Tuesday, December 13, 2016
the eccentricities of great booksellers
The other day, The New York Times reported that bookseller, Robert A. Wilson, owner of the Village-based poetry store, the Phoenix Book Shop, died in Baltimore at the age of 94.
The bookstore was popular with numerous New York poets and writers, including Diane di Prima, Denise Levertov, Gregory Corso, Edward Albee and William S. Burroughs. Patti Smith, as she grew interested in the Beat authors, visited often.
I too visited the store several times over the years, purchasing a great many poetry books, many of them signed by the authors themselves (like the Ted Berrigan poems I purchased there), sold back to the store by unappreciative (or possibly simply impoverished) recipients. It always seemed slightly embarrassing to me to read the names of poet friends to whom Berrigan and others had written personal dedications, but those names also made the books more interesting to me.
Wilson, who purchased the bookstore far before my New York visits, in 1959, went on the acquire W. H. Auden’s library, when the British poet left New York, and over the years had acquired a wide range of important archival literary books and manuscripts, all of which delighted me on my visits there.
But it is my very first visit to Phoenix that I remember most. Although clearly something is missing from my memory, as I recall it, I had been simply purveying the book stacks when the somewhat imperious Wilson (and yes, he was somewhat imperious and eccentric) called out, “Hey you, your Djuna Barnes bibliography ought to have provided for numbers that would have allowed new discoveries to be entered into the system; you did it all wrong!” I was stunned: first, how could have he known who I was, and second, whatever did he mean? “I stuttered back, “that was the way my professor told me to do it. But perhaps you are right, there should have been a different numbering system to allow for additions, but I still don’t know how I might have properly allowed for that.”
Of course, it’s very doubtful that the all-knowing Wilson had immediately recognized me. When I told this story recently to my friend Thérèse Bachand, she replied “I think you’re describing one of your nightmares.”
No, I thought to myself, it was not truly a nightmare. I was rather amazed and impressed that he suddenly knew who I was. And perhaps he was right. But then, as I had to admit, it is most unlikely that the event I remember truly happened in that way. I must have proffered him my credit card for my book purchases, or maybe even mentioned my name. But I truly do not remember it that way. In my memory I simply recall him just calling out to me with a kind of surreal recognition of my being and failures. But memories are often like that; we forget what we desire to.
And despite that initial meeting, we got on quite nicely in several later meetings, Wilson often pointing out to me, on later visits, new finds and intimating new manuscripts he had just acquired. After that original visit, I returned to The Phoenix almost every time I visited New York, along with the famous used book store The Strand and the wonderful, if even more argumentative-plagued Gotham Book Mart. Phoenix and Gotham are now long gone, while The Strand continues to offer up piles of literary texts each year.
In The Strand, where I purchased dozens of books over the years, I never encountered anyone who might have even seemed slightly negative, but in the other two stores, you had to endure the “eccentricities of the nightingale” personalities of both owners and staff. That is what made The Phoenix and Gotham Book Mart so absolutely remarkable. These people absolutely cared about the titles they sold!
I still have dreams of being lured into the basement of the Gotham Book Mart, where the owner, Andreas Brown would show me treasures not yet available to other customers. Yes, perhaps I did dream my first encounter with Robert A. Wilson. But I still cannot imagine that I truly perceive it as a terrible denunciation of my hard work. I truly enjoyed it, and never thought about it as anything but a gentle scolding by a great bibliophile.
Los Angeles, December 12, 2016