Old and Rare

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.

"I was thrilled to death," she recalled. "I was going to play all the bridge I wanted."

So she cleaned and decorated, became a good cook and an excellent seamstress. She painted and did needlework. She went shopping and lunching and playing bridge with her housewife friends. And she became profoundly bored. The ladies turned out to be horrible bridge players. On the day she was dealt the best hand of her life, her partner laid down her cards face up in order to gossip, and after that, Colleen never played with them again.

She realized gradually that she didn't like these housewife friends. She came to believe that she really didn't like women, as a group, and they didn't like her.

"They feel that I'm not nice. I hate that word," said Colleen. "I've always had a bawdy mind."

This is what led her, perhaps, to fashion a pen name from a box of condoms and to try her hand at writing romances. The genre is like Pepto-Bismol, she explained. "I can't drink anything that pink." So she tried to write a romance that she would like to read. When she was done, the publisher told her it had possibilities, if only she removed the humor. But Colleen couldn't speak of love without humor, and she allowed the idea to die.

One Sunday morning in 1971, bored to the core of her soul, she sat reading the classifieds, looking for something to do. Under "Business Opportunities," there it was -- "Bookstore for Sale."

"And that was something that I'd never thought about -- getting my books wholesale," she said.

It was only the inventory of a bookstore that was for sale, and she set about looking for a place to put it. Her husband was shocked ("He's lived in a state of shock since he married me," she said), but he agreed to help get a bookstore off the ground if that's what his lady wanted to do.

She inquired at the Galleria. She considered a space in Rice Village. Then she found a sunny spot just a mile from her home, with plenty of parking and a very good rate. And that's where Colleen deposited her books and relieved 22 years of boredom.

Long before the whores settled in to feed, Telephone Road was a working-class part of town, an area populated by laborers and truck drivers, people more concerned with trying to live than with understanding life.

When Colleen announced plans to sell literature out there, her Inner Loop acquaintances were aghast. They said she was out of her mind; she believed she had never been more lucid. If selling words on Telephone Road meant a shortage of customers, well, the prospect of being alone in a room of books did not frighten her at all.

Not at least until that morning in the first year when a plump girl of about 17 came into the store, looking, she said, for a gift for her boyfriend. She called Colleen "ma'am" as she laid her selections on the counter. Colleen took a $20 bill to make change, and when the register was open, she heard in her ear that television cliche -- "Just gimme all of that" -- and turned to find a very long screwdriver an inch from her eye.

Sometime after that, to separate life from fiction on Telephone Road, Colleen put bars on the windows and doors. She began keeping the front door locked during business hours, and she put a camera above her desk with a sign that reads "Smile!" Her mistakes, she said, have always come when she has misjudged people.

The collectors hoped to take advantage of her, too. They were the first to arrive, and they came looking for unmarked treasure, books whose value a newcomer had underestimated. They found none. It wasn't that Colleen was savvy; it was that her original stock was "a bunch of crap," as she says now. The collectors were polite enough to point this out. They told her which books to buy -- to build up the biography section and especially the Texana section, and to go light on the fiction, unless it was good fiction, and then to buy everything that author wrote. Paperbacks won't pay the rent, Colleen learned. She began stocking mostly hardbacks and rare books, and offering to find any book she did not have. Eventually, she said, her Texana section became the largest in the state.

Anyway, after three years, Colleen was making a profit. After five, she could afford to believe the customer was not always right. "To hell with it," she decided then. "I'm going to be myself, and they can like it or lump it."

From that point on, there would be no more haggling. You would pay the price, or you would put it back. And no longer would Colleen mop up puddles of pee. After she searched three days for a dirty diaper and found it hidden beneath the romances, she got rid of all those damn romances that attracted all those nice ladies with their lovely children. And she posted a notice that read, "Unattended Children Will Be Towed Away."

Most of the women and children disappeared after that. Colleen wasn't sorry to see them go. It was a woman who robbed her, a woman who left the diaper, a woman who climbed a shelf to get a book and knocked down every shelf in the store. If they didn't want romance books, women wanted inspirational books. All in all, they just seemed silly to Colleen, like the ladies in her bridge club.

"If women knew they had a brain," she said, "they'd be surprised."
Who needs them? Colleen guesses that 90 percent of her customers are male. They come through hell to get here because it's a kind of heaven, a browser's crowded paradise. "You feel comfortable," a retired engineer explained, "like you're going into a hunting lodge -- a lodge built by the WPA or the CCC."

It's come as you are here and accept what you get -- 100,000 books and narrow aisles and scraps of Colleen's collected wisdom taped to every shelf. On one row, she poses the great question of religion: "Should ministers do more than lay people?" And on another, she settles all matters political: "Politicians are like diapers. They should be changed often and for the same reasons."

Through the mail, the animal catcher for the University of Tasmania is a loyal customer. Then there are priests and professors, lawyers, judges and oilmen. They come to search the pages for their grandpappies or to find their lost copy of Triggernometry: A Gallery of Gunfighters or to learn what was known in 1750 about The Art of Hatching and Bringing Up Domestick Fowls of All Kinds, At Any Time of the Year.

And they come to talk with Colleen. "She loves to talk to men," said Lucille, her sister. She can talk about World War II, about the news, about what dessert they're serving at Luby's this week. She can talk about anything, but usually she speaks only when spoken to. Her husband, on the other hand, traveled from aisle to aisle the last time he was here, shaking hands in his hale and hearty way. He thought he was just making friends, but she said he was scaring away her customers. She banned him from her store.

"I don't bother people," Colleen said. "If I hear books bouncing, I'll go look, but otherwise, it's just none of my business."

She has learned not to unlock the door for dirty old men, unless they're mechanics, or for semi-clad women who want to use the restroom, or for any two children together. Despite all her precautions, people still creep into Colleen's Books who aren't interested in reading. Sometimes, when she has too many customers, Colleen worries that someone is selling drugs back in the stacks. Sometimes, she sees a startled look in the eyes of a man walking in, and she knows he has discovered this isn't his kind of bookstore. These men usually leave, but there are others who make do where they are.

There was that old man in the raincoat who used to slip in without looking at her and stop at the same section each day. He would stand there for a long time with his hands in his pockets, and then he would leave without buying anything. This went on for weeks before Colleen was overcome by curiosity. She sneaked down the opposite aisle and gazed through the shelves and saw more than she wanted to see. The old fellow was exposing himself to the Marilyn Monroe books. Colleen would not tolerate it. She moved Marilyn to the top shelf, and the old man came once more and never again.

But there were others. Once, when there was a great crash, Colleen ran to the back and found, beside a fallen shelf, a fat lady unable to get up and a nervous man standing there trying to zip up his fly.

Colleen protects her volumes and routs out perversion, but otherwise, she sees no evil. The detective who visited the gun section with regularity never aroused her suspicion, though he was always followed by a young girl. Then the cop's wife called to ask if he was there, and Colleen said yeah. Minutes later, there was the sound of screeching brakes in the parking lot and an angry woman running for the door. Colleen let the lady in, and only then was there a commotion in the gun section.

Months afterward, the cop came back and told Colleen he had lost his wife and children because of her. Colleen took the lesson well. Not only must she provide privacy within the store, she decided, she must protect her men from without. Thereafter, Colleen refused to tell callers who was in her store. She simply began asking for a number and promising to pass it along.

It's a kind of discretion that's probably common on Telephone Road. One recent afternoon, Colleen looked up at the shadow in her door and saw that it was a detective from the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Department.

"Is this a raid?" she asked.
"You know it," said M.D. Beale Jr.
"Well, you know the girls are off on Fridays," said Colleen, chuckling.
"That's why I came," Beale replied. "To arrest the boss."

On that day and always, girls were scarce in Colleen's. They had been missing for weeks from the parking lot as well. There had been a crackdown, as it turned out. The ladies had been getting arrested, but Beale said the fun part was busting the men -- watching their faces change when the door to the motel room closed and they realized that instead of sexual pleasure, they were in for legal woe.

"Aw, that's not fair to the johns," said Colleen.
Beale smiled then, took the toothpick out of his mouth and said, "Fast cars, fast guns and fast women got more men in trouble than any three things together."

And Colleen couldn't argue with that, not in her neighborhood. After Beale was gone, she said she used to think about moving closer to her men. She imagined a safe place in Rice Village with mahogany shelves and leather chairs. But then she imagined that she would probably feel bad about taping jokes to mahogany. It would probably have to be kept real clean. And the people who came into her store might fear they weren't dressed for it and might think she didn't want to hear their dirty limericks. What's worse, they might not know any. They might be very boring people.

It sounded too much like becoming a housewife again. Colleen was 78 years old and didn't have the time. Her men would have to keep driving down Telephone Road.


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