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

My life of reading, of loving books, was launchedby my mother’s good instincts in taking me to the Chicago PublicLibrary at the age of eight (I think) for my library card and ona weekly basis thereafter helping me take home a stack of booksfrom the Belmont Avenue branch. There are, I suppose, many reasonsfor my early adoption of reading as a life-sustaining activity,but the unpacking of that will have to wait for the publicationof my memoir. The reason for that is, that those reasons are probablyonly interesting to me and their inclusion in a published memoirwill be prima facie evidence that I have done something worthyto warrant the immense good fortune of being published. In whichcase, a little self-obsessed self-indulgence will be tolerated bymy editor and mentor. By the way, my working title is The MessiahWaited.

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

The real awakening in my life came with the discoveryof the idea of owning books—and the early stirrings of my lovefor bookstores. And the frosting on this cake was the growing andseemingly never-ending story that the people who owned these storescould be so fascinating and original (these days, such stores areunimaginatively designated as independent bookstores). In Chicago,while there was a Krochs and Brentano’s chain, the stores ofwhich I was most enamored were Stuart Brent’s (in the highrent district of upper Michigan Avenue), Barbara’s Bookstore(on Well’s Street, in Old Town a few blocks over from the CarlSandburg Village. Reportedly, this high rise complex had been originallyplanned as affordable housing in an area proximate to Chicago’sGold Coast. By the time this development was completed, its primemover, Arthur Rubloff, had succeeded in redefining ‘affordable’.Which was what one might expect from a person so committed to highstandards of personal grooming and hygiene that he—again reportedly—senthis shirts to New York City to be laundered.) And then there wasGreat Expectations Bookstore, under the EL tracks on Foster Streetin Evanston, on the Northwestern University campus.

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

Truman’s shop specialized (this is not quiteaccurate but these are the things that brought me to his door) incontemporary philosophy (of which I was then a student) and contemporaryliterary fiction. It’s a peculiar thing that when I occasionallyput my hands on a copy of the Tractatus or PhilosophicalInvestigations, I am more likely to think of that book worldencapsulated in Great Expectations, as I knew it, than kicking awayany ladders when I am unable to speak of things. Truman, a largeman with Van Dyke facial hair was also a pleasing storyteller andan engaging conversationalist, and his shop had that sanctifiedaura that I have come to identify as I have gone on to encounterinnumerable other shops and booksellers. Amply lit, wooden shelving,tables not quite neatly displaying books, the scent of cigarettesmoke, WFMT (home of Studs Terkel) broadcasting over the radio,a cup of strong-but-fresh coffee always available at the long rectangularwooden 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 becausethe time is drawing near when the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookstore isclosing its doors on Newbury Street. As a regular and sometimesfrequent personal port of call, that closing—besides requiringinternal and emotional recalibrations—shifts the arc of myperegrinations in my adopted village of Back Bay, Boston. No smallthing, for the perennially peripatetic, like me, but probably auseful sign of my times. I, of course, expect to continue seeingVince and the store cat Blue and hopefully the Merry Band that hasworked 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 newensemble of photographs collected in his a book of books(with a predictably insightful and delightful introduction by NicholsonBaker), I was a bit worried that his pictures would contribute tothat province of the book world that turns books into things themselves(dings an sich?). Not to beat this drum too often, but theAvenue Victor Hugo featured signs all over the place saying, “PleaseTouch 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 thegreatest value. Those are the ones collected and traded and seeminglyrelegating content to a distant and superfluous consideration. Ihave even noticed local bookstore advertising (well, they don’tcall it advertising but that’s part of mantle of innocenceand martyrdom that has become the fashion in book retailing) signedfirst editions of current books in its newsletter. It may be somekind of double think for me, the curator of a “collection”that contains hundreds of signed and inscribed first editions tomock such a commercial twist but what is the meaning of this signatureif one doesn’t at least endure a bookstore reading to acquireit? Or have some, even fleeting, contact with the author?

Anyway, Abelardo’s book is not an objectificationor even a homogenization of the idea of ‘book’. It ishis talent—okay, his genius—to infuse these pictures ofbooks with something else and, that additionally, that somethingelse leads to looking at books differently and even thinking aboutthem differently. In his Afterword to a book of books, AbeMorrell observes, “For me the magic of these objects lies somewherebetween a photograph of a book and the book itself: at times, Ihave been convinced that books hold all the material of life—atleast all the stuff that fits between an A and a Z.”

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