Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Checking In / Three Shelves


I'm not gone. I just took a new job and I'm busy busy busy. I'll have to figure out some sort of new blog-work balance but until then hang in there and enjoy the story below.

I just caught wind that The Oscar Wilde Bookstore on Christopher St. is closing its doors. The story below was inspired by my visit there last year. This was originally posted on: Feb 7th 2008.

Three Shelves
I got out of work earlier than expected and Wayne wasn't available for another hour and a half. I headed out of my office, got on the subway and eventually jumped off at West 4th St. figuring I'll slum around the West Village for awhile. The weather was unusually warm and a light drizzle came and went as if Mother Nature could not decide upon her mood. The city is out. People are getting home, going to dinner and music plays from the restaurants out onto the streets. I sucked the city in deeply through my nostrils and headed in an aimless direction toward the West Village.

Call it instinct or a natural gravitational pull but I always find myself at some end of Christopher St. The street is narrow and the boutiques are hip and artistic. Rainbow flags fly and neon signs blip and buzz. As Manhattan changes again and again it always seems as though this one part of the city, is and always will be, quaint and unique. The streets are narrow and tree lined with old and gorgeous brownstones and a feeling of vibrant history rattling beneath the pavement.

In the distance I notice The Oscar Wilde Bookshop. Actually, I don't notice the little independent bookstore as much as I notice the giant rainbow flag waving outside. Having been there before I know that's the calling card of the bookstore, letting everyone know that despite it's size, it's there. Colorful, loud and proud. It's the only queer focused bookstore in the city and one of the only few surviving independent bookstores that has yet to be gobbled up by the corporate book and music malls.

The inside is quiet and clean and one can expect to hear some nostalgic acoustic music playing. Dylan, Cat Stevens, Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco... A smooth green carpet matches well to the light brown bookshelves filled with paper back and hard cover books. Posted on many of the shelves are yellow tags alerting customers to "staff picks" and critic's choices. There are never more than 5 customers in the store at any time. Today there is only one. I'm happy I saw the store in the distance, it reminded me to pick up a copy of James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room" for the first meeting of a book club I recently joined.

I wasn't able to grab the book right away because the section of fiction I needed to pull it from was being occupied by a seemingly frantic and excited young lady pulling out books left and right, top shelf, bottom shelf, flipping through the pages, reading backs, studying the price, compiling piles. I didn't mind waiting and looking at the new arrivals but I couldn't help but wonder what this girl needed or why her interest in so many books. I watched her for awhile. She was nearly out of breath. She would take a pick from the pile she created, study the cover, flip to the back and judge whether or not to put it back on the shelf. "What is she doing," I thought to myself. Judging from her level of stress I could only suppose that whatever it was she needed carried a great importance. "A research paper? A thesis?" I shrugged and continued to browse the selections.

Holding a book in the air and showing it to the cashier the young woman asked in a hard accent and broken English, "What about dis vone? Will I like dis vone?" The store clerk advised her there are others she would like better and left the counter to assist her search. As the store clerk approached the young woman said, "There's just so much! Where I am from there are only three shelves...Just three..."

Upon hearing this my breath caught itself in my throat and my arm goosebumped. "Just three shelves," I repeated to myself. I understood immediately the girl's frantic search and how important it was to her. I waited until the store clerk escorted the girl to another section and grabbed my book off the wall of fiction. I looked around the room. This whole book store: for me. Everything from fiction to non-fiction, biography to auto-biography, gay to lesbian, bisexual to trans, fantasy and reality, porn to prude- everything is here and it's an entire store. Maybe it is just one store with this specific focus but any store in this city has more than just three shelves!

I hung around the bookstore checking out other sections keeping an eye and ear on the girl and the store clerk. I wanted to know where she was from, what country or place she was visiting from that only allowed her three shelves. I wasn't granted any of that information but hearing what I already heard was enough for me to wish her the best of possible searches. She stood in front of me paying for her books. Almost 100 dollars in total. A pile that would keep her busy for months, if not a year, and will be with her for a lifetime. Having a few extra dollars left over she asked the store clerk, "What rainbow things you have else?" "Well," the store clerk responded, "we don't have too much this time of year, more in the summer, but here take this bracelet." The young girl took a rainbow colored bracelet and slipped it over her hand, securing it on her wrist. "Oh tank you," she said overjoyed, placing her hand over the bracelet and smiling.

After she left I said to the store clerk, "Wow. Only three shelves, and here we have this entire bookstore. It just goes to show- despite the amount of work we still have have ahead of us, how much we already take for granted." "Yes," the store clerk responded, frowning, "And I'm not even sure you can find more than three shelves in other places in this very country. I'm not sure if Montana, Idaho, Kansas or North Dakota offers much of a difference..."I shook my head, realizing the impact of what the store clerk was saying. I thanked her for the books and headed out of the store onto Christopher St., the very same street where 39 years ago a group of people demanded they weren't going to take it any more and have allowed the rainbow flags to fly, without apology, ever since.


Joey7777 said...

Places often change. Things are different now. Different parts of N.J. are actually way more interesting, in every way, than the West Village.

Mike said...

Goddam economies of scale. Most bookstores are in the same hole, pushed there by and The Ignoble Book Barn (I wish I could attribute that to it's original creator, but it's a great name for Barnes and Noble.) Growing up, I remember the drugstores were independents, the coffee shops weren't Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks, there were independent travel agencies and small groceries, and bakeries, all seemed to longer. The Dark Side of the Big Box did much to destroy so much we held dear.

Joey7777 said...

That's all true, Mike. And in Manhattan it's even more exacerbated by NYC overall becoming so expensive. I predict that in....ten years or so....there'll be no indication left that Christopher Street was ever gay at all.