Finding Dylan and Whitman in Jeff Deutsch’s Bookstore Utopia
By Stuart Mitchner
“Good bookstores reflect a Whitmanian sense of self: they contain multitudes.”
—from In Praise of Good Bookstores
I found Jeff Deutsch’s In Praise of Good Bookstores (Princeton University Press $19.95) under Business & Career (341.45) at the Princeton Public Library. Which is why I almost didn’t find it. I had to ask a librarian for help. I can see why a book about bookstores by a man who runs one could end up in that Dewey Decimal dead zone, but Deutsch’s deceptively small volume is much too multitudinous to be squeezed into 341.45. While it’s true that you’ll pick up some information about managing Chicago’s Seminary Co-op, a vast bookstore with an imposing reputation, you don’t have to read far to know you’ve entered a wondrous realm on the far side of “business and career,” a bookstore utopia where the dead speak to the living in a society Deutsch has woven together with thoughts on books and life and the life in books, from Petrach to Pound, Epicurus to Emerson, Calvino to Conrad, and on beyond the beyond.
The Dylan-Whitman Matrix
Whenever I’m in the vicinity of Memorial Day, I run into Bob Dylan, born May 24, and Walt Whitman, born May 31, a liaison Dylan exploited in “I Contain Multitudes,” the first song on his album Rough and Rowdy Ways. Deutsch offers a line from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” to describe what happens when bookstore browsers surprise themselves, finding “just the sort of book they were hoping for”: “Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.” Whitman’s thought needs more than one reading. The way it’s phrased is so striking, you can imagine it haunting the room at the Chelsea Hotel as Dylan was composing “Visions of Johanna,” and you wonder if it might have provoked something “out of the soul” of Robert Frost when he wrote “Mending Wall” (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall / That sends the frozen ground-swell under it” ).
Another line from Whitman by way of Deutsch that led me straight to Dylan stresses the importance of taking “a more active approach to reading,” meaning that the reader has “to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay” (or in Dylan’s case, song or memoir) providing “the start or framework.” It’s not that “the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book.”
Dylan provides a demonstration in his freewheeling autobiography Chronicles: Volume One, where his version of a “good bookstore” is the voluminous library of the Greenwich Village couple he was living with at the time. He describes “a dark cavern with a floor-to ceiling library…. The place had an overpowering presence of literature…. There were all kinds of things in here, books on typography, epigraphy, philosophy, political ideologies. The stuff that could make you bugged-eyed. Books like Fox’s Book of Martyrs, The Twelve Caesars, Tacitus lectures and letters to Brutus. Pericles’ Ideal State of Democracy, Thucydides’ The Athenian General — a narrative which would give you chills…. It’s like nothing has changed from his time to mine.”
Riding Tolstoy’s Bicycle
Dylan goes on for three more pages, citing novels by Gogol and Balzac; Materia Medica; Machiavelli’s The Prince (“The spirit of the hustler” says a handwritten note in front); quirky pairings such as Rosseau’s Social Contract with Temptation of St. Anthony, Ovid’s Metamorphoses next to the autobiography of Davy Crockett. He also remembers reading “a lot of it aloud,” liking “the sound of the words, the language,” singling out Milton’s protest poem, “Massacre in Piedmont” (“It was like folk song lyrics, even more elegant”). Then there’s “the Russian stuff,” which has “an especially dark presence.” A “book by Count Leo Tolstoy” leads to Dylan’s visit to Tolstoy’s estate “more than twenty years later,” where “a tour guide let me ride his bicycle.” Moving on to Dostoevsky, who “wrote stories to ward off his creditors,” Dylan recalls the early 1970s when “I wrote albums to ward off mine.”
There it is, the undead speaking to a living reader who’s making connections, absorbing material, and after referring to stories by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, noting that “folksingers could sing songs like an entire book, but only in a few verses.” Or, as Dylan would do with a multitude verses.
Working at the Eighth Street
“Greenwich Village’s Famous Bookshop” — so says the stationery I used when I worked for the Eighth Street Bookshop during my first year in New York City. The store’s rich stock of new, out-of-the-way titles exemplified Christopher Morley’s strategy, quoted by Deutsch, that the bookseller “has to combine the functions of the bar-room and the bodega. He must be able to serve, on demand, not only the cocktail of the moment but also the scarcest of old vintages. How rare is the publican who understands the challenges of both.”
Dylan would have been in and out of the store that year, although he was not yet famous. According to a YouTube video on his first stay in New York, he met Allen Ginsberg at the Eighth Street, which his girlfriend Suzie Rotolo, the girl on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, used “as a kind of library,” where she’d sit on the floor “and read Henry Miller and Anais Nin.”
Deutsch’s reference to the shelf life of books in the context of returns suggests that his store carries primarily new stock, with the presumed emphasis on academic titles like those published by university presses. My own adventure in books began as a 10-year-old visiting the shops on New York’s Fourth Avenue with my father. Picture an overcast day in winter, a street shrouded in metropolitan mystery, every shop a film noir, one after the other, atmospheric movies created by owners who saw subject areas as neighborhoods, rickety tenements inhabited by the illustrious and “mute, inglorious” undead. It didn’t matter that my taste at the time ran to the Hardy Boys and baseball. I picked up on the mystique of browsing and dreaming, of finding something unfindable.
The Old York
Twenty years later I found a Fourth Avenue bookstore in New Brunswick, located just around the corner from the Rutgers campus. The owner of the Old York from 1968 to 1983, John Socia, who died in 2001, truly loved books, and had a gift for finding the right ones, which he priced more than fairly. He had a note-in-the-bottle notion of his mission, every book set afloat by the readers of shipwrecked castaway authors. When he was growing up, John used to get taken along to used bookstores in Philadelphia by his father, a Sicilian immigrant who apparently developed a passion for books while learning the English language. John was my ideal of the unbookish bookman: he loved James Joyce the way I loved the St. Louis Cardinals.
Micawber and Labyrinth
I just looked up the letterhead of the Eighth Street to make sure it identified as a bookshop, and so it did. New York’s still-standing Strand and Argosy both identify as bookstores. The best solution may be the one used by two local booksellers, Labyrinth Books and its predecessor in the same location, Micawber Books, where Logan Fox oversaw a thriving secondhand department that occupied half of the store.
Speaking of local booksellers, I’m reminded of the day last week when I ducked from Sylvia Beach Way into the library to look for Deutsch’s book. It’s worth remembering that Sylvia Beach, who lived on Library Place and is buried in the Princeton Cemetery, founded and ran Shakespeare and Company, one of the most famous bookstores in the world, a literary legend still very much alive in the opening scene of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (2004), where the author giving a reading is played by Hun School graduate Ethan Hawke.
As for bookstores on film, something “in the float of the sight of things” found its way into The Big Sleep (1946), no doubt the only film noir with scenes in two second-hand bookstores, one of which is a front clerked by a drug dealer’s moll who goes “Duh” when a private eye disguised as a simpering bibliophile comes in asking about first editions with special points. The shop across the street clerked by Dorothy Malone is the real thing, however. She knows her books and she knows what to do when Humphrey Bogart walks through the door of the Acme Book Shop on a rainy day with a bottle of rye in his pocket. She pulls the shade and shuts the shop for the afternoon.
When Deutsch refers to “the companionship of books,” and of how “we find in their pages a companionship that our authors felt in the presence of their books,” I think of the time my best friend and I spent a hot summer afternoon reading together in the green-lamp-shaded cool of the New York Public Library’s main reading room. He picked The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw, I picked Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The idea was that we would read each book all the way through, side by side. It wasn’t a race, or even a competition — we just thought it worth doing and it was. A decade later another friend and I read Coleridge’s “Christabel” out loud together, passing the paperback back and forth, huddled face to face in a tent in the Lake District. Both friends are gone now, one in November 2020, the other this past April. Both will be in my thoughts on
Correction: In last week’s Book Review (“Exploring The New Princeton Companion”), I wrote “We’ve had the Garden Theatre for 120 years and it’s better than ever.” In fact, the Garden opened in 1920, so that should be 102 years.