Tuesday, March 18, 2008

How I Became a Bookseller

Note: This blog entry is part of the American Booksellers Association blog carnival. A blog carnival is a collection of posts on a given topic. Links to blog entries on how people became booksellers will be published on ABA Omnibus on March 25th.

The glimmering movie screen in Houston’s art deco Alabama Theater was an immense backdrop to aisles and aisles of carefully shelved books. The looming, white expanse stretched across the entire back end of the flagship Bookstop location like an enormous blank page. It was there to project your imagination upon even as you discovered the published efforts of thousands of authors.

Unfortunately, my imagination was in short supply on the hot, muggy, September day that I first entered the historic theater-turned-bookstore in 1987. I needed a job, and I was desperate to land one. I was daydreaming about paying my rent, buying gas for my car and maybe having enough money left over to buy my girlfriend, Cathy, dinner. The three months of freedom from academia since my college graduation had turned into a strange, humid, house of horrors on the Gulf Coast that I couldn’t seem to exit.

Houston wasn’t even the beginning of my adventures. I had spent the better part of the summer in New Orleans with my college friend Debbie and later, her girlfriend, Barb. We arrived on a sweltering day in late July and quickly found an apartment on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line above a steak and eggs joint on South Carrollton Avenue. It wasn’t a bad place: hardwood floors, a banana tree in the backyard, a sunny kitchen and one air conditioner. Sure, the neighborhood was a bit seedy, but we were beginning life on our own in a new, exotic city.

Day after day, Deb and I looked for work as we waited for Barb to join us. I applied to restaurants (talking up my busboy experience in high school), newspapers (noting my experience as the editor of my college paper), and to music stores (pointing out my years as college a DJ). No luck. No matter where I went, I was told that there weren’t any jobs.

New Orleans was quickly becoming a disaster for me. Ronald Reagan might have brought morning to America with his Reaganomics, but New Orleans was still mired in darkness. Unemployment was in double digits, the racial tension in the city was palpable, and no one in the south wanted to have anything to do with me and my foreign-sounding name. Truthfully, why should anyone in Louisiana be able to pronounce my name right when I couldn’t even say New Orleans properly?

Early in my stay, I had wandered into a bar and ordered a drink -- something strong and cheap. A grizzled old man sitting on the barstool next to me looked intensely at me, his eyes taking in my ripped jeans and my faded Who t-shirt. Finally, he said in a gravelly voice, “How long you been in Nawlins?”

“Excuse me?”

“Nawlins,” he said, gesturing around the bar with his arm.

I was flummoxed. “Nawlins,” he yelled again as if I was deaf. Then, thinking I’d put the pieces together at last, I decided that Nawlins must be the name of the bar.

I picked up the sweating glass, swallowed a mouthful of my drink and said, “I just got here. I’ve been here five minutes, tops. I walked in the door, sat down and ordered my drink.”

He stared at me pretty hard and I stared back at him, looking right into his clouded blue eyes and wondering if he was going to lunge at me. Suddenly, he broke out into a big grin and raised his glass. “You’re all right, son. You’re all right.” He turned in his stool and shouted to some guys playing pool, “Says he’s been in Nawlins for five minutes! That’s the first time I heard that. Five minutes in Nawlins and comes straight here, to this fine establishment.”

Rejected from one job after another, Deb and I quickly discovered that we couldn’t afford life in New Orleans on our dwindling savings. We could barely pay for beignets from a street vendor as a weekend splurge. Late at night, we stood outside of the city’s bars and listened to the raw music flowing out into the street through the opened windows.

It was on one of these nights in late August that I came to realize my time in New Orleans was over. Earlier that day, I had checked back in at a local music store for about the tenth time, hoping to see if there were any openings. When I pleaded my case to the reluctant manager, he simply said, “Look, you don’t even have a degree in music. I’ve got 20 resumes from music majors, some with graduate degrees. But I’ll hold onto your resume, if you really want me to.”

That night, as we walked the streets of the city, I was so disconsolate that I bought a small bottle of scotch. Debbie, who was celebrating Barb’s imminent arrival the next day, was happy to share swigs as we pushed through the neighborhoods in our quest for live music. Eventually, we came to a bar where the guitars sounded as though they were being played underwater, and the singer’s voice sounded like it had been treated with sandpaper. The front of the bar was opened like a garage door, and Deb and I swayed to this dark music and drank scotch from our paper bag.

As the night wore on, we were joined by at least a half-dozen men sipping cheap liquor out of their own paper bags and enjoying the music. Most of them looked to be homeless, and we were the only white people among this ragtag crew. They treated us well and offered to share their schnapps with us after Deb and I drained our bottle. Throughout the hot, humid night, one common thread ran through our conversation with these men: Why would you be in New Orleans if you could get out?

By the morning, just as Barb was arriving at the apartment, I was making plans to move to Houston and join my girlfriend, Cathy, in her hometown. She had transferred back to the University of Houston and was about to start the fall semester. I figured the economy had to be better there, and perhaps in a big, modern city, gleaming with glass skyscrapers, my Armenian name wouldn’t be such a handicap.

A few days after my arrival in Houston, a fledgling weekly newspaper out in the distant suburbs hired me on as the sports editor. I was elated, relieved and immensely grateful to the publisher, a woman in her forties. My euphoria died when I reported to work and discovered that the newspaper didn’t exist. It was my job, as well as that of a few other journalistic wannabes, to will it into existence. Basically, I was a commissioned sales rep, pounding the scorching hot Texas blacktop trying to sell inches of ad copy for a newspaper that was a figment of the owner’s imagination. Once enough ads were sold and an issue was in the works, then I could be the sports editor.

I spent a week going in and out of every kind of business in a dozen different nondescript strip malls, including grimy car repair shops, Mexican bakeries, mom-and-pop drug stores, an Irish pub, Chinese restaurants, a tattoo parlor and even an adult bookstore with a peep show. My spiel was awful and my sales technique thoroughly inept. I didn’t know what geographic area that the newspaper would cover, what our politics were or what kind of stories we’d write. Those things kept changing based on where we sold the ads.

Each day I returned to the office empty-handed, and the publisher would scowl at me and chastise me like a lazy child. Finally, I sold a quarter-page ad to a photography store. I almost kissed the man when he bought it. My commission, for the week, came to about $50. It was barely enough to buy my lunches and the gas I’d used.

The next Monday morning, I couldn’t bear the thought of driving 50 miles across the flat Texas landscape only to find failure waiting. I quit with a phone call before I even got out of bed. My worst fears and personal doubts were realized when the publisher replied, “I didn’t think you’d last from the moment I saw you. I thought I’d give you a chance to prove me wrong. A lot of good that did me.”

I would have stayed in bed, hiding, for the rest of the day, but that afternoon, with Cathy’s urging, I was in the Alabama Theater Bookstop with my resume and a desperate plea. I told the clerk at the counter that I would clean toilets, mop the floor, work the midnight shift, work both Saturday and Sunday. She looked up with what seemed to be a hint of kindness and promised that she’d do what she could.

By the time I got back to the apartment, there was a message on the machine from the store manager. The next morning, I was in his office for an interview, freshly shaved, wearing an ironed shirt, my best pants and black, polished shoes. My lifetime revolt against my father’s lawyerly ways and wardrobe advice had come to a quick end after a couple months of near-poverty. I was offered the job at $4.00 an hour before I even left the manager’s office that day. I could even work 40 hours per week if I wanted.

Despite being part of a small regional chain (there were nearly 20 stores in Texas and Florida, including four in Houston), the Alabama Theater Bookstop was a truly unique store that had been featured in national magazines for its historic architecture and funky layout. We were located in a hip, gay neighborhood teeming with actors, writers and artists. The store was the hub of a small, socially liberal oasis in a largely buttoned-downed city.

Although my friends Deb and Barb were in a lesbian relationship in New Orleans, the experience of gay culture was new to me. I grew up mostly in the suburbs, and Allegheny College is a fairly conservative school with a very small gay population. This urban, gay neighborhood forced me to see the world in a different way, to accept things that I hadn’t previously encountered. The Bookstop had its share of cross-dressers and flamboyant types saunter in on many a weekend night, but I found the cultural differences to be more subtle. There were a lot of jokes in our tiny break room that I just didn’t get. There were secrets that I was never privy to. It was a lesson in being an outsider.

I quickly gained two responsibilities at the store beyond the usual duties of a bookseller: author companion during signings and assistant in the large magazine section

Bookstop specialized in huge celebrity signings. We’d take out an ad in the Sunday paper, and customers would line up out our front door and around the block. It was my job to make sure that the author (though calling some of these people authors was a stretch) had everything he or she needed. Making the author feel appreciated became more of a challenge when there were no lines. One night, I listened to a hyped-up Tama Janowitz ramble on for over an hour, nodding and laughing as I pretended to follow along with her gossiping monologue, all the time peeking at the front doors in hopes that a fan of hers would arrive and rescue me.

The magazines were thrust upon me because our magazine buyer was in and out of the hospital with various complications from AIDS. It was tedious, those first few days, searching for the titles at the base of the big movie screen, desperately trying to pull all the old copies and still helping the customers who wandered by.

Each time the magazine buyer returned to the store, he looked more frail, more beleaguered, and his skin seemed to be flaking off his arms. The long-time staff members, who had worked with him for years, fawned over him, while the newer employees just tried to politely take on as much of his work as possible without making it obvious.

On days when he returned, there would be hushed conversations about the state of his health, whispered remembrances of other men who had succumbed to the disease in our neighborhood, and lots of head-shaking about what was happening to the community. My two best friends in the store were having an on-again, off-again relationship, and I could see that they were deeply impacted by the increasing frequency of our magazine buyer’s trips to the hospital. One of my friends was already feeling skittish about whether or not he was really gay. The illness that was among us seemed to be pushing him away from the relationship, despite the deep and genuine affection he felt for his boyfriend.

My dual duties (yucking it up with authors and subbing for a dying man) gave the job a surreal quality. One day, Chuck Norris was in the store signing his autobiography. Things were going great until I joked that he wasn’t any taller than me, and his high-heeled cowboy boots weren’t fooling anyone. He challenged me to a fight. For a moment, I thought he was kidding, but when the sneer stayed on his face, I feared he may be serious. Luckily, I escaped unscathed, and we all got a good laugh out of it afterwards.

The mirth would completely disappear the next day, however, when I was unloading a large order of gay men’s magazines because our magazine buyer was too sick to come in. I used to wonder how many of our customers who had bought these very magazines over the years had perished since, and how many more were dying now.

Outside of the store’s thick art deco walls, the city of Houston was grinding me down. The incessant heat, the horrendous traffic and the complete flatness of the landscape were things I could never get used to. Where was downtown? Why weren’t there sidewalks in our neighborhood? Why did everyone make such a big deal about the Galleria when it was just a gaudy mall?

In the evenings, Cathy and I used to walk or jog along the bayous that ran through the city. When she first told me about them back in Pennsylvania, I imagined lush waterways, perhaps lined with magnolias. Instead, I found wide concrete troughs with dirty rainwater and few trees. Occasionally, we went to the beach down in Galveston. Our day would invariably be marred by a pick-up truck carrying a keg that would pull up right alongside our blanket. It was like sunbathing on the highway.

Despite these glaring problems, just about everyone who lived in Houston seemed to love the city, including Cathy. I felt more and more out of sorts and out of place, except when I was roaming the aisles of the Bookstop in a conversation with a customer or in the employee break room debating why we shelved Larry McMurtry in literature instead of fiction.

Many of the customers would ask me where I was from after hearing my East Coast accent. When I told them Philadelphia, they’d look at me like I’d managed to escape from a gulag. They ask me how long I’d been in Houston (pronouncing it “Youston”) and why I moved to the city. Then the inevitable question would come: “How do you like Youston?”

I’d tell them, “I love my girlfriend.” Usually, they wouldn’t get my attempts at misdirection, and they’d ask again, “But what do you think of Youston?” I’d take a deep breath and tell them that I was enjoying my stay.

I was not alone in having my troubles getting along in Houston. One of my favorite customers was Joe Barry Carroll, the NBA player. Carroll, who had been traded to the Rockets in the middle of the season from the Golden State Warriors, used to skulk around the bookstore late at night. One evening, I got into a conversation with him. This was not an easy feat because Carroll, nicknamed Joe Barely Cares, was known as a loner who was loathe to even grant interviews.

We talked of literature and, if I remember right, philosophy. He bought books that reflected a highly educated and eclectic taste. I asked him about life in the NBA. He told me it was pretty bad, especially the traveling. The guys never wanted to discuss anything interesting or real. Here was man who should have been a graduate student in some liberal arts field, and he was stuck traveling the country with a bunch of college drop-outs. I came to feel sorry for the poor guy, an intellectual trapped in a 7-foot-1 body. In a strange way, I came to identify with him and looked forward to his visits. I wondered if my cynical East Coast personality stuck out in Houston, like his height did.

The blank screen in the Bookstop continued to tower above us all, as the spring of 1988 turned towards the hot, hot summer. The shipping-and-receiving department, where the magazines were dropped off, was behind that high screen. One day, I was working back there when I turned and saw one of the female employees crying. I went to comfort her in the way an awkward 22-year-old guy consoles a sobbing woman in her forties: I tried to hug her without touching her. She had seen the magazine buyer the previous day and said that his condition had grown worse. He hadn’t been back in the store in weeks, and I’d come to think of the magazine job as my own.

On the other side of the screen, Randy Shilts’ book And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic was selling like crazy. Shilts had captured the moment in time perfectly. For months before the book was released, people had been asking about it, waiting for it. Our special orders were piling up every single day. In 1988, there was no hope for AIDS victims; what people needed was some kind of an explanation, and Shilts was providing that.

My two friends in the store broke up for good not long after that. The one that was unsure about his sexuality knew that he could never tell his family he was gay. He was headed to medical school, and although he loved his boyfriend, he couldn’t lead the life necessary to sustain that relationship. I remember him telling me that there are many lives you can lead, and sometimes you have to recognize the ones you can’t.

His words made me think longingly of Deb and Barb in New Orleans, and the life that I’d so quickly given up on. I thought of those blues clubs and how New Orleans, for all its faults, was a city that I could understand and live in, and that perhaps Houston was a city, no matter what the job, that I could not live in. I began to realize that as hard as I tried to feel at home and as much as I cared for Cathy, I couldn’t project a life in Texas upon the big empty screen of my future.

A few days before our relationship began to crumble, I was promoted to a supervisor role at the bookstore. It was a short, joyous time period. I was now up to $5.00 per hour and could move out of the shadow of the magazine buyer. I’d have a few more bucks for going out, and perhaps Cathy and I could even take a little trip. However, it was not to be. As my relationship collapsed over the next few months, I also decided that I needed to do something serious with my life. I couldn’t stay in bookselling forever. I had to find a “real” job. In July of 1988, I quit the Bookstop and thought I had left bookselling for good.

By August, I was out of Houston and have never returned. Over the years, I have come to realize that during my time in Texas I loved, not just my girlfriend, but also the Alabama Theater Bookstop and many of my co-workers there. I left in such a hurry, distraught over the broken relationship and feeling like a failure because I never did find a real job, that I never said goodbye to any of my friends at the book store.

At a recent American Bookseller Association meeting in Brooklyn, I ran into a bookseller from Blue Willow Books in Houston. I mentioned my days in the Alabama Theater and she told me that there was talk in Houston about a developer tearing it down. My heart started racing as I thought of that movie palace being destroyed by the wrecking ball. I just might have to return to Houston before the demolishing crew arrives, taking one last look at that movie screen to see what’s playing on it now.


Book Nerd said...

What a great story, Arsen. I love hearing about how all of us followed "the life we could have" and found it in bookselling. Glad you're here.

MacElf said...

Arsen, I never knew! I just thought you had always lived in the gilded office upstairs..but there is a real story here of sweat and torn pages. You have inspired me to start preparing my own story of shooting up through the ranks of the bookstore to become supervisor..oh, the tawdry tales I could tell about life in the ranks of Boulder's most famous bookstore. I shall start accepting bribes now..

Geeks In Rome said...

I'd love to hear how the story continues and how you ended up in Colorado! You also captured that late 80s era so well as HIV/AIDS was just beginning its deadly onslaught esp. on the gay community.