Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Fourteen days, 2500 miles, 7 states, and a slew of bookstores. Vacation is over. The car is shot; the budget was blown; and the bookshelves cannot handle all the new books. In the last few years, it seems that everywhere I turn I see an article about the death of print, the decline of the newspaper (The New York Times reported an 82% decline in profits last quarter), or the closing of an independent bookstore. By the way, the chains are struggling too. Take a look at Borders. It was refreshing to travel the Middle Atlantic and New England and see plenty of books and bookstores. Don’t get me wrong, all was not rosy. Rue Cottage Books in Bass Harbor, which I featured last year, seems to have closed, but Nicol Fox’s interests range far beyond her store. Hopefully, she moved on because she is pursuing those interests, rather than any lack of customer support for the shop. (Any information on the status of Rue Cottage Books would be appreciated.)
Yet there were reasons for optimism. The Book Barn in Niantic seems to be thriving, if sheer number of books (around 350,000) is any indication of financial health. I have been going to this store since it opened in 1988, and the size of the operation has exploded. The store is now part farm, part commune, part oasis. I do not mean to suggest that the Book Barn is a little piece of calm in a stormy world because the activity around the store is intense. People reading books, buying books, selling books, talking books, living and breathing books. There is energy here. The store’s stock is meat and potatoes but, like that corner diner you just cannot live without, they heap your plate with loads of quality books and do not charge a fortune. I bought about 10 books. Nothing earth-shattering but solid books for my research library. Major biographies on Marcel Duchamp, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams; all under $10 dollars apiece. I tracked down a copy of Aquarius Revisited, a book on the major players who shaped the 1960s. Burroughs is featured as are Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, and Allen Ginsberg. The Book Barn usually has reading copies of the mainstream press Burroughs titles, like the late trilogy. Dig around and you might find something special behind that ubiquitous copy of the Erica Jong’s The Fear of Flying. For example, a friend got me two early issues of the Evergreen Review from the Book Barn days before I got there.
From Connecticut I headed back up to Gloucester. Dogtown Books was just as I left it. Last year featured a first of Ginsberg’s Howl. This year there was a copy of the Viking first of On the Road. Next year will be the Olympia Naked Lunch no doubt. I loaded up on non-fiction books on Bohemianism, particularly pre-WWII. I found a jacketless copy of A Return to Pagany for $6. This is a history / anthology of that crucial little mag from the early 1930s. Pagany was edited by Richard Johns, and William Carlos Williams played a major role in its formation and direction. In fact the title for the magazine came from Williams’ novel A Voyage to Pagany from 1928.
Dogtown had lots of small-press poetry in the store of a contemporary nature as well. I stopped down at Mystery Train and looked through a ton of spoken word LPs. Lots of readings of The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare, but no Blues and Haikus or Call Me Burroughs. Last year, Mystery Train was a two-floor operation. This year everything was on the first floor. It appears that many of the books on the second floor did not make the trip downstairs. The store is concentrating on music, not books.
Ten Pound Island is also in the process of changing focus. When I last talked to Greg Gibson at the New York Book Fair, he planned to transform his shack / store in Annisquam into an art gallery to be run by his wife. In April 2008, Gibson had yet another book published. This one is a real life thriller involving the intrigue of the book trade centered on a group of Diane Arbus photographs entitled Hubert’s Freaks: The Rare Book Dealer, The Times Square Talker and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus. From what I understand, Gibson will still be at the book fairs, but the flagship bookstore has gone down like the Pequod.
Besides Rue Cottage, all the usual suspects were up and operating in Maine. The area around Acadia National Park still has plenty of bookstores. The Bookshelf in Ellsworth was open. Last year I found a library copy of Stephen Jonas’ complete poems. Jonas is largely a forgotten figure but the experience of finally reading a large sampling of his work was a great memory from 2007. This year I found a second edition of Charles Olson’s Reading at Berkeley published by Coyote Press in 1966. Olson read at Berkeley on the night of July 23, 1965, and it was a wonderful surprise to encounter the book almost exactly 43 years after the reading. Of all the books based on Olson’s lectures and readings that I have read (Olson in Connecticut, Causal Mythology, Poetry and Truth), this was the best. Causal Mythology documents Olson’s lecture at Berkeley on July 20th. The Coyote Press book documents the later reading which has become legendary in literary history as one of the great spoken word performances on record. The reading is a glorious drunken mess. Olson as Falstaff. Part showman, part shaman, part senator, Olson gave the reading of his life. By that I mean it was a defining experience for him as well as a recounting of his biography. Olson tested the patience of his audience (Robert Duncan walked out) as well as their endurance (Olson stopped after several hours only because the building was closing). All in attendance would agree that they had witnessed a spectacle.
The Berkeley Poetry Conference engendered a new generation of poets (I am thinking of Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh) as it celebrated the vitality of the poetry presented in the New American Anthology of Donald Allen. By 1965, the poetry represented in Allen’s book proved to be the poetry that mattered. Olson was in many respects the king of the hill. From the audience, Duncan called Olson the “boss poet” at Olson’s reading. Earlier, Jack Spicer compared Olson to President Johnson. Just as Olson had conquered Eliot, Pound and Williams before him, the “boss poet” must have realized that the upcoming generation would have to slay him in turn. The Berkeley reading was Olson’s confession before his execution. I had flashes of the end of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now as I finished the book. Olson as Brando as Kurtz.
There is not as much in-depth information on the internet about the Poetry Conferences of Vancouver and Berkeley as I would expect, though Wikipedia and the university have some information. Our friend Brian Cassidy has a cool flyer from the Conference for sale for $125. The importance of these events is immense. I would love to see a blow-by-blow account of these conferences in book form with reproductions of ephemera, photographs, personal accounts, and critical essays. I don’t think such a book exists. The most detailed study that I know of is a chapter in Libbie Rifkin’s book Career Moves, which details Olson’s reading at Berkeley.
Reading over what I have written so far, I wonder why I feel such optimism about the state of the bookstore. Rue Cottage and Ten Pound Island have shifted gears. Mystery Train has downsized. And what does any of this column have to do with Burroughs? Well, to paraphrase John Landau from 1975 when he heard Bruce Springsteen for the first time, I have seen the future of the bookstore, and it is Hermitage Books in Beacon NY.
As for Burroughs, most people make a big deal of the fact that Burroughs hung out at Bickford’s, the Bunker, or the Beat Hotel. I like to think that one of Burroughs’ favorite hangouts was the independent bookstore. Let me say that Burroughs would have hung out at Hermitage Books. Think Better Books, Indica, Peace Eye, Le Mistral, Unicorn Books, the Eighth Street Bookshop. Burroughs prowled the aisles of those stores like he did the alleyways of Tangier. Burroughs needed stimulants, and books were a drug of choice. If owner Jon Beacham (along with co-director Christian Toscano) has his way, Hermitage will rank with these great bookstores of the past.
Why? Because Beacham realizes that a truly important (and I mean culturally important) bookstore is about more than the books. It is about a community. See my piece on Burroughs and Bookstores. Do not get me wrong, Beacham has the books. To my mind, he is the go-to-guy if you want second and third generation NY School material. United Artists, Angel Hair, Kulchur Press, C Press. He has your Berrigan, your Brainard / Guston / Schneeman covers, your Padgett, your Waldman, your Mayer. If it was NY School, Beacham just might have it. There are around 278 Angel Hair Press titles on Abebooks; Hermitage has 38 of them ranging from $15-200. Yes, he has Burroughs. He recently had a copy of Time as you might expect. He has the Yugens, Kulchurs, Big Tables, Art and Literatures, and Locus Soluses with the Burroughs appearances along with some modest “A” titles. I do not want to make Hermitage sound more specialized than it is. Beacham procures all types of experimental literature from the 1950s to the 1970s. There are a lot of great San Francisco Renaissance, Fluxus, East and West Coast Language, and Black Mountain titles. Flip through Clay and Phillips’ Secret Location on the Lower East Side, and you will have a good idea of what is available at Hermitage.
Yet Beacham’s approach is self-described as minimalist. He has three small bookshelves, a small glass case, and some books on the wall. His entire stock online (He operates as The Brother in Elysium) is only 618 books. The highest asking price is considerably under $1000. Think bigger is better? Think again. Years ago I went to visit Skyline Books in Forest Knolls, California. James Musser directed me to a small closet in his home. It could have been Fort Knox for all I could see. Everything was desirable. It was all cream. Beacham is not on Musser’s level but you have that same feeling that his stock is groomed. The books on the shelf are an expression of Beacham as a person and an artist.
And that is another aspect of the Hermitage that makes the store special. It is a gallery, a studio, a reading hall, and a printing press. Again think Peace Eye or better yet Jim Lowell’s Asphodel Bookstore in Cleveland. Like those stores of the past, Hermitage functions as work space and art space. Beacham incorporates this idea into his business model, if you can call Beacham’s methods that. Beacham gathers together material for exhibitions to display on the second floor of the store. He has featured Auerhahn Press and da levy already. After the exhibition, Beacham attempts to sell the collection to fund the next show. A show dedicated to the Zephyrus Image is next up. Of course, Beacham has Poltroon Press’ bibliography of Zephyrus Image for sale at the publisher’s price of $40.
I saw the leftovers from the da levy show, which closed two weeks before my arrival. Most of the collection had already sold by the time I got to Beacon, but what I saw was incredible. There were two issues of levy’s early mimeo mag, The Silver Cesspool, printed by levy’s Renegade Press in 1963-1964. I had never seen a copy of any of the five issues up close before, and these examples (Issues four and five) were extraordinary. After viewing the Cesspools, C and Fuck You have the feel of a Sears Catalog to me. Those magazines are bulky, unwieldy. They have all the nuance of a blunt instrument. levy could do that act as well, but not with The Silver Cesspool. Issues Three and Five were like chapbooks, almost fine press. Sanders’ Roosevelt After Inauguration comes to mind. The dimensions of these two mimeo masterpieces are the same, but the paper that levy used sets The Silver Cesspool apart. The paper is delicate like Japanese rice paper, and I love how the paper contrasts with the poor inking off the mimeograph. Beacham also had other examples from levy’s Renegade Press. These were beautiful as well but none of them captured my attention or my imagination like the Cesspools.
Exhibitions dedicated to Auerhahn Press, da levy, and Zephyrus Image are major events in my opinion, but what really gets me excited is the new direction Beacham pursued in connection with the levy exhibit. Beacham printed a collection of levy’s poems entitled: [can we hold hands out here]. Beacham produced 125 copies on a pilot press operated at Hermitage. I bought a copy immediately, and it is a simple but beautifully crafted object. The title highlights Beacham’s attention to typography, and each page demonstrates a similar care with spacing and layout. Beacham did levy proud. Beacham hails from Cleveland, so he has a special connection with that city’s largely forgotten son. It was Beacham’s first major printing project, and it bodes well for his efforts in the future. He plans to further explore this aspect of the Hermitage experience. A recent book art project by Beacham was a success with a museum or two sniffing around for a possible acquisition. Clearly, Beacham and Hermitage would have fit right in on the Lower East Side or Cleveland in the mid-1960s.
The store is much more than a financial venture. It is an experiment in living and an art project. Will this experiment in the book arts in Beacon be a success? I think we have to reassess how we judge success and failure in the case of Hermitage. In my eyes, Hermitage is a ray of hope, not just for the independent bookstore, but for the vitality of print and printing in general. The failure of the store would be yet another example of the bankruptcy of American culture. Beacham, I am sure, would chalk it up as a valuable experience and fodder for his future art, writing and other endeavors. He is already planning for the future outside of Beacon, but I know I’ll be heading up Route 84 to that town by the Hudson River as long as Hermitage and Beacham are there. It is worth the journey.