The Strand Test

 Interior Strand Bookstore, New York City

Interior Strand Bookstore, New York City

 
 

…and finally, my Being standing and in a vest.

 Cesar Vallejo

 

For Fred Bass (1928-2018)

1. 1979

On my first assignment in the winter of 1979 I went as a driver in a small truck to the apartment of a recently dead person whose family had sold the book collection they had inherited. It was something I would do about once a month with the book buyer from the Strand on 12th and Broadway - a place that even then was already a legendary New York City bookstore. The dead were always men and their apartments always smelled of stale bread, cat piss and old magazines. There were books crammed into every available space including the bathroom and closet and sometimes along the ceiling on shelving impossible to reach – books untouched for years - an organism that had taken over the habitat. The book buyer was a man in his early forties but seemed much older to me then - I was just 27. As well as having a teenage son he was hard nosed and didn't care for anecdotal stories or sarcastic humor - trademark qualities of most Strand employees then. Despite our mutual indifference I learned a lot from him as he liked to talk books - their origins and their effects on later writers - I just listened. 

I lived then on Delancey Street just off the Williamsburg Bridge. My apartment was on the second floor but from my window cars looked like they were on ground level because they were just coming off the bridge. The sound of tires on perforated metal was constant but I thought the place was great, as it was close to the East Village, and a short subway ride on the F train to Union Square - then a short walk to the Strand. I also had a darkroom studio then on 14th St. and 5th Avenue that I shared with many people above a place that sold men's and women's underwear at bulk prices. In that studio I also tried my hand at making paintings and collages from photographs - my own as well as others. All of that work, thankfully, ended up in the trash, but I learned some things. To make ends meet I had roommates and worked as a typist - a job that saved me more than once from the street.

2. The Strand Test

To get a job at the Strand you had to pass a test where they lined up twelve titles of books on the left and twelve authors on the right. There was a trick question of course and you had to find it - and more importantly you had to talk about it. There was one author without a title and one title without an author. If you simply left these blank you failed - you had to say something about it, insuring that you were not inordinately shy - a common pathology amongst literati. Since the job at the Strand would later go on to play a part in helping me to get a job that saved my life (Acquisitions Librarian for the Art Center College in California) the fact that I said something proved momentous, although I hardly realized it at the time. Quite the contrary, on another day I might have just said nothing as that was more my "set to default" style. But for some reason I mentioned it, saying, somewhat pretentiously: "You seem to have one author here that is book-less and one book that is author-less! - strange!" I was in.

If you could lift fifty pounds over your head without wobbling or complaining you were put in the basement unloading heavy boxes. Unlike most jobs there were no annoying questions about your previous job experience or where you had gone to school, or - the most dreaded of all - what your plans and ambitions were for the "future." They didn’t care. That was only one of the reasons we all wanted to work there. The seemingly total indifference of management with regard to our past - and our future - was seen by us as a welcome sense of reality from most jobs that expect several layers of "identity-veneer" as we called it - where one had to play many parts depending on the situation. At the Strand there was no acting required. Everyone was exactly as they were at home or anywhere else - in dress and in behavior - and that’s how we liked it. As much as we loved books we hated pretensions of any kind and were merciless when spotting even a trace. We showed up for work at 8 in the morning five days a week and got paid cash in small brown envelopes with little holes so you could see that there was something inside. Small change gave the bag some weight as they counted every penny and the amount was always perfect. After one year - if you survived - you joined a union and received benefits, including a traditional check with deductions - and even a pension. Many did not survive that year.

3. The Basement

Those of us that worked the basement – or did the grunt work - had a certain silent contempt for the management mixed with admiration and fear. The bosses never deigned to speak to us except to make some comment directed to no one in particular – there was rarely eye contact and when there was it was always awkward. In case communication was absolutely necessary there were the 'floor-managers' who were the intermediaries between "us" and "them." Fred Bass, the owner of the store, was always there behind the large wood counter in the middle of the store taking his glasses on or off very quickly, and poring over new material hunched over the old wood desk. This enormous piece of dark wood, slightly lower than the normal desk, reminded me a bit of my grandfather's large workspace at the back of his tailor shop in downtown Lima where I would sometimes pay visits as a child and play with the white chalks. The only time Mr. Bass spoke to us is when we would buy books ourselves and get a nice 50% discount - he would look over the material we were buying and seemed to be assessing it but without ever making a comment, just shaking his head slightly in acknowledgement, and occasionally peering at us over his glasses.

The dearth of communication on a daily basis, and the pressure of that one year trial period made the job incredibly stressful - something most people never consider when contemplating a job in a bookstore. The Strand was magic for me - until I started to work there – then I saw the other side of it. I would always arrive at 7:30 with three other guys who worked the basement – along with a checker the lowest rung in the Strand hierarchy - and we would get greasy coffee from the cafeteria across the street on Broadway. The pay was minimum wage $3.65 an hour.  Nobody had anything to say to anybody we were just there staring numb and dumb drinking coffee – all of us reading one copy of the New York Times which we passed around. Occasionally someone would cough and we would look up - not to the person coughing but out the window to people rushing to work in real jobs.  

There was a rule about not reading in the store and I broke it. They caught me reading Josef Svoreckly's The Bass Saxophone which had just come out then. One more time and I would be fired. Most of the men that worked there were anti social misfits with literature degrees.  Grant was a tall lanky African-American with a PhD who was saving up money to visit his favorite writer, Alberto Moravia, in Rome. He was a bicycling fanatic who always wore bicycling gear at all times before it was a common fashion statement. He also wore a thick protective layer of irony that no one seemed able to penetrate. While studying with Joseph Heller in Brooklyn College, Grant had “got the bug” and was probably the most knowledgeable one in our group. There was Martin, – Jewish Italian from Brooklyn - who supported a family on what I could barely live on. There was Douglas, a silent gunslinger in black Levis who hardly ever spoke, except to deliver breathtakingly acidic and sarcastic remarks - and then return to his deep silence. The humor was dark and between long silences there were bitter arguments over the hierarchy of great books and great authors that were intense and serious to the point of just being shy of physical violence – as arguments between men usually go when there are no women present.  Everyone knew the history of literature and we used it to bend the arguments to our advantage. When a stranger entered our small group in the midst of an argument we immediately reverted to a frozen silence. 

- Barbusse's Hell is the best novel of the 19th century - not this Flaubert shit!

- No - it's J.K. Huysmans Parisian Sketches.

- That's not even a novel!

-Because there's no bullshit in it?

-Notes From Underground!

-That's not a novel either!

4. Susan Sontag and Joseph Heller

There were famous people who sometimes came to the Strand but the only celebrities that were of interest to us were writers. When Harvey Keitel or Lauren Hutton came in to the store no one in our group deigned to even go upstairs to the main floor to see the commotion - why bother? Susan Sontag was another matter. We were all fans and were surprised when she turned out to be nice to us. This was something we regarded as a strange but pleasant anomaly. Current women writers presented a formidable group that we loved: Kathy Acker, Anne Beattie and Renata Alder were welcome and we took turns helping them find things – something that to us was very easy – like finding the plates and glasses in your own kitchen - but most people regarded the organizational system of the Strand as a secret coded language – something we obviously enjoyed.

We treated male writers either with mild annoyance or with pure contempt depending on their standing in our hierarchy. I had affection for Gore Vidal’s work, particularly Burr that I thought a masterpiece and for Milan Kundera, that everyone agreed was an exception to all of our rules – you couldn’t touch Kundera! I also loved Norman Mailer’s work, and had the extraordinary pleasure of reading Executioner’s Song and Ancient Evenings during lunch breaks. The writer whose work I most admired, Joan Didion, never came in while I worked there but I did meet her in the early seventies, for a few seconds, when, in the Westwood Bookstore in Los Angeles, I asked her to autograph a copy of The White Album. She was very small and very frail in appearance, seemingly ditzy and funny and at the same time very proper and formal – a total and delightful surprise. The only time I ever saw Grant excited, without a trace of irony, was when Joseph Heller came in to the Strand. It was sometime in February and he had a deep tan that glowed, an immense head of beautiful healthy white hair, and an incredible light grey suit that no one wore in real life – only in Cary Grant films during his Hitchcock period. He looked like the healthiest and happiest human being I had ever seen. We were all at the top of the stairs looking at him casually looking at the books on the tables without saying a word – just mesmerized.  We kept pushing Grant to go up and say hello – a kind of emissary from our group in the basement who had actually studied with Heller - but he never did.

5. Bradley

For a few months there was a short skinny pale young genius named with us named Bradley who couldn't lift fifty pounds at all much less over his head. He could read French beautifully as well as any of the Russians in the original. He told us about Robert Walser and Arno Shmidt – writers we had never heard of. What was such person doing wasting his time at the Strand? Bradley read voraciously while on the job but was not fired. He even curled up like a cat between piles of books and took naps. Most of the other guys considered this person a freak and shunned him. This surprised me because he appeared at first glance to be a good candidate for our group. He never seemed to be in the present tense. Most of the time he had a look on his face as if he had been just delighted by something but was shy to explain exactly what. Once he asked if I wanted to go to a Seder with his family, who lived on the Upper East Side, and I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained Passover to me.

Strangely he didn't know anything about films and considered them a childish art form - similar to how I saw comic books. We taught each other those things we were strong on and I probably learned more about literature from him than anyone at that impressionable age where you soak things up through your skin and your consciousness in a way that happens only rarely as you get older. 

Bradley was polite to the point of being out of control: A defense mechanism that had taken over the organism it was meant to protect. When a pretty girl walked by, or even looked like she might ask him something, he would become incredibly nervous and seemed to be visibly suffering. If such a being from another world actually asked a question he would answer just to one side as if there were someone standing next to her. The only time his mind and his body seemed to be synchronized was when he was talking about philosophy. I told him that the only philosopher I liked was Diogenes because he had hated philosophy and people referred to him as a "dog" because he lived on the street.  

-Oh no!  There were many philosophers and writers who despised philosophy - or were critical in often very sarcastic ways that got to the heart of the problem. 

Bradley gave me a short history of them - from Epicurus and Aeschylus to Nietzsche and Camus. We were both fanatical about The Twilight Zone and would recite dialog from various episodes that seemed pertinent:  

- "This is a push business Williams!  Push and shove - push and shove!  All the way down the line boy!  Push and shove!  Allllll the way!”  

-”It's a cook-book!”  

Bradley’s parents were very wealthy and they indulged his desire to live a “normal” life by getting him these "dream" jobs. He explained that the Strand had been an ideal to him - a place where witty guys would help beautiful women find obscure books about which they would know everything. The beautiful girl would fall in love with this young genius. She would invite him to her small but well kept apartment in the Village where she was doing some research on the life of Kafka. There was a picture of him above the old fashioned mantel - the famous one where he is wearing a bowler hat. Then she would show him that other side to life that books can only do with words.  

-They would be inseparable but they would not kiss in public.  

-Why not?  

-Because it's disgusting.  Any public display of something so personal and emotionally important is vulgar!   

-Bradley how often do I have to explain to you that we can't get beautiful girls because we don't have normal jobs - we're doomed to wander bookstore to bookstore. Alone!  Alienated! In despair! Underground Men! Dogs! Minimum wage into old age!  

-May I help you madam?  

-Whitman? Woolf? Leopardi?

-Ahh Camus!  

-What do you mean by "art"?  

-Now you're teasing me!  

-Tease? Madam I do not "tease". Did Soren Kierkegaard "tease?"  

-The man was deluded! - a masochist who over-educated himself into becoming the proverbial "top-heavy" looser with women.  

-No!  

-Yes!  If I could discuss with cats, if chickens would only listen to me!

- Are you guys working?  

-Yes sir!

-Mein Fuhrer!  

-Heil! We follow ze orders!

6. Afterword

When I was in my early forties I had already been working as the acquisitions librarian at the Art Center College in Los Angeles for several years - and of course I took pleasure in regularly buying books from the Strand as the buyer for the College library - it was a long term professional relationship that lasted far longer than my brief tenure in their basement. I had avoided the store for years as I don't like to revisit places from the past as I get affected by it - but of course sooner or later I always do. On one of my visits to the city, without much planning, I went back to 12th and Broadway. I was curious to see how the radical changes in Manhattan - becoming a vast outdoor mall that was a shell, literally and figuratively, of its former self - had affected the store. The Strand looked the same from the outside but inside they had vastly improved the lighting and everything looked tidier and more modern.; more importantly there was a booming business being made with bags and mugs – the Strand had become iconic. Instead of one cashier who spent most of her time reading (the one place it was allowed) there were two busy cashiers working non-stop. The store had adapted to the new New York City that no longer had a place for the old Times Square that fascinated me; or the downtown movie theaters like The Bleeker St. Cinema, or the Theater 80 in St. Mark's Place that showed classic Hollywood films, beautifully introduced by the owners in an anecdotal manner that was historical but without being academic. Both had been my second home and where I got an education that was invaluable to me later; and the great small theaters that sprung up everywhere on the Lower East Side, sometimes in lofts, mimicking the jazz loft parties of the same period. That is where I had finally seen plays by Brecht (a favorite of the moment), Ibsen, Chekov and occasionally modern dress versions of Shakespeare; there were also small pop-up venues from Soho to Tompkins Square Park, usually with metal folding chairs, that showed films by Amos Poe, Scott and Beth B, or classics by Warhol, Anger or Mekas; J&R Music; Venus Records; The Red Bar - en education onto itself; The St. Mark's Bookstore. All gone.

Of course everyone regrets the loss of "their" city - whatever that was when one was young. Many in my generation, that got to New York in the 70's regretted that we were there too late for the sixties, although I never shared that longing, for as much as I loved The Velvet Underground and Warhol's Screen Tests, I never cared for the scene that circulated around him - their strangely inhuman aristocracy that in the late seventies still reigned in a self-consciously druggy haze. At the studio on 14th Street near 5th Avenue that I rented, along with about a dozen other people, the owner - Harry Schulberg - was a grizzled veteran of the depression. The Museum of Modern Art had put him in a group show of "contemporary realist painting" back in the early 40's just before Abstract Expressionism exploded and changed everything. He did oil paintings of the docks around New York, where he had grown up, emphasizing the watery element of the surface and the content, all swimming together. In 1979 when I met him he longed for the New York of the 1930's when people shared things, ideas, food and clothing - there were always block parties where you talked to your neighbors and everyone brought whatever little food or drink that they had and made something - everyone told their stories. People realized the situation was serious with the depression and the threat of war but there was also a lot of laughter and camaraderie that you don't see anymore. In the summer evenings somebody would bring out a record player and people danced for hours - there was a craze for it - that was what he remembered most, the dancing. That was when New York City was the place to be - according Harry - and I believe he may have been right.

Everyone I knew from my days at the Strand was also gone - or so changed that I did not recognize them - except for Mr. Bass who looked the same except that he had slowed down, and one man whose name I could not remember. He had been a floor manager and I had not had many dealings with him in the basement. He had white hair now but otherwise looked the same. I decided to ask him a simple question to see if he remembered me. He was putting away paperback books on a table, stacking them as if they were cans in a supermarket. I faced him directly and asked him where the art books were - all he had to say was "the second floor." Just glancing at me with an annoyed vacant stare, he pointed to the information desk and said, as if for the ten thousandth time: “Information desk.” I said thank you bought a Strand bag and left - I had enough books to last me a lifetime. 

©Porcari

 Exterior Strand Bookstore, New York City

Exterior Strand Bookstore, New York City