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Penciled Messages in an Antique Store

Old books and the echoes of penciled messages within their pages tell of a life story entirely separate than the tale printed within. Some traditions are worth bringing back.

Penciled messages transport me to another era, another time, when someone I never met held what now rests in my hands.

The hum of fans and a rattling air conditioner warring against the raging summer heat and the faint tune emanating from the speakers fade into the background. I am here and yet not here.

I stand transfixed, amidst stacks of old and aging books, in no apparent order. Bibles and Charles Dickens’ classics recline against each other for support, while others whose titles do not register have somehow outlived generations of best-selling bookseller lists.

Some are barely holding their bindings together; others look far too pristine to be as old as claimed.

I am a collector of old things, but the value I find in an older book is not solely the tale that arises from its original printed, cut and bound pages. No, the value I find is in what the previous owners left behind.

Look carefully on the first pages of a book. Messages written in pencil or even fountain pen may be so light as to be missed upon first inspection. Some are heartfelt, others more to the point, the best are dated.

Like the message I found in one, to the effect of “My mother gave this to me when I was twelve years old, and I took it with me every Sunday. Now I give it to you and know that I love you so much.” Or another in a book from 1895, in which a simpler message was dated to a particular day in October, 1916.

Other mementos often appear, scattered into random sections. Newspaper clippings, bookmarks, postcards, bills, envelopes, photos, and notes. Like the 1929 White House Cookbook that had as many bookmarks as chapters. Or the 140-year-old photo album that aside from photographs contained names of people, newspaper wedding announcements, and more.

Everyday things tell of a life story entirely separate, but yet one in which found this particular book, valuable.

Worth keeping. Worth giving.

Through depressions and recovery, war and peace, times of want and times of plenty, in health and decline, but always forever forward.

Until it found itself in a random assortment of elderly literature and texts in an antique store. And eventually, into my hands.

I wonder about the occasion of these messages, the lives that unfolded around these books. How unlikely it is that a piece of a person would continue to live on, within these pages?

The larger question looms over me then.

Why have we stopped? Why do we no longer inscribe messages and dates within a book we give to another?

Perhaps it may be deemed tacky or detracting from the value of the gift being given with pristine, ironed pages being the norm of commercialized book binding, selling, and giving.

Books are the currency of our life, imprinting on us with dreams, history, and imagination. Courage, discouragement, and resilience. Fanciful places and rooted reality. In time, they exchange hands, from one to the next. Some may be recycled for parts but others find a way to carry on.

Bring back the messages, the names, the dates. Insert humanity within the crisp, stark white pages.

Perhaps in another hundred years’ time, a collector of old things will find your message. And they too will wonder of your life, your experiences. They will scan the pages for bookmarks and underlined passages.

It will be the whispers of your story, not the printed one, which will propel the purchase of that book. And it is that which brings your story home.

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