It’s fitting that a whale of a tale should come from inside a bookstore.
The story begins with a man who’s new to Santa Fe, a transplant from Colorado going through all the usual pains and problems that come with moving.
He had eight boxes of books in storage. As the man reviewed his collection, he had to admit some of the titles no longer held his interest.
He gathered the books he didn’t want. Instead of simply throwing them away, he headed to Book Mountain, a 41-year-old Santa Fe store whose specialty is paperback exchanges.
Book Mountain also recycles books it can’t accept, preventing more paper from going into a landfill.
A hardback book from the newcomer landed in the pile for recycling. Tom Juster, a partner at Book Mountain, began tearing off the cover, a necessary step in the process for recycling.
But this book was unusual. In fact, it wasn’t a book at all.
Lifting the cover, Juster found glued, immovable pages with a deep hole in the middle. Money was stuffed inside.
He took the book to store owner Peggy Frank and told her she needed to take a look. She’s probably seen a million books. What could be special about this one?
“I opened it and almost fell off my chair. The book had $1,100 inside,” Frank said.
The man who had discarded the book told me it was really a piggy bank of sorts.
“In my business, I keep a lot of cash around, and I have a number of stashes,” said the man, who asked that I not publish his name.
He hadn’t realized the “book,” carrying a boring, make-believe title about U.S. business practices in 1953, was one of his caches.
By the time Juster discovered the money, the man who’d left the book was long gone from the store.
Frank and her staff set out to find him. For all they knew, he might need that thick wad of cash to pay the week’s bills.
“Lots of people bring in books all day long. I didn’t know if we’d find him,” Frank said.
An alert Book Mountain employee, Kamille Smith, remembered the man’s name. That was a promising start. The customer was on Facebook.
But efforts by Frank and her staff to contact him led nowhere. Frank held the money in a secure place while the search continued.
A couple weeks went by. The trail was cold. Perhaps the man would never be located.
Then he walked into Book Mountain, oblivious to the money he’d left behind or the staff’s attempts to find him. A devoted reader, he arrived to buy paperbacks.
Frank handed him the book with a hole in the middle and the dull-as-dishwater title.
“Mean anything to you?” she asked.
“Yeah, kinda. Why?” he asked.
Then he opened the cover and saw the cavity to store cash. A-ha! The man realized it was one of the places he’d stuffed money, only to forget about it.
Frank satisfied herself that he was the rightful owner of the book and the $1,100.
The man, who is 70 years old and retired, said he decided to share his windfall. He donated some of the money to a food bank and animal shelter.
Frank and her fortunate customer have become friends. He’s also a presence at her store in a role other than customer.
Frank, 81, doesn’t have a large vehicle, which made it difficult to deliver discarded books to the recycling center. The man drives a truck, so he’s helping with Book Mountain’s recycling effort.
The story of the found money inspired people familiar with Book Mountain. One of them, Mary Elliott, sent me a note about the business that went all out to help a customer.
“It is good to know there are honest, ethical people in our community. This is a feel-good story that people should hear about,” Elliott wrote.
I’m happy to give the politicians a day off from my column to spread the word. The man now has a deeper connection with his bookstore and its staff.
“Peggy’s a wonderful lady,” he said.
His ersatz book and that stashed $1,100 created new bonds. That’s the power of the human spirit.