The Blind Chinese Bibliophile

by Thomas Beller

09/18/2002

265 W 11th st 10014

Neighborhood: Across the River, Letter From Abroad

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This story ends with a blind Chinese Bibliophile. But it begins in a moment of weakness, when I capitulated to the temptations at hand and called a realtor who specialized in barnes and farm houses and asked to look at a few. The rolling hills and open skies of Western New York had me in their spell, and I, in turn, had them for a couple of weeks this past August, when I rented an old barn not far from Oneonta, half an hour south of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The realtor was a one man operation. His company was called "Barnes are Noble." He drove a 78' station wagon, yellow, and wore bandana over his head. His face was suburned and, he told me, he skinny dipped daily in one of the many ponds in the area that sat in seclusion and quiet splendor. He'd skinny dipped in the pond he was showing us right then, he said.

The barn was in shambles. Birds flew in and out through gaping holes in the side. That lovely barn-red color was mostly faded to gray. It was over a hundred years old. The beams were massive, damp, sagging. I liked it.

My girlfriend shook her head quietly like I was out of my mind. She didn’t cheer up when the realtor said that though there was no septic yet, it was actually a lot of fun to do it in the woods, like a bear.

The place, though in the middle of nowhere, was situated directly across the street from a house where a nice man in his sixties named Sal lived with his wife. For them the barn had been a gigantic cellar/attic. But there was a new breed of city folk populating the area who took these barns on as reclamation projects, second homes, a kind of paid squat, renovating as they lived in it, and so he had put the drafty thing on the market.

I mention all this because at some point in the tour we were shown what the realtor, full of gusto, announced as "Sal's library." It was a windowless little room built with plywood and populated by an old fashioned office chair with wheels which you could lean back in. When I peered into the darkness I saw the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, glowing out at me in the dim light, those red orderly spines waiting patiently on the shelf to be cracked. The porn magazines must be hidden somewhere, I thought. Maybe sports magazines. Who knows what other Guy Stuff.

"This is where Sal goes when he's sick of his wife," the realtor said, laughing.

Sal and his wife must have been getting on very well, because it didn't look like he had spent much time there recently. Sal's library made an impression on me. Dark airless private small no light-- a place to think and do other things one needs privacy for. Men are always making these meditative lairs, where they escape to in order to get away from everything else, and then escape from in order to get away from themselves. Eventually they are disbanded, gutted, and the books and magazines find their way into the local flea markets.

These relics tend to transfix me. I had perused a Newsweek from 1979 and every page, including the ads, I found fascinating. Christopher Lasch's "The Culture of Narcissism was reviewed in the books section, (which was several pages long), as was an Ann Beattie collection. The cover was a superbowl preview. But the reason I picked it up was the long news story about the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979. It had maps and everything, charting the path the Vietnamese army took. They had photographs of Heng Samrin and the other Cambodians that the Vietnamese had installed as the new government. And many photographs of Prince Sihanouk, who delivered a six hour speech at the UN, asking that the new government not be recognized. I dove into the urgent, almost breathless, breaking news atmosphere of the article standing up amidst old frying pans, broken turntables, and a collection of hunting knives.

When I was done I picked a copy of Time magazine with Mario Puzo on the cover. A sidebar lists the ten things you need to do in order to write a best seller, according to Puzo. Among them was, "Never let a domestic quarrel ruin a day of work. If happens two days in a row, get a new wife."

It turns out that a couple in Williamsburg had made an offer on Sal's place. He was an artist, the realtor told us. She was a dancer. The offer was lower than the asking price. Savvy, handy artist! On the ball, space loving dancer! Who are these people and what sort of life did they imagine they would have there? What did they think of Sal's library when they peered into it? I wanted to call them to ask.

Later we said good-bye to the realtor in his office. There was a giant barn next door, and, well, he might make a project out of it, live there himself and slowly renovate it, a barn squat.

"Have a look!" he said, and the sunburn on his face took on a new light when I saw the open can of Budweiser sitting on his desk at lunch time.

My girlfriend entered and shortly exited. It was another giant, tilting, drafty, impossibly raw space, but I was transfixed by the drum set that sat in the dusty corner covered in tarp, standing beside several gigantic amps. For someone this was a rock shrine. I removed the tarp, found some sticks and sat down to play.

Later that day we visited the Bibliobarn, which is where the blind Chinese Bibliophile comes in.

Bibliobarn is located on a country road near the town of South Kortright. It's spacious, and filled with used books. I entered into that perusing bookstore trance, and only gradually became aware of a persistent voice nearby which was inflected with a southern accent, not a deep southern accent but the genteel, soft, considerate tones of North Carolina. The voice was saying:
"You might want to check ABE.com, they're a good reference source. I don’t sell on-line myself. I don't need to. A lot of times when you go into a bookstore that sells on-line and ask the person working there a question, they look at you like you're bothering them! And a lot of those stores don’t have very interesting stuff on their shelves, because they've sold their best stock on-line."

I peered around the corner and saw a small, wiry man with long gray hair falling wildly around his shoulders, a grey beard, and little gold spectacles. He wore jeans and a flannel shirt. He had the odd quality of seeming like a little old man and also seeming very young and spry, almost adolescent. His name is H.L. Wilson and Bibliobarn is his store, which he runs with his wife, Linda.

While I browsed I heard him talk about how he used to be in the book binding business as well, but that he simply didn’t have the time for it anymore. It was very labor intensive, he probably only earned three or four dollars an hour on the outside work, so he was moving the equipment out to a nearby shed and only taking on projects intended for sale by the store itself. He said he had taken on work that was waiting to completed from as far back as 1998. A real backlog.

Somehow this last bit about the backlog got my attention. There was something scrupulously honest about it, and I could hear his pride in his own honesty. Here was a man who took his own ethical standards to be a kind of religion, a form of spirituality. It's a kind of spirituality that focuses on the self, not in a narcissistic way, but in a way that says: I am who I am (like Popeye!), with my own values.

After a while the customer to whom he had been talking left. I found him behind the counter. I asked if there was a bathroom and he said "sure, follow me," and lead me through a door and up a flight of stairs. The walls were crammed with books, but as I got the second level the space opened up and I realized he had taken me into his home.

"This bookstore officially ends around here," he said, pointing to a place where the book density lessened a little.

It was a large airy loft and at the far end was their wonderful bathroom, full of soft light and two little birds in a white birdcage. On the side of the bathtub sat two old paperbacks in mid read. One was "Justine" by Lawrence Durell, and the other something by James Michener.»

When I came out H.L. lead my back downstairs. I bought three paperbacks: The Rug Merchant by Phillip Lopate, The Tenants by Bernard Malamud, and Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner. Having read the first two, I can report they are excellent, and weirdly similar on two points. 1) the effect of real estate and rents on the lives of New Yorkers are the catalysts for both plots. 2) They each have powerfully vivid sex scenes in which the woman confesses to the man, just before they make love, that she is "tiny," or "really small," a intriguing overlap of detail.

I chatted with H.L. at the counter. For years he and Linda ran a bookstore in Norfolk, Virginia, but the town was going down and they had sold and moved up here several years earlier. It was going well, he said. I asked if a lot of sailors from the giant navy base in Norfolk patronized his store.

"They did. They were interested in big books, philosophy, religion, horticulture, all kinds of things. They weren't interested in quick reads."

After a long search they found buyers for their store in Norfolk. But there was some concern about the current owners being able to make it work. "We hold the note," he said

"The note," it took me a moment to realize, was the mortgage. H.L. was getting monthly payments as though he were the bank making the loan to the new owners. This was the way these barns got sold, too, it occurred to me. "No banker is going to make a loan on some old barn," the realtor had said earlier that day. "They all live in these neat little ranch houses a quarter mile outside of town. A lot of them grew up on farms around here and can't imagine anyone wanting to live there!" Honest H.L. was a businessman, navigating, coping. I was worried for him suddenly but I suppose I was worried for myself, for all the small self piloted boats bobbing in the waves. But H.L. seemed to be thriving. He exuded a quiet confidence.

My girlfriend brought some books to the counter, and some records, too.

"We don’t have a record player to see if they're scratched," said H.L. in his cordial drawl. "Have you eyeballed them?"

She hadn't. She pulled each black disc from its sleeve and examined it for scratches.

"That one's got a scratch," said H.L. "I'll give it to you for free."

He wrote the name of everything we purchased down on the receipt as we went. In the end he gave her several for free.

"Have you ever heard this one?" she asked about a Roxy Music record.

"No. But it's been a long time since I really knew what's going on with new music."

"It's really good."

"I just don’t keep up," he said. Then he brightened.

"I did happen to get into Tom Waits recently. I don’t know how I missed him! I got into him because a biography of him came through the store and I read it and I really liked him. So I got one of his records. And…"

Here H.L. started talking about this one song, more a monologue.

"It was about this guy who just didn’t fit in. Everywhere he went he just… he just wasn't able to fit into things that way normal people did. And it made me think of this friend of ours who still lives down in Norfolk. He doesn’t fit in. He's a Chinese man who has thousands of books in his apartment. And he can’t read them because he had that laser eye surgery done, but it went wrong. So he's blind. And the new upstairs neighbors who moved in said that they smelled mildew coming from his apartment. So he had to hire these people to move thousands of these books of his away from the walls so they could check for mildew. And they didn’t find any mildew! It just made me think of this man, he never fit in!"

That story lingered with me, stayed with me, and after some time passed and I was back in New York I called the store hoping for an elaboration on the Blind Chinese Bibliophile. H.L. picked up. Linda picked up, too. I gathered one was upstairs and the other downstairs in the store. I told them I was curious about the Blind Chinese Bibliophile. There was a pause and then, in unison, they said, "Oh! Uncle David!"

In the end it was decided that Linda would elaborate on their friend. Here is was she said:

"Uncle David was our very first customer in Norfolk, in the spring of 1984. He's Chinese, but we suspect, though he doesn’t own up to it, that he has a good dose of Mongolian genes. He is very definitely a scholar. We met him one day when we still setting the up the place. We looked up and saw what looked like a Chinese mask pressed against our front window. We let him in, and he allowed that he was a book dealer, too. Which was stretching the point. He ran a text book store, but it was really a front for his own book buying. That way he could get forty percent off on all his scholarly titles from publishers.

"He is a bibliotaph. That's with a T, like tom foolery, which means a hoarder of books. A bibliopath might avidly buy books. But a bibliotaph ends up with storage units full of them! A bibliopath might be H.L. and Linda (if people are coming to dinner we have to remove the books from the table before we serve the food).

"The reason we call him Uncle David, is that when he met us, he was of course sidling up to us as a new source for his habit, so he befriended us quite quickly. 'You people call me Uncle David, or you can call me Mogen David,' he said, because he had a Jewish wife. She divorced him over his book habit, though she is still in his life. She and her husband are always looking after David's basic needs.

"He started buying books from us, they would fly out of the shop. Therein there was a problem in our relationship. We were just getting established, and he would come in and wipe us out of all of our good scholarly books. So we had this drill. He would always call saying 'Anything new?'

"And that was when we knew he was coming over. So when he called we ran through the shop grabbing the newest modern library and scholarly titles, and stashed them in the bathroom until he left. When he found out what we were doing he said, 'I'm customer too!'

"Once we built our shop and reputation, there were books enough for all.

"Our friendship developed, and we learned more about him, sort of. I asked him what he did. He said he had been a mathematical logician. I asked where he plied his vocation. And he said, 'I did something for the government.'

Over the years H.L. and I would have to be good cop bad cop with him, because he would bring us terrible books for us to buy, like an optic textbooks that was no longer in use, and then he would want to take out something seminal on physics. Anything scholarly he liked, higher mathematics, things like that. Once, commenting on the recent discovery that there are stars in our galexy older than the galexy itself, Uncle David said, in his Chinese conciseness: "Bad day for cosmologists!"

As an evidence of his being a bibliotaph, there was one set of books that he shipped to us, a very rare 18th century set of books on China, written in French. He sent them to us to us to bind. We charged $500 dollars. But the next time we saw them, they were sitting in the back seat of his car, just thrown in there. For him the acquisition was the biggest thing, not having it. It was like catching the biggest bass and neither mounting or eating it."

I told Linda it sounded like their store was a kind of refuge.

"It's a third place," she said, "like Cheers. With a used bookshop, people come to buy books, but they also come to share things. You've got home, you've got work, and then there's this third place you go. Might be a pub, might be a used book store."

Bibliobarn: 607-538-1555

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