Saturday, December 29, 2007

NYTimes: "literary center of gravity"

Our Towns: Get Your Motor Running, Head Out to the ... Bookstore?

IF someone was going to start a literary motorcycle club in New Jersey, it figured to be Alex Dawson. So, no surprise, there he was, leader of the pack on his Kawasaki Vulcan Classic, when the club roared out on its first road trip earlier this month to the house in Burlington, where James Fenimore Cooper was born.
O.K., it was just five members, but you have to start somewhere. "It's a very difficult demographic to mine, finding people who are interested in literature and motorcycles," he said.
But then Mr. Dawson, it turns out, is already an expert on mining difficult demographics. Witness his main gig, his attempt to start an independent literary bookstore, writers' salon and literary center of gravity in Metuchen, N.J. And, quite amazingly, a year and a half into the game, his bookstore, the Raconteur, has become slightly famous in literary circles in Brooklyn and Manhattan as well as Edison and New Brunswick, even if the jury is still out on whether anyone can make much of a living this way in the age of Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble.
"Making a lot of money has never been my main goal, so buying a bookstore is not like buying a Jaguar dealership," said Mr. Dawson, 36, at his store, nestled between Charming Nails and Metuchen Savings Bank. "But you have to remember that I ran a theater company for the last six years, so this isn't a financial step down, it's a financial step up."
Mr. Dawson grew up in New Jersey and then on a horse farm in Alabama, studied art at Rutgers, wrote plays, staged plays, tended bar, worked at a beloved independent video store in town and was working at the desultory secondhand bookstore on Main Street when he heard the owners wanted to sell it. He decided to jump in and opened it with a business partner, John W. McKelvey, as an entirely new business in November 2004. The shop mostly sells used books, rents DVD's, stages readings and film events, offers writers' workshops, and operates as he puts it, like Floyd's Barber Shop for people who like books and art films and want to exchange ideas.
So yesterday the French classic "Rififi" was playing and the store did have the incongruous air of clutter, order and surprise you used to find at bookstores but don't much anymore.
FIRST impressions to the contrary, Metuchen in central New Jersey is not an entirely insane place for Mr. Dawson to try to create what he likes to think of as his version of legendary bookstores like Shakespeare & Company in Paris or City Lights in San Francisco. There is, after all, the slightly obnoxious local slogan, "the Brainy Borough," which dates back at least a century. There is a fairly rich literary history that includes figures like the late poet and novelist John Ciardi. Main Street is still vital with shops and coffee bars and restaurants. It feels like one of those suburbs with a center and a soul.
Still Charing Cross it is not, and it's safe to say the leaflet on the front door from last Saturday's event probably would not have been found on any other front door in town.
"Party #18!" goes the teaser for a reading by Clay McLeod Chapman, quoting The Village Voice's description of him as a sort of "a younger, weirder" Eudora Welty "who dishes out plate after plate of Southern Fried Gothic."
You wonder how much of a constituency there is in Metuchen for younger and weirder versions of Eudora Welty, but shoppers and fans like Tom Lynch, a high school teacher, or Beth McLure, who's in advertising, or Shaun Boyle, a film and media technician, say the shop is a godsend. A recent extravaganza entitled Wordfest ("Three Hours/15 Writers!") drew 400 people to the nearby Forum Theater for readings by writers famous and obscure leading up to Jim Carroll, best known for "The Basketball Diaries."
"My mother asked me how it went, and I said the bad thing was it went five hours and the good thing was that people didn't seem to mind." Mr. Dawson said.
He says the venture is only about 40 percent of what he wants it to be. "I'm waiting to be shocked by a business boom, but it's been about what I expected."
And if things get too frustrating, there's always the motorcycle club. He's hoping to do an overnight next time beyond the New Jersey universe to the Robert Louis Stevenson cottage in Saranac Lake, N.Y.

from Peter Applebome

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