The Book Cellar

There is a street in a large city that is smooth and flat and straight with respectable shops and offices on either side. It is clean and safe and when light bulbs go out, they are replaced quickly. You can walk down this street and the most anyone will ask of you is the time. You will not be disrupted or distracted. The street is made to stay out of your way. It will not burden you with interest or thought.

Between a pharmacy and a tax preparer, there is an alley. You can tell it is an alley because the smooth and flat pavement stops and the old cobblestone appears. You can tell it is an alley because if, as you are passing it, you stop and look in, you will see vents belching warm steam. You will see trash cans lying dented and empty on their sides. You will hear a sudden unfamiliar quiet, out of tune with the comfortable buzz of the street, but a moment later the quiet will be rent by the scream of a cat, which will make you jump and continue walking again. You won’t have seen the end of the alley, even if you had squinted, because of the steam and the trash cans and the way the buildings leapt up and made a canyon in the city that never let the sun illuminate the cobblestone below.

If the cat had not screamed, and if you had looked a moment longer, you would have seen, about half-way down the alley—though you wouldn’t have known it was half-way at the time—a small wooden sign hanging from an iron rod at about the eye level of a small child. The sign would have read The Book Cellar, and beside it would have been steps leading down beneath one of the nice clean thoughtless shops to a door made of heavy oak with frosted panes. Because you would have been there quite early in the morning, the glass would have been dark, and you would have pressed your face against it and tried to make out the geography inside. Between frost and dust you would not have seen much, but a warm and sad feeling would have turned over in your stomach. You would have been surprised by the warmth and the sadness, because you wouldn’t have been used to feeling either of those things on that street in the morning on your way to work in the office beside the travel agency. But it would not have been the sort of sadness that made you cold and drove you away. It would have been the sort that made you want to set down the things you were carrying, and look for anyone near you, and ask them “It will be alright, won’t it?” and tell them “Yes, it will be alright.” And the warmth would not have been the warmth of the sun on a beach which made your skin glow, it would have been the warmth of a strong drink on a slow and rainy day when you couldn’t start the fire but so you wrapped yourself in a second blanket and stared at old photographs and made them move with your mind. You would have looked so deeply into that glass that you were almost certain you saw movement inside, that one of the dark shapes turned and looked at you. You might have knocked gently, but the shape wouldn’t have moved again and you would have decided you didn’t see what you thought you saw.

There were no hours posted, so you would have decided to come back over lunch and try again, when perhaps the door would be open or at least light leaking out of the frosted panes in the oak door at the bottom of the stairs beside the wooden sign on the iron rod at the eye level of a small child half-way down the cobblestone alley belching warm steam off the smooth and safe street in the large city, and then maybe you would find out how to feel that warm and sad feeling again.