Only once have I worked in retail sales, and that was in a large, musty, chaotic bookstore in downtown Cleveland, in 1975. Kay’s Books occupied three floors of a building that resembled a warehouse but had once been a restaurant, in the days when Cleveland was the home of John D. Rockefeller. The floors and some of the walls were covered with mosaic tiles. I had been shopping for books there since I was a kid, collecting early editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels with red covers and brown pages.
The autocratic, blue-haired owner, Rachel Kowan, was renowned for retroactively raising the price of books. A customer would hand his selections to Mrs. Kay, who looked at them over her glasses, weighing their worth as though for the first time, and then say something like, “This won’t do. This is worth at least $7.” Then she marked the new price on the cover of the formerly $5 book with a black crayon. Customers usually protested but I don’t remember Mrs. Kay, who stood behind the cash register on a raised platform and literally looked down on everyone, ever budging.
In size and inclusiveness, Kay’s was a rust belt mutation of Borges’ Library of Babel. There wasn’t merely a Metaphysical/Esoterica section; whole shelves were devoted to Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, Eckankar (“Religion of the Light and Sound of God”) and another outfit that linked the Great Pyramid to the pineal gland. I was a college dropout and looked upon the sprawl at Kay’s and the people who purchased it as the graduate school I never attended. We sold pulp novels about pimps, penned by Iceberg Slim, and we sold pornography. The Anarchist Cookbook was popular and so were Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book and books about con men like “Yellow Kid” Weil.
My job interview was simple: Mrs. Kay randomly pulled a dozen volumes off the shelves and told me to alphabetize them by author’s last name. I passed. My first assignment in the store was to alphabetize thousands of Signet paperbacks in the section of the basement built under the adjoining business, a bar patronized almost exclusively by blacks. From the Domino Lounge came the sounds of people hollering, dancing, flushing toilets and playing the jukebox. Some of the Signets dated from the 1940s. As I lifted a pile of brown paperbacks from the top shelf, they crumbled in my hands and fell, along with cockroach remains, in my face.
On another occasion, the late Tiny Tim and two members of his band visited the store. They were interested in our collection of old sheet music, which was heaped below the stairs between the first floor and the basement. Tiny spent hours digging through the mess and bought a pile of it. Before he left, we had him autograph the wall.
After that, the event I remember most vividly occurred shortly before I left Kay’s in September. A new translation of The Iliad had arrived, and the boxes were carried to the second floor, where I worked. One of my co-workers was Gary Dumm, now a comic book artist and frequent collaborator with Harvey Pekar, creator of American Splendor. Gary said there must be a mistake, because poetry, literature and books about the ancient world were shelved on the first floor. One of the senior clerks, however, said, “No, it’s in the right place,” and pointed to the drawing of the Trojan horse on the cover. “Put it in equine science.”
Kay’s was sold in the mid-1980s to a wholesaler from New Jersey. When I revisited Cleveland last fall after a long absence, I wanted to see the old building on Prospect Avenue. The first floor is now occupied by a store catering to blacks with retro tastes in fashion. The mannequins in the window were dressed in the pimp-chic, proto-Disco, “Superfly” style of some 30 years ago, when I worked at the bookstore. I remember the layout of Kay’s in astonishing detail and still occasionally dream about it.