If it's a banana peel, you may be witnessing a negative review, or perhaps just the work of a very poor prospect for a roommate.
If it's a religious tract, imagine a most intentional individual. Or perhaps just someone on the parish evangelism committee with a quota to meet.
If you discover a love letter written on a leaf, you may really have yourself a story.
"It's amazing the things people leave in books," says Jenny Dwenger, manager of Indy Reads Books. "You can look at a collection of books and the artifacts left in them, and you can piece together patterns in people's lives. It makes for a weird forensic exercise."
And it's light exercise, usually. The highlight reel of odd items found in books returned to libraries and sold or donated to bookstores around here includes banana peels and half-eaten sandwiches, credit cards and cash, sermonettes and cheesecake photos, family portraits and children's drawings.
Indy Reads on Mass Ave not long ago received a book with a gasoline receipt from the 1960s - when 12 cents a gallon was the price. Plus a miniature stone gargoyle, a rather mean little knife and a tortoise skull, none believed to have been employed as bookmarks, though one never knows.
Bookmamas in Irvington just took in a bodice-ripper novel with a hardware store receipt for plumbing supplies, which I present without comment.
The Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library's lengthy list of found objects features used Band-Aids, job applications, a slice of processed cheese (in the wrapper), boarding passes, Q-Tips, driver's licenses, and Post-It notes discreetly placed over pictures some reader found offensive.
Offensive? Tell them about it. "We're supposed to keep this clean," says Cheryl Holtsclaw, circulation supervisor of the West Indianapolis Branch, "so I won't even mention a couple of them."
Spread the net wide enough, and "amazing" becomes "incredible." AbeBooks.com, for instance, says its legions of sellers have turned up thousands of dollars, a priceless Mickey Mantle rookie baseball card, a Christmas card signed by L. Frank Baum, a diamond ring and a baby's tooth.
Amusing, disgusting and the stuff of idle speculation, the bulk of it is. Certainly not all. Library and store personnel occasionally find themselves hunting down sources of live credit cards, currency and other sensitive matter that got put to apparently unwise use and apparently got forgotten. That's called getting really engrossed, if not necessarily in the reading.
Sometimes, the serious business is in the realm of imagination. Personal memorabilia can move a busy retailer to wistful reverie.
"I have found many pressed flowers in books," Bookmamas owner Kathleen Angelone reflects. "I don't think much of it when the books are coming from an estate. It is, however, sad when someone brings in books that were inscribed to a lover and a teary-eyed person brings in those cute gift books or romantic poetry with a lovey-dovey inscription and pressed flower. Even worse when there appear to be tear stains."
Ahhh. Sophie Williams, assistant manager at Indy Reads, where the walls are festooned with numerous gems plucked from donated books, remembers especially a letter home from a G.I. stationed overseas during World War II -- tucked into a book, unopened. Certain that the intended recipient could no longer be around seven decades later, the staff peeked.
"He talked about a medical problem, not war related, and hoped he would get to come home. We've always wondered what happened," she says. "I have my version. I believe he got home safely and the letter didn't need to be read."
When you work in books, you can think like that. It helps, when you're shaking out the tea bags and hypodermic needles, and hoping nobody has wasted a perfectly good bacon strip.