Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Bookshop Dog's Journal: Part I

Phoebe and I spent another Saturday night together, two great friends doing what we most like to do. It was an evening worth remembering, and we'll have more than memory to rely on; it's been recorded in Phoebe's journal.

After Phoebe's dinner (her main course was her adored French lentils), we trotted off to Carl Schurz Park. We met good friends, both canine and human. We watched two squirrels cavort at the base of a tree. We saw a pigeon pecking at a bagel, kids playing ball, and a cat leading a reluctant woman on a leash. I admired the river and my favorite trees. Phoebe sniffed and explored. Then, to continue our adventures by other means, we hurried home to the books that were waiting for us.

Side by side on the sofa, Phoebe and I assumed our official reading cuddle posture. I read aloud a short story by Saki (dachshunds, I believe, groove on Clovis Sangrail), then "The Abyssinian Jackal" and "The South American Canids" from Maxwell Riddle's entertaining The Wild Dogs in Life and Legend. Phoebe is an attentive listener -- she could give listening lessons -- and her posture and keen gaze suggested that she wanted to hear more. But while I debated what to read next, Phoebe moved, and took our evening back in time.

Still tucked under my arm, she rolled over on her back, stretching until her head was tucked under my chin. She relaxed and quickly fell asleep. She rarely does this, but when she does it recalls our first night together.

On a sheet of foolscap dated Friday, December 16, 2005, the third entry on what became the first page of Phoebe journal states that about 8 p.m., three hours after Phoebe first entered the apartment she soon made her home, she let me lift her up on the sofa (dachshunds of the world, do not jump up and down! wait for human assistance! that's what we're here for!). She nuzzled the cushions and an afghan. She stretched out and began what I still see so vividly, her gradual relaxation after much manic exploration throughout the house. There was a poignant encounter with an old blanket that must have been the one she had long dreamed of, or recalled one from her past; she clutched it between her forepaws, rubbed her muzzle against it, and crooned and crooned. There were visits to the water bowl for three delicate laps (she remains a precise and tidy consumer of beverages) and tentative nibbles until, after two trips to the curb in three hours, she polished off a plate of food.

On the sofa for the first time together on that memorable night, what were our expectations? Phoebe was soon asleep. I began the notes that became her journal, then reached for a book. When she woke, startled and briefly disoriented, I held a hand out to her. She lay her head on my hip and pressed her cheek into my palm. I began to read aloud to her. What did I read? I have no idea, for which I often kick myself. But she seemed to respond to the experiment. An expression of intelligence and inner calm transformed the frantic dog who, hours before, had left the shelter where she had been judged unlikely to be adopted. I remember pausing to reach for my teacup. It was then that, in one swift motion, Phoebe slipped under my arm, rolled over on her back, and stretched until her head was tucked under my chin. She slept.

Waking and sleeping, working and playing, we've been side by side ever since, and writing about it as we go along. Later that first night, Phoebe found the book we had shared. Perhaps I shouldn't read too much into it, but she gave that open volume a good sniff. I like to think she was telling me, "I'm a bookshop dog. What happens next in our story?"

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Book Noses of the World, Unite!

I won't complain about the weather of the week just past. I'll say only that it forced us to rely on central air conditioning. The dog needed it, and the books needed it, too. My loved ones deserved a breather from the boiling evil treacle that passed for air.

Air conditioning can be a life saver, and it gave Phoebe and me comfort and sanity, the ability to get on with the business of books. I moved herbs that were baking on the balcony inside near the cold air vents. Soon fresh garden scents compensated for the cheerless drone and cooped-up feeling that makes air conditioning my least favorite convenience.

Phoebe perked up. I no longer heard mold creeping out of the baseboards, conspiring against our books. (Mold is a silent invader, I know; all credit for my hallucination goes to the weather.)

One afternoon Phoebe and I spent sniffing books. These were a few recent acquisitions whose cataloging wouldn't be complete until we had stuck our noses in their gutters. How books looks, how they feel when held for the long haul of reading, how they behave when their pages are turned are no more important than how they smell. Would odor be part of the description of any of these books? In stating condition, a dealer wants to be thorough and objective. Saying that a book has an odor meets the objectivity standard, but how to rate the smell? It's as personal as our individual noses, and the power of association, like preferring roses to lilacs or disliking camphor more than garlic. A book with an aroma may offend one person and not the next. Hence my dedication to destinking. I'll describe what, if anything, I smell and hope it helps people make a decision about an afflicted book.

Perhaps what the trade needs is a Biblio-Olfactory Board (aka The Nose-It-Alls) to rate our professional book smell senses and establish some criteria and standardized terminology, as well as a scratch-sniff-and-match tool kit (just what booksellers are waiting for!), yuck-factor guidelines (great consumer potential, with sponsorship from leading destink product manufacturers), smell-dispute arbitration panels (coming soon to your neighborhood!), and a curling team that will triumph at the next Winter Olympics. The board could also acknowledge that nothing uniform, much less universal, can be done about the problem, but we're still doing our best. Having engaged in dog-assisted book sniffing for some 15 years, I'm eager to chair the committee on canines.

I told Phoebe all about it. She wasn't buying it, but led me back to the potential reverie of books refreshed. We sniffed. The newcomers had been given a gentle surface cleaning before spending several days in the care of our stinky book box Buzet and a few more resting in the wider world on a book rack with plenty of fresh air circulating around them. Among these old titles there had been one that crossed my eyes and made Phoebe turn away; the others had smelled merely stale and were now inoffensive. That one real stinker had recovered; it smelled like a book, old but friendly to the senses. Phoebe and I were so pleased that we sat down side by side and leafed through it. Ten days ago that book would not have been what it was now, a good companion, almost as sweet as a dachshund. It's a book that will make someone else happy when it's sold and moves on to a new home. I hope the new owners have a dog.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Our Summer Holiday

I like summer in New York City because so many people go away. That they take with them dogs who are my dog's friends is one of life's recurring disappointments; expecting it, preparing ourselves with diversions, doesn't spare us, though. Knowing how much I miss Phoebe's friends only hints, I suspect, at how much she misses them. But we try to remember, as we go about our daily rounds, that when we discover another dog absent on holiday we're likely to run into one who's just returned.

Dogs leaving town is bad enough; nastier still is the weather August usually entails. This year we've had little to complain of: rain enough for special mention in the record books, but unremarkable temperatures. Then last week came along, and I wish it hadn't. On our dawn walks to the park we heard more air conditioners rumbling than birds chirping. Never good news.

We didn't just endure two days of griddle-hot sidewalks for barefoot Phoebe and utter ennui for me; we survived them by taking a vacation one afternoon. We prepared a book bag, and off we went to cooler climes.

Our destination was a spot just inside our open balcony door; high-rise cross ventilation is a blessing, and there's no traffic to get there and back. Phoebe adjusted pillows on our chaise longue. I served our favorite restorative (fresh papaya juice). We took our places, side by side. I reached into our bag of remedies and took out a volume at random. There was breeze enough to flutter the pages of the first book I opened.

We had a wonderful time romping with parka-clad kids through a picture book about sled dogs. I was reminded of how much Phoebe enjoys snow, and how happily she wiggles into a wool sweater.

Then we turned to squirrels. Phoebe doesn't chase or threaten them; she studies them and invites them to play. She appreciates my squirrel vocalizations, perhaps more than the squirrels do, but I must thank our tree-dwelling neighbors for listening to me as attentively as they often do. I read aloud Steele and Koprowski's chapter on "The Cache" from North American Tree Squirrels. This had a deeply relaxing effect on Phoebe, who rested one forepaw on my arm and gazed up, expectantly, waiting for the next revelation. In a glassine envelope tucked into the book, I found a newspaper clipping I cherish, and shared that with her, too. Pictured above the fold on the first page of The New York Times sports section is the squirrel who climbed up and down Yankee Stadium's right field foul pole two years ago this month. Has that squirrel's book been written?

Finally we joined Peter Freuchen for a refreshing hour. I read to Phoebe, from his Arctic Adventure: My Life in the Frozen North, his description of frightening wolves away from his tent by singing to them. I'm sorry he was in danger, but his report made me laugh. If I sang to the heat and humidity, would they flee?

Phoebe and I are ready for the rest of August. We've got more books full of ice floes and sleds and blizzards and heroic hounds. We may schedule a few more vacation days.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Socks Appeal

By the time Phoebe and I reached the park last Sunday morning, our seven book-and-sock encounters had taken on the aura of minor if not yet forgettable fable. At least that was their effect on me. Wiser than I, Phoebe turned her attention, and mine, to the squirrels. Our neighborhood eastern grays rewarded us with more eager interaction than we had elicited earlier from mere bipeds; Phoebe was entertained, and I was saved from disappointment. It was a delightful long walk. And by the time we turned for home, I knew that my passion for books might excuse my pelting leash- and coffee-toting passersby with questions about their personal libraries when they wanted to empty their pets and fill themselves with caffeine. What was inexcusable was the hour; next time I query dog walkers about their book care habits, it will be much later in the day.

That conclusion reached me, as if from another world, just as Phoebe and I reached an intersection and a red light. While we waited to cross, a woman and a terrier joined us. We had met earlier. We greeted each other again. I didn't say a word about books.

We were patting each other's dogs when the woman said, "Tell me again how you dust a book with a sock."

My surprise I suppressed; the fable might yet produce a moral and a convert. So as Phoebe and the terrier nuzzled and wagged, I launched into my dusting speech and pantomime. I slipped an old sock over one hand, pulling a book from a shelf and opening it, holding the text block, wiping the top edge gently and in one direction, careful of a dust jacket's position, and was about to discuss the merits of removing the jacket for thorough cleaning of the book's entire being and what care the jacket might need when the woman gestured to her dog.

"That sounds like the way I brush her. She loves it."

"Books love it, too," I proclaimed. "The cleaner they are, the longer they last." A terrible generality for a Sunday morning on a street corner, but I had an audience, and the dogs were still content with each other's company. We let the traffic light change more than once, and talked more about taking care of books and dogs. The woman confided that bathing her dog had been something she once dreaded; now she looks forward to it. And she does have some books that mean a lot to her, and maybe she should give this idea of dusting them some thought, and maybe even a try. I suggested that it's one of those things that's worse to contemplate than undertake. "Go home and dust two books," I urged.

"Three," she countered, and I think I heard a lovely little flare of defiance. I had underestimated her resolve. We parted, when the dogs permitted, as if we had crossed something more expansive than York Avenue.

Of the other people I accosted last weekend, I can report only that Phoebe and I have seen all six of them and their dogs in the days since, and no one crossed the street when they saw us coming. That's all the encouragement I need to try again.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

My Sock Drawer and Yours: The Book Connection

During this morning's early walk, I endeared myself to four dog-walking acquaintances (people who know my dog by sight) and three friends (people who know Phoebe's name) by asking not only "how are you today?" but also "do you dust your books?"

Everyone I asked had a leash in one hand and a coffee container in the other. Weren't they ready to take on the world? Maybe it was the weather (rain was on the way) or the summer-Sundayness of my experiment, but the glances and answers I received made me wonder if I had asked not about my fellow New Yorkers and their books but about their daily consumption of trans fats. Had I confirmed rumors of the nanny state's arrival and empowerment, and announced myself as neighborhood book nanny?

"You're kidding." (This reply was not posed as a question.)
"Huh?" with chuckling obbligato.
"Why would I?"
The other answers were just as revealing.

What prompted my question? I confessed (after all, we discuss our dogs' digestion when relevant): It had been a potentially disheartening Saturday night, with a Yankees loss and Phoebe worried about a misplaced ball, so I plunged into my sock drawer, a raid that produced three specimens, which I thanked for their service to my feet and rededicated to our books. I amused Phoebe with the puppet effect of my scampering hand in a ragged tennis sock, and then unburdened many books about baseball of much of the soil on their top edges. The dust I brushed into a sink, which I later cleaned with one of the rededicated socks before discarding it with its dusting mates.

Phoebe and I were listening to the radio, and I reached for the first book just as a new piece began to play; I'll dust until the final note, I decided. It can't have been more than 15 minutes, but I accomplished something. I think I dusted in time with the music. Do I have more books that need dusting? I do, but better to dust the few then and more soon than none ever and wonder why they're all dirty.

While I dusted, Phoebe chose a new ball for her evening's plaything (we found the missing ball before bedtime), and when the dusting music ended, curled up with me and a book fit for proximity to both our noses.

Next time: Socks Appeal (How the Conversations Ended)