The buildings were old and weathered. Some sported paint and new signs, but the rest were comfortably the same as they had been for many long years. Walking along aged concrete amid the faintest sprinkle of rain, I glanced at the dusty windows of unused businesses. Where a comic book store had its short run, boxes, an old wardrobe, and an easel populate the darkness, illuminated only by the light shifting through neglected windows. A few more yards and a door greets me, paint chipped but cheerful regardless. I wrap my fingers around the metal handle and push gently, noting the pale semicircle on the floor that marks the door's daily repeated path. As I step inside onto the wooden floor, I take in my surroundings and close the portal. Two cats occupy the counter, one curled tightly in sleep and the other simply lounging, watching me with clear, green eyes. I know these cats, if only in passing. I have sat on the floor with them, running my hair stick back and forth across the uneven surface as they pounce, bat, and bite it.
When was I last here?
A year? More?
I make my way to the back corner where science fiction and fantasy are laced together on the shelves, followed by one of the cats. Grace tossed aside, he leaps from the counter and charges past the shelves; his little thudding feet leave echos trailing behind him. Immediately, he jumps upon a chair, staring at me with loving eyes. I lean over, allowing him to climb to my shoulder. There I stroke him, soft fur sliding past my finger tips, pulling a silky purr into the air. This is not enough however, and he continues to climb on me, finally settling on my back, leaving me bent over to accommodate. His feet tucked in beneath him, he is the contented victor, having conquered the giant. I stand, bent over like a broken doll still left on display and stare at the books on the bottom shelf. Cookbooks and photography. I make a mental note to return, but never do. A minute passes and the cat leaves with no explanation. I straighten and take the last few steps to my chosen genre.
Here, where spines wear authors and titles like strange garb from the far away lands in which they take place, I inhale and close my eyes, soaking in the atmosphere of the books that no longer have homes. This is a shelter, a place where those who find themselves unwanted are taken, a place where those who are lonely come.
The cat has returned. He sits beside my feet, talking to me. His voice fills the space around him as clearly as if it were solid matter ballooning from his small form. My gaze flitters across the shelves and comes to rest on a note taped to a nearby door.
"Do not let cats in this room no matter how much they beg."
He meows again.
"No." I tell him, gentle and firm, but I still smile.
Moments later, one of the store workers enters that back room, and the cat slips in. She calls to him, trying to navigate the stacks of boxes, all of which hold promising books. He proves stubborn however, and refuses to emerge.
I return to the books. There are names I recognize and names I have never before encountered. Goblin Moon by Teresa Edgerton catches my eye, as does The Gnome's Engine. I start my book pile with them. I've never heard of the writer, but if I only read authors I already knew about, I would have far fewer books and much less happiness. I step to the side and lift my focus a few shelves higher. There, tucked away in shadow, are various works of Patricia McKillip. With a quiet sigh floating to the floor in the company of now startled dust motes, I carefully bring down Od Magic, still robed in Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art. This is a piece of my beginnings. I remember curling up with my mother under the covers of her bed, sunlight gleaming in the windows as I listened to her read, her voice crafting poetry from prose. Od Magic was one of our favorites, the color of the cover matched by the color of McKillip's descriptions and characters. Yes, well known and loved, this book will accompany me home as well. I also select Riddle of Stars, having never read the trilogy before, and had I unlimited time and the ability to do so, I would clutch more books to my heart and bring them home like baby birds in need of a mother, but Earth spins on her toes with no intention of slowing, no matter how desperately I may plea.
Forcibly removing myself from the shelves where temptations beckon me sweetly, but not quite ready to leave the quiet little store, I cross the floor again, this time entering a little reading nook, populated by chairs, a couch, and a few small tables the perfect size for a pile of books and a laptop to comfortably sit together. The nearest table is taken by a dozing fellow. A little out of shape, his dark hair is warm from sunlight. I give him a polite hello as I take the chair closest to him. He opens shining eyes and answers with a soft meow and a tail twitch. We talk in whispers, gentle sounds in different tongues, as I rub behind his ears. We can hear the store workers talking.
"Brody got in the back again." Her voice rests somewhere between concern and irritation.
"I'll go get him." A man answers, seemingly resigned.
This place is owned and run by a family. They don't aim to make it large or particularly profitable, so it stays small and quiet near the edge of the square in a town where most citizens would rather go hunting than read, and there is nothing wrong with that. I like the small and quiet. I love the empty spaces and dancing shadows. I enjoy the peace here.
The door to the back room opens again, and I hear the man talking to Brody. "Go over there. There's a girl over there. She'll pet you."
Sure enough, I hear once more the echoing of little cat feet. Brody crashes onto the table between me and his brother. Tail high, he greets me with trilling song as I restack the toppled books. These he chooses to rub his cheeks against whilst sprawling across my purse.
"You can stuff him in your purse and take him home with you." The man reminds me of my father, not fond of cats, but loving people who are, and thus doomed to look after the small, bothersome beasts. Regardless, they are a part of his team.
I laugh. "I already have enough cats at home."
"Another cat person," he chuckles to himself before walking away into the forest of covers, spines, and pages.
I never once looked up from cats or books to see his face, to sketch in my memory how his face folded when he smiled or the manner in which he took a single step.
Eventually, I ease Brody off of my bag with apologies and careful movements, finally making my way back to the front desk. Somehow, I still have credit here, and it applies to all the books but one. I pay what is due and thank them, slipping back out the door with a little wave goodbye to the cats. It's sunny out by now, and I wish it wasn't. Rain, however light, always seems right when the day involves a used bookstore, especially a quiet one, but I count my blessings that the books stay easily dry.
Once in the car, I flip the pages of each book, smiling at them lovingly. Each used bookstore smells slightly different, as if the books have been talking to each other, sharing their stories and trading news of outside places. One day, when I am old and many of the books in my library are even older, my skin will be wrinkled and the books' pages will be yellowed, and both will still be filled with love and quiet.
And maybe, just maybe, a bit of cat hair.