I glanced up from my desk and there she stood – a smallish-framed, disheveled woman with a noticeably dirty blouse, hands, and face.
"May I help you?" My lips downturned at the thought of her grubby hands touching my precious books.
Her face flushed, apparently aware of my thoughts, then a brittle voice asked, "Sir, I would be happy if you could point me toward a great story of adventure, but first a washroom where I may wash my hands."
Upon hearing the discomfort in her voice and seeing the shame in her eyes, my heart grew, squeezing out the judgment that had previously occupied the space. Then, I was the one ashamed.
"Of course, ma'am, straight back and to the left."
I watched as she hobbled with her cane towards the washroom, then set about retrieving her requested book. 'Adventure' seemed an odd choice for her, but I suddenly wished to make this lady happy and selected one of my favorites, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
When she returned, I smelled the honeysuckle from the scented soap I kept in the washroom. Her freshly-scrubbed hands now almost glowed in comparison to the rest of her. Trying to redeem myself, I gave her my warmest smile and handed her the book.
She said, "Thank you, Sir," and hobbled to a green velvet chair nestled in a cozy corner between two bookshelves.
Often, my patrons chose to browse books before buying, so I didn't immediately think anything was odd. Over the next several weeks, however, it became obvious she never intended to buy my books. One couldn't help but notice each day when she left, her eyes sparkled. My books uplifted her in some way, and that brought me joy.
My quaint book shop, quietly nestled between two high-rise buildings, was the last bookstore in the city. Books had always occupied a huge space in my life, transporting me to faraway places that one such as myself would never visit in person. Paper had a beauty that the digital books could never hope to duplicate. To me, used books were especially cherished – smudges added character and gave it a feeling of nostalgia.
The feel of the paper in between my fingers affected me; my fingers turning the pages moved the story along in quite a more realistic manner than scrolling on a laptop. The words seeped into my soul from the parchment in ways that couldn't be duplicated by an electronic device. Fortunately, there were still many like-minded residents in this city – well, enough to keep my business afloat.
My affections for Miss Ellie grew with each passing day, and once I asked if there might be more I could do to help her. She simply smiled and shook her head, refusing my offer. Over the next several months, I fed her many classics from Moby Dick to Journey to the Center of the Earth. After completing each book, she'd return it and quietly say, "More, please."
Often, I watched her … how she read with her fingers, moving them along each word on the page. The books obviously swept her into another existence by the way her facial expressions changed. My heart warmed seeing her leave my shop each day with color in her cheeks and, might I add, a sort of hop in her hobble. She'd become a welcome staple in my humble little bookstore.
Then one particularly cold, blustery day, she hobbled in, her gait noticeably slower than usual. She said, "Sir, I wish to read a book that takes me back home," and I knew which book to bring her.
After she washed her hands, a routine she never skipped, she made her way to what had become known as her chair. I brought her a cup of hot chocolate and the Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. This copy contained many illustrations which I thought she might enjoy.
Her broad smile was priceless upon first handling the book. Leaving her in peace to read, I returned to the front of the store. Many sought refuge from the cold today, so I was quite busy. Christmas was coming and I was happy to witness so many choosing the timeless gift of a book.
The hours passed swiftly with the hustle and bustle of holiday shoppers and the closing hour snuck up on me. It was then I remembered Miss Ellie and headed to her corner.
Instantly, I knew something dreadful had happened. Her head was laid back against the chair, eyes closed, face grey. Frantic, I called her name, and with no response from her, my fingers flew to her neck. As I feared, she had no pulse.
Tears flooded my eyes as I looked down at the book lying open in her lap. Her crooked fingers lay on the words, "There's no place like home," and I knew, indeed, Miss Ellie had found her way home...