"RARE BOOKS - FINE ART - ANTIQUES - GIFTS" read the lettering along the front of the building. There was a swinging sign over the door: "BROOKLINE GALLERY". Every morning the owner would decorate the sidewalk with an assemblage of old nightstands, antique chairs, stacks of baskets, colorful hanging cloth, strings of bells, Chinese straw hats, wooden statues, strange masks, and other curious objects to entice and invite. At the door, where an old-fashioned jangling bell would announce your entry, you would be greeted by the owner or an assistant with a basket of fortune cookies, which it was not possible to refuse.
The owner himself was fittingly eccentric, although there is probably a more severe medical term to describe his behavior. With his relentlessly friendly demeanor, he would instantly latch onto anyone who set foot into his shop, catching unwary browsers quite off-guard. You had to go in prepared to engage him and let him show what he had to offer, so that rather than feel pestered as you tried to look around on your own, you could instead participate in a kind of dramatic spectacle. Trying to ignore the shopkeeper was like trying to sit down and read at the circus -- difficult, frustrating, and completely missing the point.
So you step into the shop of wonders, smile and tear at the plastic of the fortune cookie offered to you, and greet the owner as he comes over to you, beaming. Dimunitive and balding, with a monastic ring of white hair clinging to his temples, he wears an overly formal dove-gray suit and round, wire-rimmed glasses. He asks you how you are, and what you're interested in, trying to draw information out of you. If he gets anything he can use, he'll excitedly lead you from point to point in the shop, proudly showing off anything vaguely related to the subject. When he discovered I had an interest in French, I was taken to the meagre collection of very old French-language books; 19th-century prints and lithographs of French subjects, bearing legends and captions in French; old cassettes of French chanteuses and other more obscure Gallic genres; and other collections of things I can't even recall, as he hopped from place to place like a small bird.
The owner has a son, a tall, sensible, capable-seeming adolescent on whose broad shoulders care for his batty father has evidently come to rest. As I followed his father around the shop, the boy followed us both, rearranging things his father had pulled out to show me and urging him repeatedly to come upstairs (they live in an apartment on the second floor) and eat his soup; it was long past lunchtime, it was getting cold, and he had reheated it twice already. But the shopkeeper was far too excited with his customer to think of soup, until at last the son brought it down to him and he paused long enough to stand and eat it, offering commentary all the while as I took advantage of the respite to browse on my own.
The front room of the shop was crowded with curios and artifacts of dubious value, though interesting to look at: Chinese jades, Egyptian sculpture bookends, miniature Buddhas, chiming medicine balls, Russian nesting dolls, incense burners, carved tobacco pipes, ceramics, listing baskets of all shapes and sizes, postcards, dreamcatchers, costume jewelry. To one side was a narrow room, like a back hall or storage space, lit by a bare lightbulb, containing racks of flowing, colorful Indian clothing and batiks, and the collection of monstrous African masks, which lined the walls and leered down in the small space.
The next room is where the prints, framed and unframed, were kept, wrapped in plastic sheaths and filed in large bins. None of the images was more recent than the turn of the century, and they depicted mostly battlefields, architecture, landscapes, cities and street scenes, men dueling, women in large dresses, and horses and carriages. Around the room were also folded stacks of ornate, heavy cloth, pricey rugs and hangings, which also decorated the walls and lay thick in overlapping heaps on the floor.
The last room, which gave out onto a little square courtyard garden to the side of the shop, a riot of wildflowers and weeds orbiting a discolored reflective gazing ball, contained shelves of books, very old, brown-paged volumes on all kinds of obscure subjects, bargain-bin reject stuff. Old, but not old enough to be precious, just outdated and smelly; obscure, but not enough to be novel, just irrelevant. Etiquette manuals, European history, Impressionist painters, gardening. Isolated volumes of multi-part series. Their supreme value lay in creating a sense of atmosphere for this strange little shop -- too many good ones, and it would be too much book and too little curiosity.
When I came to the giant, glass-cabinet, wood-topped counter with my purchases -- I'd found a couple of slim French volumes worth taking, after all -- the delighted shopkeeper produced a giant ledger-book to record the transaction and scribbled out a receipt for me on little slip of paper, figuring out the tax by hand, this man from another time. I was escorted to the door with grins and thank-yous and other effusive sentiments as I departed. How much could they really manage to sell, after all? Is this strange man independently wealthy, I wondered, is this shop just some sort of hobby? He and his son do most of the work themselves. Despite the occasional hollow-eyed high-schooler standing at the door with the cookie basket, there was always a help wanted sign in the window, and who could manage to work in this place, anyway? It must take a special kind of person.
Last week, I passed by and noticed with a start that the swinging sign was gone, the sidewalk bare of treasures, and the window empty save for a two-liter soda bottle, some jars, and other refuse, and a paper sign taped to the glass: "FOR RENT".