“Tender feelings for so-called used bookstores” –March 15, 2003

As loathe as I am to enter commercial shops other than grocery,drug and computer supply stores, I still harbor tender feelingsfor so-called used bookstores (which these days may not qualifyin the commercial category). I recently paid an overdue callto my favorite bookseller Vincent McCaffrey at the new locationof AvenueVictor Hugo Bookstore. Since Vince was still dealing withold business (like cleaning out the old location) and thusunavailable, I was unable to purloin my usual few bits ofwisdom—on matters far and wide—from him. Anyway,the new site looks very much like it will be a bookstore ina year or two. Blue the cat seems to be adapting to the newdigs, and even in its nascent state AVH has a good feel andsmell. This jaunt reminded me that Jody Watson's House ofSara, a sweet little bookseller in Cambridge's Inman Square,had closed its doors last month. And so to quell my burgeoninggloominess, I headed over to the Bryn Mawr Bookstore on HuronAvenue in Cambridge for their bi-annual half price sale. (Mybuddy Iron Michael points out that I now look forward to thatsale in the same way that in the '80s I anticipated the LouisBoston sale at Filenes' Basement).

Okay, occasionally I harbor ungenerous thoughts such as "Otherpeople's ignorance is my good fortune" when I find treasuresat Bryn Mawr. To find a copy of Michael Malone's Foolscap(which I have read) or a British edition of Roth's Portnoy'sComplaint (which I haven't read) or a first edition ofJamaica Kincaid's Annie John and on and on, all forvery low in the single digits prices, is something I believeJews call a mitzvah. It also strikes me as peculiarthat hardcover books can lose their dollar value so quickly.Most of this has, I am sure, to do with what I call the Crushof the New.

Apparently it has become the rule in the businesses to dowith books, music and movies (less so with movies, given thelarge costs of production) that lots of 'product' is pumpedout in to the marketplace and when a book or a CD or a movieshows signs of commercial success, large amounts of moneyare then arrayed to market and publicize that product. Thisis very much the blockbuster mentality that is responsiblefor a decline in the quantity of quality movies. Thankfully,since the absolute formula for 'hit' books and records (andeven movies) remains elusive, some wonderful literature andmusic and film makes it to the marketplace. And sometimes,even commercial success results. Holy Moly!

One of the bad effects of this huge outpouring of culturalproducts is that the people who have chosen to be or appointedcritics or reviewers or commentators (sometimes known as thecultural arbiter establishment) are caught up in this onslaught.Thus a disproportionate, I think, amount of attention is paidto what is new—what is current seems to have an extremelyshort life span. Personally, when it comes to books and literatureI do not believe everything new is news or that everythingnot new is not news.

Alex Good (http://www.goodreports.net/news.htm)is a commentator on things bookish up in Canada (that is thesovereign nation just north of Buffalo where writers likeAlice Munro, Michael Ondaajte, Rohinton Mistry, Ann Carson,Alistair McCleod and Wayne Johnston live). Recently in hisGood Reports he was bemoaning something or other—I wasconfused by what the point was:

The online magazine Salon.com is facing bankruptcy.

While I've had fun taking shots at Salon's book coverage…I'vealso admired their occasional irreverence, energy and gusto.It's unfortunate they didn't better understand the natureof the Internet beast.

But the loss of Salon.com is only part of what mightbe a trend. Also announced this week was the demise of CentralBooking.com, a busy, good-looking book site that focused onnew and under-appreciated American writing. Do these latestcasualties indicate a similar fate for book sites?

I don't think so.†

I'm sad to see Salon and Central Booking go. But a highturnover rate is business as usual on the Internet. Whateveris lost, more good things are on the way.

Though I find David Talbott's messianic posturing irritating,I will be mildly distraught at Salon's last hurrah.But I am much more encouraged by the burgeoning of intelligentlife on the weblog planet especially where literature is concerned.At the complete review's Literary Saloon (http://complete-review.com/saloon/),Michael Orthofer and Elizabeth Morier (with a little helpfrom their friends) do an admirable job of carrying the flagfor writers of all linguistic persuasions. And their attentiongoes beyond the news of Garcia Marquez' grand success withhis (so far only in Spanish) memoirs or WG Sebald's posthumouspublications or a momentary nod to the latest obscure NobelLaureate. Such is their dedication that their most recentreview is of Oottupulackal Velukkutty Vijayan's Malayalam(that is the prevalent language of southern Indian Kerala)novel The Legends of Khasak.

And equally encouraging is a trend toward examining the dusty-but-fallowshelves of literature. Katherine Power's A Reading Lifein the Sunday Boston Globe a couple of times a monthhas for years marked out a broader literary horizon for hersplendid musings. Dennis Johnson at MobyLives.comhas a Recently Under Appreciated and a Blast from The Pastsection where he solicits nominations from readers. TheMinor Fall, The Major Lift is a quirky (that's good) weblogthat has recently inaugurated an Unsung Heroes series:

As a sort of apology for the general lack of postinggoing on lately, our plan for the next two weeks is to giveyou a list of ten authors we find to be tremendously underrated.Not necessarily from a critical standpoint, but in terms ofsales or in-print status. And don't get us wrong, we're notmaking claims that every one of these writers is in the firstdivision, talent-wise, but they've all got something thatmakes them worth reading. So the idea is we'll post one aday (which gives the illusion that TMFTML is being updateddaily over the coming fortnight), with a brief descriptionand some suggested titles. Because a number of our candidatesare, unfortunately, out of print, we suggest you check withyour local library. Or, if you're really interested, Abebooks,which we've found to be reliable, comprehensive, and reasonable.

To date the list includes Stanley Elkin, Charles Portis, PercivalEverett, William Gaddis and J.F Powers (the above-mentionedKatherine's papa). And to move this trend more squarely intothe mainstream (though made simple by among others the admirablework of the Library of America [that's despite the trashingthe LOA was given for their publication of Theodore Dreiser'sAn American Tragedy]) Jonathan Yardley at the WashingtonPost introduces Second Reading: "an occasional seriesin which The Post's book critic reconsiders notableand/or neglected books from the past."

So from where I sit, at my monitor, it is all good…

rosie the dog

Rosie in Repose copyright RB

Share this story