Bookdrunk

Bookselling

(Another installment of Alan Bisbort's bookselling memoir.)

Bill K. looked like a plain-clothes priest, which is what he should have been—and probably would have been had he not developed an early thirst for alcohol. Instead, he ended up at the Washington Post handling complaints from subscribers for 25 years, the sort of task that would drive most anyone to drink but which probably tested Bill’s own resolve to stay sober.

In his spare time, Bill was marginally a book scout, the sort who hung around the city’s second-hand bookshops and was friendly with all the dealers but seldom purchased anything other than the occasional item buried deep on shelves for so long that the original prices, due to inflation, had become relative bargains. He was well known to Doris and Sybil because he was among the few people who frequented their previous venue, a below-street-level space located even deeper in the outback of Capitol Hill, five or six blocks closer to RFK Stadium. Though the rent was considerably cheaper there than on Seventh Street, that location virtually assured no walk-in traffic other than homeless men or other desperate city characters. Most of their business was transacted with book scouts, other dealers or at the antiquarian book fairs within a day’s drive of Washington D.C. The shop was more like a place to hold stock, a giant, orderly storage bin that also kept regular hours.

Bill hung around that old shop largely because it was the closest book venue in the city to the boarding house where he lived, and every so often he unearthed a treasure the owners had priced too low, which of course did not warm the cockles of their hearts but did impress them with his bibliophilic skills. Because of his book scout’s nose, he was more familiar with their stock than they were and, taking the path of least resistance, they finally hired him to work the few hours they wanted off—“work” meaning sitting at the desk, answering the phone and denying restroom access to any Tom, Dick or Mary off the streets. They didn’t even have to pay Bill. He agreed to simply accrue in-store credit, which he then used toward the purchase of books he continually set aside. Even better, from his perspective, was he got first crack at new arrivals.

Bill knew books but that was not what most appealed to me about him. He had an air of quiet sadness, exuding both vulnerability and strength simultaneously, that made me like him straight off. He had thin lips, and thinning prematurely white hair atop a scalp that shone pink in places, the remnants of what he called “my Irish suntan.” He had a bird-like face that was normally pale but gained color when he recounted some literary anecdote that amused him, or waxed about some rare edition that had just eluded his fingertips at the Vassar or Goodwill book sales. He was not unkind or arrogant, as many bibliophiles and book shop people can be. He really wanted to direct customers to books that would please them because that would personally please him too. He would not, or would not want to, hurt a fly.

Bill was in the bookshop on Seventh Street the day I was hired. He was kept on, in fact, because his final duty was to spend a few days explaining the finer points of the job that I was inheriting from him, now that the owners had moved the shop into the higher-rent district of Eastern Market and would need more hours from Bill than he could not, with his Post gig, give them. I picked up his hours and another 20 or so besides. I was his Pygmalion, so to speak because he was paid to shape me into a facsimile edition of a semi-cultured shop keeper. Mostly, though, he held forth on authors and subjects that interested him while keeping an eagle eye out for the shop owners, prone to pop in unannounced like a virago SWAT team armed with canvas handled sacks filled with new book purchases. When they were safely clear again, Bill combed through the shop’s extensive backlog of book catalogs in hopes of finding some more lost or hidden jewels, or ascertain the proper value of some gem he’d squirreled away in his apartment. I felt as comfortable around Bill in silence as I did in conversation. He was a rare bird that way.

Perhaps it was his recovery from the drinking disease, his easy acceptance of human frailty and his unpretentiousness that gave Bill K. his priestly air. He was, I learned, also something of a father-confessor to a number of people who dropped into the shop to see him.

After the third pale, shivering soul departed following a whispered consultation with Bill in the back of the shop, he perhaps felt that I was owed an explanation.

“I am his sponsor,” he told me.

“Oh, that’s nice,” I said, unfamiliar then with the patois of Alcoholics Anonymous.

“I don’t know why,” he continued. “I just keep agreeing to sponsor more and more people. I can’t turn them away.”

“Is this sponsorship some kind of investment opportunity?” I asked.

“No, no,” Bill said, laughing. In the short time I had known Bill, I had managed to stun him several times into silence with my naïvete and ignorance. “I round up my sheep at the St. Marks AA meeting on Third Street. Next week, I get my 15-year chip. It’s probably improper to admit pride in such a thing, but that’s my greatest achievement to date. Fifteen years of sobriety.”

As it was with many recovering drunks whom I would meet over the next few years, Bill seemed too serene and altogether decent a soul to suggest a past of blackouts in alleys, pissing the bed, punch ups and delirium tremens. A cultured man, he had been educated by the Jesuits and was classically versed and yet self-effacing about his knowledge. When he corrected my pronunciation of a word (“it’s VYE-count, not VIS-count”), he did so with an air of humility, as if apologizing for being smarter than me. It was only later that I fully grasped the depths of Bill’s soul and, as they say, the trouble he had seen. At the time, I just thought he was a solitary, mildly eccentric gent with a penchant for old books and an easy way about him.

Krista was mad about Bill K. She, apparently, had a habit of falling in love with men she could not have, either married men, or those who were institutionalized or, like Bill, gay. She was not deterred when she learned of Bill’s sexual orientation, sincerely believing that he was more asexual than homosexual and that, with the proper feeding and care, might shimmy back around to her side of the dance floor.

“I love Bill’s mind,” Krista told me one day, apropos of nothing. “I could listen to him talk for hours.” There was no disguising the look of sadness engendered by the sudden realization that she could never have any more of Bill K. than his mind.

Despite his loyal presence, willingness to help and all-around agreeableness, the shop owners always suspected Bill of harboring hidden motives, that he was evasive and too secretive around them. They, of course, may have been suspicious simply because his temperament was so unlike their own. Once they moved the shop to Maine—and I was bounced to the flea market up the street—Bill realized his longtime dream—to run his own shop. Was that the secret he kept from them all those years? And, if so, how gentlemanly of him to wait until they were gone to act on it.

With his early retirement money from the Washington Post and his own savings—likely prodigious from two decades of vice-less and carless solo frugality—Bill was able to secure the rent on a storefront facing one of the side entrances to Eastern Market. The one extravagance Bill allowed himself was to hire a sign maker to create a tasteful, elegant old-style wooden board that read, in gold letters on a forest green background, “Capitol Hill Books.”

The first time I entered the shop I felt Bill’s presence, even though I did not see him. The place was a bit like he was—slightly rumpled, an orderly profusion of knowledge. The prices were fair, but not cheap—more a reflection on the usurious rents charged by absentee landlords on the Hill than Bill’s inclination to gouge customers or maximize profits. His shop, however, came with an added bonus: living quarters upstairs. He could, literally, sleep with his books.

Capitol Hill Books was, I realized, my fantasized ideal of the shop I would own if I was blessed with the calm sobriety of Bill K., or were I not visited—as I was several times a week in the old shop—by sudden waves of panic that my life was completely wasted. Bill, though, had sowed all the oats, wild or otherwise, he was likely to sow and his shop fit him like a bathrobe. Indeed, many were the times in the weeks ahead that I expected to see him descend the stairs from his apartment in his bathrobe to greet me, or to smell the odor of omelets or waffles wafting down from his kitchenette.

I had never seen him more content than on my first visit to Capitol Hill Books, seldom seen anyone as contented. A bit bedraggled and overwhelmed, yes, but fully engaged in this sudden change in his life’s direction, from clinging to an existence while watching the clock and counting down the minutes, to entering a new calling with his entire being and seldom being aware of the swift passage of time. This was the priesthood that had eluded him, his books were his sacraments, his customers his parishioners.

That’s how I will always remember Bill. Over the next four years, I sold books every Sunday at the flea market, not 100 yards from the door of his shop. Each week, I looked forward to seeing him, as he religiously strolled over to check out my wares. He was always the first person to greet me, sometimes getting up and out early enough to help me unload my truck and set up my tables and shelves. He was always good for my first sale of the day, too. He was kind in his assessments of my burgeoning bibliophilic skills. I had, he said, “a good eye for books.”

My flea market Sundays, those perfect placid hours when life was a warm bath of words and chatter and hum, drew to a close after I got married. My wife had nothing to do with the decision. As terribly as I would miss the weekly immersion in the human tragicomedy of Eastern Market, it just seemed the most reasonable course of action to take. In fact, the day we got married, a bee-loud May Saturday at the District of Columbia’s most beautiful Catholic Church, I was actually harboring fantasies of showing up the next day to set up my stand and sell my books. I figured that, if I was harboring such fantasies on my wedding day—and what groom or bride isn’t hit by sudden waves of anxiety in those hours prior to the semi-permanence of the altar?—my bookselling urges would drag on neurotically, like an intimate relationship that must end but neither party was prepared to take the first steps toward the door.

I needed a divorce from bookselling, maybe even an annulment. The divorce settlement would have to include relinquishing all custody of my children, those hundreds of unsold books that choked the back of my truck and the floors and shelves of my basement apartment. The only way to achieve that was to make a clean break.

After returning from my honeymoon the next week, I called Bill and made the following offer: He could have every single volume of my remaining stock at no cost if he took it no questions asked, lock stock and barrel. He agreed and I drove my truck to his store, backed it up onto the rickety brick and cobblestone sidewalk and up against the door of Capitol Hill Books. Within ten minutes ten previous years of bookselling existence was wiped clean. The entrails of that life formed huge piles on Bill’s bookshop floor. He clucked and piff-piffed and made other satisfied noises as he pondered and fingered the free booty.

His one vice now, I noticed, was smoking clove cigarettes, one of which he pulled out and lit after we had finished unloading the books. These were thin, long, hand-rolled doobies of legal herb that he kept barely lit the whole time he spoke. They were more like incense sticks than something from which you drew lung-coating smoke.

He laughed softly and nodded at the piles and then, after a reverent pause to tug at the smoldering cloves, said, “Alan, think of this as a reminder of the temporal nature of material existence.”

“How do you mean, Bill?” I said, I thought he was just pulling my leg.

“Well, you have spent the past decade defined by books, the seeking, finding, pricing and selling of books. This part of your earthly life is over. And, though I should not admit this ungenerous and all too human thought, here it is: I envy you, my friend.”

Bill looked at me and I could see that his eyes were watery from emotion.

“What the ...”

“Never mind,” he said, laughing softly again. “Godspeed, my friend. You are going places. I really don’t regret anything in my life except those years I lost to the drink.”

“But those years weren’t lost or wasted, Bill,” I said, suddenly feeling philosophical myself. “They prepared you for this life, the one you were really born to live.”

“I suppose you’re right, young man,” he said (though he was no more than ten years my senior, he seemed centuries more mature). “This is all part of my serenity.”

We shook hands and I promised to drop in the next time I was on the Hill. That wasn’t an empty vow, a sort of obligatory parting reflex. I really would have planned to spend a couple of hours with Bill K. at his shop on my next visit. Few prospects seemed more appealing to me than shooting the breeze about Washington D.C. book gossip with Bill K., a man on whom very little was ever lost.

As one might guess from the tenor of this recollection, I never did get back there to visit Bill. The following year, after relocating with my wife to Connecticut, I got a letter from a mutual bookshop friend. Enclosed was the short obituary from the Washington Post. Bill K. was found dead in his bed above his bookshop. He was, as they say, exactly where he wanted to be.

1 Response to "Bookdrunk"

Great story, great picture, and great title, too. I really like these bookstore memoirs, Alan. This one reminds me of my own "fantasy" bookstore. I used to dream of owing a bookstore and living upstairs. It might never happen in real life, but I did it in cyberspace! Right here:
http://billectric.wordpress.com/about/

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