Michael Popek remembers visiting his grandfather’s four-story home in New Jersey, where anything that could be collected, was—stamps, toy train cars, cap guns, autographs, baseball cards. “There was a standing order not to touch any of the WWI grenades,” Popek says. As far as his grandfather knew, these were still live and active.
Those visits happened long before Popek, now 35, started gathering his own assortment of collectibles: things left between the pages of books, or as he calls them, Forgotten Bookmarks. It seems destined to happen, given that Popek comes from a family of collectors. He grew up in an old farmhouse in Oneonta, a small town in upstate New York. His father, Peter Popek, a former UPS deliveryman, started a book business in the mid-eighties, but only after coming upon a too-good-to-be-true deal at a local auction.
The offer was 5,000 books for $10. He paid an additional $10 for delivery. According to the elder Popek, no one wanted these books, including him. “We had no interest in books. We didn’t know anything about them. But we didn’t want to waste ‘em,” Peter Popek says. Within a few years, Michael’s father had filled a barn in the backyard with over 20,000 books. The Popeks also bought and sold antiques and owned a small shop in town, not far from their house. Slowly, though, the book collection muscled its way into the antique shop and took over much of the space.
Popek remembers his father waking at three a.m. for his delivery job, then returning home to sort books for hours in the evening. Once in a while his father would find something curious inside the books he was pricing, such as the German paper money he discovered inside a few old volumes between every other page. Michael, in second or third grade at the time, was fascinated to find the bills were in denominations of 200 million. Both father and son believed they might have discovered a small fortune. But it turned out the notes were virtually worthless—devalued after WWII.
Three decades later, Popek’s day job is managing the family bookstore, but he’s made an accidental career out of cataloguing ephemera: the letters, postcards, photographs, vintage advertisements, recipes and other neglected items left in books. It sounds easy: just turn the book over, shake it and see what falls out, right? But shaking old books would damage their bindings, so Popek flips through each one with a practiced thumb. He estimates he’s done this more than a million times.
* * *
Popek’s slate gray Volkswagen smells faintly of cigarettes. A sports anthology has been tossed in the back next to a car seat and a cable, presumably for tying down boxes. He has quiet, pale blue eyes, a three-day beard, black, thick-framed glasses, and thin lips that turn up more at one side than the other. He is kind, calm, even a little distant, but when it comes to discussing his work, he’s fully present.
He drives past an insurance office, beautiful tall Victorians, and smaller homes with American flag windsocks and aboveground swimming pools. Purple wildflowers line the winding road. This is Oneonta, population 14,000.
Popek parks outside the new location of his family’s bookstore on Main Street, across from an elementary school. It’s a steamy Saturday afternoon and the streets are empty. A sheet of computer paper in the window of the store announces in small neat type: Book store opening in June.
He walks inside toward an alcove in the back and sinks into a black leather chair that, together with a matching sofa, form a partial frame around an enormous wooden table carved into the shape of a book. It’s titled The Canterburg Tales—a typo or factory error, he isn’t sure.
“I went to school to become a writer. That’s what I wanted to be,” Popek says. While studying writing and literature at Bennington College in Vermont, he wrote “simple, common stories” with relatable characters. But sometime around his senior year, the dream wore thin, and he shifted course, choosing a safer path: computers. He quit writing completely for eight years. “I never really had any direction. Then life kind of got decided for me,” Popek says.
In the summer of 2000, after graduating college and waiting tables for a year, Popek moved to Portland, Oregon, to be with his then-girlfriend. They’d only been dating for six months, but it felt like the right decision.
He had two “really awful” jobs. The first involved watching black-and-white video footage of a single intersection for six to seven hours a day and tallying the number and type of vehicles he saw. He quit after four months. His second job was as a web manager for a man who sold “massagers” to women over the Internet. “He called himself a medical practice, but really we all knew what it was for,” Popek says. After three weeks and hardly any training, his boss left to go on a “spiritual journey” and didn’t return for nine months.
In September 2001, Popek learned his father had cancer. He liked living in Portland. It was a young person’s city, and he enjoyed a little summer rain, but with his father sick, there wasn’t anyone else able to attend book auctions and run the business. Popek, the oldest of three siblings, returned home to help his parents.
Back in Oneonta, Popek’s parents had sold their farmhouse. “Job one when I got here was finish cleaning all that stuff out,” he says. This meant purging the barn, as well as the house’s cellar and attic of books. That original vanload of books had grown to a collection of 80,000.
Popek helped liquidate the antique business. Then he and his mother streamlined their book inventory before transferring the remaining titles to the shop. “She probably remembers that time like I do, which was hauling books every single day, as many as we could,” says Popek. He pauses, reminded of the physical and emotional exhaustion he felt that year.
Popek’s life gradually fell into place. His girlfriend followed him back to Oneonta a week later. They bought a house and got married in 2006. A year and a half ago, they had a daughter. Popek’s father survived his cancer, and then turned the book business over to his wife and son to manage. By 2013, not only had the small shop reached capacity, but Popek had determined the location wasn’t optimal. Two of the main businesses on the block, a grocery store and department store, had shut down, and the only ones left were a recycling center and a car repair shop. So Popek began moving the store over to Main Street. “It will be a lot nicer to be the main attraction in a small town, instead of a forgotten store in a forgotten end of town,” he says.
All along, Popek kept up his father’s tradition of saving hidden treasures—and took the practice to a new level. In 2007, he created the “Forgotten Bookmarks” website. There he posts photographs of any unique item he finds, along with the book where he found it. These “forgotten bookmarks”—stamps, valentines, letters, etc.—are then stashed in one of four 10-gallon plastic bins, without any filing system. If the book is good enough, he’ll put it on the shelf.
Every once in a while, someone will email him about an item he posted, wanting to know if they can have it. “I’ll have to dig through the four tubs. Sometimes I find it and sometimes I don’t,” he says.
Occasionally, he’ll hold a giveaway contest and mail both items to a fan of his site. Beyond noting the title and publication date of the book in his blog posts, he rarely elaborates on the recovered items, but in person he’s more reflective.
“No one else is taking care of the stuff. So I feel like it’s up to me.”
“Letters are my favorite thing to find,” he says. One of the most popular ones on his site begins: “I cannot believe what a slime you are.” It ends: “All I can say to you now is I hate you, I hate you, I hate you…” The note was found tucked inside a book about pregnancy. There was nothing in the book to indicate whether the note was left by the recipient or the writer; it may have even been what he calls a “vent letter,” the kind you never send. What’s obvious to Popek is that the writer’s fury gives her away. “It’s not just some guy she’d been dating for a while and cheated on her. It’s someone she really cared about. Even if these people in real life were very uninteresting and common, you still want to meet and get to know all of them.”
After starting the website, he expanded its readership by creating Twitter and Facebook accounts. He amassed an assortment of followers and friends, many of them book dealers, librarians, publishers and literary agents. One follower, Kate McKean, became his agent and helped him turn the website into a book, Forgotten Bookmarks. This was followed by a second title, Hand-written Recipes, in which he shared found recipes, even truncated ones, left behind in cookbooks and novels.
“People who are a million times more talented than me and have better ideas than me can struggle for years even trying to find an agent to read their stuff,” says Popek. “To have it work out the way it did, where I had more than one person contact me within a week basically saying, ‘We really want to do this, would you like to write a book?’ I consider myself extremely lucky on that front.”
Popek has found old advertisements, receipts, newspaper clippings, poems, song lyrics, drawings, money, bus, plane, and train tickets and valentines—although notably, not nearly enough tawdry items to please the public. “Every single radio interview I’ve had they’re like, ‘How many naughty pictures have you found?’ And I’m like, ‘Really, you think that’s the first thing I’d find in a book?” The answer is two or three. “And they weren’t that good,” he says.
He’s also only ever found one suicide note, from the 1930s. It was written by a man to his wife, and folded over and over about 10 times. “You can’t post that,” he says, deciding that publishing a suicide victim’s letter to a spouse would be crass. Yet, he thinks about the note often enough that he can recite it from memory: “My darling I am so, so sorry I am unable to control my thoughts and this world will be better without me and your kids will be better without me.” There wasn’t a name, so he never found out what happened to the author.
“When I do find something fairly recent and private it does feel weird and not in a good way,” he says. But if something is really good, he’ll simply black out the names. He recently came across the two-year-old journal of a woman who was trying to get pregnant. It was so confessional, so raw with emotion, that he couldn’t read more than a few pages.
For now, he keeps it locked in a drawer and imagines the conversation he’ll have with its owner when she someday comes to claim it. In his mind, she’ll walk up to the store counter and say something about a journal she misplaced 15 years ago.
He’ll nod and say, “Yep, I still have that.”
“I have to be ready when that day comes—to go, ‘Yeah, here it is. I only read six pages. How’d that work out for you?’ “
‘Oh, I did have the baby. Thank you.’”
He once found a sonogram picture of a girl he knew from high school inside a birthday card she had made for her father as a kid. “It read, ‘When you come home make sure you give mom a kiss, and I left out a snack for you.’
“It was just sweet and syrupy. I thought that would be perfect to return those things to Mother and Father, ” he says. But he learned the couple had gotten divorced, so he returned the items to the father, who still lived nearby, anonymously.
Not all of his collection is so memorable. Turn-of-the-century letters can be pretty dry, “When they’re basically talking about ‘It’s time to slaughter the cow,’ or ‘Old Bessie down the road died of tuberculosis.‘”
Sometimes when he inherits a box or several boxes of books, he’ll find the odd diary. One journal written by a man to his wife in the late 1800s particularly inspired him. “So much of the writing from that period is impersonal and overly formal,” he says. This writer’s tone felt modern. “There’s just something about the way he was writing, the way he expressed his affections for his wife and detailed his adventures in this kind of humorous but longing way.” And the fact that he was traveling across the Midwest while also trying make a better life for his family appealed to Popek. “I’m basically here at the business seven days a week working usually 60-hour weeks. With the second life of the blog, I often feel like I spend a lot of time away from home trying to make a better life for my family,” he says.
He walks over to a giant plastic bin sitting on the bookstore’s counter, opens the lid, and retrieves a thin booklet from 1851 with hand-colored illustrations. He marvels at its pages, delicate as butterfly wings. “If I put this all together and repaired the binding, I might get six dollars for it. There’s no value there,” he says. But he can’t throw it out. “No one else is taking care of the stuff. So I feel like it’s up to me.”
* * *
Shannon Firth is a journalist living in Brooklyn. She writes about people living the American dream or trying to.
Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph and film stories that she’s curious about.