around the world in 80 pages

Poet William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand. I see it in a bookstore located in the basement of the Mt. Lebanon Library.

The aptly named Book Cellar is a local  trove of books and baubles, games and DVDs, where I volunteer twice a month. In a typical day at the Book Cellar, I am exposed to much of what humanity has to offer, thanks to the multitude of books, diversity of people, and flurry of activities swirling around me. During my shifts, I feel transported to worlds beyond the confines of the bookshelves on the walls.

In between customers, I pick up a book from the latest topical display and leisurely page through it. It could be about Egyptian art, Syrian architecture, French cooking, Italian gardens, ancient Greece, American presidents, World War II, or the Gilded Age. Immediately I am carried away to faraway times and places.

I imagine laborers building the Pyramids of Giza under the desert’s scorching sun, merchants in Athens haggling over goods in a bustling marketplace, feisty American soldiers storming the beaches at Normandy, or the Titanic sinking in the icy waters of the North Atlantic one April night in 1912.

Another tragic April night comes to life when I browse through a book about Lincoln’s assassination on the 150th anniversary of his death.  I am removed to Ford’s Theater in 1865 watching “Our American Cousin” when shots ring out and assassin John Wilkes Booth leaps to the stage shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” before he escapes.

I am aroused from my reverie by a customer who asks, “Do you have any books containing maps of France?” Her question sparks a conversation about Paris and suddenly I am strolling down the Champs Elysees or sipping café au lait at Les Deux Magots in Saint-Germaine-des-Prés while animated Parisians with intense faces converse around me and French fashionistas in suede boots and knotted scarves pass by while trotting their poodles over to Le Parc Monceau.

I hop over to Italy from France when members of the Italian conversation group spill out of their meeting room down the hall from the bookstore. Words like “ciao” and “molto bene” and “buongiorno” flow from their tongues like olive oil drizzling over a leafy green salad. Catching these phrases, I find myself seated on a bench under a sun-drenched grapevine in Tuscany drinking wine and being serenaded by Pavarotti.

Soon I saunter over to the donation cart to deliver some books and I overhear dramatic voices in another room reciting Shakespeare in expressive tones. Must be the Readers Theater actors practicing their latest drama for an upcoming audience.

“Out, out, brief candle!” moans Macbeth in agony as he mourns Lady Macbeth’s death in his Scottish castle. “Life is but a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage…”

“Double, double toil and trouble,” chant the Three Witches, casting a sinister spell. “Fire burn, and caldron bubble.”

The spell is broken when I’m done eavesdropping on the rehearsal. Time to leave the eeriness of 11th century Scotland and return to the sales table.

A couple of women originally from China are buying coffee and candy to practice their vocabulary after attending an English language tutoring session. Once they conclude their purchases, they chatter away in Chinese, prompting me to picture myself touring a temple in Beijing or an opulent palace in the Forbidden City. Where’s the Great Wall, I want to know?

Each time I’m at the Book Cellar, I feel like I’ve traveled the globe, gone back and forth in time, and immersed myself in all the arts. So next time you are yearning to take a trip around the world without leaving home, just visit the Book Cellar or become a volunteer like me. You’ll experience more worlds in the bookstore than there are grains of sand on the beach.

For more information about the Book Cellar, visit

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