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Travelogue B1

November 3, 2014

I found myself that winter day in Massolit Books, an English language bookstore and café a short walk from Ulica Smoleńsk, itself not far from Krakow’s Old City. A friend and I had decided to hole up for the afternoon in the bookstore’s warm interior, a sprawling complex of rooms, spread through two neighboring buildings, of which the locus is a staircase. The complex continues to expand slowly. Indeed, the most recent addition this past year was that of two small reading rooms behind the forward café section. The new rooms are joined by a large doorway two meters in width.

The door is trimmed in a dark wood, which I suspected might be walnut, although it is varnished almost beyond recognition. The would-be walnut of the doorframe matches that of the tables and chairs in the rearmost room. A crosshatched pattern marks the hardwood floors. Perhaps “crosshatched” is not quite the right term, for the planks are set in alternating rows of diagonals, but I found myself thinking “crosshatched” in relation to these boards all the same. The sketches I made at the time do little to settle the matter one way or another.

The walls of the rear room are a marbled green. A floral print, in paint, that is, not wallpaper, begins at the midway point of the walls of this high-ceilinged room, garlands of vines and leaves and blooms tumbling toward the floor. In contrast, pale yellow and white, apparently sponged on, compete on the ceiling for speckled dominance. From this expanse’s center dangles a brass chandelier, six brass arms curling out. A white-half sphere, its spiraling ridges reminiscent of a shell, tips each arm.

A tarnished mirror sits low on the wall, next to the double-paned windows. Wrought iron guards fortify this, the lower level of the building. At the time, I could not but help remark how well-formed they were, though I can no longer recall precisely what this well-formed quality consisted in. Perhaps it was simply the quality of being “wrought”, the character of being worked, inherent to all such iron works, regardless of the particulars that comprise them.

Dark wood shelves line three of the four walls; the lower shelves began a meter above my seated head. From the lips and sides, dark knotted eyes stare out. The shelves are divided into chambers occupied by books that are, in turn, grouped by kind. On the wall to my left, a family of marbled covers occupy the chamber farthest right. That to their left is taken by a group in red and black cloth binding. A smaller, third chamber on that same level, farthest left, holds only two or three volumes in black leather. In the stories above, books in red cloth and brown cloth are similarly ordered. On the uppermost shelf, in the middlemost chamber, septum on either side, stands a book in black cloth, its cover without a title. A figure stands out in red on the uniform dark field, its only blemish.

On the table in front of me that afternoon sits a container of sugar, in which harder deposits and loose veins have formed, as well as a shaker of cinnamon. For the six tables in the room, there are only eight such containers and shakers, five sugar, three cinnamon. The larger tables, for the tables are of various shapes and sizes, some circular, others rectangular, accommodating anywhere from two to five people, though quite often fewer or none at all, lay claim to the majority of the aforementioned additives.

A brown tile heater in the corner keeps the cold at bay. The tiles, glossy and light brown, prove to be geometrically oriented and are, indeed, themselves comprised of further geometrical ornamentation. Lines form triangles, which then stand counter to one another, in some ways much like the floor pattern, contained within each tile’s boundaries.

Being an English language bookstore, I was unsurprised to hear people speaking English to one another as they wandered in and out. Indeed, it was wonderfully disconcerting to find in this place an isle of comprehension. I bit my lip, and my gaze lingered for a moment or two on them, wondering who they might be and idly formulating a narrative for each and every one.

Take, for example, the young man in the corner with the horn-rimmed glasses, the black down coat, and the slightly unruly, short, brown hair, at this time sitting sideways in his chair. He has a volume from Verso’s Radical Thinkers series, which I recognized by the bold green lines on the black cover, in his hand, his thumb deep in the indentation between pages, and moves a pen back and forth between fingers. He seems a university student, perhaps one who has dedicated his college years to studying English or, instead, desired English for the sake of reading Anglo-American philosophy. He sits on the edge of his seat, perpetually on the verge of flight, buried in his “degenerate” reading, fearful of being caught, banned material in hand and brain. He has long since finished his coffee, for that very reason, such that, at a moment’s notice, he might flee through a back door, of which there are many in this place, hiding several chambers normally unseen by the public but nevertheless unlocked, to be pursued by some intellectual police whose designs are apparent only to him.

Others seem perpetually on the move between this room and others, and the gentle movement of the red and brown curtains in the corners of the doorway announces their to-ing and fro-ing. Yet the movement is small, almost beyond notice, as the curtains are held back and bunched together by a single red string. This string is itself looped about a hook in the doorjamb.

I looked up from my own reading a time or two to trace the shapes in the tabletop: whorls and rings in the midst of expulsion and thrusting forms, rather like billowing clouds of food dye in water, in this varnished sea of browns and blacks and rubied walnut. It it not that my reading bores me. Perhaps I sought an answer in the tabletop to issues raised by the text, a work of Renaissance-era physician and thinker Sir Thomas Browne, a work nominally on the subject of urns then unearthed in East Anglia, although, in the course of this exposition, Browne also finds a way to introduce elements of a speculative anthropology and psychology. I shortly returned to his discussion of the parallel and competing funerary practices of burning and burying.

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