Monday, June 15, 2009

All book-selling is local

The Tipster -- big Tip O'Neill, Democrat from the 8th District in Massachusetts, Speaker of the House during the deadly Reagan years, dyed in the wool Red Sox fan -- used to say, "All politics is local." The Speaker was a big guy with a big nose and a big head of thick gray hair. And a big appetite for life. I met him twice. In 1987, he came to our bookstore in New York to sign copies of his autobiography, Man of the House. The book remains a lovely amalgam of blarney, piety, and political shrewdness, essential reading for students of American politics. Great stories.

I saw him again a few years later in the lobby of the Seaview Hotel in Bal Harbour. Apparently he kept an apartment there. The Seaview was an old-fashioned resort, slightly frayed at the edge, where elderly seasonal residents mingled uneasily with well-heeled German tourists. It was said that Tip spent a good deal of time down there in his last years. He'd definitely lost some weight -- he was famously candid about his colon cancer -- but none of his twinkle. I greeted him effusively and, to my great astonishment, he didn't miss a beat. He thanked me for helping make his book a bestseller and for making him feel at home in the store. "We had fun," he said, the consummate politician including "me" in the "we."

Across Collins Avenue lay the shopping center where thin, leathery women wearing improbably thick gold wobbled about from boutique to boutique sipping Chardonnay from little plastic cups. A. ran the Doubleday Bookshop on the first level. Bestsellers, fashion magazines, picture books, travel guides, and, always, a concise yet impressive selection of serious non-fiction.
Au courant, as we used to say. The Shops at Bal Harbour was an outdoor mall groomed to within an inch of its life. You had to pay to park there amid the palms, hibiscus, and orange trees. A fine mist was shot into the air to keep customers cool in the oppressive heat. A. hated the humidity -- it caused all the paperback covers to wilt and curl, thereby ruining the storefront face-out displays. It also made working in the back room uncomfortable -- especially when the UPS man delivered his cartons. When he came through back door, hot moist air would nose its way into the tight space. The boxes themselves were soft and stained with sweat.

The Doubleday Bookshop in Bal Harbour is long gone -- they all are, all the stores with the fabled addresses: Worth Avenue, Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue, the Fisher Building. Just think -- forty years ago, you could make money selling books in those zones of conspicuous consumption. Books. With customers like The Tipster, always ready to linger and schmooze with the staff, some famous, some wealthy, some tourists, others just ordinary people who loved books and the bookish atmosphere to be found there. Amid the glitter and oh-so fashionable garments, the baubles and confections, they knew they could rest awhile amid the stacks and dream of a different life. The techno-savants and Free Market Boys have buried that life, that impulse, but only in themselves.

If you go to the Bal Harbour Shops today, you'll find a bookstore there again, up on the second level, almost the same size as the old Doubleday shop. It's called Books & Books. I've been to it and it made me smile. An oasis in an oasis, where covers still curl and grateful customers browse.

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