The Sturdy Bookshelves Of Pawel Oliszewski
by Ferrett Steinmetz
Listen to the audio version
When people asked me about Pawel Oliszewski's bookcases - which they inevitably did,
especially for the brief period I was paid to answer their questions - I told them my story in strict
chronological order. I explained how I moved next door to Pawel, a quiet Polish accountant,
when my mother died. I told them how, over the course of seventeen years, my neighbor gifted
me with seven fine specimens in his legendary line of improbable bookshelves.
No, I wasn't willing to sell them. Yes, he offered me more bookcases - roughly four a year,
actually. Yes, I turned him down - the man would have filled my house with bookcases, if only
I'd let him. Yes, I still have them all - the specimens I currently possess are specimen #89
(Vickers hardness test: 970 MPa), specimen #113 (Vickers: 1325 MPa), specimen #234
(Vickers: 2250 MPa), and the much sought-after late-era specimens #269, #287, #292, and #304
Yes, it is an irony that each of the bookcases are worth more than my house now. Oh, no, I've
never heard that one before.
But above all, I tried to tell the origin of the bookcases honestly - the tedious hobby of an asocial
immigrant who specialized in awkward pauses. This was an error. People wanted Pawel's
garage workshop to be a magical wonderland - wanted Pawel himself to be a sage, armored in
The official biography - which I did not write, despite being both a professional obituary writer
and a good friend to the Oliszewski family - jostled the facts around, made it seem as though
Agnes knew there was something special about Pawel's craftsmanship all along.
But no. His bookcases were boring, as was Pawel, as was I. Ask yourself: If anyone had seen
anything of interest in that quiet accountant, wouldn't the world have discovered his bookcases
years ago? Wouldn't they have discovered Myra Turnbull's purses and Jeb Guhr's model
No, the truth lay there all along, resting beneath cobwebs; it was just tedious. Easily overlooked.
Still. I'm going to tell you the way I've always told it. Strict chronological order. Just to
channel a bit of the old man's magic.
Are you interested now?
"In three days, my father will offer you a bookcase," said the drab little woman on my doorstep.
"You are not obliged to accept it."
"Pardon?" I asked. My mother's house was in a far swankier location than I could afford on my
reporter's salary, but this merely meant I had moved to a locale where my neighbors no longer
huffed spraypaint. These quiet Trumbull suburbs didn't seem wealthy enough to offer furniture
to new arrivals like me.
The woman sighed dramatically, a guardian of a duty she had never desired. She was young,
and mildly attractive under a mop of ink-black hair, but she had the dark-eyed, beaten-down look
of a woman who came from a large and crazy family that depended on her.
"My father," she repeated. "He makes bookcases. He is currently on Step Fourteen - routing
the dadoes to fit the shelves into them. Then he will sand the bookcase, and deliver it to you.
You are nothing special. He merely needs someone to gift his work to, and you are a new and
heretofore bookcase-free victim."
"Is this . . . common?"
She gestured dramatically down the road. "Open the door on every house on this block, and you
will find an Oliszewski bookcase. They are as common as rabbits - and much like rabbits, they
seem charming until they multiply. Your mother, wisely, gave hers to Goodwill. Do yourself a
favor: refuse my father. It will do his ego no harm, and you may then safely avoid him in all
This was how I met Agnes Oliszewski.
Three days later, I perched by the door, curious to see if indeed I would be offered a bookcase.
The doorbell rang, revealing a soft-voiced, beer-bellied Polish immigrant with close-cropped
white hair and calloused hands.
"You come," said Pawel Oliszewski - not quite a command, as Pawel never forced things. He
was meek as water, flowing effortlessly around people's expectations. He uttered these two
words and turned away, never looking back to see if I followed.
Of course I followed.
His garage was small but meticulously organized; neat stacks of wood drying in the back, metal
hacksaws glistening with WD-40, the concrete floor swept sawdust-free. In the center of this
immaculate workspace stood a plain, chest-high bookcase.
Pawel did not offer what would eventually become Specimen #89 to me, not exactly. Instead, he
stood next to it protectively and said, "I made this." Then he stepped aside, allowing me to carry
It struck me as a funny thing to say -- "I made this." He evinced neither pride nor cheer. On
later reflection, it seemed as though Pawel had measured the universe, found its length short by
precisely one bookcase, and had quietly set out to rectify the issue.
I paused, uncertain whether I wanted to accept the gift. Pawel's bookcases are not particularly
pretty, it must be said -- each was an undecorated, chest-high white ash box with three shelves
slotted into grooves. Yet though Pawel never seemed to take pleasure from making them - never
seemed to take pleasure from anything - I later found he never varied them, either. Each
bookcase was a perfect clone of the last. When stood next to each other, they looked like pallid
"Um . . ." I said. "Thank you?"
He nodded and turned away, fitting stacks of sandpaper into a box marked "sandpaper."
Once I'd lugged Pawel's bookcase through the door, I could see why my mother had given hers
away: it didn't go with her furniture. One could hardly envision a décor Pawel's ugly, bare-boned bookcases would have complemented. But with my mother gone, there was no one left in
my life to give me gifts. As such, I cherished this cheap woodworking project, even though I
couldn't afford to buy books on my salary; instead, I filled Pawel's knotty shelves with my
mother's collection of glass owls, which I could not quite bear to throw away.
Pawel and I barely spoke after exchanging those seven words, but that was Pawel's nature. He
was cloaked in a marshmallow-like silence; conversations disappeared into that bland smile,
never to be heard from again. He'd nod agreeably for as long as you cared to talk, yet never
initiated a discussion I could recall - except, of course, when he asked if you wanted a bookcase.
Agnes, however, was always talking. She wandered her back yard, clutching her cell phone in
both hands as though she wanted to strangle it. She spoke in a drained, hostage-negotiator
monotone as she counselled yet another cousin in the drunk tank, yet another aunt refusing to
take her diabetes medication, yet another sister justifying her abusive husband. Agnes flinched
whenever her phone rang.
Empathy prevailed. I lured her over to my house with promises of red wine and blessed silence.
After she'd drained her second glass, she eyed my décor: tinkling green Tiffany lamps, Victorian
couches mummified in plastic protective film, cut crystal owls glaring down at us from
"Did Liberace have a garage sale?" she asked.
"It's . . . my mother's furniture," I explained. "I can't afford new tables."
"What do you do?"
"I'm a writer." I looked away from Agnes' scrutiny; she was trying to determine if she should
have heard of me. Noting my age and poverty, she decided correctly that she shouldn't have.
"What have you written?"
"Dead people, mostly." I watched the joke die slowly, a beached fish flopping to death on the
table, then added: "The obituaries at the Norwalk Hour? I compose them."
"Oh. I've read your work, then." A polite pause. "You sure get the funeral times right."
"But I'm also a fiction writer!"
"That's good," she said, in a kind tone that seemed to ask me not to bring her any metaphorical
bookcases, and we finished our wine in companionable silence.
The only sound was Pawel, in his garage, planing the boards for another magical bookcase.
"You should let me write the headlines," I told my editor at the Norwalk Hour. "I've worked
here for seventeen years. Why am I stuck in obituaries? Why won't you give me the good
"Because you never get the story," she replied. "You only get the facts."
"What does that even mean?"
"I'll show you. Write me a solid headline for this story, and I'll promote you." She gestured for
me to get out my notepad. "Next week, starting on Monday morning, all the teachers of
Norwalk High School will attend an educational conference in New Haven, Connecticut. Over
the next five days, the seminar will cover the challenges of creating an orderly and personalized
curriculum, stimulating change in budgetarially stressed times, and the challenges of assisting
"Now," she finished, so calm I could sense the trick in it. "What's the headline?"
She crossed her arms patiently while I juggled the facts I'd written down. After jotting down a
few test cases, I ventured: "Norwalk High School Teachers Improve Their Skills At Educational
My editor leaned over the desk. "Try, 'NO SCHOOL NEXT WEEK,'" she said. "All the
teachers are out of town."
She walked away. I returned, humbled, to my obituaries.
Are you interested now?
The state of the bookcase, as viewed from my kitchen window, became a calendar; I could tell
what day it was from Pawel's progress. The raw lumber, milled down to pieces by the third.
The dovetail joints, fitted and hand-carved, by the tenth. The case frame, glued and clamped, by
I learned if Pawel was refused, he would simply go to the next neighbor, and the next, moving
down the line until someone would take his wares. Nothing fazed him. He treated everyone as
though they were workshop projects, frowning faintly when someone said something
unexpected, as if envisioning methods to sand this imperfection away.
But mostly, he preferred the silent company of his tools.
Agnes was loath to talk about her father - loath to talk about anything, really. She came to my
house because refugee relatives kept showing up at all hours with luggage and squalling children
until she could call in enough favors to rehome them. My kitchen was her sanctuary, where wine
flowed and talk ceased.
Still, tidbits leaked out.
"Oy, the bookcases," Agnes told me one night, when a pair of unexpected niece pregnancies had
led to a two-bottle night. "Dad told Mom his desk job was making him fat. 'So take up a
hobby,' Mom said. 'Do something with your hands.'
"'I like that,' Dad said - though he didn't smile. You know him - he never smiles." Neither do
you, I thought. Other people in the Olizsewski family came pre-installed with foolish grins, the
happy smiles of people unaware of the impending consequences of their poor decisions - but
Pawel and his daughter carried themselves with the grimness of an IRS agent about to conduct
"So he signed up for the Spring Woodcrafting 101 course at Norwalk Community College, made
a bookshelf, and set up shop."
"Why bookcases?" I asked, watching Pawel sand identical planks of white oak. "Why so
"He says woodworking takes his mind off his job," Agnes shrugged. "Though I've never heard
him complain about work. I think it's just his way of escaping his sisters."
"But why bookcases?"
"Who knows? When I ask him to make me a table, he gives me this look like -- well, it sounds
weird, but it's the same look he gave me when he told me our baby brother had died. A little
sad, but inexorable. Like you can't question the bookcase, you know?"
I thought of the way Pawel had told me, "I made this." The same way you'd talk of the sea and
the sky. Unchanging. Unquestionable.
"Yes," I said. "I know."
We moved on to a game of Parcheesi.
The official biography will tell you Pawel knew exactly what magic he was fashioning, his work
a premeditated ritual.
I will tell you Agnes is a surprisingly canny businesswoman. Just that little twist, that intent,
might sabotage all your efforts. But I'll know the trick soon enough, won't I? I'll tell you how
Myra Turnbull's purses conjure money and Jeb Guhr's plastic fighter jets leak oil. That's a thing
I can promise.
Are you interested now?
My fellow reporters ticked off the seasons based on the annual news: the high school football
games in the autumn, then the Christmas shopping reports, followed by the inevitable January
town council battles over tax hikes. But I was condemned to endlessly regurgitating the
accomplishments of dead veterans, with the occasional suicidal teen to spice things up.
I marked the seasons watching Pawel assemble bookcases. He grew fatter, then thinner as the
cancer set in.
I tried to help Pawel. He waved me away. "I do this," he told me. His refusal held a light
concern for my judgment, as though I might be drunk. He would stagger out to his shop to work
for half an hour, then expend great efforts to clean up before slumping onto Agnes' shoulder.
The irony was, now we felt morally obliged to take what would turn out to be Pawel's most
valuable bookcases. The one thing that Pawel's bookcases were, we all agreed, was tragically
sturdy. You could fault the stiff-looking shelves, you could fault the ghostly shade of white oak
he chose - but even as Pawel grew frailer, his bookcases remained solid as mountains. Yet no
one in the neighborhood any longer had the heart to put them out on the treelawn for the
Every one of my neighbor's basements had at least a couple of Oliszewski bookcases stashed
away like refugees, too ugly to put upstairs, too well-fashioned to rot. People aimed
rambunctious grandchildren at them, rested brass statues on those thick shelves in the wan hopes
of breaking something.
Still, Pawel clung to life for three more years, never complaining. I did what I could to help
Agnes; bought groceries, picked up Pawel's medications. Usually, I was shoved aside by
parades of relatives, a strangely heartening thought; they had been a drain on Agnes' resources,
but now repaid her as best they could with pots of soup.
Still, no matter how ill he was, Pawel saved all his strength for his bookcases. He died in his
garage, on August 31st, sandpaper in his hand.
That information never made it into his obituary, of course. I didn't think to include it.
Are you interested now?
Are you interested now?
Are you interested now?
Are you intere--
After the funeral, I went over to help Agnes clear out the house. Only then did it occur to me she
had never invited me inside. Now I knew why. It was a wooden mouse maze, the hallways
jammed wall-to-wall with bookcases, narrowing the house to a series of chokepoints.
"It's like my mother's owls," I sighed.
Agnes eyed the maze as if she intended to stride into it and kill a Minotaur. "Unwanted and
"Precisely. Mother made the mistake of keeping a couple of owl knick-knacks on the
mantelpiece. And so one friend got her an owl statue for Christmas, and another friend brought
her a glass owl from Bermuda, and it snowballed. By the time she died, she had shelves of the
things. An embarrassment."
"And yet, years later, they remain your prime decoration."
"Once Mom died . . ." I gestured around at the bookcases. "It was all I had left of her. That's
why they're still there, gray with dust, glaring down at me; sad memories bound in cheap
trinkets. You'll find it hard to get rid of them."
Agnes turned to answer the doorbell. "That'll be the Goodwill truck."
The Goodwill driver was supposed to help, but he stole out back to sneak a smoke, and came
back in reeking of what even an aging reporter could recognize as skunkweed. I helped wheel
the bookcases onto the truck.
Our stoned Goodwill driver immediately plowed through the red light at the end of the block. A
UPS truck T-boned it, the driver's cabin vanishing into the side, metal and glass spraying high
into the air.
I sprang into action, getting the names of both drivers, hoping to make the front page. Yet while
I collected facts, Agnes caught the story:
The UPS truck had shoved the bookcases in every direction - sticking out through the metal side
panels, punched through the driveshaft - but there was no splintered wood.
"They're perfectly intact," said Agnes.
"Not quite," I replied. Several bookcases bore deep scratches. But of the thirty-three bookcases
we had crammed into the back, every last one was still in usable condition.
"What a freak accident," I said.
"Well, they are sturdy," mused Agnes. She stroked a newly-scarred bookcase top with
something approaching reverence . . . And elbowed aside a paramedic to pry the first of thirty-three bookcases from the truck's carcass.
Further research, paid via Pawel Oliszewski's life insurance policy, showed Pawel's bookcases
were more than sturdy. The strongest ones could support over 50,000 pounds per square foot,
making them more load-bearing than a twenty-inch thick I-beam. In fact, they could not find a
weight that would cause the strongest bookcases to sag.
"You could build a skyscraper on those bookcases, ma'am," said a researcher, his face flush with
"There will be questions," she asked me. "You're mostly a reporter, right?" And so I became
The Olizsewski Foundation's first PR manager.
I decided not to make a public announcement until we had figured out the secret - which was, I
was told later, a mistake. People love a mystery. But we were too busy trying to figure out why
the bookcases varied so wildly.
Some of the bookcases collapsed under a mere load of 8,000 pounds; most were flameproof, but
a handful charred when placed in a blast furnace. And though most were resistant to all damage,
diamond-tipped saws could scrape a sliver off the surface of a few.
At first, I theorized Rowayton Hardware had sold Pawel some mutant breed of white ash -- but
a quick questioning of Rowayton Hardware showed they switched lumber suppliers constantly.
In any case, as Agnes pointed out, nothing would explain how Pawel had been able to cut the
wood into planks.
A team of investigative scientists used Pawel's tools to make copies of Pawel's bookcases; the
resulting furniture collapsed, burned, and splintered properly.
I hunted down some woodcrafting experts, who found nothing unorthodox about Pawel's
joinery; simple dovetails and dado joints that were, nevertheless, locked together with such force
that trailer trucks could not pull them apart.
But we analyzed wood from the bookcases that could be cut with diamond-tipped saws: in each
case, the wood was at least seventeen years old.
"This means," Agnes mused, flipping through a report that had cost seven thousand dollars, "the
newest ones are strongest."
It was true. The newer the bookcase, the harder it became to extract a sample -- until roughly
around the seventeenth year of Pawel's woodworking career, they hardened to a shape that could
not be changed by any force known on earth.
It also explained why nobody had noticed the incredible strength of Pawel's bookcases; for the
first decade, they had been durable but within earthly engineering tolerances. Some had broken,
or been scratched -- and given the sheer number of seemingly identical bookcases so freely
available, who would have noticed which bookcase had cracked?
And so I made my first PR announcement, faxed out to every news outlet I could think of:
"Antique Bookcases Of Polish Accountant Discovered To Have Surplus Strength!"
Not one magazine printed the story.
It didn't matter. As it turns out, there had been rumors about us for months, but no one was sure
where to find us. I should have created a Twitter account.
And I - not Agnes, as that "official" biography states - had a theory.
"It was your father's tedium," I said. Agnes frowned, a bad sign: Agnes's grant money paid my
salary, and she was furious at my failed press release. I clarified. "I think Pawel repeated the
same task for so long, so diligently, that he wore a groove in reality. So let's find people like
your father. Some boring man must have similar results."
"Takes one to know one," Agnes said, and with a wave of her hand she released me from my PR
To make up for my shortcomings, I threw myself into my new job: finding people like Pawel. I
found many who did repetitive things - but few who wanted to. There were any number of
factory-line assemblers who had bolted together ten thousand car doors, but their minds were on
that first beer after work.
Then I discovered Myra Turnbull at a Fort Payne, Alabama, art fair. She'd been smoking a lot
more cigarettes these days, though she had no idea why.
Myra, an elderly black woman, crocheted purple purses - always the same purse, using the same
Afghan stitch. "It calms my mind," she claimed. "I don't want to think; I just want to stitch and
watch the soaps." It was clear she didn't craft for customers; each was absurdly deep, like a
purple elephant's trunk.
There was also always money in the bottom of each one.
A few pennies, in the case of her early purses - but as time went by, you could reach into any
one of Myra Turnbull's unsold monstrosities and find a wadded-up cluster of bills. And like
that, Myra understood why she could always afford smokes.
As a test, we had her knit a purse with a popcorn stitch. Nothing. In fact, all her future purses
were sadly cash-free.
In Chicago, I found an autistic boy who had been assembling the exact same plane kit - a Revell
1/32 F-16C Fighting Falcon - once a day for over eight years. His mother had rented a storage
unit to hold cases of unassembled kits, terrified how her son might react if they discontinued the
But look closely: his planes, assembled from nothing more than plastic and model glue, leaked
oil. Tiny bits of engine fuel sloshed in their engines, hydraulic fuel dripped from microscopic
The more I mage-hunted for Agnes, the more I found bizarre examples of monotony creating odd
ripples in physics -- but critically, an oddness replicable in laboratories. Thanks to the new PR
firm, Pawel's bookcases made worldwide headlines, and Pawel became the harbinger of a new
breed of physics: Tediosity.
Are you interested now? Oh, now there's no trick to it. Everyone pays attention now.
But I'll keep writing, all the same.
I was on the verge of discovering a sixth tediomancer when I discovered Agnes had contracted
someone else to write Pawel's official biography.
"I was there," I protested. "I figured out how this worked. I should write that bestseller."
"I'm sorry," Agnes said. She fishmouthed, trying to follow up with something that wouldn't
offend me. After decades of casual insults, her distant gentility shoved an icicle through my
I quit, of course.
Though tediomancy was filling every news channel, my self-published chapbook The Strange
(Book)Case of Pawel Olizsewski sold poorly, thanks to negative reviews. "Watch this man spin
gold into straw!"
People expressed disappointment I hadn't written a bestseller; they noted my shabby clothes,
assumed I needed the money. But wealth was easily at hand; there were plenty of buyers for
Pawel's bookcases, and I owned seven of them.
What I wanted was - is - to be interesting.
Pawel's bookcases told me how.
Oh, they didn't speak or anything crazy like that. Tediosity tends to be sedate, overlooked. But
I had filled Pawel's seven identical bookcases with 865 slim copies of my unsold memoir. Eight
hundred and sixty-five stories, printed, unwanted.
But unlike Pawel, I had mass-produced them.
What if, I asked, I wrote the same story a thousand times? A hundred thousand times? Until I
wore my own hole in reality?
It took Pawel thirty years. I am sixty-seven, only eleven years younger than Pawel was when he
died. Which, honestly, means I have time to write one final tale.
Then again, I do specialize in obituaries.
And fortunately, I never did tell Agnes about that sixth tediomancer. In South Carolina, there is
a grandmother who's been serving up the same huge pot of oatmeal to her family every morning
for the past sixteen years. The oatmeal, despite containing nothing more than rolled oats,
cinnamon, honey, milk, and raisins, nevertheless contained more than 250% of every FDA
nutrient in a single cupful. More relevant to my interests: not one person who's eaten the
oatmeal regularly has suffered from medical inconvenience for the past seven years. Not one
cold, not one case of hemorrhoids.
So I've sold my bookcases. I'll be moving in with my nameless Southern grandmother, paying a
quite sizeable fee to eat her life-giving oatmeal three times a day.
What you're reading now are precisely the same words I wrote on my first day of arrival. At my
elbow are six cartons of Sanford Uni-Ball pens, twenty cases of blank legal pads. When I
complete this tale, I'm going to eat a bowl of oatmeal, crack open a new pad, then write the same
words on the same pages in the same way.
Then another bowl, another copy. Another bowl, another copy.
Will all work and no play make Jack an interesting boy? Or will I die before Pawel's
enchantments take root? Or will the magic I wring from these manuscripts be as useless, as
boring, as a toy airplane's crankcase fluid?
Yet what else have I to do? Without something to change me, I will pass from this earth like so
much junk mail. I can't remember inspiring a single smile; all my life, I've inhaled facts and
Please let this become a story.
Please let me become worthy of the tale.
So: is this my first draft you're reading? Or my fiftieth? Or the scrawled manuscript they found
by my deathbed?
Tell me: are you interested now?