Mack Williams column: Remembering Bunker’s Book Shop

  • Posted: Monday, May 27, 2013 12:51 a.m.

Not long ago, the B. Dalton Bookseller in Danville’s Piedmont Mall went out of business. A used-books store took over that space, but soon left. It wasn’t the sort of “leaving” which implies relocation, but instead the kind which means the cessation of existence.

Then, in another part of town, a local newsstand dealing in books, magazines and newspapers also closed up for good, the “scattergun” effect of offering all three reading materials not being sufficient to keep the store profitable, so it moved “into the black” (not a state of financial health, but “something else,” of which Neil Young sang).

I sometimes think nostalgically about these fairly recently closed “print” stores, and reflecting on them also generates a nostalgia that reaches back to when I was a teenager, and before that, to my childhood, arriving at the only book store in my world during both of those periods of my life: Bunker’s Book Shop.

Out West Innes, before arriving at Catawba, a right turn on Mahaley Avenue and a parking turn to the left would bring the prospective book purchaser to the few parking spaces lined up in front of Bunker’s Book Shop. The store was above ground, but seemed to be situated in a sunken area into which a descent was first necessary.

Sometimes my father, or my brother Joe, would take me to Bunker’s in the very early 1960s. We would browse, usually buying a couple of books. Joe would often purchase one pertaining to history like “The Longest Day” and I would frequently buy something relating to science like “The New Handbook of the Heavens.”

Mr. Bunker was helpful without being very talkative, seeming to measure his words in small portions. His friendliness seemed tempered with a little bit of distance, but without being in any way rude; so I guess it could be said that his friendliness was “gentlemanly” (this is not meant to take away, just an impression, because he was one of those for whom this “little boy” held regard (e.g., the milkman, the butcher, the baker, the “bookseller”).

In a library, the older books have their own characteristic smell, consisting of the scent of aged paper greased with finger oil from the many fingers which have thumbed through those pages over the years. Whenever an older library book or home volume is re-encountered after a long time, the reader might even find that the ideas therein have also become “seasoned” with a dried, long-pressed silverfish.

In our Granite Quarry School library and at the Rowan Public Library, a newer book could always be identified, not just by its printing date and “new” look, but by having pages which seemed to cling together, making it difficult to only turn one at a time. In contrast, the pages of older books seemed to be more individually manageable.

My theory is that the accumulated finger oil had “fattened” up those old pages a little, making the turning of just one a bit easier.

There was an overall, pervading scent of fresh paper and print at Bunker’s, but upon opening a book and inserting one’s nose between the pages (as I often did) the smell became almost overpowering, although not quite as overpowering as the recent spring pollen.

That smell seemed to make the ideas found within “fresh” as well (even on their fifth or sixth printing) seeming to leap up the nose, while their image had already reached the eye. Just as the speed of light is faster than the speed of sound, so is the speed of sight quicker than the speed of smell.

The feel of that new paper also helped to prime the mind for learning, as did the sound of a mass of flipped pages (like a new deck of cards), so of the five senses, only taste was left out. Though taste and smell complement each other at both a barbecue and a wine tasting, none of even the freshest smelling printed pages ever tempted me to take a bite.

Not very long ago, I came down to Salisbury from Danville and drove past the former site of Bunker’s Book Shop. I saw what had become of the store, although those who have continually lived in Salisbury since then have surely known of its fate for a long time. That spot is level now, with an adjacent Walgreens. I have no doubt that the old building was demolished; and suppose that truckloads of soil were brought in to fill that somewhat sunken area, raising it to the present level of the street.

Please let me assure you that I have no strange delusion as to the book store still being down there, covered with earth, but intact within, Mr. Bunker yet sitting at his desk, patiently waiting and wondering why no customers have come by in quite a while.

Besides the “common denominators” of books and Mr. Bunker’s presence, there was another one, and it relates to a pastime of Mr. Bunker’s. In close association with that pastime, he would always stop what he was doing to ring up a sale; and every now and then, he would look up to answer a question.

What he ceased doing and what he briefly looked up from had a great deal in common, for in Bunker’s Book Shop, Mr. Bunker was, of course, reading.

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