LONDON, ONTARIO – Through my 20s and early 30s while I was building up a network of editorial connections that would allow me to make a go of it full time as a writer (at least until my early 50s when the interwebs started to incrementally decimate the publishing world) I took on a number of supplementary jobs in unrelated fields to keep the wolf at bay. Because I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wasn’t looking to any of these strictly mercenary positions as potential careers. I was after grocery and rent money; not a personal challenge or an opportunity for growth and development. I was happy to give my best effort throughout a working shift but when quitting time arrived, I was going to be putting my mind elsewhere and didn’t intend to give one more second’s thought to any of these jobs until the beginning of my next shift.
The non-literary jobs I took on over those years included dishwashing (and one nervous lunchtime shift as a waiter), sod-laying, worm-picking, grounds-keeping, acting in a summer theatre troupe, cabbage-picking, pouring cement for a construction crew, three Christmas seasons at the Post Office sorting mail, line work at a cannery, chair-assembling, compiling data for a government-funded and ill-defined skills-based labour exchange, a couple stints lugging great quantities of stuff around in a whole foods and a garden warehouse, a six and a half-year stretch as a night-time superintendent in a group home for kids (that was the only job I’ve ever held that came with a medical plan) and a few different posts in second-hand retail sales . I think it was the requirement to wear reasonably natty (or at least innocuous) clothes that prevented me from ever applying for work in a store selling new goods. Henry David Thoreau’s famous dictum to “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” has always spoken to my heart.
In only one of those jobs did my work overlap with my own most vital interests. From the fall of ’79 to the summer of ‘80 I was the lone clerk in City Lights Book Shop’s second storey which featured classic novels, poetry and plays, literary criticism, maps, Coles Notes and what was then London’s largest used record department. As books and records have always constituted the only real attractions which the consumer society has for me, this seemed like a dream job at the time.
Certainly it was great to have first dibs on all kinds of literary and musical arcana that came drifting through. Scanning my shelves I note at least a dozen books I was able to acquire with my employee discount that I treasure to this day - such as, appropriately enough, Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop, the Bolingen edition of The I Ching, T.E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a bumper edition of Nordhoff and Hall’s Bounty Trilogy with the illustrations by N.C. Wyeth, and multiple volumes by Walter de la Mare, J.B. Priestley and Hesketh Pearson. And though I subsequently traded in my vinyl platters for compact discs, it was there and then that I first delved into the wonders of the back catalogue of bands like Fairport Convention, Stackridge and Badfinger.
The job had its irritations too. The most constant of these was my employer, Marc Emery. Even with my weekly wages fractionalized by acquisitions, he could never fork over one of his frequently rubbery cheques without first delivering at least a two-minute lecture about his idol Ayn Rand, the wonders of unrestrained capitalism and the coming Libertarian Dawn. He hadn’t yet become coo-coo for marijuana but his status as a conversational pig was already well-established. He’d rant at anybody about his stubbornly un-fascinating enthusiasms no matter how little interest they conveyed. As a customer I had developed ways of pretending not to hear him or hiding until I knew he’d cornered some other poor sap. Such tactics of avoidance aren’t possible when the yammering maniac is your boss.
And about once a month my department’s shelves would be plundered by an odious man who gave no indication of having ever read a book in his life. He’d recently bought a country house with a built-in library and in his campaign to fill up his bookcases with a sort of three-dimensional wallpaper, he’d purchase anything with a deluxe or leather binding. Over the course of my employment I sold him at least five sets of Dickens and a couple sets each of Jane Austen and Thackeray.
Thoroughly disdainful in his newly-assumed role as ‘Lord of the Manor’, he wouldn’t deign to handle or examine any of the books himself but would stand in the centre of the room and point to the volumes that caught his eye, expecting me – tugging my forelock and muttering under my breath – to assemble his witlessly gathered prizes, pack them into boxes and carry them down to his sumptuous coach idling outside the front door. His visits could be as brief as ten minutes but always reduced me to inarticulate rage. And if I should happen to encounter a certain Marc Emery on the way back up to my second-floor hideaway (shaking my limbs and head as if trying to throw off an obnoxious spell), I was not above delivering him a spontaneous lecture on the imminent and devoutly-to-be-desired Socialist Dawn.
Though his ‘lordship’ only cared about books as static elements in his cheesy interior decoration scheme, he did at least distinguish himself from the vast majority of my customers who clambered their way up the badly leaning stairway in exclusive pursuit of used records. Downstairs, literary trade boomed away in second-hand pulp by Arthur Hailey, Stephen King and Danielle Steel and recycled skin magazines. But my stock of classics or serious literature was of a decidedly minority interest except for the first business day of each new academic term, when I’d be besieged by hordes of students clutching identical lists of texts which their more prescient colleagues had snapped up the week before when we still had copies. Their stark incomprehension that a second-hand shop didn’t have the wherewithal to just order up another box of their coveted volumes was rather wondrous to behold.
I’d always thought the whole point to a used book store was that here the recent ephemera and dross would’ve fallen away and what you’d be selling would be those books which were destined to endure. But just like in the modern chain stores, the books that generated most of the business were the horrors and gothics, the romances and bodice-rippers, the Elvis biographies and the confessions of burned-out starlets. It was the same old dreck as you could find anywhere else but cheaper.
In addition to selling used records, I also had to buy them – that’s how we got our stock - and quickly discovered that some of the touchiest human beings on the planet also had the crummiest music collections imaginable. These thin-skinned souls always hovered over me while I inspected their discs and refused to laugh at my little jokes. (“Were you serving hors d’oeuvres on this one?”) Most maddening of all, they seemed to be incapable of grasping the economic realities of the used vinyl marketplace.
“Sorry but I can’t buy any more copies of Frampton Comes Alive.”
“But it’s in good shape.”
“It’s in great shape and so are the 40 other copies in the back room.”
“Fascist,” “cheapskate” or “bastard,” they’d spit and then scoop up their stack of the dozen deadliest platters on the market – Saturday Night Fever, Kiss Alive, Olivia Newton John, Grand Funk Railroad, John Denver, Wayne Newton Meets the Chipmunks – and storm downstairs in a self-righteous huff. Sometimes after booking off for the day, I’d find the whole rancid heap stuffed in top of the municipal garbage can at the north end of the block.
I confess there were times when I took pity on people who brought in awful records. I was a disgracefully soft touch for mothers with bawling babes in arms or men who stood more than seven feet tall. One old woman just about killed herself lugging a box of Tijuana Brass albums up those stairs. You couldn’t give that stuff away in mint condition and hers were pretty grim but if I didn’t buy them, I feared the shock of rejection on top of her recent physical exertion would pretty well guarantee a massive coronary on the spot. And medics trying to manoeuvre her down those rickety stairs on an ambulance gurney would really be bad for business.
One particularly busy Saturday we were understaffed and I had to fill in downstairs, giving me a taste of what it was like on the real front line of the used book business. My attention constantly yanked in half a dozen directions at once, I was an absolute dishrag by closing time. I only remember fragments:
A young kid trying to sell me a lone volume – A to Azure (it was a grocery store freebie) – of the Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia . . . A mad woman on the phone in search of a book she’d read 20 years ago. She couldn’t remember the title or the author’s last name (“I think his first name was John”) but it was mostly about the war . . . A grown man buying a magazine called Big Boobs and not even having the decency to blush or cringe . . . A pathologically shy woman unloading her entire self-help library (books with titles like Winning Through Intimidation, Looking Out For Number One and Eating Your Social Inferiors for Lunch) averting her gaze as she whispered, “Just give me whatever you think they’re worth . . . if you even want them.”
While hairy days like that make for the best stories, there were some beautifully quiet ones as well – rainy days or major blizzard days – when I’d be paid to mooch around in never-previously considered books or records for four or five hours at a stretch and discover something magnificent or sublime into which some creative soul had daringly poured all his wisdom and artistry for others to enjoy. And I never think back on my time at City Lights without recalling that it was there I first met my friend Jeff Cencich – the first person I ever knew whose hunger for printed matter is as ravenous as my own and the blessed intermediary who introduced me to G.K. Chesterton, plucking a copy of the great one’s Selected Essays from the shelf and dropping it onto my desk, saying, “You really ought to give this a shot. I think you’ll like him.” Oh, gross and glorious understatement.
What sent me scampering down this particular time tunnel for this week’s Hermaneutics was reading the November 9th installment of Essays in Idleness at www.davidwarrenonline entitled Book merchandising latest. David is another of my book-besotted friends and it is his plight to be resident in Toronto where virtually all of the worthwhile used bookshops have been obliterated by the double whammy of the interwebs and obscene rent hikes. We have David down once a year to eminently-more-affordable London where the two of us conduct a marathon three-day book crawl. This year we had to lend him extra luggage to schlep all his latest acquisitions onto the Greyhound for his return trip.
On his home turf the poor man is reduced to scrounging for used books in junk shops and in that recent essay, he was grossed out sideways when the most reliable of such emporia had taken to gathering up a yard’s worth of books with similarly coloured bindings in Sellotape for selling to home decorators and film set designers. As “a fanatical, antiquated bibliophile, who looks on these objects as precious things, and cannot bear to see them treated in such a way,” David was shattered by the practice; the shock of which bespeaks a fortunate innocence in such matters. A uniquely gifted writer, David has always been able to earn his crusts by his pen and his keyboard and has never had to work retail in the book-selling trade where such anti-literary barbarism is all too common.
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