quila Volker eased his Vauxhall sedan into the parallel parking space across the street from the Village Bookshop. That he found this particular space seemed like a divine confirmation of his mission. Foot traffic in the village was nearly always light, but automobiles were constantly vehiculating through the narrow streets, their drivers scouting for places to park. Aquila did not put this windfall in the category of a miracle, and he chided himself for his fleeting thought that God had saved this space for him. After all, no sooner had he turned off the engine than other cars passed from both directions not wholly dissimilar from the way sharks buzz a tuna with a nosebleed. Except they were not Elasmobranchii, but machines driven by real people who might have been able to use the space more than Aquila. No, he thought, God didn’t favour me more than them just because I was able to park.
Having salved his theological conscience, he hopped out onto the kerb and locked the Vauxhall. A sense of dread came and went as he placed his hand on the door handle of the bookshop. Freshly pensioned off, Aquila was new to the community and had heard the reputation of the two women who ran the shop. He had been warned that they stocked strange titles that were conspicuously absent from most bestseller lists, but neither would they deserve to be called classics. They carried many first novels and books of regional interest. In short, though they were in business they were definitely not in business to succeed. From these wisps of evidence Aquila’s acquaintances had extrapolated that the book purveyors were fantastical feminist types who ran a bookshop for the experience. Tossing aside his misgivings, he opened the door and entered the shop. He refused to be deterred from his idea to get to know people in his community.
Upon stepping onto the polished wood floor Aquila’s eye was immediately drawn to the till on the desk at the back of the shop, whilst with his peripheral vision he noticed the typical wooden shelves of books lining the walls of the room. Waist-high islands of tabletop shelves loomed as obstacles to any who would make their way easily to the back. Atop these cays volumes appeared in stacks, though at the same time they were definitely arranged to attract the would-be reader. Aquila navigated these deftly and stepped confidently to the sales register, behind which a bespectacled middle aged woman, her dark hair attractively streaked with grey, scrutinised a clipboard.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I wonder if you could help me?”
“But of course,” the woman replied in a piping voice. “Are you looking for a particular title or author?”
“Not exactly. I was told you supply the books for a number of book clubs hereabouts.”
The woman smiled knowingly, showing teeth that Aquila thought looked like the glazed white of Delftware. He loved the blue part of Delftware more, but the thought crossed his mind that the former colour was more appropriate for teeth. “Why yes,” she intoned, “We do. Are you picking up an order for your wife?”
“Well no,” said Aquila. “I’m not married. No, actually I guess I am not asking about any book in particular. You see, I’m new in the village and I thought joining a book club might be a good way to get to know people–and perhaps have some stimulating discussions. Would you have suggestions about book clubs I might join?’
The Delftware smile melted into a wistful expression that drew Aquila’s eyes to her own. As if on cue, she removed her glasses and laid them with the clipboard on top of the desk. Her eyes were the colour of mahogany. Was that natural? “Why yes,” she said slowly. “I agree that is a wonderful way to meet people, Mister…?”
“Yes, well Mr. Volker, as I was saying that is a good way to meet people, except in our village there are neither any clubs designed for men nor to my knowledge do any of the clubs have men in them. I am not sure if the clubs really exclude men, but if one were to admit you on the off-chance, would you really want to join?”
Aquila had always envisioned a men’s book club, but would not have been deterred by one that was co-ed. However, he had no desire to be a pioneer in any case. He was disappointed.
“Don’t men read in this village?” Aquila blurted out. “Oh, I don’t mean they’re illiterate (at this word the woman raised her eyebrows with a slight shrug of the shoulders) or anything, I just mean I can’t believe they don’t discuss what they read.”
“If I may be frank, Mr. Volker, very few of the men of this village even come into our shop though they are certainly welcome. Those that do come seem to be looking for, well, certain stories more than anything else.”
He thought that surely she could not be referring to porn but said, “History?”
“Well some, but mostly novels with action I would say, but perhaps some historical novels. The Civil War, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Espionage seem to be the preferences. And for some reason if one does not share their passion for these things, one does not find these readers well…enjoyable companions if you know what I mean.”
“You mean they are intolerable bores, and loners?”
She smiled again. “Precisely. I was trying to be delicate, but I am afraid you put much better words to it. I just don’t know the other men, many of whose wives are in book clubs.”
“Clubs that don’t admit men.”
“And if they did admit men, especially single ones, the husbands might not be so happy.”
“Mr. Volker, you are not slow in your perceptions!” She said this not condescendingly, but almost with affection.
Aquila felt like taking a risk. He placed his hands on the desk and leaned in slightly. He looked to his right and his left quickly and said, in a whisper, “What are we going to do about it?”
She giggled like a schoolgirl. “Oh, Mr. Volker! I like the way your mind works! Would you like to start a men’s book club of your own? We would love to publicise it, and I would love to work with you on some selections!”
“Call me Aquila.”
And that was the birth of the Old Gentleman’s Reading Experiment.