Nightmares on Oak Street

Another one of those lines people think is terribly original as they wander through my little literature workshop is “You must have nightmares about all these books falling down.”

Besides not being terrifically new, the remark lands a long way from the truth. The only time I felt any anxiety about that kind of collapse was the week we had that earthquake. I did not, myself, feel the tremor and slept through it entirely. But on hearing about it on the news next morning, I wondered what I would find when I unlocked the high-security bookroom I call home.

And nothing had fallen. Even the stacks of empty boxes were exactly as I left them. It’s reassuring to work for an institution with so firm a foundation.

The fact of the matter is that the entire stack of boxes waiting to be processed DID fall down once, in response to that one box too many that will eventually lay us all low. The stack was so well-constructed, however, that having one end of the pile start to topple created a chain reaction. I wasted a good ten minutes running to prop up one end of the pile only to see that the other end was leaning over, running to prop that only to see that the first end was leaning way beyond the critical point, and running to prop that….

I finally just walked six feet away from the pile, set my hands on my hips, and said, “Okay, fall!”

I should get such snappy obedience from the volunteers. I picked up the stack, restacked it a bit more carefully, and moved along. Scary? Yep: thought I’d die laughing. Pity it was before cellphone cams and YouTube.

When I have nightmares, they generally involve donations in banana boxes. What if someone backs up a truck and raises the gate at the back to reveal four hundred banana boxes filled with moldy collectibles? Or, scarier: what if one day everybody decides “Uncle Blogsy doesn’t want my books” and the banana boxes arrive no more?

What if a volunteer comes to help set up and decides to throw away every book that lacks a bright, shiny jacket? What if a volunteer sets up a whole section in alphabetical order by first name of the author? What, in fact, if no volunteers show up, saying, “Ah, we don’t need another T-shirt?”

What if the pick-up drivers decided only to pick up books from the first floor, or only books where the donor has a cold bottle of, um, iced tea waiting? What if a pick-up volunteer looks over a unique collection, doesn’t like it, and throws it away? (Oops, wait a minute: that already happened. Twice.)

My Book Fair nightmares, in short, do not involve large numbers of books. They involve empty space, clean tables, and nothing much to do.

In fact, the most frightening thought a volunteer ever came up with would involve a great savings of time. “What if, after a year of sorting, pricing, and packing, and a week of set-up, somebody came along and offered you a million dollars for the whole thing, and you had to shut down before you even opened? You could just take the weekend off!”

Terrifying. For one thing, I’d have to come in and eat all those donated lunches.

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