There’s a small strip mall on Saddle River Road, half a mile from the house I grew up in. After the small diner that capped the south end, there was a bike shop that always left its back door open for neighborhood kids to pump up their bike tires with their shop compressor. After that, there’s a hair salon, and then a small pharmacy, still open despite the mega-chain-pharmacy across town. For those into ultra-thin-crust pizza, there was Ness Pizza. The last store at the end of the building was The Paperback Trader.
I would ride up the sketchy shoulder of Saddle River Road for half a mile, pass the office of Dr. Tusk, D.D.S., and lock my bike up to a drainpipe in the small alley between the Paperback Trader and the optometrist’s office next door. The front door of this tiny, dusty heaven always had a bell on it, and the science-fiction section was smack in the center of the front room. After passing through the gates of media tie-in fiction, I rode home one day with a beat-up copy of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. It wasn’t my first exposure to good science-fiction; I had previously read A Martian Odyssey in Isaac Asimov’s anthology Where Do We Go From Here, on loan from my Uncle. I would later discover Dangerous Visions and The Best of the Nebulas, two other wonderful anthologies of mind-bending science-fiction, but this book was the first to give me a feel for the field as a whole.
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame had stories like Arthur C. Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God. Roger Zelazny’s A Rose for Ecclesiastes, Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll, and James Blish’s Surface Tension. Lester del Rey’s disturbing and uncomfortable Helen O’ Loy. When we read the Flowers for Algernon in school, I had already been through this tragic story several times, as well as the novel.
At the time, Uncle Steve was still building ships in bottles, I hadn’t yet learned to play the piano (and hadn’t yet broken one of the middle-C strings), and I was probably painting a mural of the George Washington Bridge on yellow paper in Mrs. Adesserman’s third-grade class. Everybody else got to draw cars and buildings, but I was the one asked to draw the bridge. I got odd looks for weeks because of that.
My folks introduced me to Ian Summers, a friend of a cousin, and the co-author/designer of Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials. The richly-illustrated “profiles” of alien races were taken from science-fiction novels, and that book led me to Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, and Piers Anthony’s Cluster books. (I also sampled Stanislew Lem, Alan Dean Foster, James Tiptree, Jr., E. E. “Doc” Smith, Fred Hoyle, and James White.) Mr. Summers autographed a copy of Barlowe’s Guide. That book has since fallen apart, but I saved the autographed page and tucked it into the copy I now own.
When I was 11 or 12, I received a manilla envelope from a former grade school teacher — he had left the Fair Lawn school system, to our loss, but stayed in touch with my family. The envelope included a letter and a copy of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. “I think you’ll enjoy this”, he wrote. I’ve since turned two paperback copies into piles of loose paper, and have read through my hardcover at least twice.
I’m now going through our paperbacks, keeping many of them, donating others. I’ve been reading general fiction, non-fiction, and what is referred to as “literature” for decades, but this book was one of the first I loved reading, and I remember it fondly even though I have found anthologies with better stories. I keep thinking about my blue Raleigh, and that trip to the moldy basement SF/fantasy room of the Paperback Trader.