Lost The Girl; Got The Book

Chuck Brown is the editor of CommonSense2. He also fights a losing battle against the ever-encroaching books at The Used Bookstore in Kutztown, PA.

59chevy.jpgYou’ve heard of trophy wives. Well, Diane was a trophy girlfriend. You know what I mean. Just gorgeous. 5’3″ with long jet black hair over pale skin with great curves in all the right places. She was a young adolescent boy’s dream, and I was a young adolescent boy. The neighbor down the street was going into the service so he sold me this real cool 1959 Chevy convertible with those cat’s eyes tail fins and light blue paint job. God it was beautiful—it was my babe car. It was Long Island in the summer of 1965 and I was on top of the world. What else could a 16 year old high school student want? I had a summer job at Wetson’s—a burger joint, the best looking girl in town and the coolest car I ever had. I’d put Diane in that convertible and drive her over to Robert Moses Beach on Fire Island just so I could see the jaws drop on all the guys when we made our entrance. Pretty damn shallow, don’t you think? As Sarah Palin would say, “You betcha.”

I tell you all this not to brag, (okay—maybe to brag a little), but just so you would take my disease seriously. You have to see that a condition would have to be pretty darn serious to mess up my perfect summer. The thing is that back then I didn’t even know I was sick. Much less so with a disease that is so onerous that there is no known cure. What I didn’t know then, I certainly know now. I am a biblioholic. In the summer of 1965 the biblioholism reared its ugly head for the first, but certainly not the last, time in a life-altering way. I should have heeded the warning then and sought professional help. Now I fear it is too late. Here’s what happened.

Diane and I had been going steady for 5 or 6 weeks. I worked at Wetson’s in the summer for 50-60 hours a week. Diane lived in Sayville, which was a little further out on the Island. But I managed to see her two or three nights a week. On my day off I didn’t usually see her because that was the day I would put aside for bookin’. Now I booked religiously. There wasn’t one used bookstore that I didn’t know on Long Island or in New York City. If I had spent half the time on my schoolwork that I did learning the arcane rules and points of book collecting, I would have been a straight A student.

Every single day I had off, I was off on some bookin’ trip. It was just a hobby I rationalized. Like an alcoholic, I reasoned that I could stop anytime I wanted. But deep in the recesses of what was left of my mind I knew I couldn’t. Diane, of course, resented this greatly. She viewed my bookin’ as an unwelcome adversary. A girl like Diane requires that to be her boyfriend you should think about Diane, and Diane alone, 24/7. So my interest in Diane and my interest in bookin’ existed in an uneasy coexistence that summer of 1965. The tension between the two was always just beneath the surface.

wetsons.jpgAll summer I had worked crazy hours at Wetson’s to save enough money to go on the mother-of-all-bookin’ trips that second week of August—a trip to Book Row! If heaven ever existed, it existed in that area of Manhattan between 4th and 12th Streets known as Book Row. From the 1920′s through the early 1970′s, Book Row was that wonderful portion of Greenwich Village that was lined with nothing but bookstores interrupted occasionally by a coffeehouse, restaurant or jazz club. It was a heady place where you could actually feel the revolution in the air as you walked down the streets. Complete strangers would stop and strike up conversations with you. Shoppers for used books would stop at the coffeehouses and show their newly acquired treasures to appreciative complete strangers and strike up conversations about the authors. To a biblioholic like myself, Book Row was the center of the universe.

Finally the week arrived for my Friday trip to Book Row. I learned not to bring the trip up to Diane because she would get quiet every time I talked about it. That Wednesday evening she called me up very excited. Her parents were going away for a week to Florida. She would see them off around 2:00 p.m. and we could spend the weekend at her parents’ bungalow in a little town near Montauk Point at the end of the Island. We could leave Friday evening when she got back from the airport. Wow! A weekend with Diane in a bungalow. I was excited but also suspicious. I thought then what you’re thinking now. This date conflict was no accident. This was a test! Diane or Book Row? Diane or Book Row?

Could I pass up a weekend with the enchanting Diane and thus destroy the relationship? No. Could I defy my biblioholism and turn my back on Book Row? Of course not. Thinking fast I decided to try and have my cake and eat it too. I proposed that I could take the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station with the morning commuters. Go to Book Row. Catch the 4:00 p.m. train out of New York and sit in the last car of the train. She could board the train at Sayville around 6:30 p.m. knowing where I’m sitting. We’d probably reach Montauk point by about 8:00 p.m. Being out maneuvered and unable to think of a logical reason why this wouldn’t work, Diane reluctantly agreed to this plan.

8thstbookstoreinside.jpgFinally the day arrived. I took the train to Penn Station and hopped on the subway to Greenwich Village at 12th Street. After visiting the Strand Bookstore, I worked my way downtown enjoying the sights and sounds of the Village. When in Book Row I always saved the best for last. That was, of course, the incomparable Eighth Street Bookshop. If ever there was a place of unrelieved bliss, it was The Eighth Street Bookshop. No bookstore before or since could shine its shoes. Operated by the kind but eccentric Wilentz brothers, The Eighth Street Bookshop was three floors of the most lovingly selected books imaginable.

The Eighth Street Bookshop was put together with a total disregard for the capitalist system in which we live. No best sellers here. It was as if the owners set out to find the most obscure, the most unusual and the most tasteful books around and make them available to the exclusion of everything else. They knew their literature. They knew their authors. And my, was there ever a better poetry section anywhere, anytime? I think not. It may have been the first bookstore to take the paperback seriously. It had every small run, small press paperback you could imagine. That’s the thing. You knew that when you went there, you’d find treasures that you found nowhere else. Whenever I think back on the Eighth Street Bookshop I think of that verse from the Judy Collins song: “It’s life’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know life at all.”

8thstbookstore.jpgOn this particular Friday afternoon all was going well. I brought my bagful of books up to the checkout. While my books were being totaled my eyes fell on the Limited Edition Club’s copy of Lysistrata. It was love at first sight. Illustrated and signed by Picasso in 1934, this book was collectible even then. It was priced at $120.00, a fortune for a high school student then. Remember we’re talking about 1965 dollars here. Today it’s worth thousands. I fondled the book and thought about the $150.00 in my pocket that had to last me through this weekend. A virulent strain of biblioholism was alive and well in The Eighth Street Bookshop that day. I managed to tear myself away and walked half a block before doing a u-turn. I had to see it again. I spent another twenty minutes torturing myself and then, seeing it was 3:30 p.m. and I had to make a 4:00 p.m. train, I left without the book.

I made the train at Penn Station and took the half hour ride to Jamaica where you switch to all trains. I couldn’t get the book out of my mind. When I reached Jamaica, the doors of the car opened on both sides. To the left were trains back to New York. Exit right for trains to Long Island. I hesitated in the opening thinking Diane or the book, Diane or the book. I stepped left. By 6:00 p.m. I was at The Eighth Street Bookshop securing my treasure.

charlie-teen.jpgBy the time I got back to Penn Station it was 6:30 p.m.—the time when Diane would be boarding the earlier train out in Suffolk County two hours down the line. No cell phones to make my excuses in those days. I switched at Jamaica and then again at Babylon picking up the diesel out to Montauk Point, all the while thinking about what kind of song and dance routine I could use to get me out of this pickle. At least I had the address of the bungalow in my wallet—a precaution in case of inadvertent separation.

It was very late when I arrived in Montauk Point—I don’t remember what time exactly. I managed to find my way to the bungalow through asking directions. It was only about 1/2 mile from the station. It was completely dark and no one answered my knock. There was a note on the door. “Charlie, I never want to speak to you again–Diane.” She never did.

I walked back to the train platform and sat on a bench. There were no trains back till the next morning. I sat there trying to rationalize the situation. After all, I told myself, women will come and go, but your books are with you always. That was the biblioholism talking. After a time I opened up my package and caressed my treasure. The book smiled up at me secure in the knowledge that it had rid itself of an adversary. Little did it know that it soon would be discarded and put on a shelf with all the previous treasures who had been victims of previous love affairs only to be replaced in the next bout of biblio love-lust.

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