Being the Book Lady (a bit of Christmas in the hurricane)

Overheard and appreciated: “Hurricane Ike was a lot like Christmas. Last minute shopping in crowded stores. Candles decorating the house. And when it’s over, you gotta drag that dang tree out of the house.”

We're still without power most of the time, but we have water. And hope.

The Tuesday after the storm, having put in a full morning lumberjacking the last of the fallen trees in our front yard, I went out in search of internet. No luck. But on the way home, I saw a young woman in the parking lot of a neighborhood Mexican restaurant, cooking on a grill, selling a limited cash-only menu from the open door of the dark storefront.

We’d seen the taco trucks functioning from Day 1 (I swear, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will be dining off those taco trucks), but this was the first business open anywhere near our house. I had to stop and reward that spirit, even though I was a little nervous about feeding my old man post-power-outage beef burritos.

While I waited for her to cook my order, I sipped a warm Diet Coke and chatted up a kid in a backwards cap. We talked about the weather, of course, as he swished his bike in small circles, making tight figure 8s on the littered parking lot.

KID: We’re off school the whole week.
ME: Awesome.
KID: It would be if there was something to do.
ME: Read a book. Read something apropos to being off school due to disaster like…Lord of the Flies.
KID: What?
ME: Lord of the Flies by William Golding. A bunch of guys about your age get stranded on an island. No TV, no grown ups. They end up perpetrating all kinds of murder and mayhem.
KID: Cool.
ME: It’s dead scary. You’ll whimper like a little girl.
KID: No, I won’t. I saw all the Saw movies.
ME: Ah. You’re one of those. What grade are you in?
KID: Seventh. My name’s Augusten.
ME: Augusten is the name of one of my favorite writers. Did you see the movie Running With Scissors?
KID: I saw commercials for it. Looked pretty stupid.
ME: It wasn’t as good as the book. Movies almost never are. Ride on back to the park. I live right across the street in the blue house with the red door. I’ll be there shortly with two books guaranteed to scare you witless.

In my driveway fifteen minutes later, I handed Augusten the hardcover copy of Lord of the Flies I’ve had on my various bookshelves in various homes since my own miserable stint in seventh grade. I also gave him a couple of paperbacks from the been-there-done-that pile on Gary's nightstand: Odd Thomas by Dean Kuntz and It by Stephen King.

“Do you have that Augusten guy’s book?” asked Augusten.

“I do. It has some mature subject matter. Sex. Drugs. Crazy poet mother. Can you handle it?”

He nodded gravely.

About an hour later there was a knock at my front door. Two teenage boys with oversized pants and undersized bicycles.

“Are you the book lady?”

I thought about it, liked how that sounded, and said, “Yup.”

They requested “the scariest books you got” and rode off with Stephen King’s The Shining and Helter Skelter, the seriously chilling story of the Manson murders co-authored by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry.

An hour later, I pulled out of my driveway, the back of my yellow VW loaded with eight boxes of books from the shelves in my office, living room, bathrooms, and bedrooms. Chatting up the juvies on my way out of the subdivision, I distributed the entire Harry Potter series in hardcover, several more Kuntz and King paperbacks, a few Little House books, and a bunch of old R.L. Stine Goosebumps pilfered from a storage bin left behind by my son. Two ladies raking debris gratefully went for Isabelle Allende’s Zorro and bookclub darling Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I set up my guerilla bookmobile in a Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot a few blocks down from one of the few open gas stations, put out signs: NEED A BOOK? I spent some time sorting the boxes into fiction, nonfiction, teen-friendly, middle kiddos, tiny kiddos, thriller, suspense, romance, literary, classics, poetry, art. People sitting in the gas line eyed me suspiciously.

“Need a book?” I called.

The nearest window cracked a little. “How much?”

“Free! I figured we should take advantage of this golden moment with no TV or computers. C’mon. Why just sit there when you could be improving your mind, making the world a better place, expanding your horizons?”

“What have you got?”

“A little of everything. What’s the last really good book you read?”

Da Vinci Code.”

“Then I bet you’ll like Michael Gruber’s Book of Air and Shadows.”

I took it from the mystery stack on top of the VW and handed it through the window. From another window, a woman called, “Do you have any Sandra Brown?”

“No, but if you’re into romantic suspense, you’ve gotta read Colleen Thompson. Here. Start with The Salt Maiden . You’ll be hooked.”

Thrillers and mysteries went fast. Children’s books went faster. Fortunately, I had a stack of wonderful coffee table books that functioned nicely as picture books: a keepsake volume from my first trip to the Louvre, a collection of Polish poster art I bought at a library fundraiser when I was about twelve, a couple of fabulous Blue Dog art books I’d picked up at a publishing event where George Rodrigue and I were on the program with James Gurney. When I handed over my first edition Dinotopia to a little boy in the back seat of an SUV, he pointed to the autograph inside the front cover and said, “Some kid scribbled in it.”

“Why that little stinker,” I said and turned to the boy’s sister, who looked elevenish and immensely bored.

“I read the Little House books a long time ago," she said. "I don’t like to read so much.”

“What do you like to watch on TV?”

“Hanna Montana.”

"Try this one." I handed her Anne of Green Gables, and her mother peered over her shoulder at the inscription. "To Joni, Christmas 1973. Anne was a good friend of mine. I think you’ll like her too. Love, Mom."

“Are you sure you want to get rid of these?” asked the girl’s mother.

“Get rid of them? No! Not at all. But I’m happy to share them.”

A few people traded in books they had rattling around in their cars, which fattened my paperback inventory a bit, but most of the 300+ books I gave away over the afternoon were books I truly cared about. Tragically (or magically) I’d purged my bookshelves about two months earlier, so there was not a book in the bunch that I wanted to get rid off. But here's the great thing about that: I could highly recommend every single one. Giving away books I didn’t love wouldn’t have been a fraction of the fun. And I think my obvious love for the books I offered may have nudged people to try books and authors they wouldn't have picked up otherwise. (Except The Brothers Karamazov. Try as I might, I could not get the Brothers K arrested.)

The gas station ran out of fuel just before sundown, and I went home sunburned but happy. For that moment at least, the hurricane actually did feel a lot like Christmas.


mamele said…
jeepers. speechless.

i think i love you.
Suzan Harden said…
You definitely filled your karma bank, Joni. I hope some of your babies find their way home.
You rock, Joni! From the moment you told me about it, I thought that was the coolest idea ever! Pimping words... (even mine!)

Way to go!
Elen Grey said…
I think I heart you, Joni. This is the best post ever...that I've read anywhere...ever.

I'll never gift a book again without thinking about you.

You done good, girl.
Lynn LaFleur said…
This was such a generous, thoughtful thing to do. You're a special lady, Joni.

Jenna Black said…
What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it! (It actually brought a tear to my eye. Don't worry, it was the good kind of tears. LOL)
JoAnn Ross said…
I thought I'd commented, but it's not showing up, so I'll try again. . .

Anyway, that's a beyond fabulous story and having survived growing up in remote ranching country by the bookmobile's every two week visit, then having another bookmobile in Phoenix keep me sane during my son's Terrible Twos, I especially appreciated that reference!

I'm with my pal Elen -- I Heart you, too, Joni! (Which, btw, used to be my name.)

I also think you ought to send it to some magazine that publishes feel-good true stories.
Christy Reece said…
What an incredibly generous and wonderful thing to do. You are most definitely my hero of the day!
Ciara said…
That is beyond a doubt the best story I've read in ages. YOU ARE AWESOME. Hats off! You're just like Miss Rumphius! (my favorite picture book by Barbara Cooney. She was "the lupine lady" instead of “the book lady".)
Anonymous said…
Joni, as a hurricane survivor from way back, I know how much this meant to the people you touched. What a beautiful thing to do!!

Sarah Storme
TJ Bennett said…
Fabulous, Joni. How wonderful to give books you love away. I like how you make time for life--REAL life. So many of us get so busy bustling about and "doing," we forget to "be." You're cool, sister.

Donna Maloy said…
You made my cry. I've been told there's a special place in heaven for those who share -- not from their excess or discards -- but from the treasure they've built up to feed their own hearts. If so, you deserve a palace.
Anonymous said…
What a wonderful thing to do - share your love with people who really need a bit of love at the moment.
And what an example to everyone who loves books and an inspirationa to share some of my favorites.
Joni Rodgers said…
Wow! Thanks for all the lovely comments, everyone. My internet is still sketchy at home, so I posted this from starbux yesterday and couldn't get on again until this morning. What a wonderful way to start the day! I truly appreciate it.

And speaking of Miss Rumphius! I was particularly touched that you mentioned that, Ciara. I love that book, and it was a favorite when my kids were little. Such a wonderful parable about how the small seeds of good we sow truly change the world. (Jerusha's going to kill me when she discovers I gave it and "The Paper Bag Princess" to two little girls riding to the grocery store in a red wagon.)

Thanks again, everyone! So glad to see you all here.
Leatherdykeuk said…
What a fantastic tale. Thank you.
Hayley said…
you rock!
Liza said…
Wow! You rock! I give books to the library all the time, but never my favorites. Makes me want to weed through some of my favorites hoping someone else will love them as much as me.
Karin said…
Wow. Just wow.

I almost wish I was down there so I could've stopped by and traded a book or two. What you did was absolutely fabulous and just leave me speechless.
flchen1 said…
Joni, what an incredibly generous thing to do--may you be truly blessed as you surely have done!
Bonnie Vanak said…
This is wonderful. The best post-hurricane story I've heard in a long, long while. Thanks for making me smile.
Susan B. said…
Hi Joni,

Absolutely awesome!!

Alison sent me over.

Thank you,
Toni said…
You're my she-ro.
Gail Dayton said…
Oh my. I do heart you, Joni. I'll be back in Galveston--tomorrow, I think. I need to look through my books and see what I can do to share the wealth. (I'd like to be as generous as you, but I don't know if I can give away my treasures...)

I'm so sorry about the situation in Galveston. I love the island and hope to see it and its residents restored to a bright future soon.

Sending you a huge hug...
Eaton Bennett said…
I think you did a very special thing with those books...and act of love!
Ciara said…
Joni - lol. The Paper Bag Princess is my other very favorite picture book. Jerusha has great taste!
Anonymous said…
I totally love you.
Joni Rodgers said…
Peace, energy, and strength to you, Gail.

We need to come up with a good fight song for everyone still slogging through the aftermath. Galveston will rise again! Gofightwin Clorox!

Thanks again, everyone, for all the lovely comments.
Ellen said…
Way to change the world, Joni! I'm in awe ...
Anonymous said…
Hey Girl!
Thanks for sharing your great "book lady" piece with all of us. Sorry I haven't seen you in ages! I'll have to stop by and see those great near-empty shelves. So awesome to give away your precious babies, especially the autographed ones. THAT IS REALLY SHARING FROM THE HEART.
Love ya,
Mary Nell
LitPark said…
Just smiling while I read this.
Dear Joni,
Since the moment I first heard you speak in the early 1990s and through our years of reading each other's writings, I've known you are one special person. Now I know it in a whole new way.
You sure know how to help repair the world. Thanks for sharing.
With hope, Wendy
caitlin said…
that's beautiful, joni. right on
Libby said…
Joni, you give new meaning to the word "grace"...truly.

jini said…
you weren't just giving away books, you were giving hope to some kids that really needed it. you directed them from some not so great stories to some classics.
i suspect you hooked some kids on reading some good literature. really made my day! (and theirs of course!)
Susan C said…
I too am especially excited about the potential of getting young people hooked on reading. Now that the middle school boys know where you live, it will be interesting to see if they come by for more reading material or recommendations.

And, YES, this story needs to be submitted to a magazine.
Collette said…
This is really wonderful. You gave a lot of people hope, including me. It's nice to know that there are people in the world like you.
Anonymous said…
You are truly amazing, a wonderful human being. Thanks for giving many people hope, including me.


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