Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Memory Lane

I was a teen-ager who wanted to be a grown-up, out there on the Island. Which meant going into "town." "Town" was New York. I'd scrape together some coin and walk up to the Turnpike. The ancients remember when trolleys ran along that route, but the trolleys were gone by the Depression. Quaint. Now in Jersey we've got the twenty-mile "light rail system" that cost a billion dollars and doesn't even go where you need it to.

The bus stop was by the diner. No public transit authority out in the wilds of Nassau County back then -- instead, we had the Bee Line. It ran from Hempstead to Queens. I got on the bus heading to 179th Street in Jamaica -- the last stop on the IND line. The E train and the F train. I had a few bucks and two subway tokens in my pocket. Going into town was a big deal. I could take either train, but the E was faster. It ran express in Queens. But even on the E it felt like forever before you got to the river and the train picked up speed for that long hurtling run through the tunnel to Manhattan. Third and Lex, then Fifth.

Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street. 666 Fifth Avenue. Who remembers The Top of the Sixes? In the late 1970s B. Dalton would open their flagship store in that building. But that was later. When I was a teen, there were lots of bookstores on the avenue -- but Scribner's at 48th Street was the most beautiful with its magnificent Beaux Arts facade beckoning pilgrims to venture in. It was run by a Russian prince named Igor Kropotkin. Publishers loved him and feared him. Igor was a legendary character in New York book-selling. When I started in the business, people still spoke of him, by first name, in hushed tones. I never bought anything at Scribner's. I just walked around in a reverie, browsing, touching the books, breathing it all in. I'd climb those palatial steps up to the mezzanine -- hardcover classics! -- and look down on the marvelous central space, filled with serious people busying themselves with the serious business of shelving books. Entranced by the hush. The place was a castle, a museum, a temple.

But I had money in my pocket and I wanted to buy something. So I left Scribner's and crossed Fifth at 47th Street into the Diamond District with its hagglers and hondlers in their long black coats, beards, and yarmulkes. I was a long way from Tackytown amid the
European bustle there. In the middle of that crazy block hung a little sign. "Wise Men Fish Here. Gotham Book Mart." Home to the giants of modernism -- Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Williams, Lewis, Miller -- and their successors. Cummings, Moore, Bishop, Auden, Lowell, Berryman, volume upon volume of poetry. Letters, chapbooks, complete collections, rarities, tables and shelves of books scattered in wild profusion. The Gorey drawings. The photographs. Man Ray. Alan Ginsberg worked there. Someone told me Tennessee Williams did too, once. Where else could an awkward teen-ager thumb through a facsimile copy of A Lume Spento? With tapers quenched.

The Gotham Book Mart was no temple, despite the gods contained therein. It was a bookstore, ideally so. For, in those impossibly tight aisles, among the cluttered stacks, with so many loud conversations going on all around, you would find what you were looking for, even if you didn't know what you wanted going in. Gotham was a place of serendipity. After buying a book -- I'd only enough cash for one -- I went and got a kosher hot dog and ate it while watching the merchants do business on the street. Then I walked the city, down to the library, up to the park, over to the river, wherever fancy took me. A happy kid with a book in his hand and a token in his pocket.

Now things are much improved. I can order an e-book online and have it downloaded to my Kindle in sixty seconds. Sitting on my couch or lying in my bed. Bookstores? Quaint. Just like the effin trolley.

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