Vaneisa: When the streets were lined with books…

Sometimes you have a memory that seems so improbable you wonder if it was a dream.

I was looking at a slightly battered book that I had acquired at the Couva office of the Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Board (TTCB) when I had gone to see what records they had pertaining to our cricket history. President Azim Bassarath had graciously invited me to come see for myself as he knew there were files, but couldn’t say what they contained.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Board (TTCB) president Azim Bassarath.
(Courtesy TTCB)

I didn’t find what I had hoped for, but as I was taken around the premises, I came across a sight that jolted me in contradictory directions. In an open area, discarded items of office furniture were stacked against a metal shelving stand. 

On this stand, piles and piles of books, magazines and papers, in varying states of decrepitude, overflowed onto the equally decrepit jumble propping them up.

Unable to hide my delight and my dismay, I craned my neck this way and that trying to identify the content. 

“You can take anything you like,” said Mr Bassarath. 

Clearly, I would simply be lightening the load. Because of the higgledy-piggledy way the books were jumbled, access was limited to only what I could reach from one end of the shelving. 

I managed to extricate a Wisden Almanack from 1962, Mike Brearley’s Phoenix from the Ashes and a Basil D’Oliveira autobiography.

Photo: Former England cricket captain Michael Brearley.
(via UK Daily Mail)

By chance, a couple months later, I wanted to check something on D’Oliveira and remembered I had excavated the book. And this brings me to the memory of a time that now seems so remote and disconnected from our present that I had to wonder.

The book, as I said was not in the best shape, and as I held it, I had a sudden flashback to a time when the pavement on Broadway in downtown Port of Spain would be covered in second-hand books for sale. I remember that on my occasional trips to the capital, young and timid about being on the city streets, I would stop short at this casual heap of books and magazines.

Despite my fear of everything associated with the bustle of the streets, I would squat, my cheap, hard shoes squeezing my feet even more intensely, ignoring the blazing heat, as I rifled through the stacks. 

They were mostly school texts, but there were magazines, Reader’s Digests, comic books and the best part, occasional novels. I would happily remain on my haunches; half an hour might go by as I forgot my original mission, and if I emerged with just one or two books that cost next to nothing, I would be on top of the world.

Photo: A used books salesman in Burma.

I was savouring those recollections when I felt a shard of uncertainty. Was it really possible that Port of Spain was once a place where books lined the streets? Was I mistaking it for somewhere else? 

In 2018, I had gone off to India for the first time chasing material on Frank Worrell and I had passed a sidewalk lined with books. It was in New Delhi and I have never seen anything like it. 

Scale in India is monumental, and a small island like Trinidad can never prepare you for its unimaginable enormity (just like a Guyana river boggles the mind). But this stack was waist high, and the pavement of books stretched interminably. 

I couldn’t see how anyone could even examine them given the throngs rushing past. Even if no people were present, I couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to ever make sense of the stacks. I wondered what happened at night. 

How were they stored? I was completely disheveled by the experience. It was an absolute overload.

Photo: A second hand book store in New Delhi.

I have to admit that I have always had an extreme reaction to the presence of books. From childhood. Second-hand bookshops were the first places where I felt that rush. 

I think there was one somewhere further uptown in Port of Spain. I would never have known about it except that it belonged to the family of my cousin’s best friend. 

Local mainstream bookstores came later, because in the first place, I never thought I could afford their fare. In any case, they did not offer the magic of finding something totally obscure and unexpected among rows of eclectic titles. 

The first time I went to New Orleans in 1995, I lost myself in the second-hand book shops. Had I been left on my own, I would have spent every day in them, but I was on a fellowship at the Times Picayune and had work to do. 

After a month there I had to ship the books I had accumulated separately, on account of their weight.

Photo: In love with reading…

It’s hard to explain the way being around books has made me feel since I was a child. It’s extreme; especially the way I am more intrigued by second-hand books because there is always the prospect of finding bonuses within their covers—notes in the margins, doodles, words underscored, ticks of approval, a disagreement with a statement—little markers that make you wonder about the previous owner; by itself a separate journey of the imagination.

We live in a world where the physical book is fading; where reading is not such a delight, and sometimes it makes me feel obsolete; but mostly, I am grateful that I have had the pleasure of being one of its denizens.

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