Fiction: Book Scout by John Tavares  

Book Scout

by John Tavares 

Harry sped in his Mustang to Manny’s house in midtown Toronto, off Eglinton Avenue, near Oakwood. Harry vented in anger, a rage that grew with every word he forcefully uttered. His utterances and forceful manner Manny considered signs and symptoms his bipolar disorder was veering out of control. Meanwhile, Harry constantly reminded Manny he could have been a contender, an Olympic medalist for Canada. If it was not for the starter pistol, Harry shouted, he could have competed in the Montreal Olympics for the Canadian swim team in 1976.

Ah, the incident with the starter pistol. Manny learned more about those starter pistols antics when he read Harry’s profile in the Toronto Star, after it was widely presumed he was dead. Later again, Manny read about Harry’s wild behaviour in his obituary, his belated funeral notice, his notification of a funeral without an interment of remains because his remains could not be found. Yes, having his funeral was premised on the assumption he was not still alive and not, say, vacationing at some beach resort in Costa Rica.

One afternoon, in the employee washroom of the bookstore, after closing, Harry plucked his greying eyebrows and nostril hairs, and shaved his body hair. He once told Manny he should shave his body hair; hair removal would improve his appearance and make him look years younger, and he would feel healthier and youthful.

Then, while Harry was checking out his abs in his new Speedo swimsuit, posing in the mirror naked with his handgun, he found Gabby’s used airline ticket and Caesars Palace Las Vegas Hotel & Casino reservations fallen beneath the bathroom sink. He stepped out of the employee washroom, and stepped into the walk-in bank vault built into the basement of 416 Books, the used bookstore, Manny owned with Gabby and Harry, one of the most successful second-hand bookstores in Toronto. The store was located on Yonge Street in a house, built over an old bank branch, which burned down in the nineteen twenties, before Manny’s uncle converted the entire building, which was converted into a rooming house, into a bookstore.

Inside the bank vault, Harry discovered empty shelves, the shelves where the most valuable, first edition books had been stored, missing their contents. Harry said he was not certain why he hadn’t gone downstairs into the vault for over a year, but Manny figured it was for the same reason he hadn’t bothered to head downstairs, check inventory, and audit their stocks of collectable books. They both feared they would discover what they had a reasonable and realistic expectation of the worst-case scenario.

Manny became distracted and aloof to bookstore concerns after he discovered he suffered from cancer. As he rode the subway train from the clinic, he wrote the diagnosis in capital letters on the back page of his paperback Merck Manual from the health and wellness section of 416 Books: PROSTATE CANCER.

He realized he was mortal.

He stopped trying to micromanage the used bookstore, which stood on the same location on Yonge Street, between the intersections with College Street and Wellesley Street, for the past forty years, as around the locale downtown the city grew vertically and horizontally at an amazing pace. While he remained in charge of day-to-day operations, he decided to relinquish some control and gave Harry and Gabby wider berth in the day-to-day operations of the bookstore. Meanwhile, he tried to write the novel he hoped and dreamed he would finally get published before he died, the novel that, he felt, might somehow redeem himself. As he aged and matured and combated cancer, he felt he needed to justify the years of education and university that went to waste, as all he had done with his overeducated life was turn into a glorified bookstore clerk on Yonge Street downtown. He felt guilty since he even stopped reading books and binge watched movies and television serials–albeit, he watched classic cinema and compelling TV drama. At times, he felt like a glorified bookstore clerk, but he earned in profits thousands of dollars per annum on gently used and second-hand books for which he paid pennies on the dollar of the original retail price of books. He resold carefully selected books to eager customers, students, teachers, profs, and commuters at higher prices, a big markup. Now, though, he felt as if he was done with the baseness, particularly with the erotic magazines and books and skin flicks 416 Books sold in the adult section. He wanted to give back to the community and society, if that was possible or plausible, particularly when he realized Harry seemed ambitious and avaricious as ever.

He thought Harry had ambitions, schemes, and plans of becoming a big online retailer of used collectable books while Gabby, trapped in the tyranny of numbers, who actually possessed degrees and graduate degrees in mathematics, suffered from an addiction to gambling. He no longer had any clear conception of how to manage the impending crisis, but he figured these personnel and personal crisis did not matter, either way. He realized finally that he was mortal and that he was a control freak and a micromanager, who needed to let go. In the end, we are all dead, no matter what we do or who we are, he thought, but concept of karma was starting to pique Manny’s interest. He even borrowed some books that explored the concept from the spirituality and religion shelves of our bookstore. Harry, conversely, was still gung ho on collecting books and making wads of money from the resale of books. When he discovered that the vault was empty, he flipped out and went ballistic, exhibiting some of the latent explosive energy of his handgun.

“Do you know what the scoundrel did? He took all our first editions, all the autographed books, and he sold them to the competition or online.”

“Harry, how do you know he sold the books?”

“Manny, you know this is true. So you’re telling me you gave the signed, inscribed For Whom the Bells Toll, the first edition I bought from the granddaughter of the Toronto Star press worker who drank with Hemingway during his Toronto years, to your niece for a Christmas present or to cover the cost of her college education? Manny, I know you already set up a trust account for her and would never rip off the business.”

From the anger and intensity in his voice, Manny saw Harry was extremely upset. When he first arrived at his house midtown, he shook and trembled from anger.

“Harry, I just need you to sit down, calm down, and don’t get excited.”

“Manny, there was a signed first edition of Lolita in that vault! There was a first edition of The Naked and the Dead! I have the pictures! I have the photographs, jpegs, digital images.”

“Then you don’t have anything to worry about; the losses will be covered by insurance.”

“How the eff will it be covered by insurance when it’s an inside job, when one of the three co-owners stole the books himself! Are you suggesting we pull a fraud on the insurance company?” Manny grimaced, comprehending the pain he felt, the regrets, remorse, and unhappiness he himself experienced. “Manny, you know exactly what happened! You know Gabby pulled this stunt. You were the one who introduced him to gambling, and he’s become an addict with his weekend trips to casinos in Thunder Bay, Windsor, and Winnipeg. Customs won’t let him cross the border to go to the States anymore because of the stunts and antics he pulls so he can gamble. You know his shenanigans, Manny. You can’t ignore his badness. How could you have ignored his behaviour for so long?”

Manny took off his Toronto Blue Jays baseball cap and showed Harry his head, bald from chemotherapy. “Harry, in case you haven’t already noticed I have prostate cancer. I’m beginning to wonder if the fact it’s prostate cancer is entirely coincidental, but that’s beside the point: I can handle the sickness but I can’t handle the business with Gabby anymore. I tried to reform him and persuade him to see a doctor or a psychiatrist or a psychologist, somebody. I know he’s been stealing from the till and the night deposits. You know I froze the bookstore accounts. I tried everything with him. You’re right: I messed up. I brought him to Vegas so he would forget he was a middle-aged wanker with no wife and kids who managed the porn end of the bookstore, and it backfired, but I didn’t expect that a man with advanced degrees in mathematics would lose sight of the odds and the fact that house always wins.”

“Yes, that’s part of the problem. He’s become effing delusional. He thinks because he knows enough math to use his own system to beat the odds.”

Stressed, Manny poured himself a glass of Scotch for them and took a Xanax the doctor prescribed for the anxiety cancer treatment caused him. Manny slid a tiny peach pill across the granite countertop, but Harry gulped the Scotch and placed the .357 Magnum on the table.

“I could have been a contender, I could have swam the 1500 metre freestyle in Montreal, I could have won a medal for Canada in the 1976 Olympics.”

Harry never bothered to divulge the reason he was suspended from the 1976 Canadian Olympic swim team. Manny only learned later in newspaper accounts that the reason he was suspended from the swim team was because he fired a starter’s pistol at his main chess partner and fellow member of the University of Toronto chess club, Gabby. He showed him the bullets in the chamber of the .357 Magnum revolver.

“You see how pissed off I am at the mathematician. You see how angry I am at him.”

Manny gasped. “Harry, take a swim. Look, I envy you, with the physique you have, for a man your age. You know how good you look and feel since you started swimming in the pool and lake again?”

“It worked wonders for my stress, but this is effing off the chart, messing with my heart and mind.”

“Harry, you’ve got to remember: It’s just books.”

“They’re amazing books, and books, remember, Manny, are my effing life, like they’re yours, and I’m going to need more money soon if I’m going to retire to the Philippines or Thailand. We can’t effing report this to the cops and insurance company, and then have Jewish lightning strike if we went to cash out of the business early.”

Manny clenched Harry by the arm. “I don’t want to hear anything about Jewish lightning: for one thing it’s racist–Harry, how can you talk this way?”

“Because I’m Jewish.”

“Anyway, it’s pure plain illegal, criminal. I want to leave the business comfortably and quietly, with a signature on a contract, not on fire.”

“Better to leave with a blaze of glory and a bang than a whimper.”

Manny was adamant on not exiting the business, taking that route; ethics aside, it wasn’t dignified. “Harry, we don’t need insurance at the rate condo development is popping up along Yonge Street downtown.”

Lost, distracted, thinking about his business partner gone astray, Harry muttered, “How about a bullet in the head, Gabby. How about a bullet in the head.”

“Harry, please relax, calm down. You’re scaring me. You need to do what you always do when you have some kind of setback. Hunt down more books.”

“How the eff am I going to buy more books now? How can I make a road trip now with you suffering cancer–”

“I’m not suffering.”

“But I’m suffering from Gabby embezzling the business every chance he gets.”

“Just take a book buying trip; it’s worked for you every time before.”

Harry grew red in the smooth cheeks of his well-kept face as he grimaced and clenched the neck of his vision of Gabby. “I’ll kill the junkie. I’ll effing throttle his neck.”

“Harry, relax.”

“And you know all the books in the vault–at least the vast majority of them–were from our best book scout, the Portuguese imbecile. He would go to all the flea markets, garage sales, and thrift shops, comb through the shelves, and come back with rare and exotic books. He could smell out a signed first edition in excellent condition like nobody else. I’d give him a few porn videos and he’d be as pleased as punch.”

“He liked you, Harry, he still does. You had, you have a great friendship with him.”

“But I used the kid, I used the kid badly, shamelessly. We should have hired him, put him on the payroll. He’d come into the store in the evening when I was working the till, and he’d chat, real simple talk, happy, cheerful, upbeat. He’d chat up the talkative customers and organize, face, and rotate stock better than anybody. He’d be happy to take a few porn videos and some DVD’s with Audrey Hepburn–I don’t know why he had this thing for Audrey Hepburn–and some Spiderman and Batman comics. I feel bad for the kid.”

“But he’s not a kid. He’s a grown, mature adult, and his mother told me he can’t earn money because then he’d be cut off disability.”

“Those books he brought to the store were worth thousands and thousands of dollars. I’ll kill the prick if I don’t get the right answer.”

Harry, bipolar, had apparently stopped taking his lithium, antidepressants, anxiolytics, and assorted medication for several months now. He said long distance swimming helped control his mania and high energy levels and stress. Harry would swim so long and hard he once swam from a friend’s boat in Canadian waters across the international boundary in Lake Ontario, across the borderline into the United States, where the Coast guard picked him up swimming through the cold. He made local newspapers on both sides of the border: Geriatric swimmer crosses border and creates an international incident. Now Harry was in a frightening mood, as he didn’t even wait for Manny to cook him something to eat or have a drink or wait while he called his psychiatrist.

That gloomy evening Harry left his house clenching the stainless steel .357 magnum Smith and Wesson revolver, which he insisted he would lock and store away safely at his home, or in the safe at the bookstore. That was the last time Manny saw his long-time business partner and friend Harry alive or dead, but he had no sense or premonition of what would transpire or how events would unfold. He decided he could no longer cope with Harry’s fury or Gabby’s addiction. Although he only travelled outside Toronto several times and never outside the province of Ontario in the sixty years of his life, he flew to the prairies on a commuter airline’s seat sale, despite his fear of flying. He escaped to his sister’s home for his nephew’s confirmation and stayed at her house in Transcona and an airport hotel in Winnipeg for the next few weeks.

When Manny returned to Pearson International Airport two weeks later, a Toronto city police officer in uniform and a detective in plainclothes intercepted him at the arrival gate of the airport terminal. 416 Books had burned to the ground, and there was no sign of Harry or Gabby. All that was left of their bookstore on Yonge Street downtown, between Wellesley and College Street, was the burnt shell and the blackened bank vault, made of thick concrete and reinforced steel, in the basement.

Afterwards, Harry imagined a nightmarish scene, a titanic struggle, with Harry firing his revolver, emptying the cartridges in the cylinder of the stainless steel .357 Magnum Smith and Wesson revolver, before he set the bookstore ablaze. That was the worst case scenario he envisioned, a nightmare which made him bolt awake, suffocating, with chest pains, in a cold sweat in the middle of sleep. How else could he explain Harry and Gabby’s disappearance, though? The police and fire marshal, on the other hand, speculated that, while his business partners were at work in the evening, a fire mysteriously broke out in which they both perished. Manny kept quiet as the police espoused and propounded their theories: they brainstormed aloud and speculated about arsonists hired by criminal associates of competitors, and, Manny thought that, while the competition between used bookstores in Toronto was intense, the theory was implausible because it wasn’t that brutal. Their other theory was that an arsonist hired by an associate of a real estate developer, anxious to add the property to their portfolio for a big condominium development, had torched the building at night, assuming it was empty. That sounded barely plausible, but still farfetched. Manny was not about to explain the animus and fury that fueled Harry’s rage and might provide investigators with a motive. In any event, the heat of the flames from thousands of books and magazines burning was so intense fire officials concluded Gabby and Harry were cremated beyond recognition.

Later, Manny heard reports of Harry sightings: someone claimed they saw Harry swimming at the Sunnyside outdoor swimming pool. A boater, swimmer, and sunbathers said they saw somebody who resembled Harry swimming in the distance of Lake Ontario at sunset.  An endocrinologist and gynecologist couple, book collectors, who dropped by 416 Books whenever downtown, aboard their yacht Off-Duty, thought they saw the sixty-three year old with excellent physique, handlebar mustache, and balding pate disappear somewhere over the horizon in Lake Ontario, beyond the sailboats and motorboats from the yacht clubs along the eastern shorelines.

A bookstore owner in Niagara Falls called Manny, saying he was confident Harry visited his bookstore that weekend. He said he had previous dealings with Harry, who, on this particular occasion, bought a few boxes of first edition and antiquarian books from a recent estate sale. The bookstore owner in Niagara Falls said he even helped pack the box of books into the trunk of his car. Manny, skeptical of the bookstore owner’s account, best liked the image of Harry swimming into the distance, disappearing into the orange horizon at sunset, as he glided through the cold waters of Lake Ontario, his arms wind-milling, his legs kicking smoothly. Swimming comfortably was how he wanted to think of Harry’s end, the skilled freestyler with tremendous endurance.

In fact, the last time he, using the first cell phone he ever owned, heard from Harry, Manny strolled along Portage Avenue through downtown Winnipeg, browsing through the used bookstores in the Exchange District, unable to escape the tyranny of books. Harry told him he lured Gabby to their bookstore, called him to help move books, porn DVD’s and video, and magazines from the basement to price and shelve them. In reality, though, he said, he summoned Gabby to the bookstore to confront him over the losses and “he was going to straighten the bastard out.” Then Harry called him later to say he confronted Gabby at the store and the argument became physical. Gabby punched him in retaliation and Harry said he was going to whack him. Then Manny heard shouting, fighting, and the cellphone abruptly went dead, after what sounded like a gunshot. Manny couldn’t believe his friends were involved in a physical struggle, fighting each other, but when he called back, there was no reply, and, incredulous, aboard a crowded bus on Main Street, he dismissed the episode from his mind. Mortified, he went into denial, but the incident caused him to block the whole book business from my mind and focus on allowing himself to be distracted by the prairie city.

Weeks passed, and the once busy bookstore was now ruins, a hole in the ground, albeit located in a coveted prime real estate location in Canada: on Yonge Street downtown, a few blocks south of Bloor Street. Then a condominium developer paid several million dollars for the property–more than Manny ever imagined the house-storefront would be worth when he inherited the property, along with 416 Books, from his uncle after he died as a tourist resident in Thailand. Depending upon whom you talked, his uncle suffered hepatitis or drowned during a snorkelling accident.

Several months later, a check from the insurance company arrived, after an executive hired an investigator who combed through the ruins. He conducted an in-depth investigation, but could find no sign of arson or foul play, or even charred remains of Harry or Gabby. As co-owners, Harry and Gabby were also entitled to the proceeds, but they were declared legally dead and, as “surviving” partner, Manny grudgingly became the sole beneficiary of the business insurance, after no relatives came forth.

By this time, Manny had gone into remission from his cancer. For solace, during his solitude, which he preferred, especially when he was receiving intravenous therapy, he read philosophy and religion. Whenever he needed solace or comfort, he read, increasingly philosophy, his reading being the reason why among all the nieces and nephews his uncle could have chosen, the bachelor chose Manny as sole heir of his estate. How Gabby and Harry ended up co-owners is a longer, convoluted tale, which not an even novel but maybe a dramatic series could cover.

Anyhow, his uncle saw how much he loved reading and books and made him heir to his second-hand bookstore, which probably derived the majority of its profits from selling back issues of magazines like Playboy and Penthouse and adult videos that left nothing to the imagination until he died and he took over. He expanded the film offerings into arthouse cinema and Hollywood blockbusters and independent films, on DVD or videocassette. Later, his mother speculated her only sibling suffered from an undiagnosed case of AIDS, since so much mystery and fear surrounded the condition back in the eighties when he first became ill.

Meanwhile, the concept of karma appealed to Manny immensely, especially after he read about the idea. He also remembered how badly Harry felt about taking advantage of their best supplier and book scout. He knew their best book scout–maybe their only book scout–lived in a dilapidated and rundown house in Little Portugal, around Dundas Street West and Euclid Avenue, near a Portuguese bakery and butcher shop. Manny went to the bank and had a bank draft prepared for Joseph’s mother, whose name he learned was Isabella, for sixty thousand dollars. He arrived at the figure by calculating how much Joseph would have earned if he had been working for them at the wages of a part-time worker over five years. It was a quick and dirty figure, but Manny thought it was fair. He was awash in cash, after all. He could not believe how much money he possessed from the sale of the property to a real estate developer and the settlement from the insurance companies.

Manny walked up to the door of his house and rapped gently on the door. Joseph’s mother answered the door and she immediately recognized him.

“Mr. Manny, is so nice to see you. I am very sorry about what happened to Mr. Harry and Mr. Gabby. I’m very, very sorry. So tragic an accident.”

“Yes, so am I, so am I.”

“My Joseph–he so upset Mr. Harry gone. Very sad. Very hurt.”

“Yes, he and Henry were good friends.”

“Yes, they best friends.”

“Indeed.” Manny looked around the kitchen and saw that she prepared codfish and boiled potatoes, with a salad, olive oil, and tomatoes, but there was no sign of Joseph, with his trademark upbeat laugh and his squint that made Manny nervous and even a bit anxious.

“Well, where is Joseph right now?”

“He go see psychiatrist. Ever since Mr. Harry die, he become depressed. He nothing for do. Mr. Harry give him friendship, work around bookstore. He love get books for Mr. Harry. My shed full of books. Five years ago I say, ‘No more books. You get more books, you move apartment.’”

She led Manny to Joseph’s bedroom and opened the door to his musty bedroom, which smelled of Joseph’s body odor and clean laundry. Joseph’s bookshelves were lined with comic books, graphic novels, and books, but what attracted his attention, amidst the crucifixes and paintings of the Last Supper and Sistine Chapel, were the adult videos and DVDS.

“He do chores for Mr. Harry and Mr. Harry give him dirty movies he like. Mr. Harry know Joseph can no get money or he get cut off.”

Manny clasped the check beneath his jacket.

“My boys like Mr. Harry. Mr. Harry one day show him gun and he say he ‘Bang! Bang! Gabby’ and my boy call him ‘Dirty Harry’ and Mr. Harry like. I say my son, ‘No call Mr. Harry “Dirty Harry”,’ but he says Mr. Harry like name ‘Dirty Harry’.”

“Yes, my partner did like that and wished more people would have called him that nickname.” Harry even asked several times why more people could not call him Dirty Harry, but Manny thought a middle-aged man, balding with a handlebar mustache, who preferred windbreakers and khakis, when he was not in a swimsuit at the beach or pool, did not strike him as a convincing surrogate and besides the name was already famously taken. He noticed Joseph did have a relatively large wide screen television in his room. He could not resist emitting a mild, ironic guffaw when he examined the collection of adult videos and picked up a title. “His disability.”

“You understand, but what can I say? What can I do? I no like these movies. God no like these movies. Jesus no like these movies. But Mr. Harry make money from these movies and my son–he likes these movies. I shut the door and let him watch these movies.” Tears overflowed her eyes and trickled down her weather, sombre cheeks. “God no make my son normal.”

“I understand, Ma’am,” Manny said. He gently touched her on the shoulders, attempting some form of consolation. He felt as if he should have given her a full-blown hug, but he was never a touchie-feelie person, even with coaxing and encouragement.

“I know. But the work Joseph did for the bookstore was good, very good. In fact, it was excellent.”

“My son, no brains, but he very hard worker, like his father, my husband.” She pointed at her head, whose hair was remarkably black, without a sign of grey, and looked completely natural in colour. “My husband–he gone. He die, big stroke, big, big stroke. Now, maybe I need to sell the house.”

With a sense of relief, Manny thought, his timing couldn’t have been better. He thought originally he could give this to her for home renovations, but he realized she and her son were in dire need.

“That’s why I want you to have this for Joseph, but for you, of course, so you don’t have to worry about his being cut off disability.”

He was disappointed by her reaction, as she looked at the check and sighed. Her expression and demeanour told him the check could have very well been for six dollars and not sixty thousand.

“Missus, the bookstore is done. Kaput. Fini. But 416 Books had a good run, a forty-year run with me and my uncle at the helm. I started there as an inexperienced and naïve young man, who loved books and reading, but, now I’m tired of books and the clutter and I just want to read and write.” Manny gazed at her, saw the heartbreak and sadness, and realized she was uninterested in his ambitions, and he struck too negative a note, and he clasped her hand. “Yes, 416 Books had a solid run with the help of people like Joseph, and he was one of the best–that’s the truth.”

“I know. My son good.”

Manny thought he should leave her house in Little Portugal quickly before Joseph arrived and roused his anxiety with his tics and squinting. Ashamed, Manny thought of karma and the legacy of 416 Books, his bookstore. In the end, he believed his partners and he helped contribute to the education, enlightenment, and entertainment of a certain sector of the population of metropolitan Toronto, students, teachers, readers, everyday people, commuters, secretaries, stay at home wives and husbands, shoppers downtown, store clerks and businessman. They provided the books to escape boredom and thousand yard stares and glares on the subway train commute home. The disgusting adult videos and DVD’s and magazines and pocketbooks earned some of the best profits, but left their imprints on the minds of the likes of Joseph. He needed to leave before Joseph arrived from the meeting with his special psychiatrist or whatever.

“If your bank has any questions or there’s any problems, just tell them to call me or my bank, and I’ll have it straightened out.”

Manny hurriedly sped away from the bungalow in the side street of Little Portugal, north to his house midtown, driving the Mustang Harry left behind. 416 Books was history, a legacy of a Toronto which no longer existed. As condominium towers and high-rises rose along Yonge Street in downtown Toronto, and new towers were planned and proposed, Manny’s favorite haunts and establishments disappeared. A few cafes he liked were gone and his favorite pizza joint, The Big Slice, to which he liked to stroll during lunch, was boarded up, awaiting demolition and a new high-rise condominium. Bookstores were gone from downtown and a favourite, The World Biggest Bookstore, where he went to check the latest and hottest trends in reading, was shut down and bulldozed, the property acquired for new high-rise developments. The Yonge Street downtown he knew and in which he took guilty pleasure was another chapter of urban history, and he doubted he and his partners at 416 Books even merited a parenthesis to a footnote.


Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John Travares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. He is a Humber College in Etobicoke graduate with a concentration in psychology; additional education includes a 3-year journalism program at Centennial College in East York, and the Specialized Honors BA in English from York University in North York. His work has been published in various literary journals, including Blood & Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Bareback Magazine, Broken Pencil, Red Cedar Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Turk’s Head Review, among many others.