I pushed open the heavy oak door, and remembered. The pungent book store smell of dusty old leather and book paper evoked memories of all my favorite childhood books. Between these familiar rows of tightly spaced shelves, I’d sat cross-legged and learned about Odysseus, armadillos, Jamaica, Scrooge...
“Annie?” said a voice, and I turned toward it. Some things did change, after all.
He had seemed old to me when I was a child, but now his hair was white, and wrinkles etched his thin face.
“You recognized me!” I grinned. “Glad to see you again, Mr. Cartwright...”
“It’s Lenny, now that you’re grown. Your aunt left you her house, didn’t she?”
“That’s right—her Victorian monstrosity.”
“I like that house. She kept it up well.”
“Yes, she did,” I agreed, with a wry smile.
Aunt Aline’s tastes had been spare and modern, and she had decorated the cavernous nineteenth-century rooms in generic Better Homes and Gardens style.
A child—especially a skinny, plain-faced bookworm with stringy brown hair—had been an odd addition to her house. She had raised me because there was no one else to do it, but I had sometimes felt like a mismatched piece of furniture.
“You’ve been living on the other side of the country, haven’t you?” said Lenny.
“Yes, since college.”
“For a while.” I didn’t want to talk about my faithless ex-husband.
“You came here every day after school. I always wondered whether your aunt had any books...”
“She had gorgeous coffee table books, and leather bound books on the shelves between the objets d’art, but I couldn’t touch them because they were part of the decor.”
Lenny laughed, and we reminisced for a few minutes until his eyes became tired.
“I should go home now,” I said, “but I’ll be back tomorrow.”
His smile was ghostly, but real.
“My kids never cared about this place. I’m glad you’re here.”
* * *
Lenny lived for two months after I returned. I visited every day, and he explained how the store and the web site operated.
“I’ve finally gotten used to selling on the internet,” he said, “but people still like to come in and browse. They like the atmosphere... thousands of years of words in one place.”
I attended Lenny’s funeral, but didn’t meet his son and daughter. I wondered what they would think when they read his will. Though he had never said it, I was sure he had left me the book store.
When a week passed with no word from a lawyer, I called the store. Myrtle, Lenny's assistant, answered.
“Hi, Myrtle. Annie calling. I hadn’t heard from anyone, and wondered...”
“Oh, we’re closing, didn’t you know?” Her voice caught. “I’m just processing the last orders and packing up the books.”
“Packing up? So... his kids got the book store?”
“Sure... who else did he have? They’re selling the building... It’s going to be a restaurant.”
My stomach lurched. I didn’t know what to say.
An unexpected heiress, the real heirs left out—that was the stuff of fiction. But in real life, Lenny Cartwright’s children had inherited the book store for the same reason I had gotten Aunt Aline’s big, echoing house: they were the only family he had.
* * *
My house was too big to inhabit alone.
I need to hire a housekeeper, I thought, as I swished a feather duster around the enormous double parlor with its polished wood floors and tasteful, sparse furniture.
The doorbell chimed, and I opened the door to a non-threatening, gray-haired man wearing old-fashioned glasses and a stodgy suit.
“Good evening, ma’am,” he said. “Ed Bentley, from the firm of Rackshaw and Bentley. May I come in?”
We went to the front parlor and I motioned him to a chair. I didn’t want to start imagining what this might mean.
“You were acquainted with the late Leonard Cartwright, of Cartwright Books?”
“Yes...” I clenched my hands.
“You’re named as a beneficiary in his will.”
“The book store?” I gasped.
“Well... Cartwright’s children inherited the building. But he left the books to you.”
I listened to the lawyer’s explanation, though I understood very little—except that the books would be delivered soon.
When Mr. Bentley had gone, I walked back to the double parlor, musing.
I’ll have to ask some questions... find out about zoning laws...
But as I looked around the airy, expansive space, I thought it would make a wonderful book store.
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