Old and Rare

On a bawdy stretch of Telephone Road, Colleen Urbanek sells used books. Real books. Without pictures of naked women. And her customers are satisfied anyway.

The last time that Colleen Urbanek forgot where she was, she was walking across her parking lot, on the way to the mailbox. The sun was bright and the breeze was cool, and she couldn't help herself. She said to the first person she met, "Isn't this a beautiful day?"

"What's your problem?" the whore snarled.
Colleen could have discussed how hard it was to locate a good first edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, or she could have mentioned that she was trying to find a buyer for a 130-year-old copy of Swinburne's Love Poetry. Instead, she said nothing. She realized again that you can't talk beauty with a whore, and she just smiled, mailed her mail and returned across the pavement that so often is littered with condoms, back to her bookstore behind bars.

"This must be the place," said the sign on the door. "It's the only place anywhere near this place that even looks like this place."

You risk your eternal soul getting to Colleen's. The descent down Telephone Road takes you past dark taverns and shining pawn shops, past Stars Adult Movie Theatre and the shop called Adult Books and all those other adult places that serve your adolescent desires. Eventually, you come to La Cinema Motel, and if you don't rent a room for an hour there, you can turn right just beyond it, into the small strip center that is mostly Colleen's Books.

Twenty-five years ago this month, when she opened the store, her friends told her she was crazy to try to sell books with words in them on Telephone Road. She said that if her books were the right books, the right people would come. And they did. Expensive cars from faraway neighborhoods began appearing in front of Colleen's store, and her neighbors began to wonder about Colleen.

"You can't tell me she don't have girls in the back," a barber once told one of her customers.

"Why you say that?" the customer asked.
"Ain't no one going in there but men," the barber observed. "You know that many men ain't going in just to read books."

But it seemed to be so, for no one ever saw the girls. The men came and went with their books, and the store began to grow like nothing around it. When the barber abandoned his shop, Colleen's Books quickly poured into the void. Beyond that was an insurance business, and after Hurricane Alicia washed it into bankruptcy, Colleen was there to fill that space, too. She kept prospering, and the neighbors kept wondering. Even now, Colleen remains a mystery on Telephone Road -- the woman who makes her living by appealing to a man's mind.

"If I looked like Loni Anderson, it would be one thing," she said, "but I think they come for the books."

Then the telephone rang. Colleen laughed and said to the man on the other end, "Yes, this is The Luscious One. What can I do for you?"

They also call her "Big Mama." She is addressed by one man as "Oh Beautiful Pearl of the Orient." Seventy-eight years old, Colleen is a big-boned woman with long, gray hair pinned to her head and a face that alternately glowers and glows. Of all the books on her desk, it is the one by Molly Ivins that she is reading. She has a man's mind, says her younger sister. Lucille Ferguson says she's always been scared of Colleen, because she was never the type to take nothing off of nobody. But Colleen says it wasn't until she opened the bookstore in her fifties that she really became herself.

As a girl in Fayetteville, Arkansas, she played all the sports that boys play, and she was comfortable beating them until she began outgrowing them, and then she began walking slumped over. She became captain of the women's rifle team at the University of Arkansas, and because her father said chemistry was the future, she became a very poor scholar of chemistry. Always a heavy reader, she was able to boost her grades with English classes, and it was shortly after graduation that Colleen met "the sum'bitch I married."

"He was a cruel, quiet man," she said, "the kind the neighbors say was such a nice man -- 'he always mowed the lawn.' " He was careful the first time he harmed her not to leave bruises, but that was the last time, too, because Colleen managed to put him in jail and to take the family car and drive away to Houston forever.

It was 1942, and many men were away at war, and such as she was, Colleen became one of the first women chemists to be employed at the Shell refinery. She even excelled in the position, and she had been promoted into the research lab when a chemical engineer offered her a life of leisure. He was a loud, harmless man who eventually became deeply involved with Dale Carnegie, but she liked the sound of his proposal, and in 1949, she accepted and began exploring the world of housewifery.

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