Bookstores have changed a lot since I was a kid, and used bookstores even more so. Today they are cleaner, nicer, much more expensive and, all too often, duller. That’s not to say there aren’t some great used bookstores. But the mood of the ‘new’ stores is….just not the same. The only bookstore I currently know of that has the tang of the bookstores of my youth is Acres of Books in Long Beach, Ca., especially that wonderfully dusty back room where the towering, sagging shelves are illuminated only by the feeble glow from the skylight. On a cloudy day, you needed a flashlight if you wanted to browse there. I haven’t even been there in ten years, so it may have closed up or moved, but it had that sense of MYSTERY that I associate with old volumes, whatever the subject may be. You never knew what odd treasure you might find on those shelves.
When I was growing up in Oklahoma City, back in the mid-to-late sixties, my friends and I would take the bus on Saturday down to Reno Street, which marked the southern edge of skid row; there were occasionally winos laying on the sidewalk, their favored drink, we were told, was called a Green Lizard, a mixture of hair tonic and alcohol. We roamed past the deserted Huckins Hotel, its facade crumbling like coarse bread, the planks over the windows weathered and rotting. Across the street was a decaying corner grocery store whose owner would never let us past the dark doorway unless we told him how much we were going to spend. Since we didn’t know what he had for sale , we never went in. But despite all this, we never felt we were in any danger. It was a sunnier time. But even if there had been some sense of foreboding (assuming a twelve year old could feel such a subtle emotion) I think we all would have still made our weekly trek, because skid row was where the bookstores were.
Our first stop was always Carters Bookstore. Despite two large plate glass windows facing the street, the light only penetrated a few feet into the room before the gloom fought it to a standstill. Old paper settling into dust filled the air, fell on the bins, marked your footprints on the floor – it is still one of my favorite smells in the world. Now Miz Carter was a formidable character, a chain smoker with a rasping accent I have never heard anywhere else to this day. She was a small woman, a bleached blond, friendly but leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that she could kick our collective asses without shaking the ash from her cigarette. From this distance I can’t tell for sure whether she was actually homely or just weathered with age, but she always dressed to the nines: dress, loads of cheap jewelry and that overdone style of makeup that is still pretty common here in Oklahoma. I saw my first Big Little Book at Carter’s, and my first pulp magazine when she bought a box of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures.
Next door was Hannah’s Used Books. It was a narrow wooden store front, painted yellow before I was born, about fifteen feet wide. Inside, the store went back maybe 30 feet, at which point a ragged curtain was drawn across the shop, about ten feet from the back wall. That was where Mr. Hannah lived. Bins ran along the outer walls, and a narrow table ran down the middle of the store beneath a single bare bulb.. When I reference cat pee, mold, other things in LIM, it’s Hannah’s store I’m recalling. He was a small, wiry man, favored short sleeve shirts that all seemed to be gray, and truly a cock-eyed optimist, friendly, but not in a creepy way. I can’t even speculate on why he was living like he did, but he never moped about it, even as he heated his can of Spaghettio’s on his hot plate.
And then there was Crazy Bill’s. His store was actually further up town, but there’s a kind of link with Hannah’s in my mind, only Bill ate his Spaghettio’s cold, right out of the can. I’m not sure he even bothered to sort the books on the shelves, and I know he didn’t sort the magazines because most of them were on the floor, stacks spilling into stacks so that you couldn’t move from shelf to shelf without stepping on them. He didn’t mind. He would be at his desk in the center of the store, red sauce dribbling down his chin, going on about whatever random topic had attracted his attention that day. In the event you don’t believe me, check out this article on “The World’s Most Dangerous Bookstore.” That’s Crazy Bill.
Back downtown, in an alley behind another hotel, was A Points North, Mr. North was fussy and prim, Edward Everett Horton with an attitude. He had a curious limp that caused one foot to slap the floor when he walked and the rumor was that it was caused by syphilis. Once, when I asked him if he had any comic books, he told me in no uncertain terms, “Γ don’t deal in trash” .(This was the mid-sixties, when comic fandom was just starting to break out.)
All those stores are gone now, the buildings torn down for urban renewal; the store owners are gone to their reward as well. I have to say I miss them. They were all eccentrics, and maybe that is what I find so disagreeable in the local Book Rack or Paperback Shack, usually located in malls, manned by well-meaning but featureless men and women, the air scented with Glade, or worse, incense. I guess I miss the cat pee and the mold.
And the Mystery.