A Bookstore on the Eve of War

I hadn’t thought of the Book Haven for many years, until a few days ago when I visited a newly-opened antiquarian bookstore in our small Indiana town of Chesterton. Browsing the stacks, inhaling the scents of leather, paper and ink, I recalled the myriad bookstores I had visited over the years.

The Book Haven belonged to the winter of 1941. War engulfed Europe and the Nazis had conquered Poland and France. That previous October, Italian armies had invaded Greece, and after months of fighting, the Greeks had driven them back into Albania. The Nazis were expected to come to the aid of Mussolini. Most Americans accepted that the U.S. would soon enter the war. The faces of people one passed on the street seemed grim and resigned.

The Book Haven was a small cramped shop in a row of dark and empty stores below the looming structure of the elevated tracks at Woodlawn and 63rd Street. The location was a poor one and most of the other businesses in that block had closed.

The bookstore stood midway between my family’s apartment and the betting handbook. Twice a day I passed the shabby display of books in the store’s window, but my thoughts were on horses not books.

On a day in early January, a cold wind whipping my cheeks, seeking a sanctuary, I stopped in the store. The rusty hinges of the door creaked as I entered.

Set within drab, unpainted walls were several ceiling to floor bookshelves filled with books. A small counter held a cash box, and near it was a circular oak table where a man sat hunched over a chessboard.

He appeared in in his late twenties, sandy-haired with a gaunt, somber face. After nodding at me in greeting, he bent back to his game. When I selected a one-dollar copy of Walt Whitman’s poems and took it to the table, without looking up from the board, he called out, “Viv!”

A young woman came through a curtain from the rear of the store. She was pretty with short blond hair and soft pale skin.

“I’m Vivian,” she said with a beguiling smile as she took my dollar. “The chess player is my husband, Jacob.”

I stopped in again a few days later and found Jacob as I had left him, hunched over his chessboard. As I browsed the stacks, he asked if I played chess. I told him I did, stressing that I was a beginner.

“Want to play a game?”

I sat down across from him and we began to play. He beat me swiftly and easily.

“You’re too good for me.”

“You’ll get better,” Jacob said.

This began my daily visits to the bookstore with chess replacing gambling. I kept losing, but after a time, our games lasted a little longer.

I rarely saw a customer enter the store. Jacob explained how they survived. “Viv and I live in back,” he said, “so the store is our home, as well. I had some money saved from my teaching, and knowing I would end up in the Army, I decided to hell with it. I’d always wanted to own a bookstore and so, while I’m waiting, this is what I’m doing.”

Jacob spoke gloomily about the future. “We’ll be in the war this spring or summer,” he said. “I had ROTC in school so I’ll be among the first they draft. I’ll also be among the first killed. So what’s the use?”

“Don’t you think we need to stop the Nazis?”

“Of course we do!” Jacob said gravely. “Hitler is a murderer who is killing so many, including butchering my kinsmen. But after he’s gone, other tyrants will rise and there will be more wars. War is nature’s way of controlling the population so the earth doesn’t become overcrowded.”

Jacob was several years older than I was and had been a teacher, so I accepted his projection.

During my visits, I met several of Jacob’s friends who dropped by to play chess. Webb was a tall, lean young man with auburn hair who worked part-time as a mechanic. The other man, Chris, was short and muscular and had recently left his job in the steel mills.

That winter the four of us played chess through the afternoon and into the evening, drank coffee, smoked cigarettes. We were using chess as a way to overcome the tension of waiting.

“I’d like the Navy,” Chris said. “No muddy trenches without a bath for weeks. As long as our ship stays afloat, we’ll be clean.”

“When you are facing the enemy, a tank provides the most protection,” Webb said.

“I’ll take the Air Force.” Jacob said. “Soaring up there in God’s pasture while poor souls battle in armies below.”

Chris said. “If the country goes to war, I think I might enlist. Maybe get a head start so I can get promoted before the draft brings in a mob.”

“I’m not in any rush,” Jacob said. “Whenever they call me, I’ll still be old enough to die.”

There were days, the four of us bent over our boards, when hours passed without anyone speaking a word. During breaks in our games, Vivian brought us liverwurst and cheese sandwiches with cold lemonade. On those rare occasions when a customer entered, without raising his head, Jacob would call, “Viv…”

While we ate we listened to the radio. Joe Louis was our champion since his rematch with Max Schmeling, when he destroyed the Nazi in the first round. We avidly listened to his fights. We listened to baseball and football. We also listened to mellow-voiced Frank Sinatra singing with the orchestra of Tommy Dorsey.

Radio let us follow the somber news on the escalating war. The rounding up of Jews in Paris by the Nazis and the mass killing of Jews in Romania. In April, we heard the news of the Greek surrender to the Nazis and the German occupation of Athens.

“Your people put up a magnificent fight,” Jacob said. “You should be proud.” Webb said.

As I acknowledged their praise, I hoped I’d make as good a soldier as my Greek compatriots had shown themselves to be.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in December of that year, America joined the war, which lasted four years until the Nazis were defeated and until Japan surrendered following the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Upon America’s declaration of war, our time as a small group came to an end. Chris went into the infantry, fighting through several campaigns until he was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. Webb joined the Marines and made it safely through the war. A few years later when I ran into a friend who knew him, I was told Webb was in a VA hospital in Pennsylvania suffering emotional wounds from the battles he had fought in the Pacific, including the bloody landing at Tarawa.

Neither Jacob nor I played any part in the war. I was rejected from service because of scar tissue on my lungs from childhood tuberculosis. Jacob had also been rejected for reasons I never learned. He had returned to teaching and, the last I heard, was a professor of English literature at UCLA.

So that is how my visit to a new bookstore made me remember the somber winter of 1941 and the dingy bookstore under the elevated tracks. In that cramped enclosure where customers rarely entered, I was one of four young men playing numberless games of chess, waiting for our futures to unfold.


Harry Mark Petrakis is the author of numerous books, most recently Song of My Life (University of South Carolina Press, 2014). He submitted this essay, which originally appeared in the Chicago Sun Times, for publication in The National Herald.



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