Eighth Street Bookshop

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

In the aftermath of my Floating Bear column, RealityStudio informed me that Jan Herman worked at the Eighth Street Bookshop and might have some facts about Corinth Press and the mysterious Bill Wilentz. According to Jan, Eli and Ted ran the bookstore and the press as I mentioned. No scoop on Bill Wilentz. Jan suggested I contact Bill Reed who also worked at the store and wrote a memoir entitled Early Plastic.

The name sounded familiar as did the book. Turns out I bought the book a few years ago, because it featured material on the Lower East Side in the early and mid 1960s. I had yet to read it. Quickly returning to the book, I was happy to see information on Eighth Street, the Fugs, the fringes of the Warhol circle, and New York City speed culture. What I did not expect was the book’s depiction of growing up searching for a gay community in 1950s West Virginia. The descriptions of small pockets of a gay circle at that time and that place proved to be very informative and a real eye-opener. As Bill shows, the influence of African Americans and their culture extended throughout Middle America, not just the big cities on the coasts. Bill’s interest in jazz continues to the present. He works as a jazz record producer for the Japanese market. On December 10th 2006, he will give a talk before the Tokyo Vocal Jazz Appreciation Society on “One Shot Wonders” (singers who only recorded one LP in the Fifties). In addition he is co-producing a “live” in Japan recording by singer Pinky Winters. Early Plastic showed how the silent decade sowed the seeds of the flower power and decadence decades of the 1960s and 1970s.

After reading Early Plastic, Bill agreed to allow RealityStudio to print an extended verison of his memories of the Eighth Street Bookshop: its history and its daily goings-on. It makes for fascinating reading. I asked Bill about some of my other obsessions of that era: William Burroughs and Fuck You Magazine. He had this to say:

I remember Burroughs in the store a fair amount. I recall once going to eavesdrop to see what he was reading in the poetry section and it was Bukowski, long before Bukowski WAS Bukowski. Some funky (maybe even) mimeographed stuff. Had I but glommed onto a few copies of each I’d probably be living in Gstaad in baronial splendor instead of near penury in crummy old L.A., where the future comes to die. Attached are some of those envelopes I mentioned. Do with ’em what you will.

As for Ed Sanders, Ken Weaver of the Fugs was my best friend long before the Fugs, so I was around for the forming of that group. Ken always thought the phrase “slum goddess” was mine and always gave me credit for it, but it was in fact ripped off by me from LeRoi Jones who used to work at 8th Street.

Had a copy of Ed’s issue of Auden’s Platonic Blow with a lock of Auden’s pubic hair, but don’t know whatever happened to it. Used to sell Fuck You from under the counter… even at 8th Street.

Burroughs reading Bukowski is quite an image. One master of the little magazine and small press scene reading quite possibly the brightest star upon that literary landscape. As I look over my collection and write about what I see there, it seems that the paths of these two underground giants cross pretty often. Nice to see that fact reinforced by Bill’s story.

I crossed paths with the Eighth Street Bookshop, Corinth Books and Ted Wilentz briefly years ago. Working in a bookstore in Bethesda, MD, I admired a copy of Al Young’s Dancing, a yellow chapbook published by Corinth Books in 1969. A copy of Jack Kerouac’s The Scripture of the Golden Eternity passed through the store as well. I remember the purple cover that served as the telling point, letting collectors know it was a first edition. One day as I was looking over Dancing, an older woman stood beside me and told me she and her husband had published it. The woman was none other than Joan Wilentz, wife of Ted Wilentz (they married in 1965). Joan and Ted teamed up after their marriage to publish several books under the Corinth imprint including material by Barbara Guest, Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman, John Ashbery, and Lewis Warsh. Their books had a decidedly New York School feel (both First and Second Generation), but they also published numerous books by African American authors, like Clarence Major, Tom Weatherly, Jay Wright, and the previously mentioned Al Young.

Joan spoke to me briefly. This was around the time of Ted Wilentz’s passing and much must have been on her mind. Yet she expressed great amusement in my interest in the work of Corinth Press and promised to speak with me again the next time she stopped by the store. Unfortunately, I left shortly thereafter, and I never got the chance.

Corinth Press, with its partner Totem Press (formed by Leroi Jones) and later as a husband and wife team, proved to be one of the leading lights in small press publishing. In the early 1960s, Ted and Eli’s roster included all the major players of the Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg (Empty Mirror), Gary Snyder (Myths and Texts), Jack Kerouac (The Scripture of the Golden Eternity), Leroi Jones (Preface of a Twenty Volume Suicide Note), Philip Whalen (Like I Say), Diane Di Prima (Dinners and Nightmares), and Ted Joans (The Hipsters). They also published The Beat Scene, Charles Olson, and Frank O’Hara. By the way, the books listed were all published in just two years: 1960 and 1961. Not a bad list for any publishing house let alone the side project of a bookstore. All the Beats are represented but Burroughs it seems. Burroughs later appeared in the influential anthology The Moderns (1963) edited by Leroi Jones.

Corinth also issued a lesser known but very important American Experience Series that published work on exploration, the black experience, Native Americans, the New World, and other topics that served as the cornerstone of the developing realm of American Studies. In my opinion, the backlist of Corinth ranks with any of the post-WWII era presses chronicled in Steven Clay’s Secret Location on the Lower East Side.

Bill Reed’s account of the Eighth Street Bookshop provides a fascinating glimpse into the community of writers and readers out of which all this great literature was created. As Bill’s collection of envelopes mailed to the bookshop shows, the members and fellow travelers of this community would surprise you. Clearly, the Eighth Street Bookshop was a magic place that goes beyond the selection of books in its shelves. With Corinth Press, Ted and Eli took that one step beyond bookseller to become publishers joining a long, distinguished tradition including Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company. The store was a halfway house, a message board, a meeting place, a lightning rod. Bill Reed’s search for a nourishing community happily stopped at this store in Greenwich Village. Many famous and not so famous people also rested, learned, talked, and created there. Places like this still exist today in brick and mortar and cyberspace, but without a doubt something special was happening at Eighth Street, in the United States and in the entire world at the time Bill chronicles. Maybe the works published by Corinth tell the story best, but Bill’s memoir does a nice job as well. By the way, Bill had no idea who Bill Wilentz was either.

For more on the Eighth Street Bookshop, be sure to read “Positively Eighth Street,” an excerpt from Bill Reed’s memoir Early Plastic. See also Ted Wilentz’s memoir “In My Youth I Was a Tireless Reader.”

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 26 October 2006.

4 thoughts on “Eighth Street Bookshop

  1. This was quite a treat to read and I remember well the encounter in the Bethesda bookstore and regret I didn’t follow up–I had thought to bring a few Corinth titles to add to the collection. As for the “Bill” Wilentz–as far as I know (and there are a couple of Wilentz family genealogists) there’s no such animal. Ted used to say that anyone with a surname spelled that way was probably a relative derived from the transliteration of the family ancestor who was originally a “citizen of Vilna.”

  2. Alas, the above link to Ted Wilentz’s “memoir” is broken and I can find no reference anywhere on the net to ANYTHING with that title.

  3. I’m trying to locate my long ago friend, Conrad Brenner, whom I knew from Erasmus Hall high school, the 8th St. book shop, the Coliseum book shop and various tennis courts in the city.

    And I thank you in advance for any help you can give.

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