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.
Popek has successfully reacquainted several finds with their owners. One time, a hand-painted cloth bookmark signed by artist Ingrid Kirn appeared on the blog and was discovered, thanks to the beauty of a Google Alert that Kirn had set up for her own name; this past June, a woman in Scotland discovered on the blog a recipe for maple sugar that had been handwritten by her mother and tucked inside an old 1970s recipe book. She didn’t ask for it back, but Popek returned it to her nonetheless.
Surprisingly, Popek said, not everyone wants to be reconnected with their past. “I once found this couple’s entire history. Every anniversary is marked with little handmade books that the husband made for his wife,” he said. “All these letters showing love and affection over 30 or 40 years. I managed to track down one of the sons, who was a bus driver in Vermont. I spent literally hours finding this person, but he had no interest.… As far as he was concerned, it went in the estate sale. He’d moved on. I still have the box somewhere. I couldn’t toss it or give it to the Goodwill. It’s back in the storage building.”
Lest you think Popek is any different from the rest of us mortals, on the very day that “Forgotten Bookmarks” was published, he posted on his blog:
“Today’s post is a personal one, I came across this paperback biography of Ted Williams while I was sorting through our baseball section. There’s a gift inscription, from my grandfather to me, dated 1986. He passed away a few years ago…. I like to think he’d be proud of me today.”
The inscription reads, “to michael peter popek, give it your best — love you. Natan ‘Poppy’ popek.”
In a time when more and more of our interactions and memories are created and exist solely online, there is an added beauty to Popek’s discoveries. For when the generation of Facebook love-letter writers die, there will be no magical shoebox to end up in Popek’s hands, no way for future generations to pick up an actual letter penned with a real pen by a real person expressing a real sentiment.
Nicola Behrman is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles and runs the blogs www.poetry-post.com and weseehearts.tumblr.com.