She said she had a surprise — a joy so lovely she could hardly keep the secret on the drive over. I couldn’t fathom what it was as we threaded the streets of the little city I’d known all fifteen years of my life. What could this friend possibly have to show me that I didn’t already know by long association, particularly in that part of town? The houses were old and stately, but time’s fashion had turned the neighborhood commercial. What business had we among law offices and CPA firms?
Just opposite the cedar-shaded cemetery, we crested a little rise and I saw it at once; I knew instantly what this errand was about. In the midst of a sloping ivy bed, on the lawn before one of the erstwhile grande dames was a little sign I had never noticed before. On it was painted in a carefully-lettered hand a bright spell of enchantment, words to fling wide fairyland’s magic casements and summon all its wealth at command:
I can still hear the jingling of the bells on the back basement door as we opened it and stepped into the cool, dim interior. The air was sweet with the must and dust of the ages, a fragrance to quicken the pulse of any book-lover, and little elf-lamps of light were clipped to the door frames and adorning the shelves, lending a friendly warmth to the gloom. But most dear, most amazing of all, were the books — filling every inch of space, shelved two-deep in places, overflowing from boxes in some corners and piled knee-high in others.
I didn’t know where to start; I was completely intoxicated.
In the back room, however, I found the real heart of the shop. Seated at an overflowing desk, surrounded by fiction shelves arranged alphabetically by author, was an old woman with the eyes of a girl. I felt like I had wandered into some charmed bower, and that at any moment the wrinkled form and features would fall away to disclose the young woman to which that frank grin and merry gaze bore witness. I had always adored old people, but here was something I had never encountered: a soul sister smiling back over a span of sixty years, kindred with my upleaping youth. I loved Katherine Downs on the spot.
When the opportunity arose a few years later to work in the shop as her assistant, I took it as yet another instance of the mere magic of the place. Already Mrs. Downs had loaded me with blessings, making introductions to authors I had never heard of before and always managing to tally up the tab in favor of my limited babysitting income. Her presence in my life was a literal Godsend. For a bookish teenage girl sorting out her own identity and cherishing more than a passing suspicion that she’d been born into the wrong century, the writers Mrs. Downs steered me toward and the titles she put in my hands affirmed me in ways that only God knew. They gave me a haven for my dreams and told me I was in good company when I dared hope that all the poetry and romance had not quite fled the world. They spoke of the truth and beauty my soul hungered for, and they showed me a goodness that was the warmth of sun and refreshing of rain to my budding ideals. Like a half-starved fledging, I couldn’t get enough. I was the girl reading obscure nineteenth-century novels on the beach with the radios blaring unheeded around me or sprawling across my bed on a summer afternoon, lost in a romance of Tudor England. On more than one occasion, Mrs. Downs even sent valuable first editions home with me on loan, knowing they were so rare I could never afford them, yet unwilling to let that prevent me from making their acquaintance.
In short, Mrs. Downs fed me on the richest of fare and taught me the real meaning of a classic: any work that transcends its own time and has something to say to the unchanging essentials of any age, regardless of setting or subject. And a classic didn’t necessarily have to be well-known: as long as it had transcendence, the book was a keeper. The possibilities were broader and wilder than I had dared to dream and the terrain as steep or as gentle as the moment required. Here was ample room for both the building of air castles and the laying of foundations beneath them. Mrs. Downs had opened a new world to me, and when I set foot in it, I recognized it as native turf.
It was my husband’s idea to open a shop of my own several years after Mrs. Downs had gone to her rest. I looked at my bookshelves, crowded with love and memories, and thought what a joy it would be to pass on the introductions by which my own life had been so beautified. To take up the mantle, as it were, and share the bright blessing of such writers as Elizabeth Goudge, Gene-Stratton Porter, Bess Streeter Aldrich, and Augusta Evans. To connect with people virtually in ways that Mrs. Downs had face to face. In a world where small bookshops sank or swam according to the rising tides of the internet, I wondered if it was possible to create a beautiful and refreshing web site where people would feel as welcome as I had in Downs’ Books all those years ago.
I started by reviewing my favorites. Couched between posts about my garden and my animals and having friends for tea, my timid recommendations went out into the world via a blog bearing the name I hoped to give a shop one day: Lanier’s Books. I kept in mind that while I wanted to share these books with anyone who would listen, my real heart was for younger women who would have the opportunity to be as encouraged in their identities at such a critical passage as I had been. I wanted to get the word out — any delay seemed a lamentable waste — that there was still a place in this world for old-fashioned values and those who esteemed them.
But there was more; my vision extended in two directions. I wanted to get these books into the hands of others, people I would not otherwise have had the privilege of meeting. I also bore a debt of love to the authors themselves. I could not thank them personally for the investment they had made in the shaping of my life, but I could present them to another generation of readers. I could do my own small part to ensure that their voices were not silenced beneath the burden of time.
For several years I collected a very intentional inventory, selectively small, seeking out titles that I could vouch for amid the haunts and hangouts of the booksellers’ world. I shipped boxes home from Boston and Maine; I collected treasures on trips to England. I kept my eyes peeled for the particular and unique, which I knew a kindred audience awaited, if unwittingly. I snatched up the Victorian novels one could spend an innocent afternoon or two devouring. And last August, after some fancy programming on my husband’s part, we went live. It was a tremendous moment for me, and rather surreal, to push “publish” on a blog post and suddenly see Facebook and Twitter light up with little flickers of joy. It was so humbling to watch the orders come in and realize that people were here because we had related somehow on a human level; we knew each other. We may not have smiled at one another over a cluttered desk, but there was some context for this invisible meeting point.
In the months since Lanier’s Books opened its virtual doors, I have been astounded by the beauty of the people who have wandered into my shop. Almost every encounter has carried the fragrance of Kingdom kindness, and the generosity of my customers has put as much hope into me as the reading of my beloved books. I have sent out orders and received gifts back in the mail: lovely handwritten letters and recordings of original music and even a watercolor painting freighted with gracious sentiment. One reader actually sent me a book she knew I’d love! It’s been the happiest of occupations, this quiet connectedness and sharing, and I am grateful beyond words for the grace-laden intersections my little shop has afforded me.
One of Mrs. Downs’ maxims has sharpened into shining clarity now that I’ve hung out the shingle and entered the book trade: “You don’t get into book selling for the money,” she would always say, doling out what remained of my salary after I’d taken my preferred payment in a stack of books. “You do it for love.”
And what fruit her love has borne in my life.
Lanier Ivester is a homemaker and writer in the beautiful state of Georgia where she maintains a small farm with her husband, Philip, and an ever-expanding menagerie of cats, dogs, sheep, goats, chickens, and peacocks. She keeps a web journal at www.laniersbooks.com and is also the proprietress of an online bookshop specializing in rare and out-of-print titles from a gentler era.