As in Descartes. Rene to his friends, of which I was not one. It was a joke. The sort of humor that generally lost me friends. I had to explain it too often, and after a time, simply identified myself by the replica Avenue Victor Hugo street sign from Paris hanging up on my umbrella post. This was, after all, the name of my small publishing company and perfectly sufficient. The extrapolation for that—a concoction of justification, hyperbole, and other nouns that swallowed-up a balancing of conceits—George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company in Paris, the book stalls there along the river Seine, and my affection for Victor Hugo himself, was an explanation that took almost as long as my excuses for De Cart.
Because the heavy overarching umbrella was yellow, and had been the only one on sale at the supply store, I had attempted to match the same color when I painted the wood of the pushcart. The finished affair looked pretty good to me then, given the palette of the time. That was 1973. Colors were an indiscretion. Thus I was hard to miss. I only weighed about 170 pounds and the pushcart weighed more, when empty. Filled with books and magazines it topped 350, easy. But I was strong then.
It was four feet long and two feet wide. I installed four heavy-duty wheels at the bottom and these were bolted through two layers of all-weather plywood. Atop that were two bookshelves, both three feet tall by three feet wide, and they leaned backward from the sides in order to resist jostling the books away. Another shelf at the front was hinged from the board across the top. The hinge was necessary to access the angle of space inside, between the leaning shelves, where I stashed things like the folded umbrella and the heavy plastic cover I put over the whole affair at night.
The shelves carried about 200 books, give or take, depending on whether they were paperback or hardcover. About 50 magazines were on the front shelves. A couple of loose display units on top carried more of each. The business model for this meager selection was non-existent. Twice the number of books would have been insufficient to pay a living wage, much less pay for the wholesale purchase of new titles. I knew this going in. I had my plan. And I was insane. And in any case, given Boston weather, I was very likely to die of pneumonia like old Rene Descartes from standing out on the street trying to sell my printed wares before my folly was manifest.
Firstly, you have to understand that all of this was very Romantic to me. I have often been moved by such ideas in spite of the demands of reality. That is another definition of ‘insanity,’ is it not? To do something different everytime, whether it works or not. After all, my great hero was Victor Hugo, poet, novelist, dramatist, painter, designer, journalist, politician, and all around irregular guy. And I could not even read him in French. Insane!
I lived then at 193 Beacon Street. I had a one-room apartment there on the first floor at the front from which I could watch the world and John Updike walk by. My girl friend at the time, not yet my wife, lived in a larger apartment on the third floor. Because my one room was filled with boxes and tables for the publishing of my erstwhile magazine, Fiction, I spent most of my little free time upstairs.
The magazine was yet another key to my madness. It was my belief—my faith, as it were, that when people got a taste of what I was trying to do through my magazine that they would subscribe enough to support my efforts, and me. I was enraged by the vacuity of much of modern literature, and the pandering of much of the rest. I believed in storytelling. Theme. Narrative. Characterization. Plot. The great strengths in any Victor Hugo work. Poor John Updike, that paragon of style and word control, was such an easy target as he strode past each day behind his nose, he became a frequent object and target of my thoughts. And Fiction was well displayed on De Cart.
Yet another aspect of this madness, as much catalyst as motivation, was the idea that by doing it I was taking a step toward opening my own bookshop. The explanation for that greater idiocy would take many pages—and did at the time—so I will avoid that here. It is enough to say that the magazine failed, but the bookstore was opened in 1975 and survived for almost thirty years.
You cannot sell paper goods in the rain. Especially with a wind. Boston seemed blessed with nor-easters during those years. That fact alone limited my street-vending days to three out of five overall. A dry spell in warm weather might be a blessing, but it also meant exhaustion.
De Cart was kept in a corner of the back-space behind the building where I lived, just off the alley. Reaching this involved a drop of more than a foot—or rise, depending on the direction, coming and going. Levering the weight of the thing on the back wheels was a chore. And the alley curb was about six inches, as were most of the curbs between Beacon Street and Boylston, ten blocks away, which was my destination on most days. The laws concerning peddling—for I had been required to go to City Hall and pay for a blue plastic badge despite the fact that I was performing a deed proscribed by the First Amendment—were that I had to keep moving between sales while on public property, i.e. streets and sidewalks. My sales being relatively few and given the time required for a potential customer to browse, or at least to listen to my ever more embroidered explanation for what the hell I was doing, I was building a bit of muscle on arms and legs more used to lifting words.
After a period of wandering like a lost tribe of one, and being chased away by patrolmen acting at the behest of shopkeepers who themselves were paying the exorbitant rents that paid for Boston’s political profligacy and didn’t need the obstruction of my perambulating, I was finally saved. One of my few ‘regulars,’ Joseph, the owner of the Araby Rug Company, was a fan of western fiction. Boston bookshops had little of this genre to offer and the category fell neatly within the purview of storytelling that was my very cause. Seeing me hustled away one day, Joseph suggested that I come and station myself in front of his building—directly across from the Boston Public Library! He owned an extensive frontage there and I would be no bother. Bless him!
I don’t think my folly would have lasted a full summer, much less the nearly three years before the opening of my bookshop, without this generosity. Nevertheless, wheeling ‘The Beast’ out each day, another affectionate name given De Cart by one of the two fellows who helped me during those years, would have done me in, I think. And my life might have taken a far different path.
As the circulation of Fiction magazine grew, so did the responsibilities. But the thirty-six hour day had not yet been invented. Tom Owen, one of the volunteers on the magazine, was, I suppose, unduly influenced by tales of white-washing fences and the health benefits of fresh air. Tom began to take De Cart out on occasion. Marshall Brooks, a fellow small press publisher and aspiring litterateur pitched in as well.
It is not just the distance of hindsight that offers sufficient haze to imbue those days with a warm glow. At the very moment of doing it I felt there was something special in the effort. And I even spoke of that then. And wrote a little about it as well (in a sort of instant verbal selfie).
My grandfather was a peddler, selling ‘produce’ from the back of a truck. When he was getting older, I had the supreme pleasure of helping him on many gold-summer days, riding beside him in his Red Man tobacco perfumed cab, and scrambling up into the chock-full truck bed to fetch whatever was asked for by pointing customers along the way. So I had a little of that already in my blood.
And talking to people about what mattered most to me was only second to the writing itself. I suppose there is enough Irish left in me to make arguing over anything a potential pleasure. My feelings about the world at large, and my new-found philosophies about what should be done to solve our problems were sufficient then. But the chance to argue about literature—something that might commonly be done in an Irish bar but not often anyplace in America since the subject was locked up by academia, was a sheer joy. I know that I was seldom as happy doing anything else. My ignorance overflowed. My foolishness abounded. I wallowed in the mere sweat and glory of it.
And still, to this day, I have at least one friend made there on Boylston Street.
Ah, the days of wine and pizzas.
Stay on your best behavior. My next published work, THE FORTUNES OF OLAF SHORTHAND, is dedicated to you and all the rest of the gang at Avenue Victor Hugo. In the “Afterword”, I tell a little bit of what working there was like.