There are few of them left: the kind of used bookstore with old, over-stuffed wooden shelves, literate staff, and stacks of volumes crowding the aisles. This is the kind of used bookstore that plays the Canadian Broadcasting Company in the background (or NPR if you are American). I was in one of these stores, the Bookman in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island on the night before Christmas Eve 2001. My wife and I had just moved to Japan, a gorgeous, colourful, inviting place where it is briefly winter and never Christmas. We were missing “home,” though it had not been home to us for some years, so I surprised my wife with tickets to PEI for Christmas.
I love my in-laws, but I am the kind of person that need a little space during the holidays. If there is a need for a top up of eggnog or someone to hunt the goose, I will slip out to do the errand. And in the midst of family preparations for Christmas, I found myself in a kind of second home: a used bookstore.
I rarely buy anything, and I don’t remember if I did that night. But as I was browsing I heard the beginning of a story on CBC radio. It was Alan Maitland’s deliberate voice. Do you remember that broadcasting voice from another generation: a voice of certainty, crisp diction, unrushed and careful and filled with words from the past? I had not heard “Fireside Al” for years–perhaps a decade. I stopped to listen.
I missed the set up, so I did not know the title of the story or who was writing it. But I stood there in the Bookman hovering between Philosophy and Religion with Science Fiction at my back and Mythology at the end of the aisle, listening to Jim and Della sacrifice their greatest gifts in the foolishness of young love. It was then that I began to love folly. And I wondered who could possibly write like this.
It was O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). And the story was “The Gift of the Magi.” CBC’s As It Happens, the show that Al Maitland hosted, plays his reading each year on Dec 23rd. If you are open to a Canadian accent on an American story, I would encourage you to listen to this lovely tale in the youtube video below or live on As It Happens.
Merry Christmas Eve, and I encourage you to explore foolishness this Christmas!