Lifetime Record Reviews #5
Album: Ry Cooder/Vishwa Bhatt: A Meeting by the River
1993: The building lined the sidewalk where Pier Avenue sloped rather steeply down to the Pacific Coast Highway, the crashing surf, and the Hermosa Beach pier. Any paint left clinging to the wooden exterior was well faded by a half century of ocean breezes and neglect, but the tall windows offered glimpses of the stories inside. A yellowed handwritten note tacked to the door read “DON’T LET THE CAT OUT” while another, newer note stated “HIRING QUALIFIED CANDIDATES.” I opened the creaky door — triggering the tinkle of a bell — walked up to the counter and asked a long haired fellow with thick glasses what the job qualifications were. His answer: “Read books.”
I’d been sleeping in the back of my potential girlfriend’s 1970 Volkswagen station wagon after catching a ride south with her from a run of Grateful Dead shows in Oakland. She was a punk rock girl turned runaway dreadlocked hippy (a more common trajectory at the time than you might imagine) who’d spent the last few months roaming the streets of Venice Beach and San Francisco with a fellow named Mushroom. She’d returned home a few weeks prior to her 18th birthday after spotting some MISSING signs with her photo on them. Her parents were glad to have her back, and would likely do anything to smooth the waters, so we waited for the right moment to introduce me to them in hopes that they might let me move into a spare room.
Circumstances like that aren’t associated with the concept of stable employment, but I really wanted to somehow save enough money to buy a van capable of upgrading my status from hitchhiker to person who picks up hitchhikers. Since I was too scared of mandatory minimum sentences to sell drugs, and lacked the entrepreneurial spirit necessary to crank out a few thousand grilled cheese sandwiches in Grateful Dead show parking lots, that meant that I had to get a job, at least for awhile, and a bookstore seemed like a great gig. I filled out a 10 page job application consisting almost entirely of questions about authors, books, and literary history, much of which I was unable to answer. The blank spots and guesses made me feel unqualified, but I did my best and handed it to the guy in the glasses who said he would pass it on.
They must have been desperate, because I got a call a few days later to schedule an interview with one of the owners, a petite woman with a grizzled voice named Lee who resembled a later stage Joan Didion. She scanned my application while smoking a long, slender brown cigarette, grilled me on authors and my work ethic, corrected my pronunciation of “Mahfouz”, rolled her eyes when I told her I didn’t know who Anaïs Nin was, and offered me a job: $6 bucks per hour, not bad in an era of the $4.25 minimum wage, PLUS I got to borrow all the books I wanted and could purchase books at cost, BUT I had to commit to a year on the job. I had no intention of staying for a year — an eternity at the age of 20, especially when you just want to buy a van and get back to traveling — but being young and selfish, I agreed to the terms and took the job.
Simultaneously, I landed the coveted guest room in my now girlfriend’s parents’ house, and they were happy to feed us both and allow me to live rent free while she obtained her GED, a process that would take a few months. I now had a girlfriend, free food and shelter just a block from the beach, and a job at one of the most unique literary outposts on the west coast.
The store opened in 1966, just as truly crazy California was hitting its stride with biker gangs, Acid Tests, rock bands named “Love”, and all the rest. From the beginning, the bookstore, named “Either/Or” after a book by Swedish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, carried titles by small and alternative presses and stocked a truly eclectic mix of titles and genres catering to lowbrow stoners (Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics), highbrow authors (Thomas Pynchon was a frequent visitor in the early days) and much of everything in between.
I can only guess at the background of the owners, Lee and Richard, but their stories, when reluctantly shared, were good ones: businesses panicking and shuttering their doors when the Hells Angels rolled into town; drunken and debauched book readings in the store by Chuck Bukowski; a private meeting with the Dalai Lama to tell him what they’d seen after being among the first outsiders allowed into Chinese controlled Tibet. They had once been a couple, but by the time they hired me they were no longer romantically involved and were essentially married to the bookstore: Their peculiar personalities had fused with the building, the books, and the unwritten yet precise policies and procedures that governed the store.
My first day of training was with Richard, although he used a few different names to confuse salespeople and anyone he didn’t feel like talking to, the most used alias being “Peter Pott.” He walked me through the precise steps involved in ringing up a sale:
* Take the books from the customer and stack them on the counter.
*Write the title of each in a receipt book, including author, publisher, and type of book (CLO for cloth/hardcover, Q for quality paperback, and M for a cheap mass market paperback).
*When done — and this might require many pages in the receipt book and many minutes of the customer’s time — use the calculator to find the subtotal, search out the local sales tax rate from the sheet taped to the counter, and add it all up.
*Cash only. Count out change from an ancient wooden box beneath the counter and place the books in a paper bag.
As you may have noticed, there was no cash register involved, and definitely no computer. Indeed, the place didn’t even get a phone line until the 1980s. Postcards (simple index cards actually) notifying customers that their special ordered book had arrived were typed out on an antique manual typewriter. Requested books were researched using microfiche which, along with the calculator and electric lighting, were the only signs of 20th century technology anywhere in the store. When the microfiche wasn’t sufficient we delved into the current version of Books in Print: a six foot long shelf of encyclopedia-like volumes listing, in the tiniest possible typeface, literally every single book written in the English language still in print that year.
You may have also noticed that the sales protocol involved no “hello” or “thank you” or “please come again.” This was because Richard’s motto was THE CUSTOMER IS NEVER RIGHT, meaning just that: customers generally didn’t know what they were talking about. Either/Or provided tens of thousands of great books — there were upwards of 70,000 different titles in stock at any given time — and we were always helpful, but there was certainly no ass kissing involved, and never EVER was a customer allowed to use the bathroom (junkies had used it to shoot up in the past) or the telephone.
Morning shifts started at 9:30 so that there was time to perform a ritual inspection of the store prior to unlocking the doors at 10. The building was old (circa 1912) and cavernous, and there were hidden chambers behind bookshelves and lots of nooks and crannies that needed to be searched every morning to make sure no one had broken in. Large portions of the store were NEVER TO BE DUSTED, as undisturbed layers of dust would record the movements of would be burglars. There was a ladder we were supposed to use each morning to check the tops of the bookshelves where one would always find a single fossilized footprint: Richard had put it there himself years before as a test to see if an employee was actually performing the full inspection.
The day shifts were generally mellow. We unpacked shipments and straightened magazines, answered the phone, wrote up the sales, handled special orders — something the store was known for in the pre-internet days — and led customers across the creaking, uneven wooden floors and patches of threadbare carpet to whatever treasure they were seeking. Richard was present on weekdays, usually sitting at his backroom desk — piled with a potential avalanche of hundreds of unread publisher’s catalogs — where he chain smoked Camels and fielded occasional phone calls. He always kept one ear tuned to whatever was happening at the front desk, and would randomly appear with a typed memo for us to sign (perhaps regarding the proper place to set our drinks, or the protocol for cleaning the cat box) or to rant about the collusion and greed of the big chain bookstores or the fact that he was sick of the “new age crap” music Lee forced us to play.
At the time, that music consisted of a single CD on repeat: A Meeting by the River by Ry Cooder and Vishwa Bhatt. It was blues slide guitar meets Indian sitar, with rapid fire tabla, and had just been featured on a local NPR segment, which meant that the type of people who live in California and listen to public radio were clamoring for it. So we played it over and over again for months — four long instrumental jams — sold a couple hundred copies, and, eventually, memorized every bar of every song.
The night shift was busy. It started at 4:00 in the afternoon and might last until 3 in the morning, long after the store had closed at 11:00 pm, as the closing process consisted of an elaborate reordering and hand count of each of the hundreds of titles sold that day. The procedure was as follows:
*Walk the entirety of the store, five levels and a nine rooms, and run your bare hand along the outer edge of each shelf to remove dust (generally the only dusting that was allowed), straightening and reshelving any leaning or misplaced books in the process.
* Grab the day’s stack of hand written receipts and locate remaining copies of EACH AND EVERY TITLE SOLD that day, and pencil in how many of each were still on the shelf.
*After closing, sit with Lee late into the night and figure out how many copies, if any, of each book would need to be ordered.
*Upon closing, be sure all cigarettes are truly extinguished in all ashtrays, inspect the store to make sure no burglars had tried to hide behind the potted plants, and feed the cat.
As with the cash register(less) process, this stocking, inventory and ordering protocol involved zero computers or other technology as the ENTIRE STORE INVENTORY existed in Lee’s head. Nothing was written down anywhere. She knew if there were two copies of Henry Miller’s Sexus still on the shelf that some jerk had stolen one sometime this week, as there had been four copies last Tuesday and only one had been sold, so better order two more copies.
All of this might seem inefficient, but the procedures had been honed by three decades of trial and error, but I soon learned that there was always a method to the madness. By walking the shelves and searching out and eyeballing hundreds of titles each day, we quickly memorized the location of thousands of books. This allowed us to point customers to the right place when they inquired about a title, and helped us mentally catalog a long list of authors whose works we might never read. By avoiding cash registers, credit cards and computerized inventories Either/Or kept their overhead low and avoided banking fees and the need for upgrades and repairs, and could even operate when the power was out. Nothing at Either/Or happened quickly, but it happened, and no one could argue with the great selection and the working knowledge of the staff.
The slightly weird bookstore attracted slightly weird employees — indeed, the owners seemed to prefer this: I once saw Lee frown and trash a resumé after she noticed the applicant had been a manager at Waldenbooks, a chain store commonly found in malls across America at the time: the employee who had accepted the application had scribbled “WALDENBOY” across the top of it. Store staff was small, just five of us at the time, all males and mostly stoner musicians:
* Sean — the long haired fellow who’d received my job application — played bass in a band called Prometheus, but eventually quit after realizing that the “heavy blues” they played was really just heavy metal, something he was deeply ashamed of.
*Chris — a guitar virtuoso recently graduated from UC Riverside with an English degree who lived nearby in a tiny apartment with a schizophrenic roommate.
*Burt — nice guy with a Cheshire Cat smile who’d played in a post punk LA band called Easter, but was now deep into creating Ministry and NIN inspired industrial music.
*Vance — clean cut with porn star mustache, and at age 35 or so, the oldest after the owners. He was an actor who worked nights so he would be available for casting calls during he day, and he sometimes hooked the bookstore employees up as movie extras.
On weekends, when Lee and Richard weren’t around and we didn’t have to play the sitar CD, we would gather in the back room, light incense, pass the pipe, crank up Jimi Hendrix and spend hours at the counter reading poetry or gazing at the high dollar art books kept near the cash register — everything from H.R. Giger’s Necronomicon to collections of 14th century Zen Buddhist ink drawings to the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe, depending on the mood.
It was a truly relaxing atmosphere that encouraged one to slow down and delve into the literary world — there were even a few bean bag style pillows scattered about, and an indoor porch swing up near the fiction room. Being the beach, the place drew plenty of tourists but most of the clientele were locals ranging from the super rich to the homeless, some of whom came in a few times each week just to browse in an unhurried atmosphere. Local writer Ron Kovic, author of Born on the 4th of July, stopped in every so often to autograph his books, which were kept on the entry level so he could easily access them in his wheelchair, and, being Los Angeles, the occasional star would stop in: Ed O’Neill (Married With Children — got a negotiating book), Gary Shandling (The Larry Sanders Show — chose a stack of Buddhism books) and Jay Leno (The Tonight Show — can’t recall what he bought) all stood across the counter at different times while I — in a stoned haze — wrote up their books and took their crisp Hollywood cash.
There was something for everyone: dust motes mingled with Nag Champa, the Financial Times and High Times, barefoot bookworm employees, signed first editions, a large gardening section that seamlessly integrated books on root vegetables, landscaping and psychedelic mushrooms, a whole room dedicated to philosophy and religion, faded posters and artwork on the walls, the ability to find obscure and out of print books, and the pride of the store: a carefully curated fiction and poetry room on the 5th level.
Best of all was the black cat, Justine, the first bookstore cat I’d ever met. She’d been a fixture of the store since 1981 and loved to lay across the shoulders of trusted customers while they sat and read books. At 12 years old, she was slowing down, and the jump from the counter to the floor was starting to make her nervous, but she was tough and had already survived one bout of cancer, as well as a dog attack and getting fully doused in syrupy and probably highly toxic yellow paint when city crews had refurbished the curbs out front sometime in the 1980s. When she wasn’t cuddling with us or a customer, she was usually curled up atop the stacks of magazines in the sunniest window in the store.
Like Justine, Lee and Richard were tough, and they’d weathered many economic and cultural storms, but the long hours and pressures of running a small business had clearly taken a toll on their physical and even mental health. Suffice to say that they’d ignored the jogging and health food crazes that had swept through California in the 1970’s, preferring to stick with the smoking and reading good books ethic the store had been built upon. They also exhibited Asberger-like tendencies: demanding strict adherence to the strangely regimented procedures and a near total avoidance of all social interaction, although the latter may have been simply due to the fact that they’d reached a stage of their life where they simply didn’t have time for anyone’s bullshit.
Whatever their eccentricities, they had a passion for sharing quality literature with the world, and the bookstore had a great reputation and loyal customers, but already — 1993 — things were not looking so good for Either/Or Bookstore. Chain stores, especially the new gigantic megastores like Borders, or Barnes and Noble, were flexing their bulk purchasing muscle and offering steeply discounted prices on best sellers — the bread and butter of any bookstore (The Bridges of Madison County!)— and undercutting small and independent bookstores across America.
I only ended up working at Either/Or for about five months. Thanks to the decent wage and the largess of my girlfriend’s parents, I’d been able to save a few thousand dollars and was itching to hit the road. Nervous about how to break the news of my premature exit to Lee and Richard, especially since they had recently given me a raise and small promotion, I lied about being given the opportunity to travel to Guatemala for some kind of charity work, something I couldn’t pass up. It was total bullshit, belied by the fact that I was suddenly arriving to work in a 1969 Volkswagen van, and they were disappointed — Lee muttered something about nobody honoring their commitments anymore. But then she ventured out of back office and returned with a book from the travel section: a guide to Central America, my parting gift from the store.
At the time, quitting a job so I could roam free seemed mostly good and proper, but looking back 27 years later — which is how long the store had been in existence when I worked there — I feel a bit of shame over not honoring my word. I thought I was a cool traveler: fighting The Man via adventure and avoidance of alarm clocks, but in the process of doing my own thing I was flaking out on two actual rebels who had been, in their own way, quietly fighting the powers that be and struggling to provide something real — POETRY AND STORIES — in a world that was careening towards big box blandness.
The store stuck it out for a few more years, but by 1998 the combination of corporate bookstores (and, probably, a budding Amazon), soaring beach real estate values, a landlord who wanted to jack up the rent, lack of parking, constant theft, and the aging building itself (no heat, no air conditioning, bad plumbing, electrical problems) forced the store to close. The building is still there, but the funky literary outpost that was once Either/Or has been replaced by a couple of highbrow boutiques, a furniture store offering five thousand dollar couches, and the only Subway store in America where the smell of bread is interlaced with the faint scent of incense and good books.