Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
As Bill Reed’s memoir makes clear, independent bookstores are key locales in a creative community. Part employment office, soup kitchen, flophouse, café, and publishing house, the bookstore functions as a communal center like the American Express office in Paris, the barber shop in Harlem, or the general store on Main Street. The role of the bookstore in literary history remains to be explored in full, but there are a few publications on the subject that I know of that look fascinating. Sylvia Beach’s memoir of Shakespeare and Company is essential for anyone wanting to get the full story of the Lost Generation. In 1997, rare bookseller and publisher John LeBow gathered a collection entitled The Phoenix Bookshop: A Nest of Memories. The book provides essays by writers like Diane Di Prima on Robert Wilson’s legendary store. LeBow did his subject proud with a collectible limited edition. Wilson added in his two cents in 2001 with Seeing Shelley Plain: Memories of New York’s Legendary Phoenix Bookshop. I own some cancelled checks from the bookshop that document Wilson as a financial resource on top of all the other services he provided to artists and writers. A similar book could be written about Ed Sanders’ Peace Eye Bookstore, Bill Butler’s Unicorn Bookshop, Better Books managed by Bob Cobbing, or thousands of other stores around the world over the years.
Recently, I wrote about the threatened closing of John Calder’s bookstore in Great Britain. Anyone reading the literary blogs, like Silliman’s Blog, or similar information sources on literary topics get the sense that the independent bookstore is going the way of the carrier pigeon. Such closings are quite a blow to general readers and creative artists alike. To my mind, the independent bookstore is an essential institution, one needed for a healthy and happy existence.
In his memoir Early Plastic and in the excerpt on Eighth Street Bookshop, Bill Reed tells many tales of life on the Lower East Side. One of my favorite ancedotes was his description of seeing William Burroughs leafing through a book of poems by Charles Bukowski in the stacks at Eighth Street. I love the linking of Burroughs and Bukowski, but I also enjoy the fact that Burroughs haunted the alternative bookstores in his community. In his memoir on the Sixties, Barry Miles tells a similar story of Burroughs frequenting the Indica Bookshop at 102 Southampton Row in London. Burroughs lived nearby and was something of a regular there. Miles writes, “Bill had pinned a sign on the bookshop noticeboard some weeks before offering free Scientology auditing sessions to anyone who wanted them in order to improve his own auditing technique — even giving his home address and telephone number, which I thought was very trusting as he usually wanted to keep that very much a secret.” Despite his desire for a low profile, Burroughs was very much an active member of his neighborhood and something of a bookstore junkie.
One book in my collection highlights the important role of the independent bookshop in Burroughs’ social and creative life. Kaddish, Naked Lunch, Soft Machine, and Bomb were all written in part at the Beat Hotel, but the book that most captures the spirit of 9 rue Git-le-Coeur is Minutes To Go. In his editor’s note to Brion Gysin Let the Mice In, Jan Herman describes the Beat Hotel atmosphere as like a “laboratory,” and Minutes To Go is certainly the most representative result of those experiments in lifestyle and literary technique.
I want to focus on the community of bookstores involved with this cut-up collection. In fact independent bookstores made Minutes to Go a pubished reality. Minutes to Go was issued by Two Cities in 1000 copies on April 13, 1960. A limited edition of ten copies included a manuscript page. This reminds me of the limited edition for the C Press Time. I have never seen the limited Time or Minutes to Go for sale on the rare book market. The John Hay Library at Brown possesses a copy of the Minutes to Go and displayed it prominently at their Burroughs exhibition years ago.
Two Cities was a bilingual (French and English) magazine edited by Jean Fanchette, a young doctor. Fanchette published expats like Henry Miller, Alfred Perles, and Lawrence Durrell. The first issue was dedicated to Durrell. Years later, the correspondence between Fanchette and Durrell from this period would be published by Two Cities as well. Anaïs Nin was a correspondent for the magazine. With Gysin designing the covers, Fanchette fashioned Minutes to Go to mirror the magazine.
Fanchette ran his magazine out of George Whitman’s Mistral Bookstore. The Mistral was a hang out for expat writers along the lines of Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company. In fact, Whitman would close the Mistral and reopen as Shakespeare and Company in the mid-1960s. From the Merlin Group around Alexander Trocchi (the Group that discovered the fiction of Samuel Beckett and published him in English with the assistance of Olympia Press) to the writers associated with the Paris Review, Whitman’s store functioned as a water cooler in the literary office that was Paris. In Exiled in Paris, James Campbell writes, “The Mistral doubled as ‘The Left Bank Arts Center’ and announced ‘a program of cultural events'” in 1951. Campbell continues, “The Librairie Mistral was housed in an ancient building near St. Michel, facing Notre Dame Cathedral. Before Whitman bought it… it had been an Arab grocery store. Not content with offering lectures, exhibitions and the rest, he set up a lending library with an estimated 10,000 books.” To this day, George Whitman’s bookstore is a thriving literary hangout and an essential stop for any bibliophile and aspiring Beat.
In Literary Outlaw, Morgan writes that Burroughs cruised the store, largely unsuccessfully. Yet Burroughs met his long time companion and collaborator Ian Sommerville at the Mistral. A student at Cambridge, Sommerville worked at Whitman’s bookstore in the summer of 1959. (According to John Geiger’s biography of Brion Gysin, Sommerville was perched on a ladder and dropped a book on Burroughs’ head.) Corso and Ginsberg both read at the bookstore. Burroughs’ first public reading occurred there as described by Harold Norse in Memoirs of a Bastard Angel. Like with Indica or Eighth Street, the Mistral was part of Burroughs’ routine.
My copy of Minutes to Go has the bookstamp of the reopened store. As Minutes to Go did not sell well despite a nice turnout at the publication party, copies were probably lying around the store for years. To the horror of collectors, Whitman diligently stamped the books sold in his store with the Shakespeare and Company logo. He claimed the stamp actually increased the value of the book due to the association with the store. I wonder, but the stamp does link my copy to the Paris bookselling community out of which Minutes to Go took shape as a literary experiment and as a published object.
Fanchette ran out of money and could not bring Minutes to Go to completion, so Gait Froge, the Frenchwoman who ran the English Bookshop, stepped in and saved the day. She ponied up the $500 needed to pay the printers. Froge’s bookshop was another legendary hangout for young writers. Campbell writes the English Bookshop “was a smaller affair [than the Mistral], and necessarily more discriminating in its stock. Whereas the Mistral boasted books ‘in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian and German,’ she offered a mix of classics and the latest productions of the avant garde.” Froge delighted in mixing with writers and artists, opening her bookstore to the creative community of expat Paris. The Merlin Group was headquartered at the bookshop after a falling out with Whitman. Burroughs particularly appealed to Froge’s sensibilities and avant garde tastes. The English Bookshop financed the first pressing of Call Me Burroughs in 1965. This record has French and English liner notes and came out before the ESP LP of 1966.
In Barry Miles’ The Beat Hotel, there is mention of the release party for Minutes to Go in April at Gait Froge’s English Bookshop. Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press supplied the champagne. A large portion of the sales at the English Bookshop came from the tourist market in Girodias’ Traveller’s Companion titles of which Naked Lunch was one (No. 76 in fact). The writers who hung around the English Bookshop (as well as the Mistral) provided Girodias with his stable of pornographers.
According to an interview Ted Morgan did with Sinclair Beiles, the four authors, Burroughs, Gysin, Sinclair Beiles and Gregory Corso, all signed at the party. One prominent bookseller challenges this fact in his description of a dedication copy of Minutes to Go to Gait Froge on sale for $32,500. This book of course lacks the Corso signature. In Literary Outlaw, Morgan recounts that Corso arrived with his girlfriend Sally November and that Froge, herself, commented “Do you have one for every other month as well?” In addition, all of Corso’s letters collected in An Accidental Biography from April 1960 are postmarked from Paris. It would appear that Corso was there and not in Scandanavia as suggested. Burroughs was lucky to make the party. At the time, the French authorities were pursuing Burroughs on a drug charge and suggested that he leave the country. Burroughs left Paris (soon after the publication party) and traveled to England with Sommerville. I believe he also went to Scandanavia as well before returning to Paris once the pot smoke had cleared.
Yet it is true that the Corso signature is unusual given the fact he disavowed all involvement with the book as contrary to his sensibilities as a poet. This is made very clear in a postscript to Minutes to Go. Yet he wavered on this point. The publication of a cut-up with Burroughs in the collaboration issue of Locus Solus in 1961 is proof that he was still associated with the technique after the publication of Minutes to Go. Possibly the dedication copy currently on the market was signed to Froge at a later date or maybe Corso refused to sign it at the party in an act of spite. Corso was nothing if not unpredictable. My copy is signed by Burroughs, Corso and Gysin. I like to think that the book was signed at that party and that in the hustle and bustle Beiles never got around to signing it, but that may be wishful thinking. Sadly, my copy of Minutes to Go lacks the wraparound band that said “Un règlement de comptes / avec la literature.” Translated, to settle a score with literature. Members of the Beat Hotel, the publishers, and those at the signing party would have caught the drug reference.
No doubt the crowd at the publication party had its share of thrillseekers, but, naively perhaps, I have the sense that they were mostly members of the anglophone literary community around the Beat Hotel, Olympia Press, and the independent bookstores. Again a look at Corso’s letters complicates this impression. On roughly April 19, 1960 a few days after the Minutes to Go party, Corso writes in a letter to Peter Orlovsky, “I had it out with Burroughs, his ass-licking friends are bores and they hate, and he, Bill, is okay, but he does not know me.” In an earlier letter also to Orlovsky from April 19th, Corso writes, “Yelled at Burroughs for being the world’s number one stool-pigeon which of course he ain’t.”
Corso is probably expressing his ambivalence about the cut-up and Burroughs’ embracing of the technique. These feelings may have been brought to a boil by the recent party. Yet it hints at a deeper critique of Burroughs. Corso has a reputation as a tragic clown, but he was a brilliant poet and something of a gadfly to the Beat Generation. Corso poked holes in the inflated egos of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs and challenged the myths of the Beat Cult. I have suggested that Burroughs was something of a scenester. As others have stated, Burroughs thrived in an active community and required contact with others. The mention of Burroughs’ “ass-licking friends” proves interesting and puts a negative spin on this need of Burroughs. According to Corso, Burroughs was far from the lone wolf of the Beat myth and more of a queen bee surrounded by a hive of drones. A literary community could shade into something of a fawning royal court.
From Shakespeare and Company of the Twenties to, well, Shakespeare and Company of the present day, the English language bookstore in Paris has a tradition as strong as the café for writers and artists. Sylvia Beach published the unpublishable in 1922 when Ulysses was issued in its wrapper the color of the Greek flag and the Mediterrean Sea. In the late 1940s, Lawrence Ferlinghetti studied in Paris and was greatly impressed and inspired by these bookstores, particularly Whitman’s Mistral. City Lights was founded on this model. By 1960, the term “Published in Paris” had a long history and the independent bookstore was an important part of it. Not surprisingly, histories and biographies dealing with the Beats in Paris inevitably mention Gait Froge, George Whitman, The Mistral, The English Bookshop, and Shakespeare and Company. Like the Beat Hotel or the Olympia Press, the independent bookstore and its owner play a crucial role in Paris of the Fifties. Quite possibly, the final touches and publication of Naked Lunch and development of the cut-up could only have happened in one city in the world in 1959. It was in this environment that Burroughs flourished and matured as a writer. In the circumstances surrounding its creation and publication, Minutes to Go captures the spirit of the Beat Hotel as well as the central role of the independent bookstore in that literary community.