Tuesday, February 16, 2016

`Either a Collector or a Bookseller'

The dreams, irregularly recurrent for more than forty years, cover a remarkable amount of real estate and yet are confined to a single two-story building on Prospect Avenue in Cleveland. Most are set on the second floor, where I worked, but some descend to the first floor and basement. As it was in 1975, the floor in Kay’s Books is covered with small black and white tiles, like an oversized mosaic, and remains permanently gritty and smudged. Most of the shelves are jerry-built from unfinished lumber and wooden produce cases painted olive drab. The cash register sits on the tall Dickensian desk across from the top of the concrete steps. Turn to the left -- sociology, anthropology, politics, black history. To the right, a revolving wire rack holding the Iceberg Slim novels, and a wall of science fiction. In my dream early Monday morning, I was desperately looking in sci-fi for a copy of Fawn M. Brodie’s biography of Thomas Jefferson (1974). Even in the dream I knew I wouldn’t find it there, but that’s a recurrent theme – purposeful futility.         

In 1973, Graham Greene wrote an introduction, “Second-hand Bookshops,” to With All Faults, a memoir by his friend the London bookdealer David Low, in which he confesses that for more than thirty years his “happiest dreams have been of second-hand bookshops.” Greene recorded his dreams (talk about futility), and notes that in the first seven months of 1972 he had six set in such places. In his essay, collected in Reflections (ed. Judith Adamson, Reinhardt Books, 1990), Greene writes: “Second-hand booksellers are among the most friendly and the most eccentric of all the characters I have known. If I had not been a writer, theirs would have been the profession I would most happily have chosen.”

As I almost did. Naturally, I enjoyed the company of books, but the experience of working at Kay’s taught me that I also enjoyed the company of people who buy and sell books. Not all, of course. Not the guy who asked, “Do you have that blue book? You know, the one with the blue cover?” and got angry when I asked if he could give a little more information, you know, like author, title or subject. But even idiocy is amusing, retrospectively. I had been fantasizing about opening a used-book shop for years, and once even made a few tentative plans with another guy, a poet from New York City. We had a name already picked out: Omega Books, then shortened to O Books. Ah, the fleeting and stupid dreams of young men.   

The futility of looking for a life of Jefferson in the science-fiction section suggests what my future in book selling might have looked like. As Greene writes, “To enter properly this magic world of chance and adventure one has to be either a collector or a bookseller.” I am congenitally a collector or, more specifically, a reader. I have no business sense, no gift for bookkeeping, marketing or the hard sell. I would have reserved every prized title for personal consumption, like restaurateurs who eat the profits. Instead, after several detours, I went to work as a newspaper reporter.

I look at my decades of bookstore dreams as a consolation prize. Every month or so, I’m back in the basement of Kay’s, browsing the Signet paperbacks from the fifties, looking for George Gamow. Oddly, I’ve never dreamed about the pornography we sold. It came in three grades. The first consisted of old girly magazines from the fifties and sixties, black and white, often without covers, and pretty tame even by the standards of 1975. These were heaped without order on tables near the clerks’ desk. Next to them and even closer to the desk were the paperbacks, organized by taste – gay, straight, incest, S&M, B&D, enemas. That final category recalls one of the authors’ pseudonyms – Colin Lavage (honest, I’m not making this up). The final category was the primo stuff, full-color magazines available only to loyal, pre-screened customers and kept in a brown paper shopping bag under the desk. The customer retired to the store room to examine the goods in privacy and at leisure. That’s another thing I owe to my time at Kay’s – the incremental and ongoing loss of what used to be called innocence.  

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