Saturday, December 27, 2008


Outside a dog, a book is a man's best friend; inside a dog, it's too dark to read." --Groucho Marx

My girlfriend Kristy and I recently adopted a retired seeing eye dog named Rosie. She's an extremely congenial Deutscher Schäferhund (otherwise known as a German Shepherd) and reminds me very much of my first dog, Beowulf, a companionable female shepherd with an inappropriately bellicose name. (My dad was a big fan of hero epics; we also had a terrier named Sigurd.) Rosie, like Beowulf, is tan with a black mask and saddle.

Ever since opening The Raconteur four years ago, I'd wanted a shop dog. A women in town owned a Scottish Deerhound and once a week I'd see it lurching hugely, the moose of dogs, past the front window. Deerhounds are spindly and look prehistoric (and are believed to have existed before recorded history). This one had a coarse wiry coat and the gangling gait of something dead reanimated. It was so ugly it was beautiful and I was convinced the store needed one.

Then I met Rosie. Rosie belonged to a friend of a friend, a visually impaired carpenter named Tony. He was preparing to retire Rosie, and was keen on the idea of having her in the shop, which would allow him the possibility of visiting her should he find himself exceptionally rattled by her absence.

Rosie is NOT blind. Many customers (including my sharpest friends), upon hearing "retired seeing eye dog," thickly ask, "so...she's, like, totally blind?"

Rosie, unlike those quoted above, is very bright. Shepherds were bred specifically for their intelligence, a trait for which they are now renowned. They are considered the third smartest breed, behind Border Collies and poodles. Poodles are actually the smartest, which I initially found hard to believe, unfairly charging them with the flakiness of their owners.

For the most part, Rosie wanders loose in the shop. Though, in truth, she does little wandering, preferring hibernation to circumlocution. She spends the better part of the day dozing under the old oak table we have set up in the back for writing workshops, book clubs, and dinner (I work about fifty hours a week, so it's nice to have a place other than the cashier counter to eat my Futo Maki). Whenever she stands up she stretches pleasurably, thrusting her front legs forward and lowering her shoulders to the floor in rough approximation of the yoga position Adho Mukha Svanasana. If you start scratching her ears she'll roll onto her back and moan gratefully (which, I'm fairly sure, is not a yoga pose).

Rosie loves people but hates dogs. Especially poodles, her intellectual rivals. And while we typically welcome leashed animals, with the addition of Rosie, we ask that you ascertain her whereabouts (she's not here everyday) before trotting in your own dog. She loves kids, but often thinks black strollers (and rolling suitcases) are, in fact, wheeled dogs, and is initially rankled by their entrance into the shop.

Mutts creator/animal activist Patrick Mcdonnell was here last month to sign copies of his latest children's book SOUTH. His fans are sort of like Trekkies with pets. But instead of latex Spock years and velor V-necks they wear ball caps and hooded sweatshirts that say "Nuts for Mutts" or "Yesh!" (strip star Mooch has a lisp). One component of Patrick's visit is what he calls a chalk talk (though it involves black sharpees and not white chalk). He answers questions while making quick sketches of his most famous characters--Earl, Mooch, Guard Dog, Sourpuss, Shtinky Puddin'--on a huge architect's pad. To our delight, he drew a picture of Rosie (which he later gave us) and in response to the fervent grilling of a audience longing to know something top secret about a new character, Patrick dangled the possibility of a Rosie cameo. (And certainly there's at least a week's worth of daily strips to be milked from a seeing eye dog in a bookstore.)

I tend to view things in a cultural context and cannot consider Rosie without also acknowledging her film forbears. Strongheart, a shepherd, was one of earliest canine stars and the first animal to be billed above the movie title. He starred in films like "Brawn of the North," Jack London's "White Fang," and "The Return of Boston Blackie." Strongheart was followed by Rin Tin Tin, the most famous shepherd to date. Both have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Batman's dog, Ace the Bat Hound, was also a shepherd.Naturally, when you adopt a dog, you're stuck with the name they answer to. It usually ends in a Y and is almost always insufferably cute. Lucky, Sparky, Muffin. Scoot. You can, however, building backwards, create an evocative enough name from even the most precious agnomen. Rosie, which called to mind female riveters, maid robots, and beefy comediennes, wasn't bad, but, considering my pet history--Beowulf, Sigurd, and a budgerigar named Von Rictofen (the red baron)--and the dramatic almost baroque ambiance of the shop, I knew it wouldn't do. And so, Rosie has since become Sub Rosa, a Latin phrase that denotes secrecy.

Parting shot: While my mother was content to leave the dog dubbing to my Dad, my stepmother, an energetic woman full of bubbles and beans, was not, and when they bought a Shetland Sheepdog from a puppy farm outside of Lambertville, Dad was forced to depart from his somber catalog in favor of something with a bit more "pep." They agreed on Bonnie, but to this day hotly debate what exactly was put down on paper (the dog has been dead ten years). "Bonnie Prince Billy," insists my Dad downing a tumbler of Loch Lomand, "the exiled Jacobite claimant to the throne of Great Britain." "Ridiculous," my stepmother chides brightly, sipping a wine cooler, "the dog's registered name, as your father well knows, was Beautiful Bon Bon of Frenchtown."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mele Kalikimaka, Emmett Otter, and Pecan Pizzelles

Christmas in Alabama was a two-edged sword. Though we lived in the deep south, it got cold. Very cold. And that meant several things. It meant that along with our usual early morning chores, we'd have to make sure that both stoves had wood. The kitchen one, small and bulbous, took branches, nothing thicker than a rolling pin; the living room one, big and boxy, took trunk wood, most of which had to be split to fit under the stove lids. It meant that we'd have to break, with heavy sticks, the ice in the water buckets of five horse stables and twenty-three discrete dog kennels. It also meant that rattlesnakes would crawl under the house where we kept our kindling and that mice would brazenly scamper towards the warmth: the kitchen, the living room, the cranked-up electric blankets that cocooned our sleeping bodies.

We lived in a converted fishing cabin built by a slipshod handyman named Rooster (I kid you not), and the winter wind whistled icily through the cracks in the unstained pine planks, which were graffitied with penciled saw lines (hopelessly overshot), splashes of basic addition, and scribbled phrases like "this side up." December meant that the gaps in the wall boards had to be covered with packing tape or stuffed with cotton.

But it also meant that mom would make homemade doughnuts, thick ropes of batter coiled into hot oil and then dusted with sugar, or apples and onions, both frontier recipes from the Little House Cookbook we'd gotten her last year. It meant that Christmas Eve dinner would consist entirely of the cookies we'd helped her make all week, the madelines and macaroons, the orange cranberry nut biscotti, the pecan praline lace, the pizzelles with toasted anise seed. (Well, that's how it was pitched, "all you can eat cookies," but the witch always managed to force some chowder into us too). It meant that my mother, brother, and I would saddle up three horses and scour the nine hundred acres of our ranch for the perfect tree. Once found, we'd tag it with the same blaze orange tape our stepfather frequently used to legally indicate that the crap hanging off the bed of his pickup, the pipes and planks, was too big and would crash right through your windshield if you got too close. Then Doctor--as we formally called our stepfather, a former army dentist--would head out the next day, chop it down, and haul it back.

It meant we'd make pasta angels from elbows and bow-ties, and Drummer Boy drums from TP tubes. It meant we'd string popcorn with red thread and lather pine cones with glue and dredge them with gold glitter. It meant singing carols around the blonde upright as Mom haltingly banged out "Mele Kalikimaka." It meant my brother and I would be able to pick one (but only one) Christmas special to watch on the usually off-limits TV. It was a tough decision and, fearing a blunder, we typically stuck to the tried and true: The Heat Miser, Emmett Otter, Peanuts. But a few times we took a chance on something new. Once a show was begun Mom forbid us to turn back (a lesson, she declared, in reality), and one year we swallowed a bitter pill indeed: a limp 1982 cartoon starring Pac Man and his family called Christmas Comes to Pac Land. I still feel the weight of that disappointment. Now, as I decorate the store in preparation for the "retail rush," as I garland the counter with a string of multi-colored lights made from the translucent casings of shotgun shells, as I crown the armless gold mannequin (Goldfingerless) that stands guard over our register with the felted chimney pot I once wore as a Central Park carriage driver (a holly spring added for festive flair), and as I listen to Shane MacGowan growl about "Christmas Eve in the drunk tank" on the holiday CD my girlfriend, Kristy, recently burned me, I think about those winters in Alabama. And you know what? I miss 'em. Even the snakes.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mutant Mags, Scarecrow Contests, and Split-Toe Ninja Boots

"When the air smells like smoke, and the twilights are orange and ash gray, my mind goes back to Green Town the place where I grew up." This is the nostalgic narration (think Christmas Story without the drollery) that opens Walt Disney's production of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Born and raised in the twenties, Bradbury's recollections of his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois (the real-life counterpart to Green Town) are a boy's eye view of a rural America long gone. It's the kind of place where everyone in town will stop work to attend a carnival.

Today is the second day of fall and, walking the two Main Street blocks from my apartment to the shop, I too am reminded of "the place where I grew up." That place was a five hundred acre horse ranch just outside a small Alabama town of God-fearing bird-doggers called Hurtsboro. The Will Halloway to my Jim Nightshade was a bespectacled wisp of a boy named Aaron, who, twenty-five years later, remains one my best friends (see the Summer of '81 post). Autumn, in particular Halloween, was an important time of year for he and I. In part, because of the Fall Festival, a series of gaming tents and vendor tables that the Methodist Cultural Commission pitched along Church Street every October.

My first year (and first fall) in Alabama (my family had moved there from NJ), Aaron and I created a Marvel Universe ripoff called Mutant Mag to sell at the fair. I was nine, he was eight. Aaron's Mom was an artist. She had converted the hunting cabin adjacent to their house into a studio and this is where we worked, coloring by hand (fussily at first, but then, as dawn drew near, carelessly) the books we had, earlier in the day, copied at the Hurtsboro Savings Bank, which boasted the one Xerox machine in town. Marvel Universe, if you remember, wasn't really a comic book at all, but rather a encyclopedia of the various heroes, villains, and lusus naturae that peopled the Marvel macrocosm. Each page had a robust full body portrait of a character along with an origin profile that ran in a journalistic column of copy down the side. It was here that Aaron and I learned words like "cabalistic," "behemoth," and "reprobate," along with phrases like "latent mutant attributes," all of which we incorporated (mostly incorrectly) into our own publication. We created robotic chimeras with names like Android Wolf and Turtle Cyborg. Thumbtack was a dwarf who could manipulate his ribs so they curved up out his back like porcupine quills; Dutch Dike was a guy who could "fill any hole" (the innuendo was quite beyond us). All the Marvel characters had aliases and, accordingly, so did ours: Sha Corona (I'm not kidding) was the secret identity of a man with a motorized saw blade that half-mooned from his helmet like a rooster crest; Gareth Grimshaw the aka of a dimension jumper known professionally as Limbo. We sold out of the stapled digests within an hour, feeding our fall folie de grandeur and filling a coffee can with dollar bills (which we spent on hot dogs and a festival game called Tic Tac Toss).

Not our scarecrow.

The next year, our objective was to win the newly minted Scarecrow Contest. Our scarecrow was complicated and had a decidedly knotty back story. Martial arts warrior, werewolf, vampire killer. Its face was a nylon ninja hood over top a plastic wolfman mask. Its chest was covered with "chain mail" made from linked, supposedly silver, Stars-of-David, which we meticulously snipped from sheets of roofing tin. Its hands were a pair of long red leather biker gloves that flared at the forearm. We fastened a sharpened chopstick to each of these, gluing metallic pen caps to the base (where stick met glove) to imitate the steel bushing on Wolverine's knuckles (Wolverine is a Marvel character with retractable claws).The chop sticks were ostensibly wooden stakes that extracted any time our scarecrow saw a vampire. It also wore split toe ninja boots which, of course, helped the scarecrow with rope climbing and wall walking.

Anyway. I don't think the judges got it. First prize went to a freckled, rusty headed girl named Elizabeth who had, according to the panel, "ingeniously utilized" a plastic milk jug as a head. We didn't even place.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

SET 'EM UP, INDY: Snakebites & Temple of Doom Shooters with the Raiders Boys

Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and me cloaked in the volcanic vapors that frequently follow a quickly downed round of Dooms.

The weekend began with us doing shot pitchers of a withering Asbury Lane concoction aptly called The Temple of Doom, with Chris and Eric, two thirty-something guys from Mississippi who'd shot a now nationally known adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark when they were ten. I'd been wanting to see the fan film since reading the breathless 10 page article Vanity Fair wrote about them three years back and had joined forces with Juicy Jenn, the programmer for the the Lanes, a bowling alley-cum-rockabilly joint in Asbury Park. Jenn, who was premiering the film the night before our screening, agreed to pay their airfare if we would handle ground transportation and board the boys in Metuchen for the weekend. Shop friend Grace Shackney offered up her beautiful Victorian, which stands adjacent to the former home of the late John Ciardi(an illustrious poet whose fame can be best described by the fact that he appeared twice on Johnny Carson). Grace is the administrative director of Princeton's esteemed McCarter Theater and the boys stayed in the same 2nd story suite (two adjoining bedrooms with a shared bathroom) where Athol Fugard, acclaimed South African playwright/former overnight guest, had slept.

It was my first time at the Lanes, though Raconteur house band The Roadside Graves play there frequently and have always spoken highly of it (and indeed friend Dan, a.k.a. Carrot-Top, is the "chef" at their burger counter).

The retro pine-paneled lounge at the Lanes.

It's unquestionably a cool venue, but, while we filled The Refectory, our 165 seat theater, they struggled to find an audience for the film. Mosh pits and burlesque shows are more their style and I fear the typical Raiders fan may have been intimidated by the Lane's notoriety as a venue full of face ink and nipple barbells. Conversely, The Raconteur battles not its own reputation, but rather the square pedantic standing of bookshops in general. While we've certainly had our share of academic evenings (the poet Rachel Hadas, Al Gore's global-warming road show, theatrical readings from Umberto Eco novels, etc.), we've also hosted hardcore nights, sword swallowers, graffiti exhibitions, and are presently organizing an event that will feature Ian Mckaye, former front man for Fugazi and the seminal punk band Minor Threat. Even still, I have a feeling we'll forever be thought of as a bit button-down by all you kids with bull rings and ten gauge lobes. Oh well. Chris Strompolos and I in the feverish throes of a T.O.D. buzz.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Raiders of the Ark was the first movie I can remember seeing more than once. I was eleven and lived on a horse ranch in southeastern Alabama. The Peachtree movie theater was almost an hour away in Columbus, Georgia. To see a movie multiple times meant multiple two hour round-trips across the state border. Not an easy thing to accomplish when you're in seventh grade. Fortunately, my family loved the film as much as I did, all of us watching wide-eyed and thunderstruck as the Ark heaved its sinister contents into the furious Cairo sky, again and again. After our fifth and final viewing, Mom bought the soundtrack so we could listen to our favorite scenes at home. My brother and I developed a rather complicated relationship to that tape. We loved listening to the scraps of dialog that littered the album, but, cranking the stereo dial to ten, our mother frequently used the now famous John Williams score to wake us up on Saturday mornings.

For my tenth birthday, my grandfather, an amateur filmmaker (he shot his vacations and screened silent reels of black and white Disney cartoons at family functions), bought me a super 8 camera. That summer, me and my best friend Aaron made several shorts which essentially consisted of animating action figures with a tedious technique called stop motion. We had modified the figures by detaching various plastic attributes from one figure (a shiny robot arm, a scaly dinosaur tail), then softening the edge or tip with a lighter and melting it to another figure. 1981, the year Raiders was released, we grew up. We quit animating our muscled toys and went live action, making movies we thought were wholly original, but which were, of course, Raider ripoffs. The films were shot in the legitimately snake-infested swamps (yellow-bellied moccasins and Eastern Diamondback rattlers) behind my house. Several trees had been upended by a recent tornado (a common occurrence in Alabama), and they precariously bridged a storm swollen brook, each trunk ending in a massive bomb crater of dirt and a jungle of splayed roots on the other side. Kudzu, an invasive, fast-climbing weed, covered an abandoned Dodge Dakota and scrambled over a tin roofed trapper's shack. Vines, as thick as garden hoses, lolled from branches. Spanish Moss made everything weep.

At eleven, I somehow considered myself a suitable candidate for the film's flinty, world weary lead. I was a newly minted JV wrestler and, accordingly, fairly fit for a tween, but I obviously imagined myself much burlier than my 98 pounds. Instead of Indy's leather bomber, I wore my stepfather's khaki field vest. It had a ruffled sash along the waist with a series of loops meant for shotgun shells, and this capacity to carry ammunition made it a rugged and reckless garment. I wore no hat. My stepfather had an expensive felt fedora called a Bogart that he kept in a round cardboard box filled with tissue paper. But borrowing his prize hat was risky, it could not end well, and we decided against it. My brother's barrel chested friend Scott, whose father owned one of the two gas stations in town, was our stock heavy. Scott was a varsity nose tackle several years older who got up at 5 AM to hunt deer in the woods outside of town before school. For reasons unclear to us, he agreed to participate in several of our shoots. One time we even got him to clench, between his teeth, the clay cherry of a smoke bomb, so that his character (inexplicably) belched billows of green smoke.

Aaron, at nine, was the cinematographer. When not hand held, the camera was atop a spindly tripod, the legs of which invariably sank to different heights in the boggy ground, canting shots and inadvertently introducing us to the somewhat noirish concept of the Dutch Angle. Firecrackers, which are legal down South, were wedged into crevices and poked into root tangles (a string of detonated Silver Salutes or Wolf Pack Crackers looks remarkably like exploding gunshots). Instead of a bullwhip, I carried an array of dressage and longe whips (used by my stepfather to train new colts), and occasionally a hunting crop. My weapon of choice, however, was a handful of throwing stars we'd bought at a martial arts expo held in a helicopter hangar at Fort Benning. The year before, my mother had taken my brother and I to Mexico, and the ceramic trinkets we'd bought at the Benito Juarez airport served us well, standing in for precious artifacts and archaeological macguffins, pressed into the soft mud of the swamp.

My brother, himself fired by the summer blockbuster, later majored in archeology at Auburn University and moved to South America (where the film's opening takes place). He once explained that Peru is to diggers what Hollywood is to filmmakers. I made a couple of films in my late twenties (most notably BARMAN, a feature inspired by my half decade as the weekend bartender for a central Jersey gutbucket called The Plum Street Pub), but nothing matched the exuberance of those early shoots. Aaron has since gone digital, upgrading to a silver JVC with an LCD monitor. Once a year he heads to New Orleans to shoot randy home videos of chesty college girls giddy with Bourbon Street exhibitionism, their necks thickly draped with Mardi Gras beads. And finally, Scott, perhaps predisposed by his recurring role as a gangster burping rags of green smoke, maintained a pack a day habit throughout his adolescence and ended up, I'm pretty sure, in jail.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


This is the first of several short and sweet posts concerning the eclectic items that decorate our shop. This framed daguerreotype is something I bought ten years ago at a Chelsea flea market. It's about three feet tall and the olive frame is made from plaster. I frequently tell people it's my grandfather, which, of course, it is not. My grandfather, whose parents were from Prussia, sort of looked like this guy, but his bristling mustache was more tube brush than crow wing. He wore a fur hat in the winter, though never, to my knowledge, a fur coat. His hat was an "ushanka" which literally translates to "ear flaps hat," but the hat in the picture appears to be flapless. He was an amateur filmmaker, a biker, and a carpenter for Dupont. I used to carry a tiny laminated photo of him on his Excelsior, a four cylinder motorcycle popular in the twenties. In the picture he wore massive boots that looked like they were made from truck tires and a flat top cap with a leather bill like the one Brando wore in The Wild One. He used to stamp all his tools with his initials, PK, and I have a silver swiss style hammerhead of his that I keep on a bookshelf at home. I miss him.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Deep-throated Bindlestiff, Keith Nelson, wolfs down a yard of neon.

The Raconteur Festival began with a bang, or rather with a piercing, pulsating screech: the sound of the church's fire alarms going off as smoke poured out of drummer Elf's over-sized floor tom during the crashing opening number of The Dan Whitley Band (front man Dan is the younger brother of the late blues legend Chris Whitley). It concluded with the alt country combo, The Roadside Graves, playing fiddles in the aisles as fans stomped their feet.

In between Keith Nelson of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus swallowed a three foot illuminated neon tube and rammed a screwdriver up his nose. Seville folk singer, Sandra Rubio, sang in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. Critical darling Charles Bock gave away rock posters inspired by his hit book Beautiful Children to audience members who correctly responded to a series of literary questions (I don't remember the questions but the answers were William Burroughs, Cold Mountain, and Flea). Then he threw guitar picks imprinted with the novel's logo out into the audience.

Samantha Hunt read from her acclaimed novel about Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else.Then, realizing she was mere miles from the home/lab of bitter Tesla rival Thomas Edison -- making the surrounding area a "Tesla blackout zone" -- proceeded to explain exactly who he was (he invented the AC motor, wireless communication, etc.). The Idiom, a local literary fanzine, provided strolling buskers and a 4' Science Fair volcano that hiccuped rags of smoke. Prodigiously talented singer/songwriter Jeremy Benson tried to mack Rac volunteer Marcy while Chaos Kitchen, a local punk rock cooking show, served World Fantasy Award Winner/Yale prof John Crowley some sort of meat.

Crowley eyes a paper plate of punk rock pork.

Participants were all given newly minted Raconteur book totes (Rac Sacks) with copies of The Raconteur Reader (the inaugural volume of our budding publishing house) tucked inside. Limited edition Motorcycle Club T-shirts (that's right, motorcycle club, click here for relevant post) were given to shop friend/frequent guest Paul Watkins, a two time Booker Prize finalist who apparently traded his previous Club tee to a keg-chested Viking biker he met on a recent trip to Norway, and Keith Nelson, whose wife Stephanie regularly rides a motorcycle on a tightrope. Charles Bock, who vowed to join our upcoming ride to the Robert Louis Stevenson cottage in Lake Saranac NY, was also given a shirt, which he put on immediately and wore throughout the day.

Lit bad boy Bock becomes honorary RMC member.

After the festival, which ran six hours, participants and staff mingled down at the shop, drinking Islay Malts and occasionally breaking things (ex: a framed and autographed Harvey Pekar comic cover). I spoke at length to team Bindlestiff about their now defunct traveling sideshow/bookstore, The Autonomadic Bookmobile.

The Edison U-Haul on Route 1 has revamped their fleet with brand new cargo vans and are, accordingly, selling off their old moving trucks. And while we've taken no pragmatic steps, I must say, the idea of a rolling Raconteur, a Rac rig, is very appealing.

John Crowley, who once wrote an entire novel from Lord Byron's perspective and was recently compared to Thomas Mann by The San Francisco Chronicle, met his intellectual match in the shop's resident braniac Larry Mintz, a painter and former academic who is, quite simply, the smartest person I know. Holed up in a balefully lit corner, they twittered about renaissance philosophers while The Roadside Graves hunkered around an oak table and compared arm ink while sucking down Sierra Nevadas. Store overheads are turned out for parties/events and the shop was moodily lit by red and blue clamp spots, a string of Christmas lights made from shot gun shells, and a handful of lamps (including a gold Orient Express repro and a little tassled number that once sat on a highboy in a 1940s brothel).

Crowley poses for pic in blood red light while Graves caper behind in frosty glow.

Crowley, who hails from Northampton, Mass, spent the night in Metuchen. Shop friends Beth and Will have a looming Victorian on Rector and frequently offer B&B services to our esteemed out-of-town guests. In the past, they'd hosted overseas author Jeremy Mercer, who wrote a heralded account of living and working in the famed Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Co., and former Sudanese lost boy Abraham Awolich, who made the shop a stop on his national tour earlier this year. Mr. Crowley (who, I'm told, has no association with the Ozzy Osbourne song of the same name) was leaving early the next morning, and because breakfast with our overnight guests, especially ones as charming as Crowley, is a treat Kristy and I look forward too, we were up at 6 AM the next day for scrambled eggs. Over piping hot cups of Café Bom Dia, we talked about Crowley's Aegypt quartet and Rosamond Purcell (whose picture of decaying books was on the cover of the recently published final installment). Purcell has made a career photographing putrefying artifacts at a shuttered antique warehouse called the Owl's Nest, and Crowley described her photograph of moldering dice so vividly that I immediately searched for it online later that morning.

Purcell's decomposing dice commissioned by sleight-of-hand performer/Mamet regular Ricky Jay.

We talked about our mutual friend Nebula award winner Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners), her publishing house, Small Beer Press, which released Crowley's last book, and Northampton, where they both live. "It would," Crowley suggested, "make an excellent destination for The Raconteur Motorcycle Club." Beth and Will, who are happy to board Raconteur guests provided we never saddle them with "twits or assholes," were enchanted by Crowley's company, as were we, and the meal was a delight.

So now the festival is over. But as agreeable replies dribble in from authors we'd contacted but who, for one reason or another, had originally failed to respond, like Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) and Jennifer Egan (The Keep); as effusive e-mails from impressed festival goers flood my inbox and post-show pics of sword swallowers pop up in local papers, festival co-coordinator Dan and I scheme and plan. "The next one," Dan says, fluttering his templed hands, "will be even better." And, indeed, it may well be.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


One thing I recently realized is that acclaim has nothing to do with wealth, or even stability. While we cease to simply be a village shop, drawing newfound clientele from as far away as Manhattan and Phillie, let alone New Brunswick and Princeton. While we continue to garner attention from internationally circulated periodicals (The Guardian, The New York Times), and host lauded guests such as punk diarist Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries) and 2008 Oscar winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), we can’t always well, just a small thing really, heh, heh, um…pay ourselves. Perhaps this dichotomy between fame and funds shouldn’t come as a surprise. Celebrated Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was often broke. Pubs frequently stood him drinks and at the height of his popularity he asked for a small loan from actor Richard Burton. Landmarks like The Lion’s Head are forced to close despite the vigilant campaigns of noted patrons (in this case, Norman Mailer and playwright Lanford Wilson). George Whitman’s famous Parisian bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., listed dangerously at the beginning of the decade (Whitman, frugal to the point of eccentricity, lived in the shop and used leftover pancake batter to paste down curling carpets), before righting itself (just barely) two years back. McSweeney’s, an ostensibly successful publishing house founded by superstar author Dave Eggers and known for printing work by contemporary lit’s brightest bulbs (Michael Chabon, Jim Shepard, Kelly Link), recently auctioned off original comic strip panels by Maakies creator Tony Millionaire to stave off bankruptcy. Don’t misunderstand, The Raconteur is successful compared to other used bookstores. Indeed, many such as we give up the ghost every year. Charing Cross, once known for antiquarian tomes, suffered the shuttering of four shops last year, and is now recognized for its excellent curry (it has six Indian restaurants). But compare our business to a shop selling, say, Moto cell phones and we’re the penniless poet bumming whiskey shooters. So…what to do?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Time Enough At Last: Hitting the Stacks by Dan McNulty

Hello again my fellow bibliophiliacs. Nice to see you back here on the world wide intra-web. I've dedicated this past month to attacking the switchbacked stacks of books that have been building since Christmas (when I received $100 in gift cards for a bookstore that shall remain nameless) and growing exponentially as Alex continues to amass an impressive selection down at the Raconteur. If you haven't been to the shop in a while, or ever, for that matter, I urge you to come check out some of the titles currently in stock. There are some great selections by choice writers like Jonathan Aimes, Paul Auster, John Fante, Chuck Palauhniuk, Charles Bukowski, Khaled Hosseini,Dave Eggers, the list goes on. And really, you'll be helping my wallet and my addiction by getting some of these books out of sight.

I’ve recently been chipping away at John Crowley’s Aegypt Sequence. I first became interested in Crowley after receiving a copy of Endless Things at a book expo last May.
The cover was quite attractive (pictured with old, crumbling, leather-bound volumes), and on the back was a quote by Michael Chabon:
"There are some people--and I am one of them--for whom life consists only in passing time between novels by John Crowley."

Needless-to-say, I was set to follow the rabbit down the hole. However, to my initial dismay, I found that Endless Things was the fourth, and final book in a series.

So instead, I opted for another title by Crowley, Little, Big before taking on the commitment of his Aegypt sequence. I needed to make sure he was really worth the effort. And so he was.

Little, Big is a fantastical novel like no other. There are worlds withing worlds ad infinitum and Crowley is able to conduct his alchemy without any of the outlandishness or ingenuousness typical of the genre. Perhaps this is because in his writing magic and Faeries are ever-present, but never quite in your face. Crowley has the tremendous ability to allow the reader to experience enchantment rather than telling them how they should feel. Little, Big is a multi-generational family epic as ambitious and richly layered as One Hundred Years of Solitude(to which it has justly been compared). And before I closed the final page on Little, Big I had purchased the entire Aegypt tetralogy (and two of Crowley's earlier novels as well).

I could write much on the first two books of Aegypt(I am now on the third): The Solitudes and Love and Sleep, but I will spare you, reader, since really you should be out there scouring for copies now. Also, the novels are just too complex for me to do them justice here. But briefly, the central theme (and there are many--all the great ones and more) is: Once, the world was not as it has since become. It had a different history and a different future, and even the laws that governed it were different from the ones we know. And in a book, within a book, and also another, a third book being written inside this book, Crowley shows us that perhaps this idea is not so crazy after all.

Another reason to investigate Crowley is that he has graciously agreed to participate in this year's Raconteur Festival on May 10th. Oh, and if you're still not convinced, Crowley has been called "American Lit's next Cormac McCarthy" by Spin Magazine.

Other books that I have been reading (a way to cleanse my literary pallet before the next bite of Aegypt) are Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World and The Collected Works of Amy Hempel by, you guessed it, Amy Hempel. my first foray into Murakami's widely acclaimed writing. It is a mix of Raymond Chandler and Kurt Vonnegut (Murakami cites both as influences) with a twist of William Gibson. On a whole I liked this book, one of his earliest, and look forward to reading more and seeing how he has evolved as a writer. There were some rather technical portions of the book that were downright confusing and unnecessarily complicated, as well as overly explicative. But where Murakami writes as a magical realist the book takes flight into the beautiful reaches of an unlimited and original imagination.

After meandering through her collected stories I have concluded that: Amy Hempel is amongst the finest short story writers that you will ever encounter. She is a minimalist along the lines of Raymond Carver, and in my opinion, a better one(or at least more entertaining). Her stories are funny, dark, and filled with knowing insight. And no, she does not write novels. Is not currently working on a novel. Will probably never write a novel. In fact, her stories are getting shorter, and that is just fine by this reader.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Time Enough At Last: Review of John Brandon's Arkansas by Dan McNulty

Your name is Frog.
You spend your days tucked inside a squalid pawnshop that is the front for a lucrative interstate drug racket.
You control a good share of the Southeastern narcotics trade.
You are a character in the debut novel Arkansas by John Brandon.

Brandon comes at the reader with a gritty tale of grifters in the Deep South. All of the elements for great storytelling are present: hard-boiled, dead-on language. Well drawn characters with authentic ticks that make this novel tock along. The narrative alternates between third and second person perspectives, a device which is scarcely used, and even rarer, used to good effect. But Brandon manages to pull it off with ease.

Set against the shady workings of an off-the-grid state park, the novel deals in disappointment and disillusion, love and family, boredom and the burdens of power. But not so much that any of these things are taken too seriously. Arkansas is lighter than your average crime drama and funnier too. It is a No Country for Young Men, a cross between Jim Thompson and Dave Eggers, and well worth picking up at your local bookstore or through following this link.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


I suppose the idea for The Raconteur Motorcycle Club rose out of the same macho-lit mud as The Santiago Armsport Tourney (a tournament inspired by Santiago, the arm-wrestling fisherman in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea), The Get Lit Pub Crawl (a literary tour of six NYC bars, which included the now-defunct Chumley's) and The UnShavian, a George Bernard Shaw beard growing contest (granted, Shaw's not particularly macho, but facial hair is). Truth be told, I'm not especially inclined towards literary pugnacity. Indeed, I prefer the somewhat rollicking erudition of Spanish author Perez-Reverte, or the Briton brattiness of Martin Amis to Hemingway, or Bukowski, or Mailer. But I think it's these sorts of events, that at first glance seem at odds with the dusty didaticism often associated with a used bookstore, that make The Raconteur unique. And certainly I have this urge, a compulsion really, to turn the basic idea of a bookstore on its ear.

I've been a rider for over twenty years. In college I had a small tear drop Nighthawk, then a Honda CB, a bull of a bike with a massive humped tank, and finally the low-slung Vulcan Classic I ride today. Plans for a club were hatched on a ride Kristy and I took to the Great Falls (the highest waterfall in the northeast after Niagra) in Paterson, NJ.

Paterson, of course, is where both William Carlos Williams, who famously wrote a five book epic poem about the city, and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, once lived. It was also the home of Hurricane Rubin, boxer, death row inmate, and the subject of favorite author (mine, not Hurricane's) Nelson Algren's last novel The Devil's Stocking. I know, Algren's pretty pugnacious, he did after all write about a pug, but he also had a love affair with Simone de Beauvoir. (I remember reading in college that Algren attended police line-ups so he could steal the tough cadences of cop/con conversations. Inspired by this tidbit and searching for my own rough rhythms, I took a series of colorful post-Rutgers jobs: bouncer, bartender, Central Park carriage hack). In any case, it proved harder than I thought to cull bibliophilic bikers from the flinty packs of firemen, war vets, police officers, and hog owners that typically compose clubs and weekend rides. My first e-mail, advertising a ride to the James Fenimore Cooper House (The Deerslayer) in Burlington City, was sent to over five hundred recipients. It provoked many enthusiastic replies and a slew of commitments. But it seemed most hadn't bothered to consider the fact that, well, just a small detail, really, THEY DIDN'T OWN OR RIDE BIKES.

The second ride, to Pearl Buck's house (The Good Earth) in Pekarsie, Pennsylvania, attracted what would become the club's core constituency. Five riders on everything from Dale's gargantuan Goldwing, which had AC and a luggage bin the size of a car trunk, to Mike's little ferrety Harley, which skittered effortlessly on the gravelly forest roads like a dirt bike (me and Dale struggled to keep our heavy bikes upright on what was essentially a trail in the woods). Dale and Mike featured respectively in the following pics.

For the third ride, we widened the club net to include "cagers" (people in cars) and, accordingly, had four bikes (Dale was unavailable, away on a ride of his own along the Eastern seaboard that would last several days) and four automobiles. This was our Halloween ride and as we had also relaxed the literary imperative, allowing the prospective destinations to include film locations, we'd picked Blairstown, a small, bucolic town West of Newton, where Friday the 13th was shot. It was one of those cidery fall days that make you want to buy a really red apple at a roadside stand (which we did, along with a half-dozen, still-warm donuts) and the ride was cooler than anticipated. It took about an hour and a half to get to the Blairstown Diner, a long, narrow restaurant that resembles a chrome plated train car, where camp owner Steve Christy whiled away a stormy evening while his counselors got slaughtered out at Crystal Lake.

After lunch Steve C. (club member/Harley owner, not film character/camp owner; see pic) split from the pack, heading back home to rake leaves. The rest of us left our bikes/cars in the diner lot and wandered about the quiet town. You could immediately understand how it would be appealing as a film location. Main Street was dead (so one could imagine it being easily shut down for shooting) and the offbeat quarry-fed architecture on either side seemed to have risen up randomly, like rock formations in a cave, rather than by plan or design. (I vaguely remember Milan Kundera describing New York City buildings as an absurd collection of stalactites and stalagmites -- as if formed by the arbitrary dripping of mineral-rich water). There was also an old theater, painted a ridiculous shade of blue, which had apparently screened the popular slasher film this past July (on Fri. 13, natch) to an audience of over five hundred.

Back on our bikes and in our cars, we hit a Harvest/Halloween Festival we remembered passing on the way to the diner. Hundreds of people wandered about a sprawling baled field, drinking hot cider, eating corn dogs, riding in farm trucks with straw strewn beds and high slatted sides, chasing each other into the dry, crackling mazes, and firing melon-sized pumpkins from a giant slingshot made of fence posts and tire rubber at a target a hundred yards away. Randy made several "corny" Halloween jokes about being a "stalker" in the "maize" maze, before sticking his head through a hole in a piece of plywood that was painted to look like a ghost. Scary, right? On the way home we nipped into to a peculiar pub in the middle of a cornfield, it's smoking chimney barely glimpsed from the road, that had a fireplace (thus, the chimney), a bunch of mounted game heads (moose, deer, and I think, gazelle), and cheap beer (Stroh's on tap).

Over pints we planned our spring ride, an overnighter to The Robert Louis Stevenson Cottage in Saranac Lake, NY. We also discussed how to attract more participants. Cager Colin (soon to be bike owner -- a BMW K 1200 GT -- unless, of course, his wife wins that argument) suggested that bike-less book buffs might, in fact, be put off by the very concept of a "motorcycle" club, even though the notices now allowed for them to tag along with supplies. Indeed, they might actually be intimidated. He had a point, even Johnny Rotten was scared of the leather jacketed Ramones when he thought they were a biker gang (making their manager promise he wouldn't get punched if he attended a concert). We considered changing the name to the more inclusive Raconteur Motor Club, but no firm decision was made.

The Raconteur Motorcycle Club meets at the shop and proceeds en masse to a destination of literary or cinematic significance. The Club was profiled in The New York Times and will be featured in a travel book called Novel Destinations, published by National Geographic and due out early 2008. To purchase Club T-shirts (black crew neck with red caps reading The Raconteur Motorcycle Club; under which follows Metuchen, NJ in red script; a blazing skull replaces the "O" in "RACONTEUR" and flames flank the words "Metuchen, NJ") visit our store site,

Friday, January 18, 2008


Two recent occurrences led to this present post. One, friend/shop volunteer Dan M. recommended that I read George Orwell's essay "Bookstore Memories," which he'd recently discovered himself on a nightly podcast called "Miette's Bedtime Story," where a young woman with a lilting British accent reads "bedtime stories" by canonized writers. Apparently, Orwell toiled a short time in a London bookshop and he points out that, "In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money."

Two, my coming across the website for Vesuvio's, a North Beach bar adjacent to City Lights, made famous by the number of Beats who drank there. I'd visited Vesuvio's many times in the mid-nineties (along with every other young would-be writer, no doubt) while living just a trolley ride away in San Francisco's Tenderloin (the working class neighborhood where The Maltese Falcon was based). On the Vesuvio site (which is surprisingly dull), they state that "Vesuvio attracts a diverse clientele: artists, chess players, cab drivers, seamen, European visitors, off-duty exotic dancers and bon vivants from all walks of life."

At any rate, the above Orwell passage and this line of Vesuvio PR made me consider The Raconteur's own unusual constituency.

For good or bad, working the counter at The Raconteur is not unlike my five years pouring poison at a New Brunswick gutbucket called the Plum Street Pub. True enough, there've been no shootouts (the Pub's walls were pocked with bullet holes -- seriously), and certainly I've never had to relieve somebody of a knuckle knife or a spring-assisted stiletto or one of those small flat clubs we used to call a slapjack, before allowing them to enter the store. At the Pub, it was moments like these that invariably ended with the rear tire of my Vulcan Classic being slashed (knives, and slappers for that matter, were returned to their various owners upon departure). But as I stand behind the long, very bar-like, belly-high counter (Belly up, boys!) in the center of the shop, I am struck by occasional similarities in our clientele.

Granted, I promote and encourage this confluence of saloon and bookshop. A bartender for almost ten years, I prided myself on remembering a Regular's drink. Indeed, knowing somebody wants a bottle of High Life, or a triple B with two bricks, or a T-N-T in a frosted beer mug, the moment they walk in, is very much like recommending the right sort of book based on what a customer has read or bought in the past. And, of course, we do serve wine at our weekly events (and occasionally liquor e.g. grappa at our Evening with Eco, which featured readings from and a discussion of Italian semiotic Umberto Eco, or home-brewed stout——shop volunteer Leon makes his own and provided an oatey batch for our Paddy's Day premiere of "If I Should Fall From Grace," a documentary about Shane MacGowan and The Pogues). All dispensed from the L-shaped pinewood cashier-counter by yours truly (we even have an upended topper for tips).

We also have a Happy Hour (two for one books, 4 - 6 PM, Mon - Fri), a house band (The Roadside Graves) and an old pub piano, complete with drink rings and cigarette burns. And then, of course, there's the double-entendre of our slogan: Get lit!

In any case, the interesting characters, the regulars, are the ones who don't spend any money, or very little, but, even still, come in several times a week (or God forbid, a day). They can be infuriating, but also endearing, and they nicely compliment the nondescript patrons who are noticed only because they buy books. Certainly we must make money, but how wan the workday if I dealt solely with high schoolers blankly handing me a summer reading list, or college kids looking for cheap copies of Mother Night and Dharma Bums, or hipsters hunting out-of-print McSweeney publications that come with small black combs and unfold intricately like chinese boxes.

How unremarkable would the morning be if our patronage consisted only of that exclusively female cult: oprah dei (do they wear a cilice? I wonder), or homemakers looking to buy rows of "old" books with "pretty" spines and gilded edges to class up their husband's den "as a surprise for his birthday," or grey flannel business men looking for pocket sized paperbacks for the plane, train, beach, bed. How ordinary the afternoon if I but served academics, cognoscents, and literateurs.

Indeed, I often wonder what sort of job it would be without routine visits from a squat, mellifluous steel worker ("Wild Rover," anyone?), a former bare-knuckle boxer built like a payroll safe whose arms are as thick as his legs (and whose brogue is as thick as his arms). Or the heavily perfumed, heave chested Hungarian, whose long eyelashes and red splay lips, seem oddly incongruous atop her muscular stag neck rising, as it does, from the boulder shoulders of a rugby forward. Or the poker-faced brute we all call Full Metal Jacket, who rarely says a word, just stares with the dead gaze of a shark or, maybe, a giant doll with two black coat buttons for eyes. There's the Famous Local Author and the Famous Local Cartoonist. There's the Oscar Nominated Screenwriter and the Former State Governor. There's the reformed gangster who now sells cars wholesale and has a tiny gold Cadillac hanging from a chain around his neck, who comes into watch Paul Muni movies (we rent DVDs and are prone to playing forties film noir on the shop TV). There's the twee, bespectacled women in floral housecoats, who come in for books on Wicca and candle magic and something called "the shadow people." There's the two lesbians who buy everything on Hitler and the fifty-something Pole who asks for price checks on leather-bound bibles that he never buys and who, in the warmer months, wears red tank-tops tucked tightly into matching Ronstadt running shorts (I'm thinking of her Living in the USA album) and yanked-up tube socks with red calf stripes.

"When I worked in a second-hand bookshop – so easily pictured, if you don’t work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios..." That's the first line to Orwell's aforementioned essay. Indeed, nothing could be farther from the truth. But, you know what? I wouldn't have it any other way.