MY USED-BOOK STORE had been open for just about a month when the police showed up. I hadn't called them, of course; a black man has to think twice before calling the cops in Watts. They came to see me late that afternoon. Two well-built young men. One had dark hair and the other sported freckles.
The dark one wandered around the room, flipping through random books, looking, it seemed, for some kind of contraband. "Where'd you get all these books, son?" the other cop asked, looking down on me.
I was sitting in my favorite swivel chair behind the makeshift table-desk that I used for book sales and purchases.
"Libraries," I replied.
"Stole 'em?" the dark-haired cop asked from across the room. There was an eager grin on his face.
"Front'a each page marked discarded," I said, editing out all unnecessary words as I spoke. "Library throws away thousands of books every year."
I reached for a paper folder at the far end of the table, and the cop standing over me let his right hand drift toward his holster. I removed a sheet of paper and handed it over slowly.
"This letter," I said, "is from the office of the head librarian downtown."
The freckled and frowning cop used his left hand to take the letter from me.
I was put out by the roust but not surprised. The police weren't used to a Negro in Watts going into business for himself. Most black migrants from the South usually got jobs for the city or did domestic work or day labor. There were very few entrepreneurs active among us at that time. That's why I had asked Miss Ryan, assistant to the president of the county library system, for a letter of explanation. She had written the letter on official letterhead, addressed "To whom it may concern," stating that any library book marked discarded was no longer the property of the library and could be disposed of in any way that the current owner saw fit.
Upon reading this the officer's hand moved away from his gun.
"The law says that you're supposed to post business hours clearly on the front door," he said, letting the letter fall back on the table.
There was no such ordinance, and I knew it, but I said, "Yes, officer. I'll take care of it tomorrow."
I felt no rancor toward them. Being challenged by the law was a rite of passage for any Negro who wanted to better himself or his situation.
I HAD OPENED my nameless bookstore on Central just down from 101st Street. It was the only one of its kind for miles. I carried everything from Tolstoy to Batman, from Richard Wright to Popular Mechanics. No new books, but a used book is just as good as a new one as far as the reading goes.
At first I was scandalized by the thought that a library would discard a book, but once I realized the possibilities for business, I made the rounds of every library in L.A., carting off almost two thousand volumes in just over three months. Then I paid first and last month's rent on a storefront that was down the street from a Holy Roller church called Messenger of the Divine.
My friend Fearless Jones helped me throw together some pine shelving and I was in business. I bought magazines two for a nickel and sold them at twice the price. I traded one book or magazine for two of equal worth.
Business wasn't brisk, but it paid the rent and utilities. And all day long I could do the thing I loved best--reading. I read Up from Slavery, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Mein Kampf, and dozens of other titles in the first few months. Whole days I spent in my reclining swivel chair, turning pages and drinking Royal Crown colas. Every once in a while I'd have to stop in order to sell an encyclopedia to proud parents or a romance to a woman who needed more than her husband had left at the end of a hard day's work. I had a whole army of little children helpers who'd sort and alphabetize for comic book privileges and maybe a free taco now and then.
Copyright © 2001 by Walter Mosley
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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