As told by Frederick Thornton
I was on my way to the train station and home to Arlington Heights when I noticed The Olde Book Shoppe up ahead on Jackson Boulevard. I’d walked this way many times on my visits to Chicago’s Loop, but for the life of me, I could not remember ever having seen this bookstore before.
I saw the “Christmas Sale” sign in the display window, so I stopped and smiled when I saw a dog-eared copy of The Poky Little Puppy on display along with other familiar children’s books of a bygone day, many of which I had in my collection when I was a kid. Then I noticed a beautiful Tiffany style shade hanging over a round table inside the shop, illuminating an assortment of books displayed on the table.
It was cold and windy standing outside looking in on this warm cozy scene, so I looked at my watch and decided to go in until it was time to leave for my train.
I did not want to miss this train as I was meeting my parents and we were going out to the farm to see Grandma Thornton. She had been ailing and we wanted to make sure she had a great Christmas. Her doctors didn’t think she would last long so we planned on celebrating early. My Aunt Rita had moved in and was caring for her.
A tiny bell jingled as I opened and closed the shop door, and then I saw him … an elderly man behind a counter arranging more books. “Ah, good afternoon to you, young man.”
“Hi.” I smiled at this old fellow and felt as if I knew him, he seemed so familiar.
“You look chilled to the bone. Help yourself to a cup of tea over on that table. A nice hot cup will warm your fingers.”
I was taken in by his friendly demeanor, “Thank you. I think I will.”
“Are you looking for anything in particular?”
“Oh, no. I was on my way to the train station. Thought I’d browse a little if that’s all right.”
“Browsing is good. I’m sure you’ll find a treasure hidden away amongst all these books. And there’s a loft filled with even more books.” He pointed upward.
For some reason, I felt I had already found a treasure in this time-worn man. His unkempt white hair which needed a good brushing, the wrinkled white shirt under a leather apron bespoke of another time, another place. But it was his crystal blue eyes, peering at me over those gold-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose that caught me. He seemed to radiate a love for life I seldom sensed in others except for my Grandpa.
“My name is Morris. I’ll be in the back if you require assistance. Please, make yourself at home.”
“Thank you, Morris.” I poured a cup of tea and sat at the round table in the center of the room, warming my chilled fingers on the steaming cup.
As I enjoyed the comfort of the moment, I thought I heard sleigh bells. It was muffled but there was no question what it was. As a child, I spent long winter weekends on my grandparent’s farm in central Illinois, and had ridden in their horse-drawn sleigh many times. Grandpa always had old Bess decorated with many sleigh bells which added to the joy of the journey.
The cheerful sound of the bells continued but I could not figure out where it was coming from. Was it one of the books on the table? That seemed unlikely. But still … there was no other place this sound could be coming from. I moved some of the smaller books out of the way until I came to a large leather-bound volume with pages edged in gold leaf. The title, The Magic of Fairy Tales, brought back more childhood memories.
I pulled the book forward and noticed a pair of white cotton gloves wedged under the cover. I pulled them out and put them on. This was obviously an old and valuable book. I placed the book on its spine and let it open to a page of its own choosing. The sound of the sleigh bells was less muffled now but it was definitely coming from this book.
The story on the left-hand page was of Jack and the Beanstalk, and a beautiful rendering of Jack, himself, climbing the beanstalk on the right-hand page. For an instant, I thought I saw Jack’s eyes blink but dismissed the idea as ridiculous as I turned the page.
Cinderella was next with a beautiful illustration. I thought I saw tiny birds flitting on the edge of the page as I turned it. Next came Sleeping Beauty, and then Little Red Riding Hood. But when I turned that page over, something different was going on. The sound of the sleigh bells was very clear as if they were right next to me. The illustration was kind of a blur, but on closer inspection, it appeared to be an illustration of falling snow.
Then I saw the title on the left-hand page and gasped. It read GRANDPA THORNTON. Before I could begin reading the text beneath the title, the illustration began to take on movement. I was startled at first, but the snow was falling so gently, it quieted my anxiety.
Somewhere in the shop, a clock began to slowly chime the hour. I had plenty of time to finish my adventure with this book. As I continued to watch the snowfall, the illustration took on all the qualities of a motion picture and the bells sounded as if they were coming closer. I drew back slightly when a beautiful prancing horse, drawing an old sleigh, came into view.
I could not believe my eyes. It looked just like Grandpa’s sleigh. I looked closely at the driver and, without thinking, yelled, “GRANDPA!”
The driver pulled on the reins, “Whoa, Bess whoa, old girl.” The driver turned and looked directly at me, “Hey. Is that you, Little Haystack?”
“Yes, Grandpa, it’s me. I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to be with you when you fell ill.”
“Well, I’m not ill now. Everything is different here. Quiet and beautiful. I’m waiting for your grandmother to come over. She’s hanging on for some reason. If you see her, tell her for me to let go. I’m here to catch her.”
“I will Grandpa. I’m on my way to see her.”
“That’s great news. Now, I gotta go but always remember, if you need me, just think of me and I’ll be there to help any way I can.”
“I will, Grandpa. I will. I’m so happy to see you again.”
“Likewise, Freddie. Now you take care.”
“I will. I promise.”
Okay, Bess, Giddyup. Merry Christmas, Little Haystack.” Bess moved forward and the sound of sleigh bells resumed.
“Merry Christmas, Grandpa.”
I had completely forgotten where I was and was somewhat taken aback when I heard slippers shuffling across the back room floorboards. I looked at my watch, closed the fairy tale book, took the gloves off and laid them on top of the book as Morris stepped into the room.
“Oh, gosh. I gotta go. Thank you for the tea, Morris.”
“You are most welcome. I hope you found something interesting.”
“Oh, I did. I certainly did. Thank you.” As I left the bookshop, the muffled sound of those bells followed me to the Canal Street Bridge.
Before I crossed the bridge, I stopped and glanced back. The Olde Book Shoppe was gone. My jaw dropped, but then I began to smile when I realized what had just happened to me.
A light snow began to fall as I dashed across the bridge. As I ran, I laughed and wished Morris and the whole world a very Merry Christmas.