Booklovers was a bookstore owned by a man who loved books. Unfortunately, he loved them too much.
He couldn't say no to anyone looking to sell or trade, and eventually the bookcases were filled double deep with books of every type by every author. When there was no room left on the shelves, he stacked unsorted boxes of books in front of them until you could barely see the bookcases, let alone move down the aisles.
Unable to browse through the books, or even reach them, the customers stopped coming. But the books didn't.
Box after box was brought to the store, and when he'd try to explain that he couldn't buy any more books, their owners would give them to him for free. No one saw any value in books anymore; they just wanted to get rid of them.
He should have refused the books or dumped them right into the recycling bin, but he couldn't -- he loved books too much. He piled the boxes on top of each other until they nearly reached the ceiling, one teetering stack after another. Eventually, he realized that he'd end up buried beneath the books, and locked the door and put up a For Sale sign.
For weeks the bookstore stayed dark, while new boxes of used books kept piling up outside its locked doors. And then, one rainy morning, the neon sign that said Booklovers flashed to life again.
A woman named Miriam had bought the store for the princely sum of one dollar, and a promise to take over the lease and -- most importantly -- keep the bookstore open.
And it was only a few weeks after that Aaron discovered the store. Every aisle was filled with a chaotic mess and most people, walking through the door for the first time, would have immediately turned around and left.
But as soon as Aaron saw the stacks and stacks of boxes of books, he knew there was something valuable within. What he didn't know was that he was about to discover the greatest treasure of his life.
However, no one said finding buried treasure was easy, and Aaron knew it was going to take a lot of work to unearth any gems in this hoarder's heaven.
The jewels he was digging for were first editions; preferably ones marked Burroughs, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald or even Tolkien. Unfortunately, every stone he uncovered was of the common variety -- Robbins, Sheldon and Grisham. Sometimes he thought if he had to sort through one more box of Danielle Steel novels he'd pull a pile down on top of himself and end his misery.
Aaron had made a hobby of searching for rare first editions, but he never kept them; even though he loved books, he loved money even more. He didn't really think he'd get rich prowling old bookstores, but it was a decent second income and he loved the hunt.
Most of the first editions he did find were lucky to fetch a hundred bucks on Ebay, but he'd once found a rare first edition of Gone With the Wind, which he'd sold to a private collector for five thousand dollars.
He hadn't found anywhere near that big a score at Booklovers, but he knew the books he was hunting for wouldn't be found in the boxes out front, they'd be back behind the red curtain. That was where Miriam kept the boxes that had never been sorted through, not even by the original owner.
And tonight he was finally going to get a chance to search them, a chance to see if any rare jewels were waiting to be discovered.
Aaron pushed open the bookstore's front door and the bell above it jingled.
Miriam was sitting behind the counter in front of her computer, and as she spun her chair around and saw Aaron she smiled.
"You're here," she said.
"Of course, did you think I wouldn't be?" Aaron had brought Miriam a coffee and went to put it on the counter for her, but there was no space as books were stacked a foot high from end to end.
As she stood and took it from his hand, she said, "I just thought a good-looking young man like yourself would have something better to do on a Friday night than spend it with a bunch of old books and an old broad like me."
"Are you kidding?" Aaron said. "I couldn't wait to spend the night with you, and Molly of course."
He pushed open the swinging door beside the counter and Molly waddled toward him. She was a half-blind thirteen-year-old cocker spaniel. When she got close and sniffed Aaron, her tail wagged.
"I'm so glad she likes you," Miriam said, as Aaron scratched behind Molly's ears. "She couldn't stand Harold."
Harold was the sorter that Aaron was replacing. He was retired and a long-time customer of Booklovers, and Miriam had recruited him to help tackle the seemingly never-ending stacks of books that needed to be sorted. Exhaustion had eventually set in, and Harold had told her he needed a break.
"I'm glad Molly likes me, too," Aaron said, and stood up as she headed back to her small dog bed underneath Miriam's desk to go back to sleep. "And I wanted to say thanks again for letting me help sort."
"Well I remembered you asked before, but I was worried there wasn't enough space for three sorters back there," she said, nodding at the red curtain. "And besides, you're much better looking than Harold."
Aaron smiled, knowing that Miriam's flirting was harmless. At sixty, she was more than twice his age, and he knew she thought of him like a son.
She'd been married to her husband for thirty-five years, but they'd never been lucky enough to have children. The two of them had met in a bookstore and it had always been his dream for them to own one of their own. But he'd died before he could achieve his dream, so Miriam had decided to keep it alive. She'd bought Booklovers in his memory, and her and Molly had made the store their home away from home.
"Shall we get started?" Miriam said, as she opened the door beside the counter, stepped out, and then carefully made sure to shut it again to make sure Molly didn't get out.
"You bet." Aaron grabbed his coffee and followed her toward the red curtain.
"You know the deal," she said, "you help me sort the books, and if there are any that you want you can have them for one dollar each. But once you start on a box you have to keep sorting until each book is in its proper place, either on the shelf or in the recycling bin. Ask me if you're not sure where they go, but don't start a new box until the one you're sorting is empty."
Aaron nodded his head. "No problem. When you say a buck a book, you mean hardcovers too?"
"Any book -- even a first edition," she said, and gave him a knowing smile.
Aaron felt a wave of guilt. He'd bought half a dozen first editions from Miriam and always paid the price she asked, never haggling. However, he'd sold every one for ten times what he'd paid on Ebay, and always felt as if he'd cheated her.
As if she'd read his mind, Miriam said, "I bought this bookstore because I love books, Aaron, not because I was hoping to get rich. And even though I may not have a lot of money, one thing I do have is a lot of books.
"When I took over Booklovers, I never realized how much work it would take to make this place resemble a bookstore again. And I don't think I could have done it without the help of friends and customers like you. So if you find a book you want -- any book -- I'm more than happy to let you have it for a dollar as thanks for your help. Because believe me, in this store, one less book is always a good thing."
Miriam pulled back the red curtain and Aaron's jaw dropped. He'd seen the three-high stacks of boxes that still lined every aisle in the front of the store, but he'd never seen anything like this.
Carton after carton of unsorted books were stacked ceiling high on and around temporary wooden shelves.
Seeing the shocked look on his face, Miriam said, "And there's even more in the storage locker!"
Aaron ran his hand along the countless cardboard boxes. "Wow, I never realized there were still so many books back here."
"You should have seen it when we started, we couldn't even move down the aisles. And I've already filled two dumpsters with textbooks and cookbooks. I wish I could get a third sorter, but I still don't think there's enough space back here."
"No, this is perfect," Aaron said. He didn't want anyone else digging through the boxes before he had a chance to.
"What night does the other sorter come in?" he said.
"Oh, she's already here."
Aaron was surprised; he didn't think there was anyone else in the store. Miriam led him around the corner, and on her knees in the next aisle, surrounded by stacks of sorted books, was a young woman with long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail.
She only glanced up for half a second before burying her nose in another box of books.
"Emily," Miriam said, "I'd like you to meet Aaron, he'll be helping with the sorting."
Emily stood up and, though she was wearing a baggy sweatshirt and no makeup, Aaron thought she was cute.
A lock of her hair had come loose. Without putting it back into place and without a smile, she said, "Hi. When's Harold coming back?"
"I'm not sure," Miriam said, "but until he's feeling better, Aaron will be taking over his sorting duties."
"In Harold's row, right? I don't need his help in my row."
"Yes, Emily," Miriam said, and turned to Aaron. "You'll be sorting the aisle we were just in, and Emily will work in this aisle. But I'm sure she'll be glad to help if you have any questions."
Aaron saw Emily watching him and her look said it all: "Stay out of my boxes."
She went back to sorting books as Miriam and Aaron went back to the aisle they'd just been in.
"Emily's a little shy," Miriam whispered, "but once you get to know her, you're going to love her."
Aaron raised an eyebrow. "I don't think the problem is going to be whether I like her or not, I don't think she likes me."
"Are you kidding? I don't think I've ever heard her say 'hi' to anyone before."
As soon as Miriam went back to the front counter, Aaron pulled the first box down and tore it open like a kid on Christmas morning. But when he discovered the box contained nothing more than a few textbooks and an assortment of battered Stephen King paperbacks, he felt like a kid who'd opened his present and discovered socks.
He immediately grabbed down a second box and prepared to tear it open, but when he looked at the stack of books already piled on the floor around him he remembered Miriam's directions and figured he'd better take care of them first.
As instructed, he dumped the textbooks in the recycling bin and took the paperbacks to Miriam. After she'd narrowed the stack of King novels down to the ones that she didn't already have at least five copies of, Aaron stacked them on the shelves, threw the rest in the bin, and went back to open another box.
While he sorted through it, he tried to peek through the shelves and boxes at Emily. He wasn't interested in her though, he was interested in the boxes she was sorting through.
Aaron just knew, with his luck, that the treasures he was hunting for would be on her side of the aisle, not his. So the next time she took a handful of books out to the shelves he went to talk to her.
When she saw him coming down the narrow aisle she was in, she tried to head in the opposite direction but stacks of boxes blocked her escape.
Turning back to him, trying not to make eye contact, she said, "You're in the wrong aisle." Seeing the confused look on Aaron's face she pointed at the book in his hand. "Mystery is in the next aisle, that's where books written by Parker go."
"Oh," Aaron said, "I actually came over to introduce myself again. I didn't really get a chance to say hi earlier."
"Oh," she said, brushing the loose lock of hair behind her ear and giving him a quick smile. "Hi again."
"Here, let me help you with those."
As Aaron went to grab the stack of books in her arms, Emily stepped back and clutched them to her chest. "I don't need any help!"
"Okay," he said, holding up his hands, "sorry for asking. Anyways, I also wanted to check and see what you're looking for."
"When you're sorting the books, what type are you looking for? Romance? I can let you know if I find any in my boxes, if you want."
"I'm not looking for romance...I mean, romance novels. I'm not looking for anything -- I just love books. Can I get by?"
"Oh, sorry," Aaron said, and backed out of the aisle so she could get past. "I actually collect twentieth-century first editions, so if you find any of them could you let me know?"
She nodded her head, and hurried past him back to her aisle.
Aaron sorted box after box of books but never hit paydirt once; when Miriam let them know she was closing for the night, he went to the counter empty handed.
But as Emily came out of her aisle, he saw she had a stack of books between her arms. "Need a hand?" he said.
"No, I'm fine."
As she placed them on the counter and Miriam counted them, Aaron scanned the titles and was amazed at the mish mash of books she'd selected. There was no rhyme or reason to it, everything from fiction to children's books to a textbook on small engine repair. But at the bottom he spotted an old dust jacket and reached for it.
"That's mine!" Emily said, and tried to grab his hand.
But Aaron quickly pulled the book away, and as he did the stack spilled over and one of the books tumbled to the floor before Miriam could stop it.
Emily cried out as the hardback flipped open and landed on its spine, splitting it.
"Shit, sorry," Aaron said, and bent down to pick up the broken book.
But before he could, Emily grabbed it and an old black and white photo that had fallen out of it. Tucking the photo back in the book, she put it on top of her pile and grabbed the book Aaron had taken back out of his hand.
"Sorry about breaking your book, want me to check the shelf and see if there's one in better condition?" Aaron said.
"No," she said, as she paid Miriam fifteen dollars. "I want this one."
Aaron knew he shouldn't have grabbed her book without asking, but he recognized the jacket; it was a Modern Library first edition of Travels with Charley by Steinbeck. He knew it was probably only worth a couple of hundred bucks, but he'd specifically asked her to tell him if she found any first editions, and she'd promised she would.
Wondering if she was also selling books on Ebay, he followed Emily to the parking lot.
"I thought you weren't a collector?" he said.
"I'm not," she said. "I just love books. All kind of books."
"I can tell, quite an assortment. Are you some kind of hoarder or something?"
She glared at him, resentment in her eyes. "No! I told you -- "
"Just joking!" Aaron said, holding up his hands to calm her down. "But I saw that Steinbeck book you bought, and I actually need that for my collection. Can I buy it off of you?"
"It's not for sale," she said, clutching the stack of books to her chest.
"I'll give you twenty bucks for it."
"No. I don't want to sell it."
Aaron smiled; she obviously knew how much it was worth. "Okay, how about fifty?"
"No! Please quit asking."
"Look, you're not going to get more than a hundred for it on Ebay, I'll give you that much right now."
Emily's mouth fell open and her eyes went wide in shock. "Ebay? You think I'm selling these on Ebay? These books are mine now, I'd never let some...stranger have them."
Before he could say another word, she got in her car, slammed the door and drove away.
* * *
The next week didn't go much better for Aaron. He didn't find anything worth more than a few dollars, but every night Emily found at least a dozen books that interested her.
He tried to look at her stack, tried to see if there was a pattern to the books she chose, but any time he came near her aisle she hunched over her pile like a dog guarding a bone. He knew he had to find a way into her good books.
The next night he went down her aisle to talk to her. She was hunched over a box, sorting it, and when he got near she reached for her stack of books and covered them protectively.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to steal your books. I've got more than enough of my own to plow through," he said, gesturing at the never-ending stack of boxes. "I was just heading out to grab a coffee, and thought I'd check to see if you wanted one?"
"No, thanks," she said.
"Are you sure? Because I don't mind, it's my treat."
Emily bent over the box, her attention back on the books. "I said I don't want a coffee."
When Aaron returned, he brought her a coffee anyways. "Just in case you change your mind," he said, and left it on a shelf near her.
Emily glanced up, but Aaron had already returned to sorting books.
When he came back from shelving a stack of Dean Koontz novels, he saw Emily had moved the cup of coffee to a shelf far away from her. After she bought her books and left for the night, he checked the cup. It was still full -- she hadn't taken a single sip.
Aaron dumped it in the garbage, the message received loud and clear -- Emily didn't want to be friends. As he went to leave, and petted Molly goodbye, Miriam gave him a sympathetic smile.
"Don't judge her by one cup of coffee," Miriam said. "Emily is a sweet girl."
Aaron shrugged his shoulders. He'd tried. But he really wasn't that worried or even that interested. He was here to find books, not friends. And it was obvious that Emily wasn't keen on helping him find either.
Which was why he was surprised the next night when he looked up from some books he was shelving and saw Emily standing there, holding out a cup of coffee toward him.
"I thought you didn't like coffee?" he said.
"I don't, I only drink tea. I -- I tried to tell you, I can't stand the smell of coffee, it makes me nauseous, it -- "
"It's cool," Aaron said. He could see how nervous she was. "It was my fault -- I shouldn't have bought you one after you told me not to."
"I know," she said, twisting her sweatshirt around her finger, "but I still should have said something. I spend most of my time at home, alone with my books. And now that I've been coming here...I'm still getting used to being around people, around friends."
Aaron stood up, smiled at her and took a sip of the coffee. "It's perfect, thanks."
For the first time, he saw her smile. And when she did her eyes lit up and he had a hint of just how beautiful she really was.
"I -- I was also wondering if this was one of the ones you were looking for?" She took her hand from behind her back and held out an old hardcover book.
Aaron took the book from her and as he slowly turned it over, and saw the tan cover and the black embossed signature on the face, he knew immediately what it was -- a first edition of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway.
"Are you kidding?" he said. "You don't want this?" He knew, even without the dust jacket, that the book was easily worth a couple hundred dollars.
"No," she said, smiling again when she saw how excited he was. "I'm not a collector."
Aaron was so anxious to get the book back to his stack that he didn't even wait for Emily to back down the aisle so he could get by.
He went to squeeze past her and, with the row being so narrow, their bodies became wedged together.
"Sorry," Aaron said, and went to move back.
But before he could, Emily blushed and said, "It's okay," and let him squeeze past.
Her breasts were pressed against his torso, and as he slid his body across hers, careful not to spill his coffee, she put her hand on his hip to steady him.
Aaron was so excited about his book that he didn't even notice as his crotch ground against hers, but Emily did.
She let her hand trail down his hip as he went past and exited the aisle. And as Aaron smiled back at her and thanked her again, Emily tugged at her sweatshirt and wondered why the bookstore suddenly seemed so warm.
When Miriam saw the book she congratulated Aaron on his find and charged him one dollar. And when the book sold the next day for one hundred and seventy five dollars, he went to give half of the money to Emily.