“My life of reading, of loving books, was launched by my mother…” –Dec 13, 2002

My life of reading, of loving books, was launched by my mother’s good instincts in taking me to the Chicago Public Library at the age of eight (I think) for my library card and on a weekly basis thereafter helping me take home a stack of books from the Belmont Avenue branch. There are, I suppose, many reasons for my early adoption of reading as a life-sustaining activity, but the unpacking of that will have to wait for the publication of my memoir. The reason for that is, that those reasons are probably only interesting to me and their inclusion in a published memoir will be prima facie evidence that I have done something worthy to warrant the immense good fortune of being published. In which case, a little self-obsessed self-indulgence will be tolerated by my editor and mentor. By the way, my working title is The Messiah Waited.

Now the thing about libraries is that as dignified, holy as they might be, they are still impersonal, and utilitarian and most significantly, connected to a larger authority, such as a school or a government. Aesthetically, they are permeated with institutional colors and scents, lighting and design, all in the service of being of service necessarily to a community but at least to a large group of people. I have more to say about libraries and the public imagination and I am planning to make that chapter III of the second volume of my memoir, currently having the working title, Why Don’t We Do It?

The real awakening in my life came with the discovery of the idea of owning books—and the early stirrings of my love for bookstores. And the frosting on this cake was the growing and seemingly never-ending story that the people who owned these stores could be so fascinating and original (these days, such stores are unimaginatively designated as independent bookstores). In Chicago, while there was a Krochs and Brentano’s chain, the stores of which I was most enamored were Stuart Brent’s (in the high rent district of upper Michigan Avenue), Barbara’s Bookstore (on Well’s Street, in Old Town a few blocks over from the Carl Sandburg Village. Reportedly, this high rise complex had been originally planned as affordable housing in an area proximate to Chicago’s Gold Coast. By the time this development was completed, its prime mover, Arthur Rubloff, had succeeded in redefining ‘affordable’. Which was what one might expect from a person so committed to high standards of personal grooming and hygiene that he—again reportedly—sent his shirts to New York City to be laundered.) And then there was Great Expectations Bookstore, under the EL tracks on Foster Street in Evanston, on the Northwestern University campus.

Great Expectations was the haven and enterprise of one Truman Metzel. Now it is a common pastime of writers and readers to regale themselves and anyone else that will take note, of the iconoclastic, idiosyncratic, curmudgeonly, eloquent and generally anti-social types that they have met in their commerce with bookstores. So yeah, Truman was a character all right. And now as I think of him, he looms larger in my memory. Firstly, he introduced me to French Market Coffee (with chicory) from New Orleans—which I still drink forty years later, and secondly, he was the first person to extend me credit. In fact, he held the quaint notion that he needed to regularly discourage me from paying my entire outstanding balance because of his belief that as long as I owed him money I was his client. No outstanding balance left me, in his mind, untethered in the world of book commerce.

Truman’s shop specialized (this is not quite accurate but these are the things that brought me to his door) in contemporary philosophy (of which I was then a student) and contemporary literary fiction. It’s a peculiar thing that when I occasionally put my hands on a copy of the Tractatus or Philosophical Investigations, I am more likely to think of that book world encapsulated in Great Expectations, as I knew it, than kicking away any ladders when I am unable to speak of things. Truman, a large man with Van Dyke facial hair was also a pleasing storyteller and an engaging conversationalist, and his shop had that sanctified aura that I have come to identify as I have gone on to encounter innumerable other shops and booksellers. Amply lit, wooden shelving, tables not quite neatly displaying books, the scent of cigarette smoke, WFMT (home of Studs Terkel) broadcasting over the radio, a cup of strong-but-fresh coffee always available at the long rectangular wooden table off to the side of Truman’s desk. No cash register, no credit card modem. Lots of books and something else…

I am seized by such memories these days because the time is drawing near when the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookstore is closing its doors on Newbury Street. As a regular and sometimes frequent personal port of call, that closing—besides requiring internal and emotional recalibrations—shifts the arc of my peregrinations in my adopted village of Back Bay, Boston. No small thing, for the perennially peripatetic, like me, but probably a useful sign of my times. I, of course, expect to continue seeing Vince and the store cat Blue and hopefully the Merry Band that has worked with him. But there will be no going home again to that place. A place I am certain that is destined for local mythology.

Before I actually saw Abelardo Morrell’s new ensemble of photographs collected in his a book of books (with a predictably insightful and delightful introduction by Nicholson Baker), I was a bit worried that his pictures would contribute to that province of the book world that turns books into things themselves (dings an sich?). Not to beat this drum too often, but the Avenue Victor Hugo featured signs all over the place saying, “Please Touch the Books,” a noble, and to me, entirely correct sentiment. In what I believe is the most mundane corner of the book world, it is the unread and unsullied by human hands book that has the greatest value. Those are the ones collected and traded and seemingly relegating content to a distant and superfluous consideration. I have even noticed local bookstore advertising (well, they don’t call it advertising but that’s part of mantle of innocence and martyrdom that has become the fashion in book retailing) signed first editions of current books in its newsletter. It may be some kind of double think for me, the curator of a “collection” that contains hundreds of signed and inscribed first editions to mock such a commercial twist but what is the meaning of this signature if one doesn’t at least endure a bookstore reading to acquire it? Or have some, even fleeting, contact with the author?

Anyway, Abelardo’s book is not an objectification or even a homogenization of the idea of ‘book’. It is his talent—okay, his genius—to infuse these pictures of books with something else and, that additionally, that something else leads to looking at books differently and even thinking about them differently. In his Afterword to a book of books, Abe Morrell observes, “For me the magic of these objects lies somewhere between a photograph of a book and the book itself: at times, I have been convinced that books hold all the material of life—at least all the stuff that fits between an A and a Z.”

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