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, www.raconteurbooks.com.