Last night I went to a bookstore opening in my old neighborhood, at 165th and Amsterdam Avenue—the same corner where Paul the junkie broke an axle in a blizzard because he couldn’t score up in White Plains. For that matter, it’s the same corner my AA sponsor drove to when he was still in the market for coke and speed. I might also add that I was crossing 165th at Amsterdam, on my way home from a Monday noon AA meeting in February 2009, when the director of the Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library called my cell phone to offer me a fellowship. It’s clearly the center of my narrative universe.
You will be asking, who opens a brick and mortar bookstore these days? Good question. Here’s the answer:
Yeah, Word Up Books, a pop-up bookstore that was originally planned for a month and lasted many more due to popular demand in Washington Heights, then closed down in August 2012 when the lease expired (by that time they’d distributed 30,000 books). The grand re-opening was last night. The perpetrators are a loud, disheveled band of urban guerillas who think that culture isn’t just for the Metropolitan Opera crowd. Watch their video, it’s heartwarming, hilarious, and heartbreaking all at once.
My friend Patty O’Toole, the writer of big books on Henry Adams, John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt, and lesser lights—she’s now writing a biography of Woodrow Wilson!—herded me to this event in solidarity with her former student in the Columbia non-fiction writing program. This young woman is one of those impolite guerillas who invent bookstores where they hold after-school events for kids who have working parents. But she can’t be all attitude—her parents showed up, for god’s sake.
Patty and I, of sturdy Irish genes, stood next to the beer cooler, our backs to a wall of books, where we could see everything except the jazz trio around the bend from the cashier’s counter, and, yes, where we had merely to stoop to conquer yet another Yuengling. The whole time I was standing there, I got the distinct impression that people were staring at me. This is not an unusual feeling for a narcissist (or a paranoid schizophrenic), so I didn’t examine it except to glance at the bookshelf from time to time, wondering if some fabulous first edition was perched over my left shoulder.
Finally I realized that people were, in fact, staring at the books behind me, not at me. It was both a relief and a disappointment (yeah, why aren’t they staring at me, like the MRI techs who figured I was famous?). But I did not know that the books I was blocking from view were labeled “Erotica” until Patty and I were getting ready to leave for Lolita’s, a great little Mexican restaurant at 112th and Lenox, just up from Central Park.
Only then did I understand the ontological significance of the real estate agent’s mantra, “location, location, location.” If you want attention, even the secondary, slightly degraded, deflected kind, park yourself between what people want most and the people themselves. If you want money as well as attention, charge them a fee to get out of your way. I believe I have just formulated, if I have not actually discovered, a basic principle of both human nature and naked capitalism.
The striking thing about the constituency of this event, I thought, was its demographic missing link. There were lots of baby boomers like Patty and me, lots of 20-somethings like her former student, and very little in between. Anecdotal evidence at best, I admit, but I began thinking that the Reagan Revolution did make a difference by diverting college grads to Wall Street and K Street, creating a weird new generation gap. Well, duh.
Gail Collins quotes Paul Simon in her column today to the effect that in the 60s, the “bright kids” wanted to write and perform popular music, then 20 years later they wanted to be film directors (more anecdotal evidence: my girlfriend’s career verifies this notion). And then . . . ? The politics didn’t change much in this late-20th century transition from music to film, if there is “a” politics to be discerned in popular culture; but again, something happened toward the fin de siecle. An exit?