Swans Commentary » swans.com January 28, 2013  



Flat On My Back In Memory Lane


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - January 28, 2013)   Nos-taaaal-gia! How it makes our toothless gums sing, sprinkling exclamation marks along the path as we limp down the final lap. Gum beating never says die. It accelerates along with the funereal drums. "I remember one time back in....You wouldn't believe what the two of them were up to...." You're damn right I wouldn't believe it, that is unless I was telling the story. Survivors write history and old timers blow their noses in the facts. Note the colors of the rainbow in their snot rags.

Such are my thoughts as I key out a late night order to the big bookseller in the sky. Talk about using a long spoon to sup with the devil. I don't even know to which continent my money is going. What I do know is that it's not going to my local bookshop because that quaint establishment is no more. Its agony went on too long. Stocks were so thin you ended browsing the grain in the oak shelves. The cute part-timer in charge kept saying without much conviction that there was no service she could not render. Then she would sit down at her outmoded PC and begin her footless wandering. Was she at least a fount of book chat? I suppose so. But who needed that when so much spilled over online that I had no time to read the books chatted up.

So I've cast my lot with the corporations. I live on Wall Street like everyone else. And I mean everybody. In the morning the first thing the barista tells me is that the stock market has picked up. I say, "Great," as if it's more important than whether I should go back for my umbrella. Neither of us will ever own a single share of anything. At most we might buy a lottery ticket if we have any change left in our pockets when the Christmas spirit descends. The alternative world is no more. Even the stockbrokers interviewed on TV leave their shirts open at the neck.

Do I miss the necktie era? Of course. Anything beats the unedited present and that goes in volumes for bookshops. I was bemused as the next reader when the big chains suddenly overwhelmed the traditional outlets. Huge layouts, sometimes on three or four stories, they seemed to be saying that books were at least as important as the oddments that filled department stores. It didn't bother me that uncouth types sat on the upholstered chairs or in a corner on the floor browsing away from morning to night. They were not book buyers but literate flâneurs who used the well appointed space as a public library without hard edges. As long as they didn't use it as a lending library, the jolly staff let them be.

Utopia had come to our city centers or so I thought for a while and set up my desk on a corner table in the glass-walled coffee bar of one of these emporia in Chicago. There was a superb view down on my left of bustling Michigan Avenue that some dared call Boul Mich. On the right I could rest my eyes on a stubby soapstone water tower that has been spared as a local homage to antiquity. Before sitting down I'd gather an armful of books that caught my fancy. I didn't want to buy them, only to see what they were all about and maybe take a note or two. The coffee was good and the staff quite content to mind their own business. As wage slaves they had no interest in encouraging consumption or otherwise undermining a serious reader's concentration.

Places of the sort disappeared just as quick as they had come, bust following boom as in the Bible. Their failure had more to do with a faulty business plan than an inability to offer the services of the ur-bookshop. Those personal touches, for all our romancing, timed out years of browsing ago. When I let nostalgia swivel my head backwards, it's not to image up a polymath bookseller with the gift of gab. I remember the zonked out Cerberus at the gate of my favorite secondhand book depot in London's Charing Cross Road. He never uttered a word and hadn't the professionalism even to gesture at the sign above his head, much less enforce it. The strong Roman lettering said to leave behind all bags and brief cases before proceeding to the adjacent rooms or those beneath.

It was that sort of place, silent as a tomb before the funeral party arrives and the preacher starts sounding off. The room-after-room arrangement made for the kind of infinity a finite dawdler like myself found homey. The dust could be trusted. The books exhaled the bad breath of the Gutenberg era. They repeated the poor-man's-infinity effect in crooked piles and on sagging shelves, defying enumeration. No one blamed whoever pretended to be in charge for not sorting out the volumes and establishing some rational order. It would have been two lifetimes' work. So anything lay on or stood beside something else.

I'd turn pages till my eyes stung and then try to recall where to put the book back. It was always pleasant suddenly to remember that it didn't matter. The book didn't belong anywhere. There were other customers. The more brisk were naive or misdirected shoppers who sought a specific title. They thought they could step in, ask for it, and get an answer. When this was not forthcoming they entered the labyrinth to conduct their own futile search. A second category encountered under the dim bulbs was a peculiar breed of London idler. Usually, but not always of at least middle-age, he sported somebody else's business suit and often even his necktie. You knew by his halo of leisure that he was on the run from gainful employment. His speech, doubtless by osmosis, had a literary inflection. He had all the time in the world.

My own dirty little secret is that, suit and tie excepted, I not only had a definite fellow feeling for these shabby browsers, I used to listen to their talk while pretending to be absorbed in the yellowed pages of a discovery. There were epic moments. I can't forget a straggling dialogue between two idlers as they toyed with a couple of hardbacks. They went on and on, both in solid agreement, about the poor quality of a spaceship in a recent TV science fiction drama. The technical details they threw out against the Victorian walls stacked with outdated print closed us in a time warp. Then they decided it was the moment for a cup of tea. Various neighborhood venues were considered. So was price. One of them narrowed the choice down to lunchroom around the corner. The other demurred:

"I once saw a chap spit on the floor there."

"Why did he do that?"

"Who knows? But do we want to go to a place like that?"

"That depends whether he spit because of the food or the service."

"Either way, what's the odds?"

"It matters. They may have changed the cook but not the waiter. Or vice-versa."

"Or neither. He may have been a nut-case."

"Or just bloody minded."

"Maybe he simply didn't want to pay his bill."

"No. He paid the bill. Then he spit a great gob."

"I've seen worse."

"There's always worse."

"This gent sat down to a swanky meal, smiled, and took his false teeth out."

"No! Why would he do that before taking a bite?"

"Search me. I went to the men's room."

"Once I saw a bloke in a booth of a cafe pick up the sauce bottle and lick it all around the spout."

"Did you raise Cain?"

"No, I never use sauce. But maybe I should have asked the manager to remove that sauce bottle from circulation."

"You should have told the bloke that if he fancied the stuff to that point he should have lifted the bottle over his head and squirted sauce into his mouth."

"Like the Spaniards drink wine?"

"Right. Of course he would have written you off as a foreigner."

They went for their tea, though I'm not sure where. Shoppers off the beaten track also were tempted to break the silence of the purlieus and ask me questions. This annoyed me since it interrupted my listening while I pretended to read. A husband of sixty, confused, was thrust at me by his wife. Did I know where the books were on church architecture?

"Could be anywhere. They're illustrated, so look among the large volumes."

He: "Large as a church, ay."

Me: "Hmm."

His wife: "We went to Foyle's Bookshop and they sent us to the religious department."

He: "We're going to this lecture tomorrow on church architecture."

Me: "Why don't you go to a library?"

Wife: "It's like having a meat department in a butcher shop."

Me: "How's that?"

He: "No. We want to buy a book on church architecture."

Wife: "There's only one religion, Christianity."

Me: "You might consult the man at the door here. He seems religious."

He: "A believer?"

Wife: "I thought he was asleep."

Me: "He was praying."

He: "You see we don't want to appear stupid. After the lecture there's a question period."

Wife: "We don't pray with our eyes open."

Me: "Nobody does. Didn't you notice? He's blind and mute."

He: "Maybe we should go to Selfridges Department Store."

Wife: "Not to the religious department."

The premises have been smartened up now. They sell brand new telephones, a brisker business, still prolific of absurd conversations, but I can't get an ear to them. Don't ask me where the books have gone. Keep your nostalgia to your aging self.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published January 28, 2013