Sometime in the 1960’s I discovered a shop in Morristown, NJ. It was called the Old Book Shop. It was run by an elderly Polish Jew whose name was Turetz. The store was located in a poor, Black slum, at the bottom of a long hill. It was surrounded by a Pentecostal Holiness church, a gas station, and a mishmash of buildings and broken down homes.
Mr. Turetz wasn’t terribly outgoing, at least not when I was around. He often would be seated on an orange crate with a book in his hand, reading.Except for my actually handing him the cash for the stuff I bought he would rarely acknowledge my presence. During my visits it was not unusual for me to be the only customer in the shop. The outside of the shop was non-descript, uninviting ( though I loved this!), the windows covered with a generous layer of grime. It had probably been a grocery store or some other commercial venture at an earlier time when the neighborhood had seen more prosperous times. Now it was a dump. A has been. Forgotten and forlorn. Definitely my kind of place!
There were books everywhere. On the floors, in row upon row of closely placed, mismatched bookshelves, fruit crates, boxes, in short, anything that would support a book. Old 78 rpm records ( including Edison cylinder records) were stuffed in an off-white metal cabinet. There were hundred of these records. The price? Five cents each. Sometimes the piles of books grew so tall that I was afraid to even touch them especially if I saw a book near the bottom of the pile that looked interesting. Frequently I would witness a mass shift take place as the books, as if turning over in bed, would move in the direction of least resistance. Shelves would yield, boxes crumble, piles tilt as the entire store rearranged itself.
In the midst of all of this mayhem sat Mr. Turetz. He always looked the same. Unshaven, gray stubble covering his face. A few wisps of once dark hair sadly sitting on a shining oblong bald skull. His eyes were blue. His face lack-lustre. His expression wasn’t sad. It was dead. Somewhere in this living form there resided a human being. Where it was was not obvious to me.
He always seemed to be dressed in a grimey, thick shirt of the type that one would purchase in an Army-Navy surplus store or some purveyor of overstock clothing. His pants were brown and held up by what had once been a belt but now was an afterthought of cracked leather. His shoes were so worn as to be almost classifiable as some unknown category of footware.
The man was laconic. Not only would he not engage others in conversation but even when I would speak with him he would answer as if from some far away place. The words were sparse, the sentences short. I asked him where the books came from. He looked at me as though I were a dolt. ” The books? Everywhere. They come from everywhere.” He would make frequent trips to buy books from anyone who had books to dispose of. He bought books, old records, paintings, prints, bric a brac, furniture, book shelves and a lot of junk. But mostly books.
“It must be great to come here every day and be with all of these wonderful books,” I gushed. Again that look of pity mixed with resignation and sadness. ” It’s a sickness. A sickness.” I was shocked. How could anyone call this, all of this incredible stuff a sickness?
Morristown was over ten miles from my parent’s home in Livingston. To get there I rode my bicycle along Route Ten, a fairly busy thoroughfair, and then up a long hill past Washington’s Headquarters. Then a bit more pumping along until I entered the dredges of Morristown and my beloved bookshop. I would park my bike, unlocked, out side the store and excitedly enter. My bicycle had two metal baskets attached to its rear. They were always crammed with as much stuff as I could carry away from the store. Sometimes I even spent as much as a dollar or two for my treasures.
(to be continued)