On ye Habit of English Travellers (& Colonial descendents, viz.) of Digesting ye Great Workes whilst Abroad
November 2, 2011
Eve of the Dead was loud at the store: just four of us here representing Europe, the U.K., the U.S. and Mexico, fully eviscerating of a bottle of Johnny Walker Red from about three on incidentally piquing the curiosity of – or terrorizing – two apple-cheeked UNAM students with a convocation on the nation-for-nation quality of blowjobs (my reticence and embarrassment keeping me to a sparse sideline commentary) which ended with motion passed that Americans are best because Stateside the beej has in the last decade turned consolation prize, whereas in other countries further south it is still the prize.
Also raised, (Ahem.) with a book-hungry Englishwoman in the room, was the particular tendency of British and Commonwealth backpackers to stock hostel bookcases worldwide with pre-modern canonical English lit, particularly Austen, Conrad, Dickens, and Hardy, for the most part, with a solid second string of Bronte, George Eliot, James and even sometimes Fielding or Trollope. These are the books one always meant to read, or hated in school but which now seem in retrospect to have something to offer. I think my suspicion is confirmed by the frequent presence of the only foreign volumes to appear as frequently on these shelves, the fat Russian obstacles of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. After that, you’re fast-forwarded to Graham Greene and his lighter living heir LeCarre, before you get to the books too valuable to be left aside, passed hand-to-hand like swollen samizdat: Thompson (Hunter S.), Nabokov, Pynchon, Bolaño. The books thrifty travelers love best are not long for this world, posessing weight: I mourn for The Portable Faulkner I left in piles of pages strewn across Mexico three years ago, destroyed for all time but swallowed into my soul. Time abroad, on extended holiday, or in a new country before obligations build a real world and language fills the crowded silence around, is 19th century time, available to fill with the deep and difficult works that were once the Kardashians of a lettered middle and upper class in Britain and to a lesser extent its colonies. The tendency of hostel travelers toward these books is understandable, and appropriate. (Furthermore I’d say from personal experience that when in a rural Latin American landscape full of wild air, fiestas and chickens – or the beach resort world of physicality and youth-worship – the otherwise stultifiying atmosphere of Victorian England is exactly what is called for as contrapuntal refuge.)
All this brings me to what’s happening this Saturday November 5th at the store: a celebration of Guy Fawkes’ Day, complete with mini-bonfire, burning action figure-sized effigies (the ‘Guy’), cider, gin, roast chestnuts and other now hollowed gestures of 17th century anti-Papist hysteria. But the roots of this festival go back to something primal, its name erased by Christianity. I first moved to England at the age of twelve, and was taken by our neighbors to a bonfire Guy Fawkes’ Night (this was 1979): the flame-oranged faces, backlit figures running in the stubble field, the chanting, the raw body of the sacrifice, the terrifying and enormous roar of the bonfire – we’re gonna do a Mini Me of that.
Discount of 20% on those very English authors who I spoke of above, which I can heartily recommend. I treasure the memories and can remember, book for book, the place I pulled those works from hostel shelves and went into that other mind of the analog past inhabited only by bodies and soil: Conrad’s Lord Jim, Dec. 2006, Mazunte; Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Feb 2008, Zicatela; Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Colonia Roma Norte, Jan-Apr 2010. I try to still rock it like that: right now I’m halfway through Tom Jones, and still haven’t cracked Middlemarch. Come and get ‘em!
Oh, Javier brought the scotch yesterday, and as maybe the most steadfast and enthusiastic fan of this blog especially relishes seeing himself mentioned here. Hi Javier!
November 1, 2011
Four books with duplicate or triplicate copies just vanished off the shelves our first two weeks – some in the first half-hour – in the hands of hungry readers. In order they are: The Savage Detectives, Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I will buy at U.S. used price every copy of these books I come across.
We sorely regret the profitable absence of our highly recommended single copies of Jimmy Corrigan, Murder City, The Northern Clemency, Pale Fire, The Poems of Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden: Selected Poems.
We’d sure like a copy of Under the Volcano – or twenty - as well as anything and everything by Roberto Bolaño, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Denis Johnson, William T. Vollmann, William Blake, Yukio Mishima, Emily Dickinson, Jack Kerouac, Chuck Klosterman, Chuck Palahniuk, Sam Lipsyte, Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Lethem and Steve Almond.
If this gives you a snapshot insight into what Chilangos foreign and domestic are reading in English, we are very glad to offer it. If it prompts you to put any of these books in a box and send them our way, well then we’d be doubly glad.
Sorry there hasn’t been a blog post in eleven days (we’ve gone much longer before, but here with the store open and Daylight Savings Time beginning over last weekend the days move so slow). But we’re busy, dammit.
Oh – and the hours changed: Wed & Sun 2-8, Thu/Fri/Sat 2-10.
Come by for Guy Fawkes’ on Saturday!
October 19, 2011
What the store needs now is books. I just messaged Rick Moody (Garden State, The Ice Storm, Purple America, The Black Veil) on Facebook about the hole in our shelves the size of his opus, and he’s gonna generously ship down some of his British editions. Paul Lozano came by the other day with a gym bag full of solid works I was excited to put up – and so this must go, mass overland shipments in the At the Spine van now verboten. So this must go. Does anybody out there have any of these?:
Within the Context of No Context by George W.S. Trow; Lolita; The Road; White Teeth; Carpenter’s Gothic; Freedom; Murder City; The Northern Clemency; Jesus’ Son; The Savage Detectives; Under the Volcano: anything and everything by Jack Kerouac, Roberto Bolaño, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, James Baldwin, Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, William T. Vollmann, Kurt Cobain, Herman Melville, Philip K. Dick, William Blake, Ezra Pound, Hermann Hesse, William S. Burroughs, Yukio Mishima, Jonathan Lethem, Derrick Jensen, Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, William Styron, Joan Didion, Ralph Ellison, W.G. Sebald, Kurt Vonnegut, Patrick Susskind, Friedrich Nietzche, Chris Ware, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoevski, J.G. Ballard, Christopher Alexander, Alex Ross, D.B.C. Pierre, Michel Houellebecq, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, Philip Hensher, Sapphire, Salman Rushdie, Robert Graves, George MacDonald Fraser, Anne Carson, Gore Vidal,, Soseki Natsume, Yasunari Kawabata, H.P. Lovecraft, W.H. Auden…
… can you please put them in a box and send them here?
October 16, 2011
Astonishing, after such a long time in the mental waiting room – to have an enterprise not fantasy but fact, hours on the clock, money changing hands, the appreciation of so many others who say the thought that brought this on in my own mind: this city has lacked only this.
The opening party Friday was splendid, people piling in to buy books and eat burgers, boxes of beer hanging from casual fingertips, intern Forrest whirling like a changemaking dervish until it got too fun and for fear of soaking the stock I ordered all the drinkers outside, emptying the store. DJ Zorrita kept a deep mood roiling with his Gothy tastes so parallel to mine but encompassing other worlds (Christian Death, wow I would have gone nuts for that band back in the longago time) – a few people volunteered to plug in their laptops or iPods to something danceable or more congenial and for once able to call the shots I said ‘I like this music’. Paul Lozano, my magnificent artist friend who painted the ceiling murals of the blue agave and maguey got up on a desk to inscribe the cut root of the maguey with the names of the four people who have contributed the most to the founding of the store: Kim Suther, Chris Zacker, Philip Wohlstetter, and ‘WG Anonymous’. Taking his place on the desk I read the dedication to his patron from Henry Fielding’s (1749) Tom Jones, substituting the word ‘store’ for ‘novel’ or ‘work’ and ‘customers’ for ‘readers’ and, I feel, hitting the nail on the head, even if it took ten long eighteenth-century minutes (See the UTVB Facebook page). Then we continued drinking the delicious pulque we got from our sponsor Pulqueria Los Insurgentes (go there!) until something like four in the morning: next day, I had to be at work.
It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon: customers came in three bunches and together bought just over our daily quota of 500 pesos for sustainability. The store, unfurnished, plantless and unrugged is however perfumed along with the entire house by the huge and beautiful bouquet of flowers that arrived yesterday from Matt Fikse, my boss at Pages on 15th Avenue East in Seattle, where I worked for a year after moving to Capitol Hill in the summer of 1999 and until their closure the next fall, where I met my dear friends Bryan Miller and Jenny Vonckx (RIP) and served cultural drivers Reggie Watts and Modest Mouse bassist Eric Judy and learned how to ‘justify’ (pull a handswidth of books out a couple inches, extend your index finger, and push them back to the edge of the shelf). The flowers smell like the inside of Pages did – not like flowers but like welcome, and optimism, and the energy of the mind, and hope.
There are things yet to do: finish pricing the books; (all alphabetized and stamped, thank you, visitor and volunteer crew) buy a couch, a comfy chair and two big rugs, and a couple of cafe tables and chairs for the terraza; print cards for when I hear English spoken fluently near me on my walks and wanders; get at least the outline of the sign – legal issues, till the house is entirely Sylvain’s on Nov. 17th – painted out front (thank you Grace Stearns) come Tuesday; get our rotulo painter whomever that might be to come put up the Lowry quotes inside, ‘No se / puede vivir/ sin amar’ on the three horizontal deco stripes on the divider, ‘Salud y pesetas y tiempo para gastarlas’ in the crotch curve of the wall above my station, and ‘Te gustas esta jardin que es suyo? Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!’ out in the terraza. Organize this pad-and-paper accounting into a straight, local bank-account qualifiability and accountant can decipher… and get more books.
It’s pretty clear the best and most essential stuff is going first: plowed through my two copies each of Lolita, The Great Gatsby,The Savage Detectives, Jimmy Corrigan and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas immediately, and there are other doubles I fear for greatly: The Road, To the Lighthouse, White Teeth, Gravity’s Rainbow (I fear I will sell them – does that make any sense?).
So, after so much solicitation of money and couches and legal help from now on I ask only this: I want your books. (I won’t be making any more overland runs from the Lower 48.)
Send them please, bring them in, donated or for trade: we need all varieties of quality (non-textbook) volumes but especially Under the Volcano (don’t have a single copy); The Great Gatsby; Lolita, American Splendor and all Crumb, McCarthy, Didion, Lowry, Joyce, Hemingway, Foster Wallace, Moody, Vollmann, Sontag, Kerouac, Bukowski, Mishima, Roberto Bolano – especially the greatest classic ever written about this city, Los Detectivos Salvajes – Hunter S. Thompson, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Joe Sacco, Jason Lutes… and also especially books on philosophy, of all things – huge demand here, evidently.
I’ll pay postage C.O.D. through USPS on approved lists – but if you want to press things onto my shelves and through your tastes influence the readers of Mexico, please send your books to: Under the Volcano Books, Cerrada Chiapas 40-C, Col. Roma Norte, Del. Cuauhtemoc, Distrito Federal, MEXICO C.P. 06700
Hours T-F 11-7, Sa/Su 12-5.
Wow it feels good to write that.
October 14, 2011
Tomorrow we open the store – wait – today. as it is just after midnight here on midcontinental time. I cannot, after the bust-ass of the last four days, express my excitement, in every sense of the word. I simply write to announce and commemorate this moment, which will not come again: as this impulse is finally proven to flower out onto the world. I hope only that I can lead this enterprise – real, now, no longer dream – in the same spirit of generosity and fellowship that is so strong in this country and which drew me here in the first place.
Deepest thanks to Forrest, Alec, Amy, Grant, Jake, Kevin, Paul, Sylvain and Chris for their hard work over the last four days to bring us over the line. There are things undone – but there are always things undone. This is our first day. There are many more in which to catch up and make the store – which already looks beautiful – more fully realized, lived-in, loved, loving and permanent.
If you can, come by tomorrow – we’re open 11 to 7.
October 5, 2011
As this goal has closed the distance to – barring total economic collapse, medical emergency, volcanic eruption (ah the dreams that come after early disaster!) – inevitability, I’ve been having some problems re-learning how to be… happy. (Please – those who would hold up Auschwitz and the starving, and the tortured and hungry, as if anyone could recognize and inhabit luck relative with lives they haven’t lived -I know. Shut up.)
I’ll go off the reservation as I did in this blog’s first posts and overshare here: it’s been a long, chaotic, lost road toward the opening of the store, conceived at the beginning of 2007 or thereabouts, when I fell in love with the old Cafe Mexico abandoned at least five years now on the corner of Michoacan and Parque Mexico and imagined a new home in that jungly quarter.
That option, like so many, was a no-go, and as I tried on multiple interim hats down here – DJ (that didn’t even get off the ground), Fodor’s correspondent, paid screenwriter, English teacher – finding the combination that would open these very doors was unforeseeably complex and a hard slog in light of the defeats that preceded it: the monorail most historically now only a dim pain in my chest but at the time (November 2005) the total destruction of all I’d built my life around; a breakup on the verge of engagement; the rolling disaster of the horror film I bankrolled with my every last dime (not the forthcoming Grassroots, please don’t get them confused) and my slowly diminishing efforts to pretend to the ticket-buying world that it was not a turd and dreaming past it until a year ago my film company, given its record, had a hope in hell of making the two fine scripts I wrote subsequently…
It’s been a ship’s graveyard of efforts borne up by the generosity and patience of good friends: my mom; my brother; the Los Angeles County Department of Social Services; Kim Suther; Gael Zane and Cleve Stockmeyer; Juan Carlos Sumano and the forty-seven people who made a significant investment in the future of this last enterprise.
I write this on a paint-stained banquet table in the floating (as opposed to the sunken) room of the store under the half-completed ceiling mural by Paul Lozano commissioned to pay tribute to those generous forty-seven. Two men are loudly singing scales behind a door ten feet away. I wait on the last design of our pricetag, a rubber stamp that will someday notify an English backpacker at a hostel in Bali curling up on a hammock with Great Expectations that there is a used English bookstore in ‘Mexico City’. The second room of shelves goes in tomorrow and the following day. The books, in boxes mostly, are all around me, and the rent is paid. Grant (Badger) and Lina arrive tonight from Seattle with all their household goods and intentions of starting a bar. I’ll be able to map much of the way for them, but like me they’ll have to find out a twisted journey entirely their own.
We open next Friday. It isn’t simple, but I don’t feel bad. I’m learning. I think happiness, whatever that is, is coming on. Things are pretty good – I think it’s been about six years since I’ve felt that, and that’s a victory.
October 3, 2011
Bringing in the rest of the main stock that fucked up my knee in April (intern Forrest thus my arms and legs and swiftly doing everything but drive the van) we started to mull over the sections for the store. Our man Forrest is a sharp one, and great to bounce unclear ideas off and watch them resolve into focus. It’s still mutable, but after our talk and some further thinking (and unpacking) here they are: Fiction; Poetry; Drama; History (Old World and New World – where does Africa go? I think with the colonized over here.); Translations from Spanish; Punk/Queer; Politics; Art; Travel; Cities; (containing architecture, planning and urban history) Film; Languages; Criticism; Biography; Memoir (in so many of these, the lines blur – but I want to have sections that make you look at them all – I don’t have any books not worth reading); Skills and Hobbies; Expat Lit; Tech and Science; Psychology; Philosophy; Trash.
You’re probably noticing what’s not here: Horror; Sci-Fi; True Crime; Mystery; Comics. I’ve not been attracted to genres for most of my reading life since its beginning (when I gladly devoured Stephen King and Frederick Forsyth, for not much more reason than because they were around) and that, with its short shelf life, is most of what’s available in English at this city’s otherwise excellent used bookstores. My bias is beginning to change: an erstwhile hardcore prejudice against anything plotty has weakened under thorough enjoyment of H.P. Lovecraft (though he and I need to take a long break after the Cthulhu disaster – see my Wikipedia page) the Flashman novels, and my most recent discovery of George V. Higgins – and I know there’s many, many more writers who are ghettoized into genres whose work firmly transcends it. Why is No Country for Old Men literature, and Higgins’ strange, (and far more difficult) documentary-Beckett-in-Boston The Judgement of Deke Hunter not? What makes Poe canonical and his inheritors pulp? Is The Bridge at San Luis Rey really better than Salem’s Lot because it’s set in 17th century Peru? Chris Ware’s astonishing 90s graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan is a decades-post-dated continuation of the Modernist tradition of Joyce, Woolf and early Faulkner, and stands firmly with the unforgettable works of those predecessors. Should I put it on a shelf reserved for people who like pictures? I think these distinctions block people from great literary discoveries – in both directions. That said, there is a mountain of garbage printed and shoveled into these categories, and you will find it – Messrs Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Dennis Cooper, Tom Robbins – gathered in a small section, as I said above, under ‘Trash’.
What’s missing? Let me know in the comments.