Eulogizing the Past and Future

If you go to downtown Paxton, IL, you’ll notice a small white-faced building next to the quaint City Hall, right across from the larger of the two Casey’s General Stores that share Market Street.

In the left-hand window, a homemade sign identifies that half of the building as PAST & FUTURE BOOKS AND COLLECTIBLES, with a caricature of Abraham Lincoln opposite a bendy-armed grey alien. Below, next to the “Come in, we’re OPEN” sign, stands a carved wooden figure of a white-bearded, yellow-clad fisherman. The fisherman seems to be keeping watch, maintaining a patient, silent vigil. Perhaps he waits for you.

Open the slightly rickety door (careful; it sticks a bit), and you’ll find a small room of long folding tables arranged in loose aisles, each one piled above and below with hundreds and hundreds of books. Some are in open boxes, most are loosely stacked; paper labels identify one table as SCIENCE FICTION, another as FANTASY, another as HORROR, another MYSTERY, and so on. At the far end, a humble bearded figure sits behind a card table with a cashbox, flanked by little glass cases full of rare coins and stamps. He is the carved fisherman made flesh, bundled in a long-sleeved shirt and a fleece vest or jacket, perhaps with a bucket hat pulled down over his forehead. At first glance he might appear to be napping, but he is awake, a kindly old dragon hunched amidst his treasure horde.

His name is Chuck.

I’ve known Chuck more than half my life. I first met him, in a manner very much like I’ve described above, during the emotional whirlwind of my parents’ divorce. My dad was renting an apartment across the street from Paxton’s historic Majestic Theater, which after several years of disuse had begun to take on an abandoned, haunted look. Past & Future shared space with the theater back then, just a few buildings down from its current location (the sign was different: Abe and the alien were arm-wrestling, and the latter was less Roswell grey and more Little Green Man, complete with pointy ears and antennae). I was a melancholy teenage bookworm, a couple years shy of driving and looking for my next escape. Dad took me over there during one of my weekend visits, and the rest is history.

Chuck and I hit it off instantly. Though not new to science fiction literature (I remember Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, and others being on Dad’s bookshelves before I was old enough to read them, and I had my own subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction by age thirteen), most of my reading up to that time had been strictly fantasy, with tentative toe-dips into horror whenever I could screw up the nerve. I had only recently begun actively seeking out more of the classics of the genre, and Chuck was eager to share his wealth of expertise. I’d already visited Herbert’s Arrakis and C. S. Lewis’s Malacandra, but through Chuck’s guidance I soon found myself fighting the black widow alongside Richard Matheson’s Shrinking Man, outwitting Fred Saberhagen’s robotic Berserkers, and exploring Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. I was already aware of Bradbury and Lovecraft, but it was Chuck who sold me my first battered copies of The Lurking Fear and Other Stories and Fahrenheit 451.

My visits to Past & Future (or just “Chuck’s” as I came to think of it) became a vital ritual, as much an escape as the stories themselves. Dad came along the first few times, often followed by a meal at Just Hamburgers, but eventually he would simply hand me a pair of twenty dollar bills and send me on my way, knowing I’d be back in an hour or two with a grocery sack full of fragrant old paperbacks. The loosely organized chaos of the tables made the hunt for something special all the more intense, though I never had to dig long before I’d have a stack of prospective purchases assembled in one corner. All the while Chuck and I would chat about our favorite authors and old movies, and he’d show me some of the more expensive rarities on offer: elegant nineteenth-century tomes alongside Depression-era pulps, many in exquisite condition.

Chuck kept a detailed hand-written catalogue of authors he’d read in a big book of graph paper, noting genres and favorite works by each. When he agreed to read an unfinished early draft of my first attempt at a novel (a pulpy sf adventure in the vein of Vance or Edgar Rice Burroughs I’d eventually finish just before high school graduation), he made a point to add my name and story to the list. He was being kind, but it was an important moment of writerly validation for me, one of the first to come from a non-relative.

Then, in November 2007, Dad texted me in study hall. The Majestic Theater was ablaze, and with it the Past & Future.

Everything burned.

Like a scene straight out of Bradbury’s nightmares, thousands of books and magazines (not to mention a vast array of rare postcards, stamps, and other memorabilia), many of them irreplaceable, were all reduced to ash in a matter of hours. It was like losing my own personal Library of Alexandria.

When I got a letter from Chuck the following summer inviting me to check out his table at the Paxton farmers’ market, I was ecstatic. It was a pale but nonetheless welcome shade of the store’s former glory: a long table in a cavernous community center, stocked with overflow from Chuck’s own private collection. He did this a few more times, and I went as often as I could manage.

In college, when I had to conduct an interview for an essay assignment, I chose Chuck as my subject and interviewed him at length about the importance and history of science fiction. Around this time, he told me he was reopening the store. I’ve been dropping in at least two or three times a year ever since. When I started selling stories in the early 2010s, I made a point to always bring him a copy of the latest magazine or anthology I was in, sometimes printing them out and stapling them in the case of digital-only publications (I always intend these as gifts, but he insists on giving me the cover price in store credit).

One thing you should know about Chuck is that he is a bit of a luddite. He has never owned a cell phone or personal computer, and still watches movies on VHS. The store has never had any online presence beyond a name and street address, and rarely carries anything more recent than the 1990s. This appropriately gives Past & Future an air of being somewhat displaced in time, which is only amplified by Chuck himself: though only in his late fifties when we met, he has always looked to me like a man in his seventies, and now that he is that old it seems he hasn’t aged a day.

When the pandemic hit, I worried. Not just that Past & Future wouldn’t survive the lockdowns, but that Chuck himself might not survive those white-knuckle pre-vaccine months. Thankfully, both remain with us as of this writing…but the store’s days are numbered.

Last Sunday, Chuck called to tell me that his landlord is raising the rent, and that he can no longer afford to stay in business. He hopes to keep the store open through the end of September, but as of this writing it seems likely that the end will come much sooner.*

“I’ve probably got just a couple of months left here,” he said, before offering to hold a 1940s Weird Tales behind the cashbox for me.

I don’t think there will be a grand reopening this time. It may be one of many small-business casualties in this inhospitable decade, but to me it’s also another nail in the coffin of my youth. I may have only visited a few times a year, but my world won’t be the same without it.

If you find yourself in or near Ford County in the next few weeks, I highly recommend stopping at Past & Future before it’s gone. I guarantee you’ll find something interesting. Posted hours are Monday, Friday, and Saturday 10am to 5pm, but Chuck told me he’d likely be in more frequently as he starts to wrap things up. It’s worth noting that he only takes cash, but if you spend at least twenty dollars you may get a Kennedy half dollar in your change.

I’ll be driving up this weekend for one last haul.

For more info on the store (including pictures!) check out this 2019 article on Paxton’s downtown shopping scene from Smile Politely.

*[UPDATE: After visiting Chuck, he confirms that he will be “out by April 1st.” If this turns out to be an elaborate April Fool’s joke, I’ll be elated.]