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.
I'm very sorry to hear that all the Borders bookstores in the world may close their doors very soon. This is not, apparently, because the book business is slowing down (Barnes and Noble and Amazon are still viable) but because of specific business decisions that turned out badly. I hope there will be a last-minute salvation, and if there's not I will certainly grieve this loss. Say what you want about massive book super-stores; they are great places to buy books, hang out and hear author readings. And we need the restrooms.
There's one Borders bookstore I specially remember, my favorite Borders in New York City, though this store closed nearly ten years ago. It was one of the flagship Borders locations in Manhattan, and it was a particularly good one because the vast building that housed it gave it the space of a barn.
This Borders had three floors -- a small one, a big one, and a very big one. The lowest, smallest floor let out on a subway/PATH train concourse, and so it held mystery and romance bestsellers, comic books, magazine racks, bubble gum, CDs and playing cards. It was good that all this stuff cluttered up the lower floor, because it freed up the first floor to be something special.
Taking advantage of a Hollywood vacation my wife won at her office Christmas party this past December, I decided to visit a few West Coast indie bookstores with copies of my novel, Tamper. This was our first time in California and we loved everything about it. In between sightseeing and dining, I dropped in on four bookstores I had chosen from a list provided by L.A. resident Wanda Shapiro, author of Sometimes That Happens With Chicken, whom I recently befriended on Facebook.
First, I have to say, the printed book is far from dead. On the flight from Jacksonville, Florida and throughout our stay in the Los Angeles area, I lost count of the number of people I saw reading books (not ebooks) at the airport, on the plane, in the hotel lobby, in coffee shops, and on the beach. Once, on my flight back to Jacksonville, I saw no less than three people in a row, all reading books at the same time. I managed to sneak a snapshot of them with my iPhone before the flight attendant reminded me to shut the gadget down while we were in the air.
Because our bookshop was located within eyeshot of the U.S. Capitol’s snow-white dome, we still retained some guilt by association with the political world. You had to walk to the corner and then look eight blocks west to see the dome, but nonetheless its magical aura enfolded us too. As tempting as it may have been, we could not bury our heads in the sands, burrow deeper inside our antiquarian world and hope to stay in business. This was simply not possible in Washington, D.C., at least not in the middle of the Reagan-Gingrich Revolution.
Though politics and civics were two of the shop’s weaker subject areas, we were occasionally visited by politicos and lobbyists brave or absent-minded enough to venture into the less-traveled (and more feared) zones of the District of Columbia. Often, they were on their lunch breaks and, having wandered a street or two too far, stumbled onto the shop by accident. Most of these visitors had not, previously, known we existed. And few of them ever returned.
Among this group of political animals, one critter stood out. He was a resident expert—perhaps the resident expert—at the Liberty Lobby, a far-right-wing organization about which I knew little beyond what this fellow suggested it must be like.
His name was John Tiffany, and he was, despite the name, neither delicate nor colorful, nor was he in any way illuminating. He always seemed to be wearing the same flannel shirt. He sported a sort of whisk-broom moustache that he must have fancied was manly—an antidote, no doubt, to all the feminists and lesbians who held court hereabouts and made men like John Tiffany nervous. He was one of the few people I had ever seen who employed a pocket protector, inside which were housed the tools of his trade as a writer of political and historical spin. And he was tongue-tied, floor-gazing, completely at a loss in any one-on-one human encounter.
(Here's another selection from Alan Bisbort's memoir of his years in the small bookstore business. -- Levi)
Dollar Bill was a regular at the shop, though there was nothing about his looks or manner that suggested a love of books. He was a diminutive but powerful-looking man with stiffly chivalrous manners. His snow-white hair was cropped short, with a little flip at the front as an ever-so-slight concession to the modern world. He also sported a thin, almost invisible white-grey moustache, like George Orwell’s. Combined with his piercing grey-blue eyes, this continental facial hair made him appear both fierce and slightly foolish. His skin was beaten to a leathery consistency by years of exposure to the outdoors, and yet he always dressed in a severely-pressed Navy blue suit, with thick military-style black, thick-soled dress shoes, scuffed a bit at the front but shiny as a mirror in the back. The suit shone like mica from its many dry cleanings. Dollar Bill looked as if he were perpetually on his way to a formal gathering where he would, in all likelihood, be turned away at the door.
Because the bookshop was located seven blocks from the U.S. Marine Corps Barracks, I pegged him to be an old soldier who simply never broke free from the orbit of his career, centered as it had been in Washington, D.C. Though pushing 65, Dollar Bill retained the square muscular Mason jar-head of a Marine whose DNA refused to let him to go completely to seed or to style now that he was out of uniform. This, I knew instantly from having been born into a military family and having lived my boyhood on military bases, was a man who was wed to the service, knew or cared little about anything beyond the service and, had he ever been married, chances are that he had asked for permission first from his commanding officer and would have, had the colonel’s answer been ‘no,’ remained single. Gladly.
“Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop.”-George Orwell, “Bookshop Memories”
For ten years I worked in the second-hand book trade. Five of those years were spent at Wayward Books, an antiquarian book shop in Washington, D.C. that was owned by novelist and critic Doris Grumbach and her partner, Sybil Pike. Another five years were spent selling second-hand books out of my truck just down the block from Wayward at historic Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, a move necessitated when Doris and Sybil relocated their shop to coastal Maine.
Though that period of my life ended fifteen years ago, the bookshop trade has left a mark on my soul. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that time with a mixture of longing and giddy recollection. Entire newsreels scroll through my head as I think about the eclectic and eccentric assortment of customers and habitués—a fancy way of saying “customers” who don’t actually buy anything—who darkened my doorway. As George Orwell put it, “In a town like London [or Washington D.C.] there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.”
(Hopeful writers should know that there are many paths to literary success. Here's Alan Bisbort, author of books like Beatniks: A Guide to American Subculture and Cell 2455: Death Row, on how he stumbled into his best-selling series. -- Levi)
Can you tell me what two literary legends met for the first time on (or about) Dec. 20, 1946 at 1116 Amsterdam Avenue? What about a similar meeting of the pens on November 29, 1925 in Washington D.C., at the restaurant in the Wardman Park Hotel?
The first is, as close as I can date it using published letters by all connected parties, the when and where for Jack Kerouac’s first encounter with Neal Cassady. This took place in Hal Chase’s Livingston Hall dorm room at Columbia University. Chase was from Denver, where he’d been friends with Cassady. For weeks, he had regaled his friends around campus about the “unbelievably crazy quixotic” Cassady, who was planning a New York visit with his wife, LuAnne Henderson. It was a less than exhilarating initial encounter for the future drivers of the Beat Generation; Kerouac was with a group of people and the two didn’t really bond. The more legendary meeting between the future Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty took place a few days later -- a meeting immortalized in On the Road -- when Kerouac visited Cassady by himself in the Spanish Harlem cold-water flat where he and LuAnne were staying.
(Last week I talked to Ron Kolm, who's been a friendly and productive presence in downtown New York's literary universe for decades, about his newest anthology. Here's the second half of that interview, where we talk about what it's like to be a friendly and productive presence in downtown New York's literary universe for decades. The painting of Ron is by Bob Witz)
Levi: How did you first become a part of the NYC literary scene? What were your first impressions of the "scene", and what are your impressions of it today?
Ron: To be honest, I’ve never really been a part of the NYC literary scene. There was a brief period when Eileen Myles was the Director of the Poetry Project that I got paid to read there and was part of the New Years Benefit Reading -- but I was writing fiction then; small dirty stories about a couple (Duke & Jill) that sold junk on the street, and since I wasn’t a Language Poet, or any of that ilk, I fell off their radar, which was fine by me. What I did do was work in bookstores. I was at the Strand in the early to mid 70’s, when Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith worked there. In the late 70’s I worked in the East Side Bookstore with guys who would later found St. Mark’s Bookshop –- that’s where I got stabbed by a junkie, etc. By 1980 I was managing a bookstore in Soho, pre-tourist trap Soho, which was owned by High Times Magazine. I had to take a subway uptown to their office, where I partook from the canisters of nitrous oxide standing around everyone’s desk, before getting the checks I needed to pay for things signed. Then I worked at St. Mark’s Bookshop, and finally at Coliseum Books.
1. I've seen a lot of things in my life, but I've never before had the pleasure of watching a bookstore get born. I met blogger/bookseller Jessica Stockton Bagnulo three years ago when we both joined the Litblog Co-op at the same time, and I noted it here in January 2008 when she was awarded seed money to start her own bookstore in Brooklyn. The store is now about to open and looks just great. I hope to make it to the opening day party this Saturday at 7 pm, and you're invited too ...
But why argue theories and generalizations? Let's take a stroll through our neighborhood bookstore and see what our industry's book pricing practice looks and feels like to "the boots on the ground".
This is a quirky novel by a writer who appeals notably to a hip young audience. Assuming these hip young potential book buyers are accustomed to downloading songs for a dollar each, they'd have to expect this book to be worth twenty-seven good songs in order to take a risk on it. Way to grab those impulse buyers, HarperCollins!
This is a smart literary novel that explores issues of class and African-American identity in a campus setting. The book got moderately good reviews in many newspapers, but the author is not a household name and the book will be a marginal buy for most potential readers. At $26.95, this ought to fly off the shelves!