I recently posted some of my youthful memories of the mall my mother and I visited often in the 1980s. There was something I was reminded of while writing that entry. There was one store at the mall that honestly always felt like magic to me. That store was the B. Dalton Bookseller.
You may not be familiar with this particular bookstore, though it’s not exactly uncommon. It was bought out in the late 80s by Barnes and Nobel and a lot of the locations changed names, though there were still stores with the B. Dalton name until last year. Suffice it to say that for a while it was the primary competition with Waldenbooks, which was another magical store for me. But the B. Dalton at the mall was something special – it was a two story store.
That doesn’t sound very interesting, but you have to understand that the bookstore was in a slot that wasn’t a two-story storefront. The mall was a single floor, and only the big box stores at the ends and the one in the middle had two floors. But B. Dalton had a upper section, which in my youth was a magic place. It was, in fact, a mezzanine, though I didn’t know that word then. And it was on this mezzanine that the books I most liked were displayed.
I don’t know why they chose to have the sci-fi and fantasy books up there, but they did. So me, a kid fo maybe 10-12, got to climb the open stairs and I was, essentially, transported to another world. The store clerks rarely came up, and since it was mostly all nerd books, and nerds were quite outré in the 1980s, very few people came up. It was just me and books, tons and tons of books. I remember the limited selection of D&D books (B. Dalton didn’t wholly support role-playing games – it was one of the reasons I actually bought more from Waldenbooks than B. Daltons over the years) and the assorted paperbacks and hardback novels.
And the smell. One of the things buying eBooks online will never have is that smell of paper slowly decomposing. It was like fine wine to my young mind. It made me feel smarter. That sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Surrounded by books felt good, and it wasn’t the same feeling as being in a library. It was similar, but that’s like saying flying in a plane and driving in a car are similar. They’re both means of transportation, but they’re still worlds apart. The same was true of the bookstore. Where a library feels like knowledge that’s settling into sediment, the bookstore felt like a brand new volcano of ideas.
Over the years the sci-fi section was moved around, even downstairs for a while, and the upstairs then became home to a new and still entirely fascinating section – the New Age books. By this time I was in high school, an avid reader of fantasy and had just discovered Lovecraft and the things beyond the rim of the universe. Was it belief in the supernatural or just youthful wishing? I don’t know. I don’t entirely disbelieve in the supernatural even now – how can I and still write the stuff I do? – but it’s more tempered now. Back then, books about crystals or spells seemed to cover subjects as real as a book on auto repair or gardening.
There was one book in particular, and this is one of those memories that sticks like something between your teeth that you just can’t quite get out. The book was The Magus, by Francis Barrett. If I recall, the book cost $20, a kingly sum to a 13 or 14 year old who got paid a whopping $5 a week to mow his grandparents’ lawn. I remember that the book was green, a shade darker than that grass I had to keep trimmed, and it was about as thick as my thumb. It was a softcover copy, and they only had one available. I happened to have $30, which I believe was some left over birthday money plus some of my hard earned grass clipping cash.
Now the quandary. I could buy the book, a book which I completely believed would teach me the secrets of real magic. Or I could buy…oh, I don’t remember. I think it was a couple D&D modules? Dragonlance if I’m not mistaken, as I was an ardent fan of Hickmann and Weiss’ creation. What a decision for my adolescent mind! The reason this particular memory sticks with me so much is that it’s the first time I remember making a basic economic decision about something. I had to choose between one book or essentially several, and the several would be about a topic I dearly loved while the other was, well, scary. In the end, that’s what it came down to – more stuff for my buck.
I promised myself that as soon as I had enough money, I’d go back and buy that book. But while it lived in that magic upstairs of the bookstore, it could be real. It could be true magic. The more I thought about it, the more I didn’t want the book. Suppose I bought it and tried some of the spells and they didn’t work? Worse, what if they did?! Perhaps consciously, perhaps subconsciously, I spent my money on comics and candy and other things that teenage boys spend their money on. When next I had the cash for the book, it was gone. I didn’t have the stones to ask a clerk if it would be restocked or if they could order it for me.
It would be another five or six years before I got back into the New Age scene, and by then I was reading other works, Buckland’s Guide or the 21 Lessons of Merlin, that sort of thing. But I never forgot The Magus, and I never forgot that mezzanine. The B. Dalton was renovated in the early 90s and they tore out the second floor. It became just another bookstore box, and sometime in the last two years or so, the location, which had become a Barnes and Nobel, was closed.
Pardon that walk down memory lane again. I find myself fixating on the past sometimes, looking for the good times. It’s what sustains us through the rough patches in life.
If you’re interested in The Magus, which is indeed a “real” book of magic, you can download the PDF here. It’s a very old book that’s basically a hodgepodge of even older books.