Tag Archives: 1990s

Cultivated Interests

A miracle has occurred. I seem to have spent the afternoon with an old college friend in Berkeley and even perused the stacks at Moe’s Books on Telegraph for an hour without purchasing a single volume. There’s a pleasure in sometimes not buying a book that only a bibliomaniac can appreciate. It’s the sort of thrill I suppose a junkie might feel on turning down the chance to get a fix – a shout of freedom from inside the prison yard. No one is really fooled.

I recently ordered a few titles online and the knowledge that they’re in the mail may have kept my book lust in check. I daily expect J.G. Farrell’s The Singapore Grip, Steven Runciman’s Sicilian Vespers and a single-volume selection of Pierre Bayle. In the meantime I’m reading Hudibras and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay, from Pulphead, on Constantine Rafinesque.

This Rafinesque character (early 19th century polymath, naturalist, etc.) is new to me. I don’t know why he isn’t better known but perhaps his speculation about the Americas being peopled by refugees from Atlantis got him in bad odor. More likely, I think, it was the presumption of being born with an adjective for a surname. As if Charles could have gotten away with the last name ‘Darwinian,’ or Franz with ‘Kafka-esque,’ or Miguel with ‘Cervantick.’

Driving through Oakland and south Berkeley my friend and I mused over the flare-out of the local Occupy movement (which neither of us participated in) and the explosion of local ‘hipster’ culture. Was there much cross-over between the two, I wonder? These hipster types, you can see them a half mile away queued up thirty-deep in front of some obscure bakery or coffeehouse or brunch factory. “It’s a very social movement,” my friend says. “You can’t be a hipster alone.”

It’s also a consumer movement: they apparently have money to spend. My friend says that an acquaintance of his –proprietor of a neighborhood comic shop – will shamelessly cater to any fresh hipster that steps inside, knowing a cash cow when he sees one. The customer might have known a mere title or two before entering but will leave with an armful of graphic novels he’d never heard of before. “They’re serious about cultivating interests.”

The hipsters and the occupiers both remind me more than a little of myself and my friends twenty years ago. Back then, too, it was the economy (stupid) – and the Gulf War wasn’t long over. The Soviet Union and apartheid South Africa were out or on the way out. And when we walked into the local bookshop in our corduroy jackets and Fluevogs I’m sure the proprietor knew that he could unload a few volumes of Beats on us and snicker profitably when we left.

Sometimes it’s easy to be more charitable toward others than toward our past selves.

In Sullivan’s essay on Rafinesque he writes: “It’s the human condition to be confused. No other animal ever had an erroneous thought about nature.” As a part of nature, I suppose it’s the doubly special province of man not only to be confused about the world at large but about himself. The quote could almost have been lifted from Montaigne – or perhaps from Eric Hoffer, whom I’m encouraging my friend to read right now. What we want for ourselves and what we want for the world, who can disentangle the two and divide motives of self-interest from those of self-loathing?

(Not that it’s perfectly germane but Eric Hoffer once wrote that “the only key in deciphering another is our self; and considering how obscure this self is and how dim our awareness of it, the use of it as a key in deciphering others is like using hieroglyphs to decipher hieroglyphs.”)

There’s so much to outgrow. We cultivate interests and then abandon them to wither in the hothouse. We nurse causes to reintroduce them, utterly doomed, into the wild. Still, I hope I never stop outgrowing things. Not that I’m really any wiser now than I was twenty years ago – and I don’t expect to be any wiser in another twenty. A fool (like me) asks only for variety of perspective. There’s something to be said even for the sort of progress that doesn’t go from poor to good or good to better but only from this to that.

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Bookshop Confessions

In a town like London 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.

~ George Orwell, “Bookshop Memories” (1936)

In any American city of middling size there are plenty of more-than-certifiable lunatics walking the streets and making themselves at home in the neighborhood bookshop. That’s assuming the neighborhood still has a bookshop. In Seattle, at least, it used to. Seattle in the 1990s was near to bursting with local independent booksellers: places like Elliot Bay, Beatty’s, Twice Sold, Magus, Horizon, Pistil, and Couth Buzzard, to name a few. It also had its fair share of certifiables.

Being unambitious and in no particular hurry to grapple with the duties of adult life, I took a job with a local Seattle bookseller as soon as I finished college in ’95, and stayed on for three years. It’s astonishing to recall how little money I made. I’m not at all clear how I managed to both eat and pay my rent. But the coworkers were a friendly cast and I was happy enough to spend my days surrounded by books.

The store was located just north of downtown and was open late. It was set in a dense neighborhood, thick with bars and restaurants and nightclubs. The Opera House was down the street. There was a convention center and a sports arena too. We were a struggling but busy shop and our clientele was a mixed lot. While working there I sold books and magazines to several famous rock stars (yawn). I chatted occasionally with Ron Reagan Jr., who lived nearby. And while he was in town for an extended performance at the repertory theater down the street, actor Ethan Hawke used to sit on the floor of our poetry section and finger through the stacks for thirty minutes each day. I never saw him buy anything.

Our location and late hours made us a favorite with the local crazies.  These are the folks I can’t help thinking of when I read the Orwell quote above. There was the tattered transient we referred to as “Redbeard” who made a habit of leering at blondes and threatening the lives of strangers, myself included. There was the troubled young woman who was always showing off a ghastly wound on her arm, which she wouldn’t let heal, and who kept a pet rat in her pocket. There was a tall spindly fellow who never uttered more than a mousy squeak but liked to wear a pink tutu, and who once defecated on the floor of the children’s section.

Then there was our favorite, a schizophrenic junkie we nicknamed “The Count,” who was forever changing his clothes and decorating his face (his whole face) with lipstick. He was harmless, really, but had a habit of cackling in a wicked sort of way that disturbed our elderly customers and parents with small children. The Count liked to give gifts and I still have a desk sign made of some exotic wood with the name “Fauzi Daud” carved into it, which he gave me. He claimed to know Roger Waters and Jerry Garcia and the President of the United States, and to have lived as a vampire among the Hebrew slaves of ancient Egypt. One day he told me matter-of-factly that he had fallen asleep at the park, woke up under a bush, and “shattered into a million pieces.”

Less insane but still charming was the fat-faced man with the tiny eyes who would hold the newspaper to his nose in order to read it and who never went anywhere without his ill-tempered dwarf friend; or the walrus-like retiree with a bristly white beard who twirled a cane and faked a British accent while attempting to seduce one of my coworkers, famously offering him, in a lascivious tone we parodied for months, a bite of his “spiced apple tart;” or the uneducated proprietress of a local coffee shop who’d once taken a bullet in a domestic dispute and imagined it gave her a superior perspective and a homey kind of mystical insight.

It was easy to get into trouble working at the bookshop. There was no shortage of illicit substances in the back room and the employees were often high or drunk. Certain kinds of business transactions were known to take place in the parking lot. One of my coworkers, a short guy with an Irish temper, lived across the street and would invite us over for drinks after closing. One Christmas Eve, several of us drank a great quantity of beer and marched around the neighborhood to find an open convenience store and buy cigarettes. On a street corner we passed through a gauntlet of righteously intoxicated panhandlers demanding holiday contributions. Our Irish friend got into a shouting match with one of them and we only barely escaped an all-out brawl by dragging him, hollering and fuming, back to his apartment.

One of my most memorable evenings at the bookshop involved the death of a goose. It was a couple hours after dark when a woman walked in with a big Canada goose in her arms. She was distraught. The bird had just been hit by a car, she said, and we needed to do something about it. She handed the goose, still alive, to my friend W. Then the woman fled in tears. Almost immediately, the goose’s head dropped and it went into convulsions. W set it down and there before a crowd of astonished customers it agonizingly expired on the floor. We boxed it up and pranked a new employee (who’d been in the back room) by telling him the box was full of books that needed shelving in the nature and field guides section. Then we called a non-emergency police number to inquire after the proper disposal of the body. Two hours later a man named Bob came to collect the goose. He was so touched by the way we’d laid a flower on its breast and scribbled farewells on the cardboard coffin that he wept a little.

My bookshop days were a bit of a low-life period. There was plenty of good reading and some good conversation, but in the end this particular bookshop was just a low-life sort of place, especially after dark. I stayed longer than I should have. I told myself that I was playing Prince Hal, that I would “awhile uphold the unyoked humor of idleness” which I was presently enjoying, but that when the time was ripe I would “imitate the Sun” and find better employment. It wasn’t the need to impress any monarchical parent that finally spurred my departure, however. It was marriage. The bookshop itself locked doors for the last time two or three years later.

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