For most of my life, I have been a bookseller. This was a choice made early on, with a raw understanding of the publishing world and the lack of interest there for the kinds of writing I wanted to do, combined with a naive belief that I might make a living selling good books even while I better learned the craft of writing them. I say ‘raw’ because I had already become personally acquainted with the procrustean business practices that were then destroying the kinds of storytelling I loved but I did not have the knowledge or ability to overcome that culture. And ‘naive’ because I was thankfully foolish enough not to know what I could not do. So, I did it anyway.
It is hard to be serious about so unserious a subject as oneself but herewith, and keeping the nasty bits to myself, I offer this ongoing post begun as blogs at Small Beer Press. If anyone is interested, from time to time I will add something at the end to bring the epic closer to the present moment.
My two bit universe (first bit)
It was possible to sell a blue crab or buy a paperback book for a quarter in 1956. And thus my reading career began.
We lived then in a modern (as in antiseptic and geometric) brick apartment complex in Beechhurst, just where the East River meets the Long Island Sound. Across the street, where a wonderful primal wood had lingered long beyond anything else of its kind in that densely populated suburb of New York City, was a place where I had watched bats twirl in the sky over the remains of a great estate while hidden in the enfolding roots of giant oaks, and held the fortress of a fallen gatehouse against the fury of thousands upon millions of snowballs.
In late summer of that year, a phalanx of earthmovers and a battalion of workers came to that place, at the behest of a Mr. Levitt, whose sign was posted high at a new gate. The invincible Roman Guard, a black fence of iron spears more than twice my height, which was so easily penetrated by our slim bodies, disappeared into the back of yawning trucks.
On a single morning and afternoon the oaks fell. Within mere days the enormous and mysterious cellar hole that had served as a walled pond and bred a zillion tadpoles was dug deeper still, and another beyond it, and another, and another, until the landscape was opened all the way to that small bay where other mysterious powers had already sunk footings for a monstrous bridge which would soon be marching across the waters.
The workers who had leveled the forest were Italian and Greek–not by heritage, but by birth–and they spoke their unfathomable languages back and forth as they altered the earth. And I, with my mouth agape, watched them as closely as I could manage given the new chain link fences.
My recreation then, other than spying and hiding, and talking to anyone who would listen about what I imagined I had seen while hiding and spying, was to chase horseshoe crabs in the tidal shallows and collect the detritus that belched from the river into the Sound and to hang from the cross bracing at the pier and with a homemade net, crafted from a found orange sack and a borrowed coat hanger, to scoop up the blue crabs that nestled against the barnacles below where they themselves waited for the small black fish that darted there.
One day a workman, probably taking a break from the slaughtering of ancient trees, stood above me on the pier and watched. He spoke to me, but I could not understand. He gestured. He pointed, Finally he removed a dime from his pocket and held it between two fingers so that I could see it clearly.
It was a more innocent age than this, but I had been told not to take money from strangers, so I turned away and continued my effort to snag another crab. The crabs, for their part, fiercely attacked my net with widened claws and if I turned my device at just the right moment, they snagged themselves.
“Bene! Bene! Bene!”
I looked up to a shadowed face and a gleeful smile. The worker’s hand went down into his pocket again and returned holding a quarter.
“Take. Please. Take.”
I had no mind for math but I was not completely stupid. One thing quickly led to another. For a couple of weeks, before school began, I had a short line of workers coming to the pier just before lunch with quarters in hand. At the work site they made small fires and boiled the crabs in buckets and ate them with olive oil and pieces of bread torn from long loaves.
I discovered this last part because one worker—the one I had first met—had taken me over the road one day and fed me a shred of crab on a piece of bread dripping with olive oil. I liked lobster better, but I didn’t tell him that. I couldn’t. I just said
All of this has much to do with learning to read. I’ll tell you why.
A world in two bits (second bit)
At nine, I had not yet begun to truly read. Reading, as I am calling it, is a sole pursuit of the contents of books. Of course, I’d learned about Dick and Jane in the first grade along with everyone else.
I had, however, already been initiated into that cult of worshipers who poured over the pages of latest EC comics and Mad magazine during lunch breaks at school. We collected in tight knots outside the Smoke Shoppe to read any new issue just delivered. I might not have appreciated the subtler themes that were current in the EC’s, but there was no missing the broader wit in Mad. And at the price of a quarter, my recent foray into the crab business had given me the wherewithal to be the kid at the center of the knot.
But my popularity was short lived.
My crab business had quickly come to an end when the unskilled workers had finished their job of wasting the earth and made way for the steel workers and masons who were uninterested in crab for lunch. I still had no head for math, and ran through my jar of quarters within weeks on such necessary items as baseball cards, marbles, and a very authentic looking pirate gun that used caps two at a time.
Still, the end came suddenly.
Part of the fun of reading EC’s was that they were absolutely forbidden by the nuns. This made them precious and all the more sought after. Anyone caught reading those foul publications was severely punished, resulting in a fat wooden ruler across the knuckles. Ridicule in front of the class. Lengthy homework assignments involving numbing repetition.
I had invested heavily in my stock of Incredible Science Fiction, Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Weird Science, and Weird Fantasy through the years, often trading away other valuable stuff, like baseball cards and plastic soldiers. I already knew the name of at least one writer very well, Ray Bradbury. And it made the investment all the sweeter to smuggle them into St. Luke’s cunningly disguised within the cover of a ‘Weekly Reader’ or sandwiched inside of an innocent looking Davy Crockett lunchbox.
But I was not the only spy in my class. Someone ratted me out.
On a perfect autumn day—I remember it that way, whether it was or not—with leaves of red and gold wafting downward on gentle breezes, as I sat on an abutment in the playground amidst some fair weather friends, a pale cold hand descended across my shoulder from the folds of black robes and snatched the latest issue of Incredible Science Fiction from my sweaty fingers.
Phone calls were made. My stash of comics at home disappeared.
My index finger became numb from the pressure of the pencil shaft as I wrote some poorly constructed confession and plea for absolution and forgiveness over and over again. There were many ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Marys’ necessary. And an act of contrition. (I could not spell contrition. I used a ‘u’ instead on an ‘o’).
But I was not done. Not vanquished.
I was just broke. But nickels could be had. Almost any adult would give you a nickel if you asked. It was the price of a bar of candy. A coke. A newspaper. It was also the price of any one of the odd lot of coverless pulps stashed in cardboard boxes at the back of the Smoke Shoppe. I had seen these before in my spying.
Pulps were very much like books, only better. All the words, but with pictures too. They displayed the fantastic art of Hannes Bok, Virgil Finlay, and Alex Raymond—artwork often better than the stories they illustrated. And I, still keen eyed at the time, had spied a familiar name in the lot. Ray Bradbury.
It was not until many years later, as I bought and sold those same issues of pulps to collectors, that I finally got to see the wonderful and lurid covers. What was important at the time, however, was that these too were forbidden. Sold on the sly. The covers had been removed and sent back to the distributors for credit. They were illegal, in fact. But I did not know that. I just knew that they were included among the prohibited publications on the list posted in the principle’s office and sent home at the beginning of each school year.
And thus I learned to read.
I had been reading purposefully on my own for little more than a year when my family moved to a temporary residence at the Bevan Hotel on Park Street in Larchmont. My parents had bought their first house, an older Victorian, and naturally encountered the unexpected difficulties of renovation.
I have used that nearly six-month residence at the Bevan Hotel several times in stories, and key to the impact of the place was the owner, a man about whom I actually know almost nothing.
His name was Frederick Merrow. I have no picture of him now to compare with my memory, so that I see him in my mind somewhat mythically. In any case, what a boy sees in a man has little to do with fact. We often only see what we need in others and little more.
However, the internet offers a little more, perhaps. Merrow was the nephew of the legendary F.F. Proctor, a wizard who had built some of the great theatre palaces during the first part of the 20th century. In the 1920’s Frederick Merrow had been the first manager of the RKO Proctor theatre in New Rochelle, a place where I was coincidentally to spend a great deal of my youth in later years.
But in 1957, I was ten, and Frederick Merrow was a gaunt and brooding eminence who walked uneasily with a cane, and wore dark suits. He had a great nose that seemed to soar when looked at from lower heights. Though taller than my father, he too had a mustache and spoke in a theatrically deep voice.
One image of the man has dominated my imagination, whether accurate or not. On a wall in the lobby there was a display of signed photographs of famous actors—John and Ethel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Basil Rathbone, George M. Cohan, Zasu Pitts, Tom Mix. They had all stayed at the little hotel in their time. But I had paid special attention to a photograph of Eugene O’Neill, sitting in a chair, smoking, and staring unhappily at the camera. It was unsigned. And for some time I thought it was a picture of Mr. Merrow himself until I asked why he had not signed his like the others had. I think he was flattered by the mistake.
He explained and added something else about O’Neill. “He wouldn’t sign it. He was unhappy with his contract.”
That enforced stay, which was so financially unfortunate for my parents, became a great blessing for me. A seaside resort hotel in its heyday, with a famous kitchen and dining room, the Bevan had fallen on difficult times itself, and its nooks and crannies were probably improved by the occasional missing light bulb and the odd accumulations of the past. I wandered unrestrained.
In an alcove off the lobby, designated as ‘the library,’ Mr. Merrow often used to sit and read. The hotel was quiet during the day, and made quieter still by the small sounds of an aging building and distant footsteps on the wood floors of narrow halls. One day, early on, while exploring, I had entered that precinct without realizing he was there at the far side of a high backed leather chair. He had suddenly taken me by the arm, fingers gripping with bony strength, and given me a fright. This was followed by a full laugh and an echo I can still hear. The clear pleasure he took with this surprise was in the first open smile I had seen on his face up to that moment. And this became the opening to many conversations about literature—the first I ever had with another human being beyond school.
That day, Mr. Merrow asked me if I had read Mark Twain. I think he was reading Huckleberry Finn again just then himself. I had only read Tom Sawyer, and told him so.
He asked, “Then you must know Jim Hawkins?”
I said I had never met him.
This got another laugh, nearly as loud as the first. With his free hand and barely a look—no look at all as I recall it—he plucked an oversize volume by the spine from a shelf close by. The image of two pirates beneath a black flag stared out from the cover.
“Then you can borrow this. It’s better than Tom Sawyer, I think, and maybe even as good as Huckleberry Finn. It involves some old friends of mine.”
He winked but I mistook what he said for a fact. I took the book with both of my hands and read the title aloud. “Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson.”
I was immediately intrigued with the thought that he knew someone in a book, and turned it in my hands like a discovered object. It fell open to the vivid colors of N.C. Wyeth, of men with swords and pistols and then a boy with his back turned to a weeping woman. I was aware without reading a word that this boy was leaving his home to go on a great adventure.
Mr. Merrow squinted at me, his chin raised so that his eyes reached mine only after following the course of his nose for every bit of its length. “Now don’t mistake that inn you will read about there, the Admiral Benbow, for our humble hotel. This is a much more peaceful establishment, and cutlasses are forbidden. But that’s where Jim’s story begins. Not all that different a place than this.”
As an adult, I went back to the place only once. Most of the original building is gone now. What is left has been remade into a private home. One summer day I walked up to a fellow painting a front step as his dog watched and asked him if he knew anything about the building. No. The previous owner had died before they came along.
That may be just as well, I suppose. The facts can be a spoiler for the truth.
I was not a very good paperboy. I had a strong arm, but my fold was not always up to the rigors of the aerial journey. Too often I chased the opened and separating sheets of the Mamaroneck Daily Times over one yard and another after a faulty fold broke and the wind caught the contents.
I had a regular route only once and then lost it when I had to leave with my family on a trip and couldn’t find a substitute. A good paperboy is always faithful. My math was frequently faulty. If I had eighty-nine customers, I would have the payments for eighty-six. The papers were ready to go at four, but I was more usually not ready to start until five. And then I dawdled. There were so many things to see and ponder. After all, the universe was expanding they said and I saw proof of it there before my eyes. What should have taken an hour and a half at most, took me two.
I can remember the scowls of customers who wanted to read the news before dinner but were forced to wait.
Most of my paperboy career was as a substitute for others and, for a time, I was just an assistant to a friend, Michael, whose route included an area close to where I lived and thus an easy trek. And it was on that suburban trail that the schism occurred which tore me from the drift of my own age and gave me the perspective I have taken now.
This happened on the Boston Post Road, (another bit of foreshadowing given my future destination). There was an old and rundown Victorian house beside the road, lived in by a Mrs. Faurot. To me, at thirteen, she was frail and thin and ancient. And for her own reasons, she liked to talk to us. I believe she lived alone and I can only guess at the lonely impulse to engage in conversation with such raw youths. I still remember her telling us that her family was of old Huguenot stock.
She was also kind. I remember brownies more than once. And cold lemonade on hot summer evenings. Both Michael and I were voracious readers by then and Mrs. Faurot must have noted this in some way (perhaps by the paperback books we carried with us to read as we walked, the bag of papers slung from our shoulders, our feet guided by daily repetitions).
One day she commented on the fact that her barn was falling down and that there were many books there for the taking if we wanted them before all were ruined. That trapezoidal structure was clearly visible from the road. I doubt if we even waited so long as to finish the paper route that day before taking a look.
Howard Carter could not have been more awestruck by the treasure we found in a loft up a narrow stair. The very structure of the building seemed to shift with our added weight. Floorboards bowed. And instead of a desiccated Tut we first found rain spoiled heaps of rotting paper that fell to pieces at a touch. But then, deeper within, not all of it was ruined. In dry areas away from gaps in the roof we found bound volumes of Harper’s Weekly and Leslies. On those broad pages, the Civil War was still being fought from week to week.
We quickly scooped up hundreds of novels from Captain Marryat to Mark Twain. George Kennan yet roamed the Siberia of the Russian Empire within copies of Century Illustrated. Henry David Thoreau had a new article in The Atlantic. From a collapsed shelf we re-stacked loose copies of Scientific American extolling the latest discoveries of Tesla and Edison. There would be a new Sherlock Holmes story in the next issue of The Strand. And Youth’s Companion confirmed our truest beliefs, offering us a world of reward for honest work.
All of it made an immediate present out of what before had been only a distant past. We took home wagon-loads to our bed rooms. And for years afterward I lived with those books stacked around me, beneath my bed, and scaled against the walls. For my part, I had fallen from that barn loft into a yesterday already too far gone to be saved. A past as fragile as the paper itself.
But I didn’t know it.
The Importance of Being Ernest
I sell books for a living today, as I have for most all of my adult life. This has often seemed to me to be destined. A sort of cosmic joke. A perfect example of ‘Be careful of what you wish for.’
As a boy, I wanted to be a writer. Selling the books of the writers I loved seemed quite natural.
Having suddenly begun to read at the age of nine, I became a ‘bookworm,’ in my mother’s phrase, and ruined my eyes by the time I was twelve. Reports of other and possibly better means for doing this reached my ears belatedly.
I admit that my opinions of literature were formed alone and without proper guidance. Given the sheer quantities I read, I might even have been some sort of scholar, had I followed the advice so often offered by others who clearly knew better. But by then I wasn’t listening to anyone who couldn’t write.
I read Talbot Mundy and John Buchan instead of Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner. I read Rudyard Kipling instead of Henry James. Certainly I came to those ‘literary’ authors later, but too late to correct my course. I thought books were fun. Should be fun. And when I later learned to adore Hemingway, it was for the wrong qualities—at least by the lights of my professors. F. Scott Fitzgerald eluded me until adulthood. I endured but never rejoiced in Joyce. I persisted in my struggles in the jungles with Conrad until I reached the safety of home.
Importantly, to me at least, I had found the joy in words. And I learned to speak to authors who seemed happy for the conversation. Dead authors, all.
Writers were my heroes.
For some years I had on the wall of my small third floor bedroom a black and white photograph cut from Life magazine. It was a picture of Ernest Hemingway kicking a can on a road in Ketchum, Idaho. It appeared, I believe, in the same issue with the announcement of his suicide. I was about 14 at the time. It was just before my birthday and I was heartbroken.
He had been alive. I had, with a boy’s crush, imagined actually meeting him. Speaking with him.
I had not yet read a single Hemingway novel. But I had known before who Hemingway was, as anyone of that time knew. He was ‘The Writer.’ He had the kind of celebrity that few movie stars achieved. When I tried to read The Sun Also Rises I became bored, and I assumed it was my fault. Thankfully, I tried other things.
As I have noted, this was the age of the mass market paperback. Almost any work could be had for less than a fifty-cents. And I was already shoveling snow by then, and cutting lawns, and pocket money was not a problem. Thankfully I discovered the ‘Nick Adams’ stories—‘Indian Camp,’ ‘The Big Two-Hearted River’ and ‘The Three-Day Blow,’ and all the rest then available on the cheap—and I was hooked.
Hemingway had been a newspaper reporter when such a job could still be honorable. His early work for the Kansas City Star and the Toronto Star shaped him. His account of the fighting between the Turks and the Greeks at Smyrna was devastating even to my young mind. I quickly understood that style, having already read a fair share of Jack London. And it was my understanding, even then, that when I grew up, I might appreciate the novels too.
By then, of course, Hemingway was dead as well. It was shortly after his death that I read A Movable Feast. This was, to a boy’s mind, what a writer’s life should be.
The importance of Hemingway to a boy who wanted to be a writer was that his work was so deceptively simple. You could try to imitate it. And by the time you realized that you couldn’t, it was too late. You have got the habit of trying.
That my heroes were writers influenced all that I did and all that wanted to do. Unable to sell my own work, I have sold the work of others. Happily.
Cosmic Jokes are funny too.
Consider the size: a mere seven inches tall (less if it was from Dell or Popular Library), four and a quarter inches wide, and half an inch thick. A hundred thousand choice words, more or less, in a soft covered package you could shove in the pocket of your jeans.
I was consuming two or three of these a week in 1963. It was an addiction. I was a poor student, but I could pass almost any test (except math and foreign languages) just on the residual knowledge I was picking up along the way.
And it was more than fiction that possessed me. I read the Bruce Catton historical works on the Civil War, Alan Moorhead’s White Nile and Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, the poems of Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman, and biography by the basket-load.
I often killed a mystery in a single night, and willfully faced the perplexed expressions of my teacher’s the next day, sleepy-eyed and sans homework. Dumas was narcotic. The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo were cocaine. Herman Wouk’s Youngblood Hawke was savored (imagining myself a young word-happy Thomas Wolfe). The James Michener’s were thick enough to keep me up several nights in a row.
I paid special attention to ‘trashy’ novels. But I was an innocent at that. When I discovered Harold Robbins and Erskine Caldwell—I carefully reread the ‘good’ parts. And science fiction became a drug of choice for years. Robert Heinlein was better than food, and thus despite all this time spent reading, I was a skinny kid. Almost nothing I heard in the classroom came close to the thrill I felt amidst the pages of a book.
What could be done?
My parents had already restricted my TV time. A body search for smuggled reading material was beyond them. I retreated to my room.
I had the price of admission, after all. In the winter, shoveling the snow from a single walkway, less than half an hours work, was worth several paperback books at thirty-five to seventy-five cents each. In the summer, mowing a lawn could keep me in the latest paperback titles for a week.
I was profligate. Debauched. Dissolute.
Moreover, I was doing every odd job I could manage and still I was habitually broke.
Which is about the time I made the fateful discovery of the used-book market. I realized I could sell the ones I didn’t want to keep.
My first adventures alone into the great city were prompted by this revelation. I would save my lunch money and on a good day, buy a round trip ticket on the New Haven line in the morning along with all those gray flannel suits. At the time, there were bookshops downtown on Second Avenue that bought back the paperbacks for a dime. I even started to sell some of the old volumes I had salvaged from Mrs. Faurot’s barn.
With my Boy Scout pack full of books, I must have appeared to be a student taking the train to school. I was never once bothered for my truancy. My bibliomania had found a natural and self-sustaining ecology.
The Whale in the Room
In my junior year of high school, in 1964, I opted to read Moby Dick as part of my discretionary reading. It was a bit of grandstanding, in fact. I thought I had already read it a year or two before and would use it to impress my teacher and squeeze out a higher mark. I promptly went down to Anderson’s Bookshop in Larchmont and looked around for a copy. What I found there was a humongously fat Signet paperback. I asked the forbearing woman who usually worked the counter what was wrong with it. Where was the ‘regular’ edition I had previously read? She was totally mystified by my objection. She sputtered. She looked at me hopelessly. She shook her head and said, “Looks fine to me.”
A small gathering of patrons encircled us, each offering comments of their own as they in turn took the chunky volume and fanned through the pages. I remember one who helpfully offered the added information that this copy lacked a glossary. It was actually too short. I should buy an edition with a glossary so that I could look up the meaning of unusual words. Under their scrutiny, I could not admit that I had believed it was a much shorter work to begin with. Already committed, I took the advice offered and bought an edition with a glossary.
On the way home that day I stopped at the public library and found the version—the exact volume—that I had read before. It was in fact shorter. It was edited. Abridged. All of the parts of the great book which did not further the immediate advancement of plot, as well as all the too difficult words, were removed. No comic irony. No allegory. No religious metaphor. No slicing of the whale flesh “as thin as Bible-leaves.”
Several parts of this memory strike me as unusual in our present time. Firstly, Anderson’s was a small bookshop, however fine in its selection, but they had several editions of a single title on the shelf. Secondly, that of the half dozen or so customers in the shop on a weekday afternoon, most of them had read Moby Dick and felt knowledgeable enough to pass judgment on the copy I had objected to. Thirdly, that I would read such a book, and willingly.
I had friends who had read Moby Dick, so it is no tribute to my individual development at the age of sixteen. I did hang around with an odd bunch perhaps. But when I mentioned a portion of this observation to someone just recently they argued, ‘Harry Potter is a long book, and it’s filled with difficult words, and it is very popular.’ I paraphrase, but that is the gist of their comment. I couldn’t answer them without sounding rude, so I simply nodded and sighed. I am often a coward about such things. How do you politely call someone an idiot if you have not the time to explain nor the wit of an Oscar Wilde.
We live in a diminishing age. My greatest pain has been to watch the slow death of the book. I have been talking about this subject for almost forty years, so it is not a matter of the coming of electronic ink and e-books. In fact, those items, per se, are quite wonderful to me. But that the book might finally die before me has become an actual fear of late.
I am told by some authorities that my worry is unfounded. That more books are published now than when I was a boy. That more words are written today than ever before. That reading has increased.
I have also commonly witnessed the use of the statistic to hide the fact. The comparison between Harry Potter and Moby Dick comes to mind.
Mr. Green of the Eastern News
When I ran away from home as a kid, it was seldom with any intention of being gone from my mother’s cooking for very long. It was not out of anger that I left, in any case, but frustration. I was a dilettante to the world of ‘runaways.’ A few hours seemed to be sufficient remedy. And by far, the place to which I most often escaped was New York City. About twenty miles, and not much more than twenty minutes by train. Often twice a month. It took that long to save enough lunch money to buy a ticket for the New Haven line.
My favorite day for this was Wednesday. It was questioned the least by my teachers. A Friday or a Monday required a written explanation from the parents. A Wednesday was covered by sniffles and a raspy “I had a cold.”
I usually went alone. This was safer in terms of getting caught. Only one person needed to lie and keep their story straight. Besides, the object of my adventure was often whimsical. After unloading the volumes I had stuffed in my sack at whatever used bookshop would take them, I wanted to ride on the Staten Island Ferry. I wanted to go to the top of the Empire State building. I wanted to go to the Museum of Natural History, or, in warmer months, the Central Park Zoo. More than once, especially on rainy days, I splurged on the matinee at Radio City Music Hall.
When the excursion was over, I usually had time to spare before the rush of commuters made my passage anonymous. A friend of mine had once been caught because he had tried to return on the 2:10 train. The conductor had too little to do then I suppose, and school did not let out until 3:00.
Besides, I liked loitering.
In cold winter months, there was no better place for this than Grand Central Station. It had good food (i.e. hotdogs and cheese-burgers). It had clean bathrooms (they had an attendant then who’d offer you a cloth towel for a quarter). It was an endless warren of nooks and crannies. A people-watching paradise. It was safe. And it had the best newsstand in the world.
The Eastern Newsstand was up an escalator from the main floor, into the Pan Am building. The typical New York newsstand was a tight corner of newspapers and magazines beneath a bare light bulb, the publications stacked purposely so that you could not read more than the headlines for free. These dens were run by a scowling, unshaven, cigar-chomping proprietor wearing a dirty apron and a beaten brown fedora who usually said “What’dya want?” before your eyes could focus.
In contrast the Eastern Newsstand was neat and orderly, brightly lit, well organized, almost spacious by any comparison. Titles were stacked high or face out so you could vicariously imagine the interiors. Moreover, it had double or triple the number of titles of anywhere else. It was a periodical paradise. I often killed an hour or more there before buying something like the Ellery Queen Mystery magazine or Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Most importantly, the proprietor was, if not friendly, at least forgiving. He was shaved. Hatless. Wearing a sports jacket and a tie. He saw me the moment I arrived. His eye occasionally followed me amidst the bustle of other customers. After a short time he would ask, “Can I help you find anything?” And then he would actually help. “The new Galaxy hasn’t come in yet, but we have the new Analog,” or “Sorry, the Hitchcock’s are sold out.” He never asked me to leave. But early on in my adventures, he did ask me the crucial question, “Shouldn’t you be in school?” I don’t remember my answer. I’m sure he would have doubted it in any case. But thankfully, he never asked again.
I assumed from that time forward that he remembered me. But I didn’t know.
Years later, when I was living in Boston and publishing my own small magazine, I was in desperate need of distribution. On a whim I caught the train to New York one morning just to go to the Eastern Newsstand again.
The same gentleman was there when I arrived. I don’t believe he remember me then. But as soon as I told him my purpose, he pulled me aside. He was frank and open with advice. He took copies of my magazine to sell. (I was not even prepared with proper invoices and he made these out himself on his own stationary) He gave me the names of other people to see. He told me how to redesign my cover for best effect. He advised me on a hundred small details I had never considered. All this within half an hour. He was a busy man. And I was on the train back home before dark.
Though I spoke to him in person more than a dozen times over the next four years, and asked his advice on several occasions, I suspect he would never have known me if we met in the street. I must have been just one of hundreds of ambitious wannabe publishers who sought him out.
On at least one occasion, upon my arrival and full of the hubris of youth, I started speaking to him breathlessly for about ten minutes before he stopped me to ask “Who are you?” I said my name. He shook his head. I pulled one of my magazines out of my bag. His eyes brightened. Ah! Suddenly he knew everything. It was all about the publications.
Bernard Green knew the business of selling newspapers and magazines better than any other human being in New York, or the World perhaps. This too is knowledge that is passing in our time.
Bernard Green died in 2002 at the age of 91. His obituary can be read in the New York Times.
What happened next.
I cannot remember exactly when I attempted my very first novel (in fact the memory has altered over the years and is trustworthy only as story material now), but I completed one when I was fifteen (I still have most of it). This effort was borne upon a wave of great hubris brought on by the success of a story I wrote for Mrs. Menelli in my ninth grade English class. If she is still with us, I hope she has some idea of the trouble she caused.
After a year in New York not completely unlike the experience of Aran O’Neill in Habits of the Heart, the novel which was posted here for a time and is now in the shop for repair, I attended a small ‘experimental’ college, Mark Hopkins, in Brattleboro, Vermont, and graduated in 1969.
In anticipation of spending a few years working for the government, I wrote a novel in 1969 while bumming around in California before enlisting. But then the government discovered after a few tests that I was too blind to get out of my own way–something I could have told them in advance–and refused to have anything to do with me. Being half-blind is useful for some purposes. I’ve even heard that in the land of the blind you can be a king. (One-eyed is about the same as half-blind, isn’t it?).
I wrote half a dozen novels after that, and then quit in the great frustration of too many rejections and new responsibilities which engulf most our lives. We do what we need to do. The details of my own experience in this regard are not so different from many others I know of.
In 1972 I began a small literary magazine called Fiction which later metamorphosed into Galileo , a magazine for science fiction. The messy details of this will be displayed on this site in due time, but let me say it was one of the great experiences of my life.
There being no limit to the hubris of some people, I also decided to indulge another of my ambitions and started selling books from a pushcart on the streets of Boston in 1973. And this was done with a half-blind eye to opening a bookshop.
For this scheme, a re-interpretation of Einstein’s second theory of relativity was necessary, but with the subsequent enlargement of the day to accommodate a full 36 hours, the bookshop was opened in 1975.
In 1979 I married the very patient and forgiving Thais Coburn, who had previously assisted in much of my foolishness for reasons now forgotten. In 1980, the first of my three children, Alexandra, was born. Elisabeth and Adam followed in their own good time. And as the second theory of relativity accurately predicted, time thus used or abused both expanded and contracted simultaneously. The Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop grew and prospered, but the world it was meant for was changing in ways that could not be controlled much less stopped.
When the profession of bookselling which had supported me and my family for so many years finally failed to meet the demands of my responsibilities, I took a look back at what I had done. It was not all for the worst, no matter the final result. My own mistakes were only part of a larger fabric. And I was happy with too much of my experience to simply throw it over as a total loss.
I wanted to write about all of this, whether or not anyone beyond the few who cared might ever read it, and set about doing so in the best way I knew how. It was in the realization that I had been a small part of so many larger stories, and with the thought that they might serve as the parts of some greater understanding of the death of the book, that I began to gain a measure of control over the story I wanted to tell.
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.