Shanti walked along Avenida de la Rue Road, her eyes fixed on her personal device in disbelief, when she suddenly tripped over a tree root bulging through the sidewalk and fell flat on the ground. The PD flew out of her hand, her chin scraped the pavement, and the contents of her purse – including loose change, tampons, a driver’s license with a photo depicting her face during a particularly rampant bout of acne, and a bubblegum-pink bottle of Pepto Bismol – spilled out all around her.
Tears collected along the brim of Shanti’s eyes and a stinging sensation prickled from her throat to the pit of her stomach; she had never felt so miserable in her life. The rambling message she had been reading was a break-up note from her boyfriend – well, ex-boyfriend, now – Jim. The embarrassing stumble, bloody chin, and sprawling tableau of her personal artifacts were just the icing on the cake.
“A bit redundant, isn’t it?” asked a voice accented with a slight British lilt.
Shanti lifted her head slightly to find a young man dressed in a gray vest and trousers, a newsboy cap perched on his cinnamon hair, looking like he stepped straight out of the Great Depression. She grunted and pulled herself upright, rubbing her jaw and finding a streak of blood on her palm.
“The street name, that is,” the young man said, pulling a checkered handkerchief out of his front pocket and handing it to Shanti. “Avenida de la Rue Road…that translates to Avenue of the Street Road.”
Shanti did not respond, but accepted the handkerchief, dabbing at her scraped chin.
“You can keep that,” said the young man. “I’m Chipper, by the way. Go by Chip. And you?”
“Shanti,” Shanti muttered, still clutching the handkerchief to her chin with one hand as she stooped down and began collecting her scattered belongings with the other.
Chipper bent down and began to help her. “Oy, you alright, then? Seem a bit shaken, like.” He handed her the bottle of Pepto Bismol, and it was this simple act that made her crack.
Shanti doubled over, choking out anguished sobs, sounding as though she were being strangled.
“There, there,” Chip said, patting her shoulder briefly before collecting the rest of her things and dropping them into her purse. He let her cry for a few more moments before pulling her gently to her feet and saying, “Let’s get you a cup of tea, shall we?”
Because all coherent thought had abandoned her, and she had no idea what else to do while flooded with such misery, Shanti followed Chip down the block and around the corner, where she bumped into him, as he had come to a dead halt.
“Here we are,” Chip said, pointing at what appeared to be a brick wall blanketed in ivy. But when he rapped against a certain spot with his knuckles in a nursery-rhyme rhythm, the knock sounded against a more hollow-seeming material, and what looked like an arched piece of wall flung open to reveal a doorway.
In spite of herself, Shanti peered into the building, her worries momentarily banished, to find a lamp-lit circular room filled with books. The interior walls held shelves of books, from floor to ceiling, and the room was divided into cross sections by grand, mahogany book cases.
“Is this…it can’t be,” Shanti breathed, completely in awe.
“It is,” said Chip happily.
“But book stores and physical libraries died out ages ago! The only physical books I’ve seen with my own eyes are in museums!”
Chip locked eyes with Shanti, who registered his peculiar, old-fashioned appearance for the first time. “This, my dear,” he said in a quiet voice, “is the last book store.”
Shanti gazed open-mouthed through the doorway, her embarrassment and sorrow fading into the back of her mind. This…this was big. This was bigger than her petty personal problems. This was history come to life before her very eyes.
“After you,” said Chip.
Shanti didn’t need to be told twice. She stepped over the threshold and into the cylindrical room, not unlike a tower, and began walking down the center aisle.
“May I…may I touch them?” she asked tentatively.
Her fingers brushed the slick spines of paperbacks and etched spines of hardcovers. She flipped through yellowed pages that gave off a slightly musty but altogether comforting academic scent.
“You can read them if you like,” Chip said in a bemused voice. “There are chairs and sofas in the center of the room, where the teashop is. I’ll fix you a cup, shall I?”
And without waiting for an answer, Chip set off down the aisle. Shanti’s eyes followed him with amazement. Read them? Read them?! Why, that was just like telling her she could wear Cleopatra’s actual gowns, or that she could live in the pyramids!
With her heart tap-dancing, she roamed the aisles, selecting books carefully, until she had a tottering pile in her arms. Then she made her way to the center and collapsed onto a plush coffee-colored armchair.
“Here you are, Shanti,” said Chip, setting a cup and saucer down on the small table beside her.
“I’d like to buy these, too,” Shanti said, gesturing to the pile of books in her lap. She held out her PD and pressed a button. Chip placed his own PD within an inch of Shanti’s screen and pressed a button. The information had been scanned; the transaction was complete.
Shanti glanced with wonder at her own PD screen. “That’s all?” she asked incredulously. “I think you must’ve just charged me for the tea!”
“Not at all.” Chip smiled pleasantly. “Let’s just say that I like to keep this place like it was in the old days. That means keeping the old prices, too.”
“Are you…do you own…you must be a millionaire!” Shanti sputtered, trying to work out how this man could own a treasure trove of actual books and afford to sell them at such absurdly cheap prices.
“You can believe what you wish,” Chip replied, still grinning.
Shanti raised an eyebrow. “Either that, or you’re a wizard.”
“Nothing wrong with a bit of magic in the world, is there?”
“No…none at all.” Shanti had just settled back into the soft, pillowy chair and taken a blissful sip of hot, sweet tea. She picked up a book and began to read.
Almost immediately, the dull pain inside her began to melt away as she was transported to another world. Chip’s handkerchief was wrapped around her chin and tied behind her neck, but she had forgotten all about it. Forgotten, too, was Jim, who had told her he had met somebody else, somebody who had her life together.
As she read, in the heart of the last book store, her mind one with the main character’s, Shanti felt thankful for this escape. She felt grateful for this flight of fancy that quietly collected all of the broken, shameful pieces of her own life and forced her to experience wonder, to consider a new perspective.
To dream of all that was possible.