Foreign accent, maybe Italian, about twenty-five, cute. Walked up to me at the desk.

“Maybe you remember me?”

I didn’t.

“You sold me this.”

It was P.G. Wodehouse. Wooster and Jeeves.

She said she loved it.

I said I had another Wodehouse.

She asked if I had something similar, but not Wodehouse.

I looked up at the old, hardbound copy of My Life and Hard Times, by James Thurber. Still had the original cover. I’d found it in the capital just a few weeks ago. I always get a bigger kick out of selling a book I found myself.

As I pulled it off the shelf, I gave her the lowdown on Thurber. She’d never heard of him. I told her that I’d read Thurber all my life and had turned many people on to him.

“No one has ever been disappointed. Including my son and daughter.”

I opened it to something I knew — Conversation with a Lemming. She got a confused look on her face when I read the title.

“A lemming is a small creature. Like a rat or squirrel,” I started to explain.

She interrupted me. “You’re not going to tell me that I look like a lemming, are you?”

There was a slight concern in her voice. Then suddenly I understood she was playing. She surprised me with that. I liked her sense of humor. Perfect Thurber match, I thought.

“No, no.” I reached out and touched her gently while laughing. Then I explained about the jumping off of cliffs en masse every few years for no apparent reason.

I sat her down with the book in the wooden “V” chair with the cushion, by the front door, where the light floods in. I showed her the trick of putting her feet up on the bench to make it more comfortable. I left here there to read for a bit and went back to my stool at the counter.

After five minutes, she burst out laughing.

Good sign, I thought.

I went over and found her another short story in the collection called, What Do You Mean It Was Brillig?

Five minutes later, another laugh.

I let her continue. It was great. About every five to eight minutes, she’d burst out laughing. She looked so comfortable, I thought she might stay and read the whole book. If she did, I wondered if I’d charge her the standard fee of one quetzal per hour.

She bought it.



A young fellow, late teens, came in a few weeks back. I was talking to someone else at the time. He was poking around here and there. Nice kid. A little shy. He looked Guatemalan, but he spoke very good English.

He was looking at “John’s Teasers,” a shelf marked NOT FOR SALE that John, the owner of the bookstore, has always displayed.

I have to disappoint people daily with that shelf. But once, when John considered putting the tease to rest, I resisted. I told him I liked it.

“It’s good for people to know there are some books in here that we can’t let go of,” I told him.

The kid, like many folks before him, asked why they weren’t for sale.

I explained that the owner wanted to display some of his private collection. And that books were important as objects, as parts of our lives.

“Sometimes they define us,” I added.

The kid reached into the NOT FOR SALE shelf and pulled out a Dr. Seuss. He said he’d read some of those as a child and loved them.

I think he understood.

Moving away from John’s Teasers, he asked if we had any science fiction.

I directed him to that section and let him look around. At the moment, I was reconciling the prices for three Tolkien novels. I mentioned The Lord of the Rings to him.

He said his parents had given him the whole set, but he couldn’t get into them. I told him about how I first discovered Tolkien and how I fell head-over-heels into it. “But it’s not for everyone,” I allowed.

I brought up Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy. To me it was equally compelling with some real depth.

He said he loved fantasy.

I hit him with George MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lilith — two of the greatest adult fantasy novels ever written. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any Le Guin or MacDonald. I don’t know why I tease people like that.

I left him to browse again.

slaughterhouse fiveHe wandered back to John’s Teasers and pulled down Slaughterhouse-Five, a fine, special-edition. He asked me about it. He had never heard of it!

I gave him a brief synopsis, explained who Vonnegut was and talked a little about his style.

“It’s a compelling drama, polemic and fantasy all rolled into one,” I said.

He was interested.

I explained that the firebombing of Dresden by the Allies, the atomic bombs in Japan by the United States and many of the actions of the Germans were all atrocities. But many people in the West would not agree, as atrocities are always committed by “the enemy.”

He was very interested now. He said his parents wanted him to expand his reading world.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“I’m Guatemalan. And German.”

I remembered that I had just picked up a paperback of Slaughterhouse-Five while in the capital the previous week. It was in my room because I was going to read it again. I said I’d go grab it if he’d watch the store.

He agreed.

I was excited that this was the book he was looking for, even if he hadn’t known it when he walked in.

When I got back to the store, I put it in his hands and continued talking about the story. I was trying to say that all atrocities are linked by a shared quality.

“Unnecessary . . . Extreme . . .?” I was searching for a word.

“Unforgivable?” he volunteered.

“Yeah, that’s it. Unforgivable.”


Apocalypse Now

I’d been out trading books one day when I found Dispatches by Michael Herr. It was an old paperback in pretty good condition. I was damned excited when I pulled it off the shelf. Herr was a memorable Vietnam War correspondent who, like Ernie Pyle in World War II, embedded himself in combat units. Dispatches is a collection of his best pieces. Herr is credited with exposing the countercultural aspects of the war. He wrote about the odd combination of combat experience and 1960s experimentation with drugs and rock & roll that defined many soldiers’ experiences.

I remember those days. Even then it seemed strange that soldiers who were often indignantly resentful of the new-age lifestyle back home were, at the same time, fully joining in the cultural experience while in Vietnam. And, of course, they fit right in once they were back home.

A few days later a young woman came into the bookstore and browsed. I struck up a conversation with her. I asked if I could help her find something.

She welcomed the assistance.

“I’m studying Spanish here,” she said. “And I’m so tired of thinking in another language that I want to go back to my native German. Do you have anything good in German?”

We both went over to that collection. I’d only been back in town and running the store for a week or two, so I wasn’t completely familiar with what we had in stock. But I spied and pulled out a small book. It was Herz der Finsternis, by Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness.

I handed it to her.

“Have you ever read this?”


“Have you ever read any Conrad?”


“Have you heard of him?”


Man, I thought, I’m getting old.

“Conrad is one of the great English writers of the late 19th Century. He’s primarily known for his stories of the sea, but he wrote about everything. This is one of his most famous. And it’s in German.”

She was interested.

I had an inspiration.

“Have you ever seen the film, Apocalypse Now?”

“Yes. I did see it. Just last year with my dad. It’s one of his favorites. I liked it.”

I reached over and pulled Dispatches off the rack. I held it in one hand and Darkness in the other. I held up the latter and said, “Most everyone knows that this book was the inspiration for the film. It’s a story about a trip up a river in Africa that goes deeper and deeper into territory untraveled by many Europeans. The expedition was searching for a half-English, half-French ivory merchant name Kurtz who had gone missing. It turns out that Kurtz had joined the natives and the searchers were met by death and destruction.”

“Okay, I see the connection,” she said.

Then I held up Dispatches.

“What most people don’t know or have forgotten, however, is that there were two books that inspired the film. Dispatches was the other. It’s a collection of war reporting at its best. You can see the influence on the film in all the passages that show the soldiers smoking pot, partying and listening to rock & roll when they’re not fighting. And sometimes even when they are fighting!”

I brought both books in from my extended arms and placed one on top of the other. Sometimes I can’t believe the dramatics I engage to sell an idea.

“These two books are Apocalypse Now, I said.

She bought them both, saying on her way out the door, “I’ll tell my dad about this.”

I was happy for her, but even more so that those two books had found each other.

North American IndiansVictor

Two older guys, Roger and Henry, walked into the store. One was a long-time expat living in Guatemala. The other was an old friend who was visiting. Like usual in the store, we quickly became engaged in book talk. I showed them the collection of short stories I found in the capital recently. It was sitting on the corner of my work table, where I put my personal books. I asked Henry if he’d like to read a bit out-loud for us. He said he would, so opened the book to a section from Youth, an autobiographical short story by Joseph Conrad. I’d been reading it, on-and-off, for a week or so and the section I’d chosen summed up the major themes that had engaged me.

I have seen the mysterious shores, the still water, then lands of brown nations, where a stealthy Nemesis lies in wait, pursues, overtakes so many of the conquering race, who are proud of their wisdom, of their knowledge, of their strength. But for me all the East is contained in that vision of my youth. It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it. I came upon it from a tussle with the sea — and I was young — and I saw it looking at me. And this is all that is left of it! Only a moment; a moment of strength, of romance, of glamour — of youth! . . . A flick of sunshine upon a strange shore, the time to remember, the time for a sigh, and — good-by! — Night — Good-by!”

He drank.

“Ah! The good old time — the good old time. Youth and the sea. Glamour and the sea! The good, strong sea, the salt, bitter sea, that could whisper to you and roar at you and knock your breath out of you.”

He drank again.

By all that’s wonderful, it is the sea, I believe, the sea itself — or is it youth alone? Who can tell?

It amazes me sometimes how quickly I start treating strangers like long-time friends in this store. I talked about the story and the joy of youth in the present as well as the past remembered. They got it. Henry desperately wanted to buy the collection of short stories.

“Sorry. Not for sale. Maybe when I finish it.”

Nothing ups the value of a book more than that. He was disappointed and said he’d come back looking for it.

Another guy came in browsing and picked up Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens in Spanish. I showed him the two-volume set in English that I found in the capital with better illustrations that I had stationed behind the desk.

“Not for sale,” I cautioned.

Henry and Roger got into the conversation, too. Everyone was impressed with the artwork.

For comparison, I pulled out George Catlin’s two volume, hardbound North American Indians — another great find in the capital.

Also not for sale.

Imagine, a bookstore where nothing is for sale! You can come in and handle the books. Talk about them. Pore over them on the display bench as we were doing right then. But so many of the great titles didn’t sell because we love them so much. Maybe I’m in the wrong business.

In the middle of all of this, Victor, my nut salesman, came into the store. He visits me at least once a week, often twice. He always has a look about him that says business is bad.

“Con permiso,” he says, standing at the door.

“Si, pase adelante,” I respond.

Victor’s look changes to a hopeful smile.

I think he comes by some days knowing that I’ll be his only sale. And he plays up the game so much that I almost always buy half a pound from him whether I want them or not. I’ve probably gained ten pounds from his cashews alone.

But today, before the sale, Victor settled into the only cushioned chair in the store and fell fast asleep.

Shortly thereafter, another guy came in. We were getting crowded now. He ignored us and started looking over the fiction. Eventually he mentioned that he liked poetry and drama. I directed him to that section. And as I did, we all looked over and saw that Victor was still sound asleep in the chair blocking that particular corner.

It was one of those silent moments of shared consciousness. No one wanted to wake him. He looked like he needed the rest. We all look like that sometimes. His multiple plastic bags of nuts were asleep on the floor near his feet. I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing, but it was Henry who said it out loud.

“Man, making a living selling nuts must be a hard life.”

After everyone else left that day and I was getting ready to close up, one last guy hung around. He was a Hemmingway-esque figure with a sailboat moored down at the Rio Dulce. He stayed and looked at every book in the shop.

He didn’t buy a thing.

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  1. Hi Bill,

    Loved these stories and it was an honor to share some book talk with you and be treated like an old friend. If you remember, I was the guy who bought Achebe’s – Things Fall Apart.

    I’m dropping everything and relocating to Antigua in Nov. and look forward to spending time among the books. Nothing better for a hangover than to browse in a book store among the forest of symbols. Only thing missing is a coffee pot and maybe a few old copies of the NYT Review of Books ….

    Look forward to some more stories.


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About the Author

Bill McGowan is a freelance writer who spends most of the year living in Antigua, Guatemala, where he manages an eclectic bookstore, Dyslexia Libros, owned by an equally eclectic dive bar, Café No Sé. As such, part of his pay is in drinks. Bill was born in 1947 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and spent much of his life in Chicago. In recent decades, Bill was based in Knoxville, Tennessee, but after retiring in 2007 from a career in government he began traveling. Those knockabouts eventually landed him in Antigua, Guatemala, where he began writing stories for La Cuadra. A collection of those about his friend Ali Akbar were recently published and are available at bit.ly/TheAliFiles.