By Steve Donoghue
A long time ago I befriended a young man who stood at a crossroads. Down one path, he would pursue a degree in finance, step into a junior position an uncle was holding open for him, perhaps step into a marriage some other relative was holding open for him, prosper, betray friends, and eventually retire to the suburbs, living each day to spite the hopes of former colleagues who were all eagerly waiting to read his obituary in the Times.
Down the other path, he would pursue his passions, trying always – although not with unwavering conviction – to translate at least some of those passions into a bank account. He would love with unwise urgency, break his heart every month, and maybe find a genuine soul mate. His future would be uncharted but maybe all the more exciting for that fact.
The young man I befriended chose the second path, and he brought a lot of books with him. Even before I met him, he was always reading; if I helped him at all on that front, it was by saving him time, detouring him from blind alleys, helping him to hone in on his own interests – helping him to discover and shape his tastes. We would go to used bookstores and library sales together, and soon enough, we were going to those places with a bookish young woman who occasionally managed to distract him from reading.
They got married (some of the photos feature an odd old guy accompanied by beagles), and somehow, there came a bank account, although they mainly prospered in love, not money.
And there were books – oh my, there were books! Eventually, those books started demanding their own space, so my young friends scraped up enough money to buy a house on the periphery of the city. It was a tall, angular house, surrounded on three sides with trees and shrubbery, well outside the reach of city sprawl – or so we thought.. It had staircases in the oddest places and cubby-holes where you least expected them. My young friends loved it the instant they saw it.
They spent the next few decades filling it with books. Never in an untidy, mice-and-spiders way, but even so: books were everywhere. Stacked neatly to form an impromptu end table; tucked neatly into that strange do-nothing shelf in the upstairs hallway; lining the walls of every room. You couldn’t go anywhere on those three floors without having at least a few books within arm’s reach. Inevitably, the place came to be called the Book House.
My friends lived many happy years there as the neighborhood grew up around them. In time there were houses on either side of the Book House – fewer trees, more people, more traffic. More value as well: at one point, decades after they’d bought the place, my friends idly inquired of a realtor friend what the Book House might be worth on the market, and they were stunned by the numbers they got in response. “This old dump?” they asked. “Worth that kind of money?”
Soon after they’d both retired, that bookish girl took a fall on the Book House’s narrow stairs. She made the best recovery she could, but I wasn’t surprised when soon after they decided to sell the place and move into a “more manageable” space. The Book House had never been manageable; that had been part of its charm.
Despite this supposedly rapacious real estate market, it sat empty for years. I grew accustomed to walking past it almost every day on my dog-walks, smiling a little wistfully at the porch now overgrown with ivy, at the pretty little back yard gone wild with bramble and raccoons. Every time I passed the place, I’d think: “It’ll call to the first book people who see it; I just hope they have a housewarming party.”
I confess, it never occurred to me that some new owners would look at those winding stairs and inviting corners and think “This all needs to go.” But that’s what happened. Just the other day, my dog and I walked past a big pile of rubble where the Book House once stood.
It reminded me of something that I think I’ve always known: haunted houses aren’t meant to frighten us – they’re meant to reassure us. They’re a reminder – a hope, really – that our places remember us, that they become a silent legacy we can leave behind. That nick in the sideboard, that scuff on the kitchen floor, that sag in the middle stair; long after the echoes of our laughter and arguments have faded, strangers will still be able to see those things and maybe wonder: who lived in this space before we did? Were they like us?
A new house will go up in that space. It won’t have the character the Book House had, although I’m sure it’ll be more manageable. Here’s hoping it has some bookshelves.