A Story Idea Each Day for a Month — Day 13

This is the eighth year in a row I've run this series in April. Last week I provided a daily explanation about why you should make it a habit to be generating story ideas. This week, I'll give you some tips on how to come up with stories.

Tip: Obituaries.

When it comes down to it, people live extraordinary lives. And obituaries summarize those lives in nice, neat packages. For some examples, go here.

So if you're stuck for story ideas? Hit the obits.

Today's story: He Fixes the Cracked Spines of Books, Without an Understudy.

ISSAQUAH, Wash. — Sometimes a book just gets loved to death. A Bible, or a copy of "Charlotte's Web," for that matter, can be opened only so many times, even by the gentlest reader, before its spine weakens and surrenders.

And here is a dirty little secret: Public libraries, despite their reputations for hushed wonder about the written word, can be rough places. Automated sorting machines, whirring conveyor belts and hard bins can break a book and shorten its life.

Donald Vass, who has spent the last 26 years mending and tending to books for the King County Public Library system here in the Seattle area, has seen both mechanical and human-inflicted damage and more. At 57 and with not many years left before retirement, he says he believes he will be the last full-time traditional bookbinder ever to take up shears, brushes and needles here. The skills take too long to learn, he said, and no one is being groomed to take his place in "the mendery," Room 111 at the library's central service center, where not so many years ago 10 people worked.

His is an ancient craft, and across many public library systems, a fading one.

I'm a sucker stories about people with such obscure gigs. In college, I remember visiting an old gentleman in Charlottesville, Virginia from whose cramped office he supplied quill pens to the United States Supreme Court. So when I read this article on Donald Vass, my storytelling ears perked up.

Mr. Vass said the skills of book mending took him 15 years to master — how to diagnose a book's ills, what to patch and what to leave alone, how to hide evidence of a repair. He uses hypodermic needles to shoot bits of wheat paste into the corners of dog-eared covers to stiffen them, and an old-fashioned screw press to hold pages in place while adhesives dry.

He talks of his repaired books — 60 to 80 a month — as if they were children heading out into a dangerous, unpredictable world.

"I'm reluctant, many times, to send them out because I know what they're going to be up against," said Mr. Vass, a soft-spoken man who is used to working alone.

Here's where my mind went. Imagine a book mender. Let's call him Max. The last of a generation. A dying breed. Has his own business. Dingy, dark office in, let's say, Boston. He has no wife. No children. Few friends. Just he, his tools, his know-how, and… books.

He's seen a lot of books come his way in 40 years of plying his trade. The one he is just now finishing up is quite curious. He doesn't recognize the language, but appears to be Arabic. Even more unusual, there are handwritten notes along the spine. Max shrugs. He's certainly seen plenty of scribbling and graffiti in books during his years. Displeases him. But a job is a job, especially if he's getting paid as work is getting less and less.

He wraps up the book per instructions forwarded to him. Another unusual thing. Instead of using UPS or Fed Ex for delivery, he is to walk the book several blocks and hand deliver it.

Which he does. Knocks on the door of the brownstone. No answer. He gets the feeling he's being watched. Doesn't see anything. Then his phone buzzes. A text. "Put book through mail slot."

That's surprising. Still no sign of anyone. Pushes the wrapped book through the door's mail slot. Thump as it lands on the other side. He shrugs, then trudges back toward his office.

One week passes. He arrives one morning. Opens his office when a phalanx of men in suits spring out of black limousines. They shoulder him into his office and interrogate him:

Where is it?
The book.
What book?
The one you fixed and hand delivered.
There are many books…
The one in Arabic…

Suddenly… BOOM!

An explosion!

The building erupts with flames and smoke, books like so much shrapnel flying everywhere.

Knocked to the ground and bleeding from a forehead wound, Max staggers to his feet. His interrogators… all of them seemingly dead.

He hears a gunshot.
Stumbles outside.

Yelling… in Arabic.

Max lurches away as a crowd gathers and sirens wail.

More voices in Arabic… yelling.
Another gunshot.

He veer down a narrow alley, one he's familiar with.
Slams open the door to a long abandoned office.
Tumbles to the floor.

Gunfire. Explosion. Screams. Yelling. Arabic.

Max finds himself on the run… not a clue what's going on.

Whatever was written in the book Max repaired appears to have been some sort of code for a terrorist cell. And he is the only known link to it.

He is a complete underdog except…

He has skilled hands.
He knows books.
And given the nature of his work, he has an elevated capacity to concentrate.

How will he figure out the mystery?
How will he survive?

It's Three Days of the Condor meets Marathon Man.

There you go: My thirteenth story idea for the month. And it's yours. Free!

What would you do with this story idea?

Each day this month, I invite you to click on RESPONSES and join me to do some further brainstorming. Take each day's story idea and see what it can become when you play around with it. These are all valuable skills for a writer to develop.

See you in comments. And come back tomorrow for another Story Idea Each Day For A Month.

For other posts in my A Story Idea Each Day for a Month (2017) series, go here.

A Story Idea Each Day for a Month — Day 13 was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

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