Sometimes they come back on time. We sort them, plop them in place on the cart, and ship them back to the shelves to be handled and picked over. But too often, they’re overdue. Occasionally they show up with a handful of coins. No note. No “sorry”. Others never pay their fines; we just find the books in the outside bin.
After they’ve been gone for a long time, the pages are usually creased and wrinkled, the corners bent—even on sturdy, library bound specimens, and all too often they have water damage. But I like to use the phrase “liquid damage” because you can never be too sure what caused those stains, especially when they’re discolored or dark.
The stains bother me. Total lack of respect.
Once, a young woman with fresh stitches and a black eye brought a self-help book back with some of those dark stains. She handed it to me, offered a weak grin, and shuffled out without a word. The book was only overdue by two days. She never paid the fine.
Sometimes the books come back, but sometimes they don’t.
So yes, we look. We search. We make every effort to find our missing books. I’ve scoured abandoned houses, located volumes tucked in furniture at Goodwill, and tracked down a particularly valuable copy of Alice in Wonderland in a bowling alley bathroom. A few years ago, I found a few volumes of Dickens, torn into strips and shreds and stuffed into a dog kennel behind old man Bernard’s place. He had used early illustrated copies of David Copperfield and Great Expectations with a gilt pressed covers for dog bedding, and he only raised mutts.
Some of those volumes are so battered and stained, even destroyed, recovery becomes a symbolic act.
But even worse than the stains, even those dark smudges which just might be human blood, is when I can’t find the books at all. Sometimes they disappear without any trail, and those…those are the ones that really bother me.