A Novel about a Bookstore: Robert Hellenga’s “Love, Death & Rare Books”

“We’re fine,” I say on the landline. (I’m keeping it real.) Of course things are not fine. They are far from fine. At least we have enough books.  Should we start a bookstore in our living room?

What I miss is browsing in bookstores. Sounds trivial, doesn’t it?   I miss the dusty stacks where you discover South American novels you’ve never heard of, and  bright displays of new books with crisp pages.

A few bookstores are open again.  I stood in a socially-distanced line and noticed a copy of Robert Hellenga’s new novel, Love, Death, & Rare Books.  I had not read any reviews of this, but I bought it.

And it is everything I need in a novel right now: it is a book about books! I am racing through this fictitious history of a family-owned antiquarian bookstore in Chicago, Chas. Johnson & Sons, from 1970 to 2011.

Gabe, the narrator, grows up at the store, and eventually works side-by-side with his father and grandfather. As you can imagine, he inhales books, beginning with The Hardy Boys, and The Catcher in the Rye, and moving on to Ovid, Homer, Wordsworth, Walter Mosley, and Salman Rushdie (the store is bombed when they display The Satanic Verses in the window). As Gabe gets older, he is drawn to Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. And he is a melancholy guy himself, reserved, introspective, and rejected by the woman he loves.

We see how the business changes over the years, and I am fascinated by the details about the valuation of rare books, the bookseller’s deep knowledge of a book’s provenance, a trip to assess 100,00 books in a library at a bankrupt Jesuit college, book sales at Christie’s, and antiquarian book fairs.

Although Gabe is immersed in bookselling, his personal life is somewhat messy.  In his twenties he falls in love with Lydia, an independent, beautiful young woman writing a thesis on Keats (she works in the bookstore and recites “The Eve of St. Agnes” at the dinner table). Alas, she is too focused on romantic poetry to marry him: she goes to graduate school at Yale to learn to deconstruct Keats.  When she returns pregnant by her married English professor, Gabe remains her friend, and is with her in the delivery room. She still refuses to marry him.  He does not compare to the professor.

Why, why doesn’t she marry Gabe, we moan.  Truth to tell: I found Lydia irritating. She is so strong-minded and personable (though caustic) that she has more romantic choices than Gabe does. “I’m not a nun,” she says at one point.

I haven’t finished this well-written book yet, but if you want to read about the book business,  Hellenga’s enthusiastic description provides a good balance to actual bookstore owner Shaun Bythell’s more caustic view in Diary of a Bookseller.

Reading Marge Piercy’s “Vida” and Notes on Bookstore Closings

Yes, we must all turn to Jane Austen and novels of manners during troubled times.  But must we? 

It doesn’t suit me right now.  And so I recently reread Marge Piercy’s Vida, a fast-paced, vibrant, intense novel about a woman in her thirties who has lived underground for almost ten years after participating in a violent antiwar action.  

Published in 1979, this is one of the best novels I have read about the politics of the ’60s and ’70s. (I also recommend Piercy’s novel Small Changes.) There are political issues at the center of many of Piercy’s books, and the plots are so well-constructed that even the apolitical get hooked.  In case you’re worried about “cultural appropriation,” Piercy has credentials. The 1979 book jacket says: “Ms. Piercy has been a political activist for years–Civil Rights, antiwar groups, SDS and the women’s movement.”

In a way, Piercy is an American Doris Lessing; her heroine Vida Asch is an American Jewish Martha Quest.  This intricate novel goes back and forth between the “present” (the late ’70s) and the ’60s and early ’70s when Vida was an  antiwar activist in SAW (Students Against the War). 

Piercy gives you a look behind-the-scenes at a radical group hectically planning antiwar actions and writing propaganda.   Vida works  by day  as a secretary and by night as a strategist in the SAW office in New York.  Piercy minutely describes a long night at SAW.  Vida, of course, as a woman in the Movement, does everything from opening mail to plotting demonstration tactics and writing pamphlets.  

Tuesday night she bought Chinese takeout on the way to the SAW office from work.  Though the meeting was not till seven-thirty, she had a lot to get done.  Heaped on her desk were requests for antiwar literature, requests for speakers, letters from chapters with problems who wanted a regional representative to visit, donations, clippings, a a threat from Minute Man marked with cross hairs of a rifle sight, a love note from Pelican, and an obscene hate note addressed to Vida Ass and a notice to vacate their loft from the landlord….  The hate mail she shredded by hand and discarded….  She never spoke of how sick it made her feel; not even to Leigh; not even to Lohania, with whom she shared most of her wishes and fears.

The novel opens in the present, with Vida, who is based in L.A.,  on a cross-country trip to a board meeting of a radical group known as the Network.  Although it is dangerous to stop along the way in New York, she is still in love with her husband Leigh, host of a radical news show in New York, and she also longs to see her sister, Natalie, a women’s movement activist.   Arranging the meetings involves elaborate phone calls placed from phone booths, warily spending the night at the apartments of sympathetic liberals who don’t understand the necessity for secrecy, out-of-the way trips on the subway so as not be followed, and clandestine meetings. 

But it is worth it to Vida, who would give almost anything to have her regular life back. Still, she is devastated when she learns that Leigh plans to marry again. 

Piercy’s descriptions of the open relationships of the ’60s and ’70s are accurate, occasionally sensual, but often painful.   Women in the Movement share their men, have sex with their housemates, and sometimes are coerced to have sex with men in the Movement they dislike.  Vida is gorgeous and smart and confident, so she can handle the strain, but she is almost raped at gunpoint by a crazed lover.  Yet she despises the Women’s Movement as bourgeois. Piercy reminds us that the ’60s and ’70s were hardly the Woodstock people are nostalgic for.

Piercy’s heroines tend to be earthy, warm, and sensual, and Vida is no exception.  She cares about her friends, warts and all.  This is one of Piercy’s best, and she is always a vivid writer.  

ARE BOOKSTORES ESSENTIAL BUSINESSES?

The truth is there is more to lockdown than wiping down carts at the grocery store.  There’s washing hands!  Most stores have beeen closed for a couple of weeks.  

At least Barnes and Noble was open.

Two weeks into the lockdown, I would love to go to a bookstore.  I almost agree with James Daunt, the CEO of Barnes and Noble, who, according to Publishers Weekly, has said that books and bookstores should be considered essential businesses right now. Daunt, who, in addition to being CEO of B&N, is  the founder of Daunt Books in the UK and the CEO of Waterstones in the UK (a bookstore I love!), is thinking in terms of business, but as a consumer/book lover, I believe that books are good for the soul and spirit. And examining the books themselves, feeling the heft and seeing the design, is an important part of book-buying.

Mind you, we have plenty of books.   But when I learned that  all the bookstores will be closed  by 10 tonight for an indefinite period, I wished I could rush out and buy one more book. 

The end of an era?

A Bookish Trip to London: Pack Your Suitcase with Literary Associations!

Recently I spent a few days in London. I climbed countless stairs at countless museums, scrutinized Angela Carter’s manuscript of The Bloody Chamber, and rested in a pew in a small lovely 18th-century church.

London is a literary city.  We anglophiles can’t stop thinking about books.  When we pass the British Museum, we think of Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels, in which the practical, astute Catherine Oliphant, a writer of women’s magazine stories who lives near the British Museum, takes a break to watch the eccentric anthropologists across the street swarming to their new anthropological research centre.  (Catherine’s boyfriend is an anthropologist.)

Naturally, we bookish types aren’t always thinking about books,  but we visit as many bookstores as possible.

I bought fewer books than last time and was relatively frugal.

At Any Amount of Books, a used bookstore on Charing Cross Road, I was thrilled to find Angus Wilson’s weirdly absorbing 1961 novel, The Old Men at the Zoo, which takes us from bickering zoo administrators to an apocalypse in Europe.  The narrator, Simon Carter, the new secretary of the London Zoo,  tries to mitigate the quarrels behind the scenes as chaos descends.   The zoologists’ scuffles  parallel the politicians’ clumsy maneuvers as the world moves closer to a war.  Can the animals survive when every zoologist has a different scheme or theory (open park or nostalgic Victorian?)? And can  humans survive the politicians’ inability to communicate or negotiate?

Wilson writes this brief note in the beginning:

The events described here in 1970-3 are utterly improbable. Our future is probably brighter, probably much more gloomy.  All references to the London Zoo and to its staff are entirely imaginary.

I also visited The London Review Bookstore, an attractive shop in Bloomsbury which is owned by The London Review of Books.  (The LRB also has a cake shop next door.)

I browsed in the  poetry section and, since poetry books  make good gifts, I purchased Gyles Brandreth’s Dancing by the Light of the Moon, an  anthology of more than 250 of Brandreth’s favorite poems which he urges us “to read, to enjoy, and to learn by heart.”  Although you may have read many of the poems, I loved rereading Edward Lear, Donne, and some of Shakespeare’s famous speeches.  And I enjoy Brandreth’s tips for memorizing poems–not that I intend to do so.  Still, just two lines a day, he says. We can do it!  It will improve our memory and concentrations.

I also bought The Poems of Dorothy Molloy, an Irish poet unknown to me. I admire her wit and disturbing take on domesticity and love.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PACK THE EXTRA BOOKS?  Although packing books is challenging,  you will be surprised what a determined person can fit in a suitcase.  (Hardcovers on the bottom, paperbacks in the pouches.)   And wheeling the heavy suitcase develops upper-arm strength.  If we worked in bookstores, we wouldn’t need to work out at the gym.

What are your favorite London bookstores?  And do you visit bookstores in other cities?

Acceptable Condition: Some Used Books Are Not

A paperback in barely acceptable condition.

The used Penguin copy of Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds has chocolate stains on the pages.  I think they’re chocolate stains. 

And that is not the only book in disgraceful condition.  Three pages of The Grapes of Wrath are dotted with holes, apparently from a paperpunch. Then there is a slightly foxed paperback of Hesiod’s Theogony, with a confused family tree of the creation myth scribbled in purple ink on the back page.

Ecce, as they say in Latin. Lo!  These all came from the same decaying store.  It reeks of mustiness and dirt, like a basement rec room or a rag shop in Dickens.  The name is The Bookstore, or perhaps Books, Books, Books!   We suggest it be changed to Acceptable Condition, which of course means the opposite.

“The problem with M’s store,” said a friend, “is he/she will buy any book in any condition to have a conversation.”

There are some lonely-heart bookstore owners, but I have observed mostly crusty anti-social types.  My impression is they are sick of humanity and just want to read the books. 

I was pondering this the other day while considering my long history and complex relationship with used bookstores.

In graduate school, we occasionally sold  books. I sold them so I could afford  tampons for too-frequent periods. My husband also sometimes sold books.  A cockroach once crawled out of a copy of Derrida’s Of Grammatology  he was trying to sell.  (It wasn’t his fault:  the cockroach was a southern thing.) As you can imagine, the store owner found it unacceptable.  

There are some extraordinary used bookstores.  I had good luck in a chilly (now defunct) bookshop called Linda’s, located in a dilapidated concrete building in Dubuque. In this quasi-garage, I found a Penguin of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers, a Barbara Pym I didn’t have, even a pristine set of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, published by University of Chicago.

There used to be countless good-to-great used bookstores and there are still some:   Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha, Paperbacks and Pieces in Winona, and Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis.  I would also love to visit The Frugal Muse in Wisconsin, because of the name.

What are your favorite used bookstores?  And have you found anything untoward in the less good ones?   Bacon as bookmarks?

Why I Don’t Work in a Bookstore

Meg Ryan as a bookstore owner in “You’ve Got Mail.”

I don’t work in a bookstore. It is probably what I was meant to do.

“You’re a natural teacher,” my mother said.  Then why was I so tired?

Teachers were all tired.  As the only Latin teacher I had three preparations (most had two)  and taught five classes a day (most taught four). I went home and took a nap, or zoomed off to aerobics class to work out the tension.  And then I prepared. And then I got up at 5 a.m.to grade homework and quizzes.

Here I am teaching Ovid in the “Big Glasses” era.

According to Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a study  in 2012 called Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession found that the average teacher works 53 hours a week.   That sounds about right.

Eventually I found a more creative job with flex-time.  I enjoyed it more, but I admit I worked  on my wedding day.  “I just have to finish this up…”

Why didn’t I work in a bookstore?  Wouldn’t the hours have been more reasonable?

I love books.  I sold them without meaning to.  I would go to a bookstore, chat about books, and sometimes a bookseller would come over beaming to say I’d sold a book.

I also amused myself by doing the “first sentence test.” I read a lot of first sentences.  The first sentence test isn’t too bad, really.  And other people started reading first sentences… and I sold books that way, too.

I did work at a bookstore briefly in Iowa City when I took a year off from college.  The men got to work on the floor with the books; we women had to be cashiers.   Hard to believe it was so sexist back then, but it was.  And we women all loved books:  there was one college graduate among us, one student, another woman on a gap year, and a smart head cashier.

My copy of The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence

The good thing about working in the bookstore was that we got to borrow books. The bad thing  was that I used to buy the books.  Madness! Here is my copy of The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. It cost $12.50. I made $1.60 an hour.  I put my money back into the store!  And so I had to leave.

If I had been allowed to work with the books,  I would have stayed and had a different fate!