“Do you have a copy of ‘The Street of Crocodiles’?“
The speaker was a burly man, full beard, unkempt hair with sad eyes. Melancholic eyes. All the same, I figured he was someone who was used to getting his way.
“Bruno Schulz, right?”
“You know the book?”
“I do. It’s a favourite. For a long time.”
“You have a copy here?” he asked, a little like a puppy expecting cheese.
“I did. I sold it.”
“I want it.”
“I’ll be happy to get you one.”
“You don’t understand. I want that one.”
He was right. I didn’t understand.
“You bought it in Brampton, correct?”
Although I am unaccustomed to discussing my book-buying habits, I was intrigued, and decided to play on.
“I might have. There was a store there I used to go to.”
He leaned forward intently and tried to hold my gaze. I was beginning to feel more and more like a dairy product.
“Do you remember the book?”
“Not enough to quote it.”
His manner became stern.
“I mean the book, the physical book. It was a paperback with a green cover?”
“Yes. It was from a series edited by Philip Roth. ‘Writers from the Other Europe’.”
“Was there a circle on page 76?” he asked.
“I couldn’t tell you.”
“Was there highlighting throughout?”
“That I remember.”
He turned and took a few steps away from me. Perhaps to gather himself. When he returned, he had imposed a forced calm.
“I want that book,” he said simply.
“I no longer have it.”
“Do you know who bought it?”
“It was a while ago, but if I thought about it, I might remember.”
“Was the owner’s name inside?”
“I doubt it. I prefer it when books aren’t defaced.”
“So did my dad. At least with his name.”
There was a long pause.
“Tell me about Bruno Schulz.”
I took a moment to collect my thoughts. It had been a while since I’d heard his name mentioned.
“He was an artist—,” I began.
“I’M an artist!”
“I sculpt using metal. Go on.”
I wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but I continued.
“In addition to painting and sketching, Schulz was an astonishing writer with a fanciful imagination. He reminded me of Kafka, but I enjoyed him more. During the Second World War, when the Nazis forced the large Jewish population into the ghetto, a Gestapo officer who admired Schulz’ work, made him his ‘personal Jew’ and offered him safety in exchange for the creation of new work. Unfortunately, a rival officer, jealous of his colleague’s good fortune, shot the artist dead on the street.”
For an instant, it appeared that the man was fighting tears, so I tried to change the subject.
“May I ask why you want that particular copy?”
He composed himself and exhaled loudly before he continued.
“I’ll tell you, but first I need a coffee. Where can I find one?”
“Highland Grounds is next door.”
“I didn’t know there was a coffee place in Flesherton.”
“I usually hear that with respect to a bookstore.”
“I’m just going to sit for a few minutes and then I’ll come back.”
He turned and left.
Having been selling one thing or another most of my life, I knew the number of “be back” customers who come back are relatively few. Something told me that this man was one of them.