I saw Gunnar at least twice a week, sometimes in the charity shop, but also in the street when he was carrying big paper bags filled with books. He drove an old white Ford hatchback and whenever I saw it parked in front of any shop I knew that it was useless for me to enter because I knew in a few minutes the books I wanted to buy would be crammed into his car. I have to admit that often I felt anger. People in many countries had lost everything and struggled for their survival while he could never have satisfied his own hunger.
Day after day, month after month, year after year he made his tours and was unstoppable and omnipresent. He never went on holiday, nor was he admitted to hospital. In the summer people suffered a sunstroke, in the winter pensioners broke their legs on the icy streets or were robbed and beaten by gangs, but it seemed as if his avarice protected him from all other evil of this world.
On many occasions I wanted to talk to him just to see how he would react but I did not dare because he always seemed submerged in his role of a hunter who lived in his own world oblivious of the reality. However, one day I saw a book of an unknown Swedish writer and asked him if he knew anything of him. He glanced at the book for a second and without lifting his eyes from the table where he had been searching among other books he told me that its author was popular in the sixties, but was forgotten years ago. I thanked him and turned to the shelves on the other wall. The next days and weeks I was bolder and asked him more. In that way I discovered that Gunnar had been working as a secondary school teacher but was forced to retire because of the pain in his back. After that, feeling bored and not knowing what to do with a tremendous amount of his free time, he started to visit charity shops and collect books.
I asked him how many of them he had and he told me that he never counted them. By the way, not only two of his houses were packed with them but he also hired a storehouse. "They must be many thousands." he said and smiled showing me his nicotine stained teeth. I wondered how he found the costumers and he smiled again taking out one of his notebooks.
"Look, he said, "here are the names." I took the notebook in my hands and browsed through it. There were thousands of names written in small letters with the telephone numbers and the title of the book that person wanted to buy. It was simpler than I expected.
The fire alarm sounded at about nine one spring evening. The old Pentecostal chapel was on fire.The fire-fighters rushed headlong to their vehicles and then drove as fastest as they could knowing that the old building would turn into a torch because it was built of wood and once the fire had started it would be very difficult to fight it. Luckily, the chapel was a lonely building and there was never a danger that the fire would spread to other houses.
Finally, when they arrived the fire had already been raging
on the first floor which was also a place where Gunnar used to sleep. Villagers had gathered around and watched with horror the old chapel yielding under the overpowering flames which grew higher and higher. Everyone hoped that Gunnar was not at home because not a living organism could have survived more than a few seconds in such fierce flames. Because of all books inside and the wind blowing outside the fire fighters had a very difficult job and did they utmost to bring the fire under control. Later, they found his charred body on the floor. Everybody asked himself who and why had done it but all questions remained unanswered.
It could have happened that a group of book sellers decided to confront him and gave him an ultimatum and when he did not want to listen to them, someone simply lit a match and threw it at the pile leaving the greedy man to the fight which he was doomed to lose.
It could also be some of us book lovers who could not stand any longer to see him grabbing all books and leaving the other disappointed over and over.
There were gangs of young and desperate people who never got love since they were born. They use to spend hours watching violent films and playing violent computer games. They could have said to each other, "Let's set the old chapel on fire and see how all these books are going to burn!"
People who believe in God said that it was God himself who had sent a bolt of lightning to punish the man for his avarice.
We can produce dozens of theories and guesses but the fact is that nowadays there are plenty of books in the charity shops and one has enough time to look through the books and never think that a strange person in the green trench coat would slink behind you and take them before you even had a chance to touch them. It is a great satisfaction and happiness to buy the great works of the human mind for such a low price and at the same time one knows that the money you have given would be spend to something useful and people in need get help.
However, I miss him and his stale cigarette stench.