All things move in cycles they say and our cycle, the bookseller’s cycle, is coming to an end.
There was a day when bookshops ruled the roost and had respect.
Thirty miles of book shelving in Foyles. The smell of leather and print in Livraria Bertrand. Brendan Behan throwing a cooked chicken at Patrick Kavanagh as he attempted to recite the stony grey soil of Monaghan in Parsons.
Joyce and Hemingway sitting under the unused mantelpiece at 12 rue de l'Odeon in Paris. Enza Pound preaching. Sylvia Beach, sweet Sylvia, running around after Joyce, making sure he had enough money to eat, stopping him from getting drunk and hitting Pound. Adopting boyish Hemingway and worrying after him like a doting mother, the great wild hunter of modernity, masculinity embodied but still pampered by Sylvia.
Henry Miller chasing skirt. Anais Nin, like a marble doll, filled with sexual adventure, writing dirty stories for a dollar a page.
Fitzgerald and Stein and Antheil. Buying banned books from pristinely polished shelves. Stratford-on-Odeon.
Brave Sylvia. Protected her Jewish employee after the Nazi occupation. Refused to accept the new order. And then that SS officer searching for culture. Wanting to buy the 1st edition Finnegans Wake from her window. Joyce’s book. Her Joyce.
He said he’d come back. Shut her down. Arrest her. So they dismantled the shop in a few hours. The end of Shakespeare and Company.
But these things come in cycles. George Whitman, a pure mad veteran. Living in a book crammed flat in post war Paris, swapping his GI food stamps for books. The genesis of an idea became Shakespeare and Company part two.
More anarchy. Books, readers, writers, madness, oration of ideas. The way it should be.
Ginsberg and Corso reading poetry to a small crowd, naked and high. Scrawny and brilliantly illuminated. Burroughs searching for Lovecraft. James Baldwin getting hit on by Anais Nin, Henry Miller half tempered and half aroused.
“A wonderland of books,” he said, sipping whiskey from a hip flask and rubbing his groin against one of the young tumbleweeds, blowing through the store.
Whitman telling unsuspecting tourists that Walt was his grandad. Barking orders at drowsy writers-in-residence. “Sweep the vomit off the floor.” Making potato soup.
Ferlinghetti strolling down Columbus Avenue, walking under a ladder. Peter D Martin above him hanging a sign for Americas first Pocket Book Shop. He had been trying to compose a poem and now instantly saw a new vision – a bookstore as form. A living poem.
Another poem would get him arrested. He published Ginsbergs Howl. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, tormented by the prospects of books that could be.
Bukowski staggering in, looking for another advance. Brandy sweating out of him onto the tile floor. “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us,” he mumbles.
Richard Booth declaring himself king of Hay and protector of all booktowns. Knighting his horse as prime-minister with a tinfoil sword. A kingdom of books.
But that was another day.
Now the paint peels from the sign over my door, the lights flicker without warning and the desperate come here, searching for that last bit of heat off the dying embers of literary civilisation.
Flash is a supreme weaver of truths who comes and regales me with impressive stories, built upon experience and fantasy.
“You know I’ve been offered a quarter of a million to donate the first draft of my book to the Svalbard doomsday vault Wally? You know that Wally, don’t ya?”
“No Flash, I didn’t.”
He acts shocked that I didn’t know, as if it should be the topic of conversation.
It’s not that he’s a liar. He’s a decent fella who would do anything he could to help you out. It’s just he tends to extend reality for entertainment purposes, and deliver the odd piece of misinformation where the truth just wouldn’t fit.
“Isn’t that the place where they store seeds in the advent of a disaster?”
“And priceless works of art Wally…..like my book. Yeah, the King of Norway rang me about it last night.”
“Does Norway have a king Flash?”
“Yeah, he rang me last night. Seen the posts about my book on social media.”
Flash has been writing a biography of his ancestor Captain Flash Blackguard since long before I met him. Knowledge of Captain Flash Blackguard is sketchy at best. In fact, most of what we know about him comes from a Wikipedia article written by Flash himself.
Flash claims that Captain Blackguard was an ambitious merchant seaman, a ruthless pirate, a dashing rebel or a wise explorer, depending on who he is talking to at that moment and how they are reacting to his story. Above all, Captain Blackguards prowess with members of the opposite sex was beyond reproach.
“A ladys man, like myself,” he sneers, “I was remarkably attractive when I was younger Wally. I slept with most of the women in this town. That’s why they all hate me now. Jealously. Because they couldn’t harness me. I suppose they’ve been in here, eh? Talking about having sex with me? Have they Wally?”
“No Flash. I haven’t discussed your romantic life with anyone.”
“Did I ever tell you the time I made love to one of my girlfriends and got stuck in her? It was very embarrassing. I was too big you see.”
“You told me this before,” I say, hoping that the customers in the back of the shop won’t hear and be scared away.
“My penis, I mean. It was too big Wally. I got stuck. Like two Jack Russell’s. She panicked and called her sister. The sister hated me. Jealously. She rang the fire brigade. They sent two engines down from the station. Flashing lights and sirens.”
“Yeah, you’ve told me this one before Flash.”
“Sure I knew half the boys. They were all delighted. Good man Flash, they said, still single and sleeping around.”
An elderly lady has come up to the counter as Flash uses his hands to estimate the size of his manhood.
“Could you tell me if you have any books on pottery,” she asks gently.
“Sorry about that,” Flash says to her. Of course, he can’t leave it at that. “I was telling Wally about my abnormally well endowed penis. It’s triple the average. Maybe more. What’s the average size again Wally?”
I lead the shocked old woman into our craft section, apologising profusely. Flash is telling another customer his fire brigade story when I get back.
“It took six of the lads to pull me out. They tied the fire hose around my ankles and pulled like a tug o war team. Sure it went around the town like wildfire. You know how gossip travels. Very embarrassing. I never told a soul but the whole town knows about it. I say you knew about it before you came in here, did ya father?”
“No…I…didn’t know about that,” Father Riley says. “Hello Wally, Flash was just telling me…..a story.”
“Sorry Father,” I mumble.
“Did I tell you I’m writing a book about my ancestor Captain Flash Blackguard Father?”
“Many times Flash.”
Father Riley is a fit man for his age, stern but pleasant, and incredibly fond of haggling. Like a cross between Padre Pio and Del Boy Trotter. He doesn’t like obscene talk and only tolerates lies when he’s the one telling them.
“Did I tell you that Trinity College asked me to teach their first years advanced Chemistry next year Father? You knew that sure, did you? That I’m an award-winning Chemist?”
Flash is outside the shop one day, shouting into his phone and gesticulating wildly, making an extra effort to draw attention to himself. He suddenly staggers back inside and falls up against my counter with a theatrical grace that astounds me.
“Call an ambulance Wally,” he gasps.
“Feck off Flash, there’s a call out charge on them. You’ll be gone out of here before it arrives and I’ll be left with the bill.”
“I’m having a heart attack.”
Pockets, who has been lurking around the antiquarian section, now springs to life. Confused looking, he approaches the now doubled over Flash and pokes him with a boney finger. “Hey, amm, do you think, I mean, look, like, would he be, amm, contagious?”
“Ambulance!” Flash groans, as he starts to pass out.
I phone the emergency services who tell me to lay Flash out on the floor and keep his head tilted.
The Scouse arrives in the meantime. “What’s that fucker doing on the floor?”
“He’s having a heart attack.”
“No, he’s not,” The Scouse sneers. “He’s pretending. There’s nothing wrong with him. Get up ya muttonhead, you’re making the place look dirty. Dirtier, I mean.”
The emergency services ask me am I alone with the patient. “No there’s two others here,” I explain.
“Noooooo,” Pockets shrieks. “I can’t, maybe, what I mean is, handle this man. I’m outta here.”
He runs out of the shop screaming and I see him run past the front window waving his hands in the air. Moments later he runs down the other way, still screaming and waving his hands in the air.
“Ah look, you’re after upsetting pockets now ya muttonhead,” The Scouse roars at poor Flash. “You don’t care about anyone else, ya selfish hoor.”
Girls from the nearby St Bridget’s Centre, alerted by the emergency services arrive with a defibrillator. I’m told the ambulance is on route and they’ll help until it gets there. They immediately block a customer from entering the shop and I feel an ache inside.
“Losing Wally customers now ya muttonhead,” The Scouse cries and kicks at Flash.
A crowd gathers outside, drawn by the girls from St Bridget’s. Among them is Mosley. I hear him tell an old woman that the bookshop is contaminated with antrax which was inside an old book.
“I tell you one thing,” he pontificates, “You wouldn’t get this at Easons.”
Pockets is back outside again, wailing and babbling incoherently. None of this is good for business, I tell the man on the emergency line. He doesn’t seem too worried.
Flash moans in his sleep and The Scouse shakes his head. “He’ll probably shit himself and you’ll have to clean it up Wally. You’re too soft, that’s your problem. Every Tom, Dick and Harry will be coming in here now, having heart attacks and defecating on your floor. Terrible.”
I hear another customer get blocked at the door by the St Bridget’s girls but this time I recognise the voice.
“What’s happened?” Father Reilly asks.
“A man has had a serious heart attack,” the St Bridget’s girl says. “You can’t come in.”
“Wally I presume,” Father Reilly says, a little too calmly for my liking, pushing his way into the shop. “He was getting very heavy lately.”
He stops at Flash’s feet, hovering over both of us like a hawk. “Hello Wally.”
“I’ve a couple of books to show you when you’re ready. You might be interested in buying them.”
“I’m quite bit busy right now Father,” I hiss, throwing my hand over Flash.
“Oh, is he OK? I didn’t see you there Flash. Having a rest, are you?
“He’s having a heart attack,” I cry.
“A pretend heart attack,” The Scouse mumbles.
As the ambulance pulls up outside, I see Pockets throw himself in front of the stopping vehicle, roaring nonsensical.
“The ambulance is here Flash.”
He opens his eyes and looks up into my face. “What happened Wally?”
Trying to keep the mood light I say, “I think you’re done for mate.”
He doesn’t see the funny side. “Tell the young one working in the deli down town that I fancied her.”
“Yeah, of course I will.”
“Did I ever tell you about the time I drank the urine of a Mexican shaman and became enlightened?”
“Yes, yes you did.”
Flash seems to take comfort in this before he’s taken away. I don’t expect to see him for sometime again. Perhaps never.
“Good riddance,” The Scouse tells the shocked St Bridget’s girls. “Be no harm to pull the plug on that muttonhead, if you know what I mean?”
Pockets shuffles up to me, looking suddenly calm. He smells of oranges and hashish. “You know, amm, well, I was thinking, amm, in certain cultures, I mean, other places and times, amm, Flash would owe us his life.”
“Yeah, amm, I mean, well, amm, we saved, amm, his life, you know, and in some cultures, that’s to say, amm, I mean, you know what I mean, amm, he’d owe us his life, amm, and he’d, well, he’d have to be, like, our slave.”
The next day Flash is the first customer in. He looks totally normal, and has a breakfast roll in one hand, a can of coke in the other, and a fag in his mouth.
“Flash, you’re out!”
“Yeah, they wanted me to stay and get a bypass Wally but you know me, I’m not on for sitting around in beds. Plus I don’t trust Western medicine. Not with my experiences with the Shamen in Mexico. Did I tell you I was in Mexico Wally?”
“So I booked myself out, ate some magic fish I had in the freezer at home and had a threesome with two of the nurses. That’s how I handle near death experiences Wally.”
“Well, ah, that’s good then.”
“Yeah, and I appreciate what you done for me. You saved my life, so last night, after I healed myself, I rang my good friend Kofi Annan and we’re nominating you for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
In 2009, author Kate Morton said the following in an address titled ‘On Booksellers and Bookshops’….
“A bookseller is a person who sells books. And yet booksellers do much, much more than that. A bookseller is a listener, an empathiser, a supplier, a matchmaker. They are one of Malcolm Gladwell’s connectors: people with a whole shop of shelves loaded with good friends, just waiting to go home with somebody. Each reader is different—their needs, their desires, their past reading-relationships—and a bookseller has to be able to assess all these things within moments, to read minute shifts in the countenance of their customer, before coming up with the perfect recommendation.”