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 of me on Jackson Boulevard. I’d walked this way on my many visits to Chicago’s Loop, but for the life of me, I could not remember ever having seen this bookstore before.
When I saw the “Christmas Sale” sign in the display window, 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 the light from a beautiful Tiffany style shade inside the shop, illuminating a round table filled with an assortment of books.
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. 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 that 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 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 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.”
“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.”
For some reason, I felt I had already found a treasure in this time-worn man. His unkempt white hair, wrinkled white shirt under a leather apron bespoke of another time, another place. But it was his crystal blue eyes, looking 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 think I will.” I poured a cup of tea and sat down at the round table in the center of the room and warmed my chilled fingers on the warming cup.
As I sat there enjoying 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 grandfather’s farm in central Illinois and had ridden in his horse-drawn sleigh many times. He 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 random page. The sound of the sleigh bells was less muffled than before.
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 clear and loud as if they were right next to me. The illustration was kind of a blur. On closer inspection, it appeared to be a picture of falling snow.
Then I saw the title on the left-hand page and gasped. It read GRANDPA THORNTON. Before I could even begin reading the text under the title, the illustration began to take on movement. The snow was falling ever so lightly. The illustration took on all the qualities of a motion picture when a prancing horse drawing a beautiful sleigh came into view.
I could not believe my eyes. It looked just like Grandpa’s sleigh. I looked closely at the driver and 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 out 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, Haystack.” Bess moved forward and the sound of sleigh bells resumed.
“Merry Christmas, Grandpa.”
I was somewhat startled 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, I could still hear the muffled sound of those sleigh bells.
Before I crossed the Canal Street Bridge, I glanced back and stopped dead in my tracks. 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.