CLEARWATER — The old books are stacked on a stout wooden shelf, between the pretzels and the meat freezer at the Amish Country Store.
Gloria Blackburn stopped last month to buy ham salad, but she was drawn to the shelf. She walked over and picked up a novel, turned to the first page and gasped.
"It gave me cold chills."
And it wasn't because a character is murdered.
• • •
Flash back 70 years.
In the late summer of 1941, Verna Jane Browning was 14 years old and living in Cleveland. She was always reading — mysteries, romance novels, westerns.
"You name it and I read it," Browning said.
One day, she discovered the mystery novel The Devil to Pay, by Ellery Queen.
Browning read the book and, as was her custom, penciled her name and the date on the right-hand corner of the first page.
Then she went on to another book.
• • •
Seven decades later, at the Amish Country Store, Verna Browning's daughter stopped as she stared at the page. A friend asked her if something was wrong.
"You'll never believe this," Blackburn told her as she pointed out the signature.
It looked like her mother's handwriting. Could it be?
The book was still in good condition. A paper jacket advertising "top-notch mystery and detective stories" still enwrapped its red cover. The edges of some pages were slightly stained, but they weren't torn or bent.
She bought the book for $2.
At her Clearwater mobile home, Blackburn, 62, snapped a photo of the signature and text messaged it to her mother .
• • •
About 1,000 miles away, inside her two-story home in the hills of West Virginia, Verna Browning, 85, stared at the text message in awe.
"I didn't think that a book could last that long," she said.
Yes, she remembered reading it and signing her name when she was 14.
So much of her own life story had been written since then. She married at the age of 19 and worked odd jobs, from waiting on tables to sewing. She had three sons and three daughters, cared for her dying husband, had great-great-grandchildren.
"It's hard to believe," she said.
How did the book get from Cleveland to Clearwater?
At the Amish Country Store, owner Stuart Opp said he occasionally buys antique books at yard sales in Largo, Clearwater and Seminole, to resell them.
"I don't know," Opp said about the book's arrival at his store. "Who knows, huh?"
• • •
Blackburn placed the book in a large storage bag and stored it in a fireproof safe. She plans to send it to her mother.
She has been thinking lately that the book's reappearance was a sign.
Blackburn moved to Florida some 20 years ago to escape West Virginia's cold climate. About three years ago, her fiance died days before they were to be married. She now lives alone, with no family members close by.
For years, her mother has asked her to head back north.
Blackburn could have picked up any book on that shelf, but she happened to choose the one with her mother's name in it.
"I guess," she said, "it's time for me to come home."
Laura C. Morel can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8713.