Leaning back in the heavy wooden chair, Bea stretched one leg out and studied her battered chef’s clog. Taking a sip of her coffee, she said, “You know, I never actually expected to run such a place.” She set her giant mug gently down on the tiled surface of the table and looked around the now-quiet shop.
The woman opposite her stroked the seal-sleek square head of one of the Pie Hole’s resident guardians, gently scratching behind his ears. “How so?” She asked, her free hand reaching for her tea cup where it rested in its saucer.
Bea watched as Lynn ran Boas’ uncropped ears gently through her fingers, the brindled pit bull’s eyes closed in ecstatic surrender.
“Well.” She paused and gestured to the enormous bookshelf behind her. “Have you ever looked at most of what’s on that shelf?”
Lynn gently disengaged herself from Boas and got up, walking to stand in front of the four-shelf case that occupied much of the rear wall. Across the top facing, just below the marble slab that capped it, was a quote stenciled in gold paint.
“All knowledge is connected to all other knowledge. The fun is making the connections.” ~ Arthur Aufderheide
Lynn ran her index finger gently over the words and looked at the jumbled titles crammed into the shelves—philosophy, art, physics, natural sciences, medicine, psychology, and anthropology. Fiction kept company with scholarly texts cheek by jowl with comic books and popular magazines on a variety of subjects. All of it was free to read, so she had been informed by other regulars. Bea and Althea even let the regulars borrow them if they swore by all that they held dear to treat them well and sign them out in a big registry book that lived on the top shelf.
“These are all yours?” Lynn asked, turning to stare at her.
“About two-thirds of them.” Bea answered. “The rest are Al’s.”
“Al?” Lynn was confused.
Swallowing another mouthful of coffee, she clarified, “Althea, the other owner of this little shop of horrors and curiosities.”
Lynn looked around the café, which occupied the ground floor of the two-story building. Above, filling the entire upper story was a half-room populated with rows of standing bookshelves, secured by a sturdy wooden banister, and completely open in format. It was a common architectural style for counting houses and rail depot offices around the turn of the 20th century in the South. Opposite the railing, huge windows with cantilevered shutters filled the store with natural light during the day. It must save on energy costs, Lynn thought. Ceiling fans and large, screened windows on the upper story also appeared to reduce the need for air conditioning in summer weather that wasn’t too hot.
She’d recently moved into the area from Columbia, South Carolina. Even after more than two months, she was having trouble settling into Atlanta’s unique rhythm, but she’d quickly felt at home in the Pie Hole. It wasn’t something particular about the place, but she’d been welcomed immediately by everyone. The coffee was good, the regulars were friendly and full of helpful advice for a newcomer, and the quirky atmosphere drew her in easily. Over the past two weeks, she’d come in almost every day after work and lingered late over her papers. The design firm for which she worked paid her very well, so she didn’t really mind taking home projects and plans. Tonight was the first time Beatrice had invited herself to Lynn’s table, though, and she took the opportunity to ask questions.
Picking out a heavy volume of literary analysis of Camus’ work, she asked, “But I thought y’all were in business to sell books, not loan them out.”
The other woman laughed, “Oh, we still shift plenty of books to justify the designation of ‘book shop.’ But, both Al and I believe knowledge is important and shouldn’t be reserved only for those who can afford to buy it.”
Lynn returned to the table with the book and sat down. Boas immediately resituated his head in her lap. Lulu, a harlequin mutt and Mars, an aging red cocker spaniel, now moved closer for a bit of attention.
“I’ve always thought animals were the best judges of character. Wouldn’t you agree?” Bea observed as she watched Lynn try to pet all three shamelessly exploitative canines at once.
“What I can’t figure out is how you get away with having them in the store.” Lynn said as she made a ridiculous face at Lulu, who was offering a very large but dainty white paw in exchange for some of the almond cookies on a plate. “What about the Health Department or whatever?”
“Oh, that’s no problem.” Bea dismissed such concerns with a casual wave of her hand. “All of them are registered service dogs. As long as they behave and don’t go into the kitchen, there’s no issue. Plus, thus far, no robberies.” Bea rapped her knuckles against the side of her chair. “Knock on wood, anyway.”
“So you want to share knowledge? How many people actually peruse your free reading shelves?” Lynn asked, leafing through the dry literature in front of her.
“Well, you haven’t seen it yet, but a lot of students who have term papers to write come here looking for source materials closer to the end of the semester. They can study, relax, and refuel themselves, too. We call off the usual events we hold during those times, so it’s as quiet as possible for them. No poetry readings, book signings or open mic nights.” Bea gestured to the shelf. “A good many of those books come from my academic career, so they do prove useful to undergraduate and post graduate students on occasion.”
“Oh?” Lynn perked up. “What was your field?”
“Anthropology.” She paused, sipping her coffee, “Among other things.”
Lynn was about to ask what other things she had studied, but the mantle clock on top of the bookcase began to chime softly.
“Ten o’clock.” Bea said, rising.
“Oh, do you need me to leave?” Lynn asked, shuffling her papers into a pile.
“Not at all. We’re open ‘til one.” She drained the last of her coffee. “But I have paperwork of my own to see to, and Richard needs his dinner break.” She gestured to the morose-looking blond young man who was filling a bean hopper from a large silver bag. “Perhaps he’ll come back with yet another facial piercing.” She said cheerfully, laughing and moving away to relieve him of his post.
Lynn laughed too, and looked around at the dim golden islands of light created by scattered reading lamps, the shine of chrome and polished wood of the counter standing out in brighter relief. The entire café seemed to exude a sleepy sort of comfort at this time of night, when only a few customers were about—a girl with multi colored hair and PVC clothing scribbling in her journal and one or two browsers in the book loft above. Her thoughts were shattered by the irreverent door chime as Richard went out into the night in quest of sushi and cigarettes or perhaps a lip piercing. Lynn smiled at the sprinkling of giggles from various corners of the shop and turned back to her papers.