Sunday, July 20, 2008

Waves of Literature, Mountains of Paper

Day two in New Orleans and I decided to continue my UPS saga just a little further. (By the way, the end of that saga really is that Matt had to go pick up the package on Monday and I'll get it when I return home. No more tears, just an acceptance that sometimes I over react, and that I picked the right time to go on an extended holiday.) One of the books I had ordered from Amazon was David Copperfield. Do I have my own tattered and warn copy? Yes. I brought it with me. My plan is to tare it apart, literally. I’m going to re-read it and take out the pages that apply to me, past them into a notebook and make notes on them and I work on outlines and scenes. Necessary? Maybe not. Fun and interesting? Yes. But, I wanted to have a not ripped up copy on had for re-reference and… you know…so that I could have a not ripped up copy. Through my long love of book stores the literature section has always brimmed with Dickens. Used bookstores usually allow him to take up several shelves in the same way that their drama section might as well be called “variations of Shakespeare paper backs”. It never occurred to me that I would not find David Copperfield on the shelves. Unfortunately, it seems that people who own copies of the book keep it while selling or getting rid of Bleak House and everyone had David Copperfield on their summer reading list. Hence the ordering of the book on Amazon.

But all is not lost, I told myself. After all, New Orleans may be in the process of rebuilding but it has not lost all it’s book stores. The travel book even says that New Orleans is a well read literary city. “Of course it is.” I thought to myself. Think of the writers who have lived and written there and the books they have written. The plays. The foundations of our history are just as locked up in the events of our past as our writers recounting and retelling of it. Whether in fiction or non-fiction, New Orleans can sport close relationships with the greats and the most popular of the popular. I’d never call Anne Rice a great writer, but the power and popularity of her writing is undeniable.

The travel book told me that the French Quarter sports several bookstores. Because they are all in walking distance, I decided to walk to all of them. The first one I actually visited on my first day when I came across it accidentally. The Book Exchange is new bohemian, in other words punk. Operating on the idea that these are just books and their material value is not important as the knowledge with in them, which should be free, and the price tag reflects that. They are all used, most of them used to the point of tattered. The clientele when I visited were myself, another young woman about my age, and an older woman who was looking for a Star Trek book along the lines of “The Wrath of Khan.” The proprietor was kind and gentle and found the book right away and was paid about twenty five cents. The woman was course and rough. She sounded like a woman who had lived on the streets, the exercise of talking long and loud makes so many homeless people sound like actors in a strange way. She talked about how she was getting free lance work fixing computers, a trade she taught her self. “I just woke up one morning and I knew that I had it in me. It’s like talking to horses.”

Now, how that woman found that book still boggles my mind. Except I think that there was a Star Trek section, but I guarantee the books were not in any particular order because they certainly weren’t in the rest of the store. They were sectioned off into genres, but no alphabetizing of any kind happened within. My two favorite sections of the store were one called “useless information” which contained the Guinness Books of World Records, sports histories, old geography books, and a few old almanacs. I love that not only had she had made this section and every book within was her judgment on what was generally useless, yet she knew someone would find something in there so the books all remained. The other section was called “Fiction/Non-Fiction” and reminded me of a time when my friend Emily worked in one of those stupidly huge book stores and someone came up to her and asked her where the Non-Fiction novels were. If she only knew then she could have told him “New Orleans”.

My snobby part was affronted by the lack of organization and general carelessness in the store. In fact the “Fiction/Non-Fiction” section was the part that upset me the most. How cold a book store operate this way? I mean really! I left disappointed in this “literary” city.

But all was not lost. There were several other bookstores, and I was sure to find what I was looking for in one of them. The first stop was actually not a book store, but a shrine to one of my favorite playwrights: Tennessee Williams.

My dear friends, many of whom are in theatre, I’m sure you will understand the utter shock, dismay, disappointment, revolution and disillusionment when I tell you this: Tennessee Williams house is for sale. It is not a shrine. A plaque on the building has the few years he spent there and that he wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire” there, but other then that there is nothing but a for sale sign. Not a book store or even a crappy souvenir shop. How could this happen! In a city where there are drinks named Stella! This play is an homage to the poetic duality that Williams found when he got here. One of his best plays is built on existing themes in the city itself. Jazz plays throughout as an emotional landscape, there really was a tenement called Elysian Fields, and there really was a streetcar named Desire. There were all of these things, before The Hurricane. Gone. There is no place for Desire to go, so they stopped running it. Not that it was a streetcar anymore anyway. The streetcar is in San Francisco and is part of a moving museum of streetcars. Tourists get on it and laugh and think it’s a funny joke. Here, the rails for the car had been ripped out and it became a bus called Desire. Gone with the horrible housing it took people to. Gone is Elysian Fields, built so horribly in the first place there is no way it would withstand the abuse of the storm and the flood that followed. And with so many of those old houses in the French Quarter for sale, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised the Williams house has no tenants. But it left me a little cold inside.

Around the corner is Faulkner’s house. For being a street called Pirate Alley, this one was by far better maintained. Some one lives in Faulkner’s house, where he wrote “Soldiers Pay.” There is also a book store on the ground floor. No bigger than my living room at home, this little shop was beautiful. The books were almost all new and displayed with care and joy. Here I found Faulkner, Williams, and all the other writers who ever wrote, mentioned or lived in New Orleans. But no Dickens. Who ever owned the shop had an obvious affinity for poetry and there were shelves and shelves and shelves of poetry. Everything was clean and bright. Stark contrast to The Book Exchange. A pretty little bookshop and the bottom of a pretty little yellow house.

The next book store was…amazing. Just amazing. I tried to take pictures, but I felt it was rude to go into someone’s business and take pictures. I’m sure someone else on the internet has done it and I’ll use theirs, but I just don’t know if I’ll be able to put it into words. The books were stacked and piled in such away that it seemed the architect of the mess had a mind to creating a replica of the labyrinthineian mountains of Afghanistan. Any good San Franciscan would cross themselves twice before entering this shop as they tilted their heads up toward the literary leaning towers. It seems there was such a rush to get all the book just into the space that not a thought was put into anyone ever seeing them. I felt like I as in a storage unit, not a store. Most of the spines where turned away from me, so I couldn’t even read them. I thought to myself “Here, here is where I will find a treasure! Here is where I’ll find a forgotten tome, a lost legacy, a priceless prize.” I found a section that contained books on movie stars and realized drama books couldn’t be far. Sure enough, deep with in a cave between Beatles 8 Tracks and Marylyn Monroe I found plays. I reached out and pulled, only to find the shelf above my beloved section had split under the weight of the mountain on top of it. When I pulled the whole of the 15 feet of books above me shuttered. I called off the treasure hunt and left the store. Later I met a woman who worked at an antique store in the Quarter. She told me that she hadn’t sold a piece in three months. I looked around and saw that nothing was priced under a hundred dollars, and those things weren’t antiques just normal things painted up and lacquered by an artist. I wasn’t surprised she hadn’t sold anything. She told me the owner was independently wealthy and didn’t really need this store for anything more then a hobby to occupy his time. Thinking back to that death trap of a bookstore I think the same must be said for that owner as I don’t imagine there are a lot of people buying things from him. Only four people can fit in the store at any given time and I doubt more then one of them would be brave enough to pull at some anonymous book just to see if it is worth a stack falling on there head. Of course, a first edition Wizard of Oz might be worth it, but you’d have to find the section first.

The other book stores were normal, tiny, used book stores. One of them I even bought a significant amount of Tennessee Williams from. Mostly because I found the section easily enough, the books were alphabetized, I was never in fear for my life, and it was the last book store I visited and I needed something to eat. I never did find any Dickens, not a one.

But, when I got home very tired and very hot I did find out how wonderful it is to lay back on a floating mattress in a pool with my feet in the water, a cold lemonade in one hand and Tennessee Williams in the other.

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