I spent my nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first years standing on the corner of West Fourth Street and Washington Square East, selling used paperback books off of a folding card table. This was ten years ago, when West Fourth Street was still full of booksellers. Many of these men were smart lunatics with poor social skills. They had a hard time getting along with customers and with each other.
The one person who got along with everyone was Newt Johnson. Newt was not a street seller, but a rare book man. One of the first booksellers from the scene to sell online, he would procure antiquarian books that were too specialized for us to sell on the street, and attempt to sell them to collectors. Sometimes his efforts were successful, and he would sell a book that he’d found in a thrift-store for five-hundred dollars or more. Other times, he would go weeks without making a sale, and be forced to take a handy-man job.
Newt would come by West Fourth Street almost every day, on his way from the Strand back home to his rent-controlled apartment on Bleecker Street. Considering the volume of used books that the Strand processed back then, a few gems would inevitably slip though, and Newt had a knack for discovering them. He earned the eternal wrath of the Strand’s owner, Fred Bass, by purchasing a signed James Joyce volume that had been inadvertently placed for sale in the stacks. When the story got around, Bass insisted that Newt sell back the book, but he refused. The last laugh was on Newt though, because when he attempted to scan the title page so he could have the signature verified by an expert in Ireland, he ended up cracking the binding and ruining the book.
The ostensible reason for Newt’s visits to the street was to see if any of us had come across anything unusual or interesting that we might want to sell him. The real reason for his visits was to shoot the shit. He would saunter down West Fourth from Mercer Street to LaGuardia Place, stopping at each bookseller’s table to say, “Hiya! How you doing?” and have a quick—or not so quick—conversation.
Newt had no shortage of stories. He had begun his career as military policeman stationed to Berlin in 1961—the year the wall went up—and went on to become, among other things, a Pinkerton detective, a literary editor, and an alcoholic. One bookseller would joke that most people only had to go to AA, but Newt’s drinking was so bad he had to go to AAAAA. Now that Newt was sober, he devoted himself to endeavors such as attempting to invent a new type of low-energy motor and writing screenplays. One of his many unproduced scripts involved booksellers and gangsters banding together to defeat unscrupulous rare book thieves.
Newt knew that I was studying poetry at The New School and, fearing that my professors were not sufficiently educating us on the great Village bohemians, he would bring me photocopies of Maxwell Bodenheim poems. Bodenheim was shot to death by a dishwasher in a flophouse on the Bowery in 1954, and in Newt’s estimation the great age of Greenwich Village bohemianism died with him.
Like Bodenheim, Newt was a ladies’ man. He had plenty of girlfriends, foxy older ladies scattered throughout the boroughs. His true love, though, was his flock of pigeons. He spoke of his birds constantly, referring to them by their names, and keeping us updated on their health. I’d always assumed they lived in a coop on the roof of Newt’s building, but when I went to his apartment to drop off some books once, I found that they flew freely around his home, perching on a wooden shelf that circled the entire front room.
When New died this past spring, his neighbor—a younger man who had grown up in the building, and known Newt his entire life—went across the hall, opened the window, and released the birds. Most likely, they went and joined all the other pigeons in Washington Square Park. Newt’s apartment went market-rate after he died, but I’m sure the super had to spend a good bit of time cleaning the bird shit off the floor before the real estate agents could bring their clients in.