Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 52 seconds.
The second most enchanting place of my life was the Goodwill store on Dodds Avenue in Chattanooga. I’ll never forget the way it smelled walking through the door. A thick, oppressive must would hit you in the face. For an imaginative boy, it was an ever-present reminder that the humans who once owned these clothes were dead, and some had probably died with them on. I would imagine ghosts returning to snag their favorite coat.
The ramshackle building was crammed full of stuff that reeked of natural body odors. Decaying skin, sweat, and oils. If I were a Thrift Store sommelier, I would characterize the bouquet as notes of sweet, sour, oily, herbal, fatty, nutty, and cheesy, with a touch of stinky feet and fermented whiskey. Bready, perhaps.
Acclimating to the odor, I would immediately rush to the back to see what new treasures had come in. Old books of every description. Piled in stacks, arranged in old dresser drawers, and in makeshift bookcases. The price was written on the hardcovers in a scrawled red marker.
This was before the days when vintage books were cool decorator items and you could find literary gold for a nickel or a dime. They contained yellowed maps of foreign countries, and histories, and stories. And tell you when to plant crops and where to find things. This is where I would go for information.
At our house there was no television and computers were just a twinkle in little Stevie Job’s eye. It was rummaging through the vast riches at Goodwill (old alphabetized 1960 editions of Encyclopedia Brittanica for only a quarter) that I learned how babies were made, anatomical drawings of how women looked with no clothes. I would read those encyclopedias left to right from page one to the end.
Later I progressed to old National Geographic magazines (for a nickel each) and would always make sure it had a section on Africa, or the Amazon, or Papua New Guinea because it was alone in the back of that store that I accidentally found I could finally see what real women looked like with no clothes. This was how I became so adept at third world geography.
As my allowance increased from a quarter to fifty cents and later to a dollar, I found fully illustrated versions of Life on the Mississippi and Tom Sawyer that were available from the author (still alive at the time of publication) by subscription. I bought and devoured every book written by Mark Twain.
Two of particular interest were Letters From The Earth, (a vintage copy of which is on the bedside table of Kalien’s Keefer-Roberts cabin) an irreverent look at conventional religion, and a copy of Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism (masturbation) which concluded with the profound thought “If you must gamble your lives sexually, don’t play a lone hand too much.”
That Goodwill store provided this repressed adolescent with abundant material to explore his burgeoning sexuality. The sensual photos in LIFE magazine were magical. There was Jane Fonda in full Barbarella get-up—a see-through, plastic-encased, gun-toting force to be reckoned with. And full-bodied Raquel Welch clad only in a low-cut roller derby jersey during the filming of The Kansas City Bomber.
The buried treasure found at that Goodwill introduced me to characters invented by long-dead authors that would never leave me.
Uriah Heep (the character—not the band) created by Charles Dickens in his novel David Copperfield. Heep with his cloying humility, brown-nosing, and insincerity, continually referring to his own “’umbleness”.
Long John Silver created by Robert Louis Stevenson in his novel Treasure Island. The one-legged Silver with his complex and self-contradictory character, cunning and dishonest. Disloyal and constantly shifting sides. He was greedy and had an almost animal nature, caring little about human relations, a cold-blooded murderer.
The fireman created by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451. First they destroyed all other literary villains just by burning them, and second, they destroy knowledge forever which I think is the evilest thing one can do.
O’Brien created by George Orwell in his novel 1984. He is someone who believes seeking freedom of thought and opinion is insane. O’Brien is willing to torture Winston Smith, and we never learn enough about him to have our questions answered. We do know he was an influential member of the Inner Party who tricked Winston. He abused and brainwashed him in the name of the Party.
These antagonists eerily foreshadowed people I was to encounter or work for in churches. I would like to say these characters prepared me to handle better the deception and brainwashing I received from religious zealots—but unfortunately, it took almost thirty years to wake up and see them for what they really were.
In the words of Neil Gaiman, “Books are the way that the dead communicate with us.” We can learn valuable lessons about life from those who are no longer with us. And if we listen well, we might actually have the opportunity to heed their advice while we still have a life to live.
That filthy, smelly store filled wall-to-wall with dead people’s clothes, and dead writer’s books was one of the most enchanting places of my life—my oasis. I needed those stories and information. Because of them, I was able to eventually escape the restrictive and repressive chains of family, religion, society, and education. I grew up with an expansive perceptual view, and without those tattered books, I would have been a different person.
The old books in the back of that Goodwill were magical. One of the things I’ve discovered in life is I must have enchantment. When I look at my favorite books, what makes those books (Atlas Shrugged, Tom Sawyer, Lust for Life, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ivanhoe, Boy’s Life, and many more) so remarkable is there are enchantment and wonder to be found in their stories. Tales that are as old as time. True as they can be.