Multi award-winning US slam poet Anis Mojgani writes about the things which captivate us as children, the magic and promise books hold, and how it is to grow up in a New Orleans children's bookshop.
The pages of my childhood turned while turning the pages of children’s books inside a store that sold them. To grow up in a children’s bookshop, what is it like? Here.
The light falling through the arms of the birch and oak trees of Lowerline Street. The afterschool walk beneath them.
The banana trees bursting their bodies over the railing and steps of the porch. The leaves outside heavy and wet and warm.
The smell of books mixing with the air conditioner during the hot months, or mingling with the scent of the furnace burning dust in the cold ones. Under the metal grate set in the wooden floor, you could see its tiny blue flame dancing.
The infinity of imagined reaches stretched across the shelves. The allowed avoidance of homework because you were reading books and the afternoon of this would pass soon enough.
If the means for us to be what we are – humans – is the holding and sharing of story, and I do believe it is, then how we do this is of the utmost importance for us, whether through poem or song, through tale spun at the hearth and passed from person to person, whether told beside the fire or put down on paper and placed inside a book. And if the first part of our lives is when and how we learn how to move our hearts through this world amongst all these other hearts, then those stories we brush up against in those young years have a certain type of magic indeed.
Children’s stories and the reading of them by children are rubies in sand.
Children’s stories and the reading of them by children are rubies in sand. There is no place which feels more of home to me than when I am surrounded by books for children. The boundless possibility of story, and the gentle and undefined curiosity that moves towards that boundlessness.
My folks were buying a house so Mom was looking for a job, and the only place she really wanted to work was the bookshop she frequented on Maple Street. There were two buildings for the bookshop, situated in two shotgun houses side by side – one that housed new and used books; the other housing children’s books. And as serendipity would have it, the position in the children’s shop opened, as well as the opportunity to be a co-owner, something Mom did from the time I was three until I finished sixth grade. And so it was.
When the last school bell rung, we’d either walk straight the ten blocks straight down Willow Street to home, or cross Willow and it was six blocks down Lowerline before turning right on Maple to walk two more blocks to the bookshop. An eight block walk took what sometimes felt like hours. There were shadows to inspect and insects to marvel upon. So many stones to kick. And sometimes a book to read while you made the walk, for stories didn’t stop just because you had to walk somewhere.
What surrounds us as children shows us what the rules and boundaries of our future worlds may be.
What surrounds us as children shows us what the rules and boundaries of our future worlds may be. What I saw as a child is that there are many books bound and bought. Many books written and told. Many pictures drawn to tell a story. What I saw is that a person, like my mother, does not have to go into an office and sit and do something for someone else. That they can, like my father, and that is fine, but it is not the only path. That one is allowed to step into a job surrounded by things that bring you joy – my brother’s crib sitting ten feet from the bookstore door. Us bursting through it to ask for money for candy, before scattering amongst the shelves to see what there was to read that day. Watching your children quietly sitting in corners of a small building engrossed in the same things that had sprinkled magic into your childhood.
A wrought-iron painted black fence surrounded both shops and separated their yards. On the porch of the children’s store was a swing shaped like a strange horse – you’d grip your hands around the wooden handlebars and pull your arms to your chest and thrust your feet in the stirrups outwards, and rock back and forth like such. The steps to the porch were flanked all around by the giant, elephant ear-sized leaves of the banana trees. Between the two houses was a wide driveway (at least to childhood eyes) that stretched into the backyard. In the home of my memory, the grass, the leaves, everything green and of the earth, shines as if just washed in rain with the sun pushing its light through, showing just how thin all the bodies of the world are. The grass glows the colour of the brightest little lizards.
A bag of jelly beans from Squirrel Cage on the corner. Eating the red ones while reading. Avoiding the licorice ones. Then liking them. Then not. Then liking them and not liking them at the same time and not being sure how that is possible.
I was very particular about making sure any book I pulled out to read was put back in the exact same spot I had found it.
A cheese danish and a cup of milk with a little bit of coffee poured into it, how it became the same colour as my skin. An open book in my lap, its smooth cover touching my knees. Being mindful of the crumbs. So long as we were careful, we could read any and every book we desired. I was very particular about making sure any book I pulled out to read was put back in the exact same spot I had found it. Learning the want to leave everything, not as it was left – for anything we hold we touch – but not worse for the wear from the time spent with us.
When done, being careful to slide it between the two books on the shelf from where I had first pulled it out from, setting it back to rest the same exact distance from the edge where I had found it.
There is a doorway in the bookshop, covered in photographs pinned, taped, stuck to the wood, of people who had passed through its walls. Customers, parents, kids, authors. Arnold Lobel in an armchair, surrounded by children on the floor. Maurice Sendak, before his hair was white. Cartoons drawn by Tomi Depaulo and James Marshall.
My sister and I worked for books. I spent hours unpacking, organizing, and shelving in order to get the giant book of Brian Froud’s The Goblins of the Labyrinth. Its 25-dollar cover price seemed unachievable but I had to have that book. Mom would plunk down a box of books that needed to be sent back to the publishers. We had to tear the covers off, mail those back, and destroy the books. But we never destroyed them, that seemed a waste of still perfectly readable story. So scattered through the bookshelves of our house were also numerous coverless paperbacks.
The classical station would play over the radio. At closing time Mom would put the public radio station’s news on. It became my job to shut the tall wooden shutters out front that stretched from the porch’s floor to its ceiling. Mom entrusted me with the small key used to unlock their locks and to re-lock them once closed.
Come fall, the night would come in early. The sky turning, becoming bluer until indigo, while the wind picked up and the stars watched from some other place. The crispness of the New Orleans dark, matching the crispness of its leaves. How like a candle on cold nights the shop was.
It was a triangle of life. Sure, there was more outside the shape, but life at its core, for me and my family at that time, was our house, our school, and our bookshop. All nestled in the bend of the Mississippi River, all nestled in the trees that grew rich from the dirt heavy with its water. All mere walks from one another. The different points of the triangle blurring into one.
Life at its core, for me and my family at that time, was our house, our school, and our bookshop.
Going to the shop on the weekends, not just to read but to play on the jungle gym in its front yard. Whiling the Saturday sunlight on its porch.
Exploring the alleyway behind it, overgrown with vines, finding small treasures in the red dirt: old keys, sparkplugs, scarred coins. The body of a rat; terrified and fascinated by the worms eating their way through its bones.
Witches and clowns amassing there on Halloween. Balloons and streamers. Bobbing for apples out of the big metal washbin.
Being in the bookstore on afternoons for a signing, or on nights, when it was usually closed, for the same reason. Watching grownups gather around trays of cookies and plates of cheeses to celebrate an author completing a book and travelling to share from it with others. Turning bites of fig under my teeth, its different and delicious texture and taste. Afraid to like it, but liking it all the same.
Carrying books to school, new ones just arrived, excited to share with my classmates. Books came home with us – ones we had started and hadn’t finished yet, ones newly arrived, old favourites. And so it was. Just like back in the shop – care given to a thing, which like much in this life, was only ours for a small passage of time. Held in our hands softly, the pages turned with a soft respect, and once our time with them was done the covers brushed of any starry dust, before being returned to where they had found us.
Anis Mojgani is the author of four books, most recently, The Pocketknife Bible, a fully illustrated poetry memoir. A United States and international Poetry Slam Champion, and TEDx Speaker, he has been awarded residencies from the Vermont Studio Center, AIRSrenbe, and the Oregon WITS Program. Anis’s work has appeared on HBO, NPR, and in journals Rattle, Forklift Ohio, and Bat City Review, amongst others. Originally from New Orleans, he currently lives in Portland, Oregon.
Watch the TEDx on YouTube