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.


Duckfan said...

All this talk of San Francisco and visitors to The Raconteur brings to mind Stephen Geoffreys, who currenly lives in Frisco but was willing to journey across the miles (by wagon train if necessary) last fall to introduce a pre-Halloween Raconteur special screening of Stephen's most famous movie credit, FRIGHT NIGHT.
It was a night to remember (as folks on the Titanic used to say), watching one of the most entertaining horror films of its time with one of its stars, who was friendly, gracious and a delight to spend time with. Kudos to Alex for making this happen and to whomever was kind enough to put Stephen up in their home for the weekend - I bet they're downright peachy guys...

Anonymous said...

How you have managed to knit together this ramshackle handmade thing in the middle of the hollow stuff of ur-suburban New Jersey is a miracle. It is a real place. That is a precious rarity.