You know how easily it happens (or happened, back in the day when people read actual books): You’d use your grandmother’s favorite chicken soup recipe or the only negative of the twins’ birth from the 1950s as a bookmark, then you’d get busy with the twins or the chicken soup, and you’d put down the book three-quarters of the way through. A few months pass, and the book goes into a pile of things to finish, then ends up quietly back on the bookcase, where it sits for a couple of decades until you decide it’s time for a quick spring cleanup. And suddenly the book you never quite finished, with the only negative of the picture of the twins’ birth and Bubbe’s favorite chicken soup recipe, has been delivered to the local used bookstore.
Or, if you’re lucky — or unlucky, depending on how much you value your privacy — your precious bookmark, the high school letter in which undying love was expressed along with an appreciation of the way your hair looked in the moonlight in 1949, will fall into the hands of Michael Popek, manager of the family-owned Popek’s Used and Rare Books in upstate Oneida, New York. Popek lovingly explores every page of every secondhand book that passes through his store. Now, he has compiled his findings in a new book, “Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller’s Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages.”
Thanks to his meticulous sourcing, those of us who love nothing more than the idea of snooping through other people’s journals and attics will find between these pages much of what we dream of discovering: love letters; hate letters; letters to mothers from sons overseas during the war; letters to mothers from sons asking for money; strident letters to mothers from sons explaining that they will be proposing to their girlfriends, regardless of their parents’ approval. In essence, everything that we turn on the TV to get, but love nothing more than discovering in private.
Popek’s journey began in 2007, when he started sending images of his finds to a few close friends. In response to their clamoring for more, he started an online museum of sorts, forgottenbookmarks.com, containing letters, ticket stubs, photographs, four-leaf clovers and anything else you can imagine fitting between two leaves of paper. As these modern stories tend to go, suddenly people he had never met started commenting on his findings, and the website developed a fan base.
“People just like to see little pictures of someone else’s life,” Popek explained. “We are human, and our brains work in funny ways. We find a recipe, and we imagine a grandmother in her kitchen, hearing it on the radio, writing it down and stuffing it into her cookbook; I make [up] stories like that all the time in my head. These little things are like miniature time capsules.”
Popek’s findings range from the profoundly appropriate W.B. Yeats poem “A Prayer for My Daughter,” found in a book aptly titled “Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-mutilation,” to the mind-boggling letter signed by French author and philosopher Albert Camus in 1959, written just 17 days before his own death, urging an American professor to take up the plight of refugees from the Spanish Civil War, found decades later in a copy of his famous “L’Etranger.” The findings include a letter written on a prescription pad for the antipsychotic drug Haldol, tucked neatly into a book titled “The Living Talmud,” in which someone named Rena informs Max and Ilse that they instead of the Goodmans will now be Rena’s guests for a Sabbath dinner in December; and a Hanukkah song sheet and a clipping of a New York Times newspaper article titled “Holy Land’s Treasures Come Home to New York at Last,” both found in a copy of “The Jews in Their Land” by David Ben-Gurion.