Frederick Gero Heimbach
Putting the "Boo" in Honor Books
I first wrote this tribute in 2015. Be sure to check the update at the end.
Allen, MI, is the kind of town for which the expression “wide place in the road” was coined. Its “downtown” retail strip is just two shuttered brick buildings with tall Italianate windows that stare vacantly at the barely-slowing traffic of US 12.
Between the buildings is a gap filled by a remarkable oddity: Honor Books. As you can see, it’s a lean-to of discarded two-by-fours, plywood sheets, and barn skylights. There is no door, only a yawning gap. The sign up top has not aged gracefully but still entreats, “Serve Yourself.” The sign out on the sidewalk cheerfully declares, “Yes, We’re Open” as if the not-to-code construction left any doubt. (I have driven by at all hours of day and night and never seen that sign withdrawn.)
Inside, the “customer” finds a few mismatched bookcases displaying perhaps as many as a couple hundred books. There is some evidence the books have been sorted by topic. The uncontrolled environment has allowed mildew to play havoc.
Most remarkable is the payment system that puts the “honor” in Honor Books. A slot has been cut in the back wall and an arrow … well, see for yourself:
My first visit, I chose a couple of sci-fi novels, a Bradbury and a Heinlein, and slid 70 cents into the slot. I was more than a little disappointed that I felt no cold, deathly fingers reaching out from within to touch mine.
For I cannot deny it, the place is creepy. It doesn’t explicitly offer free hugs but the place has that vibe.
I believe in Honor Books, however. On my second stop I made a donation, a boxed set of Anne McCaffrey’s dragon novels. I fear Honor Books may be founded upon a fierce commitment to capitalism that my donation violated, but I couldn’t help myself.
I can’t get over the very existence of Honor Books. Despite living in a seedy rural hamlet, surrounded by vanishingly few book lovers (presumably) and with manifestly minimal resources—some poor soul took the trouble and marshaled the courage to build a lonely outpost to Literature. I believe in Honor Books and I love Honor Books, and the next time you drive through Allen, MI I demand you stop, pick out a book, and slide your 35 cents into the slot.
Update: I just heard a rumor that Honor Books is for sale—whatever that could mean. I'll post more information if and when I get it.