M. Judson Booksellers is located downtown Greenville, South Carolina, right on Main Street. This is your quintessential bookstore, complete with comfy chairs, hardwood floors, and high-brow autobiographical material authored by Willie Nelson.
I walked inside and was immediately greeted by The Smell.
You know The Smell. It is the sacrosanct aroma found inside all establishments that peddle the printed word. I could live on this smell. It is the fragrance of libraries, bookstores, and newsstands. The smell is one part paper, one part soy-based ink. The scent is a narcotic for book nerds.
Oh, how I love books. I love them too much.
I was a dropout, you see. Not long after my father’s funeral I simply decided to quit going to school. We were rural people. Back then it wasn’t unusual for a kid to stop showing up for class. Happened all the time.
Today, of course, you couldn’t get away with such idiocy. You try dropping out today and you’ll end up in juvenile hall, chained to a desk, forced to read Tolstoy. Currently, there are even laws in some states where dropouts cannot receive driver’s licenses.
Times have certainly changed. Because back in the day if you quit school, nothing happened. Nobody made a fuss. And so I willingly became a loser.
And that’s the thing about dropouts. They don’t like themselves very much. I realize I’m generalizing here, but almost every dropout I’ve ever met feels one of two ways about themselves:
They are either deeply ashamed, or they are falsely arrogant. Both attitudes are creeks shooting from the same ugly river. A river named Inferiority Complex.
Many dropouts also feel one of two ways about books: They either love them, or they avoid them like head lice.
I’ve worked alongside dropouts on construction jobsites who had severe aversions to books, refusing to use them for anything but leveling imbalanced tables and killing cockroaches.
And then, of course, you have the maladjusted dropouts who felt so inadequate, so painfully embarrassed about their dismal education, that they overcompensated by reading everything but the phonebook. I was that guy.
I was the guy who, deep down, just wanted to feel worthy. Worthy of what, I don’t know. Love maybe. I guess that’s all anyone wants, really. Love.
So anyway, now you know how dropouts feel.
But getting back to my original point—which I’ve almost forgotten— to make up for my childhood inadequacies, I would read books. I read lots of books. Stacks of books. Himalayas of books.
And as much as I’d like to pat myself on the back and call this obsession with printed words admirable, it wasn’t. For me, it was as though I were atoning for something by reading so much. Like I was trying to prove myself.
Still, reading is pleasure for me. And it has gotten me through some hard times in my adulthood. Reading has gotten me through heartache, bereavement, disappointment, and it certainly helped me through the eleven years I spent as a freshman in community college.
Simply put, I like myself better when I am reading. When I have a book in my hand, I have a friend. I have someone who doesn’t judge me. A friend who speaks to me as an equal.
And somehow, no matter which story I wade into, once the book is finished, I am a hole bunch more smarter than i was befor.
It is for this reason that I believe books are the greatest invention mankind has ever given us aside from non-stick skillets.
Which is why when I was browsing the bookshelves in the M. Judson Booksellers storefront I became intoxicated by my surroundings.
It was the scent that did it. The whole room smelled like paper, coffee, and aged wood. I ran my hand across the spines of a thousand-and-three books while the murmur of whispering customers filled the room.
I listened to the sound of pages being turned by prospective book buyers. I heard the thoughtful recommendations made by employees. I watched a little girl read “The Giving Tree” while swinging her legs.
And then it happened.
When I made my way to one of the store’s main bookshelves, I saw something staring at me. Eye level. A book.
I picked up this particular book and held it, just to feel its weight. For I knew this book. I knew it well.
Then I wiped my teary eyes. Because printed upon the cover of this book was my first and last name. All twelve letters of me.
My life was printed within those pages. My heart was beneath the dust jacket. The memory of my editors’ loving guidance and encouragement, given to a common dropout.
I let go of the book and felt downright dizzy. Then I walked out of the store, absently smiling at each employee like a drunken moron. And for the rest of the day my feet never touched the ground.
Because for some reason I didn’t feel like a loser anymore.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist, and podcast host, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, he has authored 13 books, and he is creator of the Sean of the South Podcast.