Monday, May 19, 2008


Bookstore as Time Machine

This weekend, TW and I had a chance to visit a couple of really well-known college towns a few states away. (If you're in higher ed, you know them.) My Mom valiantly volunteered to watch TB and TG, so off we went, sans children.

The travel was grueling – my kingdom for a cure for traffic – and our other obligations daunting, but we were able to set aside some time to wander the downtowns. I had forgotten how much I missed college towns.

Although my student days are alarmingly far behind me, some things don't change. The parking was awful, the sidewalk vendors plentiful, the cheap restaurants thick on the ground (and surprisingly good), the stores small and cute. In one chichi toy store, we found a nifty contraption for TB that makes the tornado-in-two-bottles trick easier. It's basically a connector tube with bottle cap ridges on either end, so you can put two two-liter plastic bottles in it and execute the tornado trick. Until now, we've had to rely on my skills at drilling holes in bottle caps and stopping leaks with duct tape, which is to say, we've written it off. This thing is seriously cool.

Then, there were the bookstores.

In my suburban way, I have plenty of access to books. We have Borders and B&N close by, and I don't even want to think about how much I've bought from Amazon. I'm also pretty adept at and, and I've been known to push interlibrary loan to its limits. These are all good things, and I would hate to lose any of them.

But there's something about a bookstore with a personality. In my twenties, I was quite the enthusiast.

On a grad-school visit to family in Northern Town, I found some wonderful long-out-of-print obscure scholarly stuff on a high shelf in a neglected section, not far from 'Americana' with its books on John Wayne and golf. I once visited Revolution Books in New York City, which was run by Trotskyists; I was amused (and relieved) to discover that they took MasterCard. (“Expropriate the expropriators at 19.8 percent interest!”) At Flagship State, there was a bookstore for about ten minutes in the 90's that decided that cultural studies was where the real money was. It wasn't, but it was great fun while it lasted. I've known used bookstores with House Dogs, with owners disturbingly close to Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, and with organizational styles so obscure that the only way to find anything was to don a pith helmet and dive in. It's a fine line between “used book store” and “mosh pit.” Do kids say “mosh pit” anymore? I'm getting old. But I digress.

This weekend, visiting these college towns, I saw probably ten stores between them, none affiliated with a chain. It was glorious.

TW and I ventured into one, a worker-run cooperative with a clear socialist/lesbian/vegetarian bent. She immediately commented “this is your kind of place, isn't it?” It was. It had the requisite bumper stickers and lapel buttons – one that said “Queers Against Capitalism” pretty much captured the spirit of the place – along with entire sections devoted to “Social Change” and nearly everything Noam Chomsky has ever written, except for linguistics. (Surprisingly little on peak oil and alternative energy, though. Too mainstream, perhaps?) The staffers were young and earnest and profusely pierced, and we overheard one telling another “I'm defending tomorrow, so I can't work today.” That seemed about right.

I bought a copy of American Nerd: The Story of My People, by Benjamin Nugent, partly out of appreciation for the existence of the store, and partly because, well, never mind. TW suggested a book she found about the history of the school lunch program, but I just couldn't imagine devoting the time to reading it. I also made a mental note that Deer Hunting with Jesus is probably one of the best titles ever, and I'll have to read it sometime.

More than the book, though, the experience of the store itself took me back in time. Back in the early nineties, when I had more hair and less of almost everything else, that 'Lefty Librarian' milieu was one of the few constants in my world. I used bookstores as primary navigational tools, and derived real joy from finding super-obscure long-out-of-print copies of weird stuff that I and six other people in the world cared about, especially for three bucks. Back then, before amazon and blogs, we had used bookstores and 'zines. (Anyone remember Factsheet Five? No? Lingua Franca? Sigh.) The 'efficiency' level was low, and we all knew it, but there was a certain feel to it that I hadn't realized I missed until now.

I'm glad that world isn't completely gone yet. It may be a little musty, but it's still here, still giving painfully earnest young idealists a place to find the like-minded and wish they could afford books decrying their poverty.

Good. I needed that.

We're back in the burbs, back with the kids. That's what life is now, and I wouldn't trade it. But it's nice to check in when my old self once in a while. Good for the soul.

I got the chance to go to City Lights bookstore recently and it really was a joy. Sadly, there are no bookstores with personality here.

I, too, am reading The American Nerd. It's good so far. If I can guess your sensibilities from your blog, I think you'll like it.
A good used bookstore is a pleasure almost beyond explanation.

I became a big fan of Amazon when I moved to a rural area where the nearest real bookstore was in another state over an hour away. My friends were horrified, but they all lived in urban areas where they could actually walk into one. Amazon has used books now, which makes things even better.
You remind me of how much I miss a great little bookstore in Grad Town. It's one where a pith helmet does help on your expedition, but one time I came away with a wonderful 19th century physics textbook that shows how little some things have changed.

'Zines still live, by the way, kept up by aging cultists that do not resemble Deans. I'll let you know if I run across one of your faves.
I remember Lingua Franca, Dean Dad. It wasn't that long ago. In fact, their Real Guide to Graduate School helped me give up the dream of a Ph.D. in Linguistics (would you like frites with that?) and move on to something not only more practical but probably more fulfilling (grad school in clinical psychology).

BTW, Chomsky's incoherent account of "grammar as an organ in the brain" never turned me on. I preferred the connectionist approach ("get enough words in there and patterns start to form, because that's what brains do").
Your tornado device sounds cool!
My father had a fabulous device he made, which increased the fun prospects of a regular coke bottle tenfold...

You get an old foot-operated bicycle or car pump, and you get the needle head used for pumping up soccer balls. you fit the needle to the hose, and then somehow screw the needle through a wine cork.

You put about 250ml of water into a 1L empty coke bottle, and then fit the cork into the neck.

Holding the bottle out in front of you, you pump... with predictable results.
I remember Factsheet Five. I even had my zine listed in it for a while.
I gave "Deer Hunting with Jesus" a chance for exactly that reason -- how could you beat the title? Unfortunately it was disappointing. I expected a cultural/political study based on some kind of research, but instead it's a collection of poorly-supported editorials. It does make some good points, but not enough to be worth buying it. As you say, use interlibrary loan.

Actually, the best part of the book for me was when I picked it up from our interlibrary loan librarian, a good ol' gal, who then started to talk about deer hunting. And Jesus. It was beautiful.
I spent my morning in a used bookstore that is run by this guy who has to be the first cousin of the comic book guy from the simpsons. it's a comic book/used cd/used book store. anyway, it was delicious aside from the fact that my kid kept pulling stuff of the shelves and this post sums up why it was so much fun. I hope I never end up where there isn't at least one bookstore with personality.
I agree with anonymous--interlibrary loan "Deer Hunting with Jesus".....
I miss the bookstores of Grad School Town, one a used bookstore with a coffee shop attached, the other a feminist bookstore-- the first I had ever seen or been in!

Also, I remember FS5, and yes, zines are still around-- if you ever need a fix, check out Microcosm Publishing, which has a great online store full of earnest political and personal zines by bespectacled nerds, geeks and hip kids :).
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