The bookstore is on Manhattan’s 72d Street, not far from where my son and his family live. But I had never been there before. No time for bookstores when I visit.
No time this time, either. But I ducked in anyway.
I love tucked-away, in-business-for-a-million-years used-book stores, the must and the dust, the history and wisdom in volumes brittled by use and time, the scribbled notes in the margins, the bold underlinings, the inscriptions, the narrow aisles, fiction and nonfiction stacked on plywood shelves, oversized and undersized treasures piled everywhere else.
This bookstore had sheet music, too, hundreds of collections and individual scores, and though I can’t read music, I love it, the way a 4-year-old loves opening books with words he scrutinizes and tries to unscramble, but cannot.
The four-page handwritten letter fell out of a book of Broadway show tunes. At first, I thought it was a practice letter, something half constructed to be copied later onto fancy stationery because this was just typing paper stamped on the opposite side with dozens of dinosaurs, clearly the work of a child.
The letter began, “Dear Suzanne and John,” who appear to live in Kansas. It was dated 2/18/91, which, in my head, didn’t seem that long ago. It was also, I noticed, written on my birthday.
The first page is an apology for not having written sooner, as well as a condolence letter. “I’m so sorry about your father, Suzanne.” The writer then talks about how difficult it is to lose a parent, about “moments of deep hurting.”
“What I’m really trying to say is I love you and wish you all the strength you need and all the love you need.”
Page 2 begins with an explanation of the rubber-stamped dinosaurs. “This is stationery designed by Quentin Cool.” She goes on to say that she’s registered Quentin for kindergarten in the fall. “I can’t believe it! My baby is off to school!” That Maeve is learning to talk and that her husband, Steve, “has been on two shows which have closed since Christmas, but now he’s working on ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ — a musical.”
The rest of the letter is about ordinary things: a Christmas spent in Toronto with her husband’s family, the recession hurting New York. Fewer customers at the shop where she works. Little stores closing. Going to a Hall & Oates concert. Waiting for the war to end.
And then there is this: “Everyone here has been so paranoid. They were all sure terrorists were about to do harm to NY directed by Saddam H. Now it’s been long enough without incident that the general public is beginning to feel safe again.”
But the writer doesn’t feel safe because the next sentence is about taking Maeve to the playground and pushing her on a swing and seeing an unattended bag and being afraid.
And I thought, it’s been going on for this long. This fear. This unease. And that’s when 1991 suddenly felt, not like the recent past, but like a long, long time ago.
“I do hope to come to Wichita this summer again.” Did she go to Wichita to visit Suzanne and John? And who is she? “We love you and miss you. Love . . .’’ Mary? Nancy? Her signature is the only word in the entire letter I cannot decipher.
Why was this letter never mailed? Did Quentin come into the room just as she was signing her name? Is that why it’s illegible? Did Maeve wake up from a nap? Did the letter get tucked into a book of music that was never played again?
Where are they, Quentin and Maeve and their father, Steve, who worked on Broadway shows? I Googled and came up empty.
People write e-mails now. Books are digitized. Used-book stores will soon be a thing of the past. So much has changed since 1991.
Except “Waiting for the war to end.” Except our not always present, but always recurring, fear and unease.