So I used to consider a book to be a private conversation between the author and me. Used to. Whether I sat down with E. B. White or James Thurber, when it came my time to talk, I simply wrote my reply in the margin. I’ve discussed storms with Sebastian Junger, pilgrims and creeks with Annie Dillard; I’ve started letters in books and transcribed them later. Parts of this article were written in English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. For a period in my 30s, I stretched out on the couch with the authors of self-help books as a kind of cut-rate therapy. With them I’d jot down a name or a set of initials of someone I knew where the author had singled out a type familiar to me. It really makes a psychology book come alive when you attach a face to a condition.
Anyway, two years ago, I sold eight boxes of books to Half Price Books on Northwest Highway—two or three hundred adventure books, graduate-school books, coffee table books, and self-helpers. A few weeks later, as if guided by the whispers of dark angels, my mother stood in front of the store’s religion section, picking out a book for the long plane ride to Australia. She reached up and pulled down Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. I’d recommended it.
“I don’t believe it,” she exclaimed. A woman standing next to her shelved whatever she was considering and wheeled. Some people are always looking for an excuse to talk in bookstores.
“What is it?” she asked.
“This was my son’s book,” my mother said. “Look, it still has his name in it.”
The woman stared. She didn’t know my mother’s name; she had no way of knowing mine. But who would make up such a thing? “You mean to tell me,” the woman said with a sweep of her hand, “that out of all these books, you picked out your son’s book?” My mother nodded. The woman made quick work of the matter. “Lady,” she said, “you need to play the lottery. Today.”
A better recommendation would have been to watch out for lightning. Among Merton’s many seeds of contemplation were thorns and thistles I had written about—my mother.
Even at 500 miles an hour, the flight from Los Angeles to Sydney offers an attentive reader ample time to brood over the discovery of spectacularly unflattering messages written in the margins. As soon as my mom returned from Australia she called me. I wasn’t home. She left a message: “Jeff, I need to talk to you.” Click.
Sons, 4 or 40, know when they hear the end clipped off their name that they’ve done something wrong. I called back on a Saturday morning. I thought she’d be out. She was in. The hellos didn’t take long. “I went to Half Price Books,” she said. “I bought one of your books. Merton.”
If I were to characterize our conversation, I would describe it as one of attacking and retreating. During a brief lull, I almost said that if I couldn’t confide in a dead Trappist monk, then whom could I confide in? But I didn’t and wisely so. Sometimes breakfast is a bowl of words written long ago: you eat and say you’re sorry. Eventually, mercifully, the crisis passed.
I asked for the book back when I sat down to write this. Mom said she didn’t have it. “What’d you do with it?” I asked. Neither of us could remember what I’d written or even where it was in the book. Our disagreements are like that: only the smoke and noise are remembered.
“I threw it away,” she said.
“Well, did you put it under the sink or something?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I walked outside and I threw it in the trash.”
Evidently, I wasn’t alone in failing to check between the covers of what I sold. While researching a story on Ken Gjemre, the co-founder of Half Price, I called Kathy Doyle-Thomas, head of marketing for the company. I told her about Merton. She laughed. Then she asked about my mom and me. Everybody does. “We’re okay,” I said. “I’m not writing about her anymore.
“Kathy,” I continued, “has anything like that ever happened before?”
“All the time,” she said.
“Can I come over?” I asked. “The stories might come in handy.”
“Sure,” she said. “Come on.”
The corporate offices of Half Price are located above the flagship Northwest Highway store. To find the stairs, you first weave through the purchasing area in the back. For a book lover, it’s a glimpse of heaven. Everywhere along the route are carts of books. Big books, little books, serious books, trash. Roughly half the 66-store chain’s $80 million a year annual revenues come from the resale of used books. The rest comes from the sale of books purchased new from publishers. In addition to books, Half Price sells used magazines, comic books, recorded music, videotapes, CDs, and collectibles. Half Price donates what doesn’t sell to schools, prisons, hospitals, overseas missions, and various children’s literacy projects. Since 1999, the company has donated more than one million books—enough to fill four average-sized Border’s.
Ken Gjemre and partner Pat Anderson started the business in 1972 in a converted Laundromat in Dallas, less to make a profit than extend their curious brand of social activism. Gjemre and Anderson liked the idea of recycling and redistribution. In a 1993 newspaper interview, they independently named Robin Hood as their favorite book. Gjemre, who was 51 when he scrounged together 1,000 books and $140 to start Half Price, has retired to California but remains committed to the company as well as environmental issues and social justice. In many ways, he and Anderson (Anderson died in 1996) remain the soul of Half Price.