Even then, 1994, long after the factories had closed, the smell of smoke remained part of the olfactory personality of the central city.

Starting toward home, I felt the splash of one of the narrow rivers winnowing downhill as it sprayed up into my wheel wells, but paid it little heed. I heard the cavalry of sirens and the heavy engines urging through their gears. Then, as I crested the old canalway and climbed the hill up from downtown, I saw a wreck of smoke twisting into the sky. The closer I got, the more it drew me from my preoccupation with the day’s events. The question grew: What’s burning? And soon, with quickly decreasing possibilities, the answer.

By the time I reached the makeshift detour, I knew. In ugly orange flames drenched in black, the question fell away. The Bookseller was raging, full on. The bookstore where I’d spent all those childhood Sunday afternoons was burning down. On the first day of my real writing life, the place that had made me want to be a writer was disintegrating before my eyes. If it weren’t so tragic and true, the irony would have been too cheap even for a Jerry Todd melodrama.

There were firefighters everywhere, dozens of them, and trucks parked this way and that. The sidewalks were packed with onlookers. A water cannon was blasting at the building, and spray came from two aerial ladders angled above the roof. Water was gushing out the front door.

But nothing could stop it. I knew that, even as I idled in the slowed traffic, the line of us gawking as we waited for our turn into the detour. Some of them might have thought, with all those trucks and all those hoses, that the firefighters had a chance. Not me. Because I knew what fueled the flames: cottony, ink-drinking pages nestled in dried bindings, duck and string, bonded by old glue that cracked against its reopening. Volumes upon volumes upon volumes, tens of thousands of them, their infinite letters the tinder of a conflagration that nothing could extinguish.

It was a monstrous thing to see, savage and insurgent. Although the old bookstore was the first place to teach me the existence of every possibility, of every hope, I knew nothing could stop this. And it was true. The building was a complete loss. Countless books, most of them rare and collectible, were destroyed. Frank Klein, still running the business, was sixty-eight years old. It seemed as if it had to be the end.

But it wasn’t.

Mr. Klein salvaged what he could, found another old building, and set up shop again. As I write this nearly twenty years later, he’s still running the business, still going into his shop every day, still tending to something he understands better than anyone else could. I go to see him from time to time, and he always greets me warmly, asks about my parents, remembers something I was interested in years before. Every once in a while, he sets something aside for me, thinking I might be interested.

I doubt he knows how much he and his store meant to me as a child, and I doubt he knows what it means to me now as an example of something that seems so true about this place, the part of working class that says maybe the struggle is the only true freedom.

____________

giffelsauthorphotocredittoTimothyFitzwaterDAVID GIFFELS is an assistant professor of English at the University of Akron, where he teaches creative nonfiction in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts Program. His most recent book, All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House, received widespread acclaim. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Grantland, Redbook and many other publications. Giffels was a columnist and feature writer for the Akron Beacon Journal from 1994 to 2008. He was also a writer for MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head. Giffels’s recent awards include the Cleveland Arts Prize for literature, the Ohioana Book Award, and the AP’s “Best News Writer in Ohio” award. He lives in Akron, Ohio with his wife and two children.

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TNB Nonfiction features some of the web's best essays, excerpts of up-and-coming books, self-interviews, profiles, and humor from a wide range of authors. Past and future writers include Emily Rapp, Mira Bartók, Nick Flynn and Melissa Febos, among many others.  Our editorial team includes:  SETH FISCHER is the Nonfiction Editor. His work has appeared in Guernica, Joyland, Best Sex Writing, and elsewhere, and he was the first Sunday editor at The Rumpus. His nonfiction was selected as notable in The Best American Essays, and he has been awarded fellowships by Jentel, the Ucross Foundation, Lambda Literary, and elsewhere. He is also a developmental editor of nonfiction and fiction, and he teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles, UCLA-Extension, and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.

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