It’s for all kinds of tension, not just racial, but class—the poor, who don’t have money or success, against the well-to-do. There are all these antagonisms… We live by pressing our palms against the skulls of the people whom we climb over. The sense of that is very strong in human society. Sometimes it’s based on possessions, or looks, or color, or experience, or history, and all these various things that we make judgments out of.
If you haven’t read Desperate Characters — and it’s a pretty perfect read if you’re stuck in the city this summer — Longreads also has an excerpt.
The cover of the W. W. Norton’s new edition (pictured above) was designed by Yang Kim.
Also at The New Yorker, Brian Patrick Eha writes about the closure of Brazenhead Books, Michael Seidenberg’s secret New York bookstore:
Michael Seidenberg’s one-of-a-kind bookshop, Brazenhead Books, closed last month. For seven years, it operated out of an apartment at 235 East Eighty-fourth Street. Of course no bookstore or other business had any business being there, in that rent-stabilized apartment, so it was, strictly speaking, illegal, and because it was illegal it had to be secret. The secret was known to a small number of discreet patrons and shared strictly by word of mouth. (At first, Michael saw customers by appointment only.) Inside, the windows were blacked out and covered with shelves. On bookcases, in every room, volumes of all sizes in serried ranks rose two deep from floor to ceiling. More were stacked on desks and tables and grew in unsteady columns from the floor. There was a stereo (covered in books), a few chairs, and a large desk in the front room (likewise all but submerged), on which Michael kept a half dozen or so bottles of wine and spirits, a tower of plastic cups, and a bucket of ice.
Walking in, you might find a handful of patrons lounging on chairs with drinks in their hands, or browsing amiably, making conversation, generally about books, but often ranging widely into art, politics, personal life stories, and the history of New York. In the same way that children imagine adults living in perfect freedom, enjoying all the cookies and television they want and staying up till all hours, Michael’s shop was what a bookish child might dream up as a fantasy home for himself, a place far from any responsibilities, where he would never run out of stories.
The good news is that Seidenberg plans to reopen the store elsewhere. Until then, you can watch this video about the old location.
Historians and journalists were devoted to the store, and leaned on it for their research. No one is lonelier than the author of a forgotten book. Ms. Colt speaks for many writers who walked into the Military Bookman when she says of one, “He loved to come to a place where the denizens knew what he had done”…
…Ms. Colt, who had previously worked in publishing, didn’t suffer fools — or ghouls. Here she is on one customer: “Lean and mean, with a crew cut, he was a real right-winger, collecting Holocaust memorabilia while being a Holocaust denier: a misanthrope with a sour sense of humor and guns in a secret closet.”
The store kept sometimes mischievous notes on its customers. These had observations like “tire-kicker, quote-dropper, reservation-dropper (particularly heinous), unredeemed check-bouncer (even worse). Also: cheapskate, picky, SS tendencies, questionable dealings, edition or d/j freak, and other sins and misdemeanors.” (The “d/j” refers to dust jackets.)
If it sounds as if the patrons were a band of brothers, yes, they were mostly men. The store maintained a comfortable chair for wives and girlfriends. Ms. Colt, who loved her work, writes terrifically about trying to maintain her sang-froid in this testicular environment.
As others have noted, it is a little odd that the project is being announced now when the winners have been chosen rather than when the competition opened (why wasn’t the cost of the catalogue factored into the entry fee?), and I wonder if a traditional publisher could not be found to partner on this project, but even if it feels like something of an afterthought, a well-designed catalogue would still be a lovely thing to have.
At the lovely Spitalfields Life blog, the Gentle Author reminisces about buying and selling used books in London, and shares some wondeful black and white photographs of the city’s secondhand bookshops taken in 1971 by Richard Brown:
Frustrated by my pitiful lack of income, it was not long before I began carrying boxes of my textbooks to bookshops in the Charing Cross Rd and swapping them for a few banknotes that would give me a night at the theatre or some other treat. I recall the wrench of guilt when I first sold books off my shelves but I found I was more than compensated by the joy of the experiences that were granted to me in exchange.
Inevitably, I soon began acquiring more books that I discovered in these shops and, on occasion, making deals that gave me a little cash and a single volume from the shelves in return for a box of my own books. In this way, I obtained some early Hogarth Press titles and a first edition of To The Lighthouse with a sticker in the back revealing that it had been bought new at Shakespeare & Co in Paris. How I would like to have been there in 1927 to make that purchase myself.