Tommy N is my oldest friend in the book business. He was running a bookstore on Forty-Ninth and Third in the late 1970s. Glass windows all round, a big red sculptural swing out front, a two-year-old Smith and Wollensky Steakhouse across the street. Grey Advertising was the building's biggest tenant. Those guys bought books.
Tommy was by himself at the cash-wrap, working the register, opening cartons of books, answering the phone, watching for shoplifters. Interviewing me for a job. Clearly he needed help and I had a live pulse. So he hired me. We had the essentials in common: poetry, the blues, and books. Girl in a Swing. John Irving, James Clavell and Trevanian. The White Hotel. Walker Percy, V. S. Naipaul, Ross Thomas, and Gorky Park. We knew how to dress for that 1970s New York grit and how to chase the bums out of the store without getting hurt.
He was pure Brooklyn. I was the Island mutt. We were lucky but we only half knew it back then.
The other day Tommy sent me an e-mail with some beautiful words in it and a question. It's always a kick hearing from him. He asked me whether I'd read the Eric Clapton autobiography. Then he reminded me how the book ended by quoting the last few sentences:
"The music scene as I look at it today is a little different from when I was growing up. The percentages are about the same, 95% rubbish, 5% pure. However, the system of marketing and distribution are in the middle of a huge shift, and by the end of this decade I think it’s unlikely that any of the existing record companies will still be in business. With the greatest respect to all involved, that would be no great loss. Music will always find its way to us, with or without business, politics, religion, or any other bullshit attached. Music survives everything, like God, it is always present. It needs no help, and suffers no hindrance. It has always found me, and with God’s blessing and permission, it always will."
He wanted me to relate those words to the book business, our business. Sure, it's undergoing radical change, but the essential matter of it -- literature, story-telling, novels, poems, writing, the human impulse to make something permanent and beautiful out of language -- is going to be alright. We might help it, or we might hinder it. But it will survive, and thrive, as long as human beings are around to be its vessel.
I took comfort in that thought, and those words. After all, Clapton is god. More importantly, he's right. Thirty years ago, when Tommy and I talked about books and read passages aloud to each other, we were just doing what came naturally to us. Books were in our blood. They still are. That's why we call each other brother.