The Community Bookstore

by

09/16/2004

Warren St & Court St, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Carroll Gardens

Another gourmet bakery opened on Court Street in Cobble Hill; the old sheet music shop was replaced by a cell phone store; the bodega next door went out of business last week, and today the new owners are gutting it and lining the walls with shelving made of a thick, smoked glass. It seems that everything is new on this block. Including me. Yet I have a distain for these new places, and a nostalgia, strangely, for the disappearing ones, even though I have no history with them, which is why The Community Bookstore holds such an appeal—it feels like the last vestige of a neighborhood I never got to know, and so I root for its survival.

The first thing to catch my attention about the bookstore is that it’s always closed. After six months of living here, passing it every day or so, I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve actually seen it open. A loose-leaf sheet of paper announced in June, “VACATION 5th THRU 27th.” The same sheet of paper was up again in July. On a day in August I checked the door, but it was locked. An “Hours” sign had the daily opening time penciled as one o’clock, seven days a week, yet it was already after three.

The store stands on the dead-end corner of Warren and Court Streets and is quaint-looking enough to fit right in next to the new handcrafts store and the used (or rather, antique) furniture shop. It’s façade is white-washed, its sign hand-lettered. Stacked apple crates outside the door display specially priced books. The windows, however, are perpetually gated, and propped up in the chinks are books which seem to have been chosen from an outdated bestseller list. The dust jackets, sun-bleached, block any view of the store’s interior.

On the lucky occasions when my window-shopping meets the bookstore’s open door, I come in to browse, and try to find out what the story is about this place. The first impression, once inside, is that there’s nobody running it. No customers. Books are everywhere. It’s cramped, dim; half the fluorescents are burned out and the others twitch. The smell of stale smoke and mold hang in the air. There is a front area by the door, where some kind of checkout activity might happen, but all evidence of a register or a counter is buried under stacks of books. You are challenged at every turn to revise whatever notions you had going in of this place as your cluttered-yet-cozy neighborhood shop (the extra p and e at the end of the word). Every inch of shelf space is taken. No book has room to breathe. The bottom few rows along each aisle are blocked by shopping bags filled with selections that haven’t yet been shelved. The selections themselves are anachronous. Of the twenty-odd books in print by Philip Roth, there is none here—the same for John Updike. Joyce Carol Oates is represented by a single volume in the Theater section—the obscure play, “The Sweet Enemy.” Gordon Lish, however, is in abundance: four uncorrected proofs of his experimental novel, Epitaphs. Much of the work of Gilbert Sorrentino can be found, as well as Julian Barnes’. As with most used bookstores, you can’t go in looking for a specific book, but in here it’s hard to come across anything you’d actually want to buy. Whatever book you might find useful is damaged in some unpurchasable way: the front cover torn, the paper water damaged, the text underscored in blue ballpoint. They seem picked-over, these books, like the marginal remains of someone’s vast library.

Eventually the owner appears. He is rumpled, in his late fifties—thick beard, glasses. He comes from behind a stack of books and passes you without making eye contact, hugging the aisle. If you say hello, he might mumble something, or he might not. On the several occasions I have been here, I have tried talking to him, presenting myself alternately as a friendly new neighbor, a grad student, a writer doing research. But every question I have asked has made him more suspicious and curt with me. This is all I have found out: his name is John, and he’s had this place for seventeen years.

John steps outside for a cigarette. Before long, he is approached by a man with a shopping bag of books. The man is toothless, eyes wild, roaming. John seems to know him. They bicker for several minutes about how much the bag of books is worth. “Ten dollars,” the man says. “I don’t need them,” John says. “Okay,” the man says, “Five dollars. Five dollars.” John sips his deli coffee. “Look at this place, I told you. I can’t use more books. What am I going to do with them?” “Five dollars,” the man repeats.

That evening, I’m on the stoop of my apartment. My girlfriend and I rent the parlor floor of a newly-restored brownstone on Warren Street. From around the corner and up the block comes the wild-eyed man. For an instant I’m afraid he’s been following me. He’s holding something wrapped in a white plastic bag. He stops. “I seen you at the bookstore,” he says to me.

“Yes,” I say.

The man says, “The owner here?” His sense of personal space if off by a few inches.

“Who?” I ask.

“The guy,” he says. “Is this your place?”

“What’s the name of the person you’re looking for?” I ask, a little unsettled. His questions seem designed to involve me in some mad delusion of his or to trick me into letting him into the house.

“The guy! The guy who owns the place, I told you!” He seems offended by my suspicion. “I don’t know his name.”

“Well, I can’t help you,” I say evenly.

Without making any sudden movements, I go back inside and double-lock the door behind me. Through my window I see him below, entering through the gate of the brownstone’s garden-level, knocking on my landlord’s door. I consider calling to warn him, and search among the phone-numbered scraps in my desk drawer for awhile before giving up and moving on to another activity.

The next morning, I catch my landlord out front as he is hauling bound stacks of newspapers to the curb. Friday is recycling day. I ask him about his wild-eyed, late-night caller, and am about to apologize for the mess I’ve dragged him into, when he laughs. “This guy, it’s funny thing—owns couple of brownstones down on Henry. Believe that? He’s millionaire. Spends all the time finding things, and sell them to you.”

I tell him I had seen him at the bookstore, haggling with John.

“Oh, yeah. John. Sad thing about that.” His smile fades. “All mess since his wife died last year.” He cinches one of the newspaper stacks tight and limps it towards the others. Taking a balled tissue from his pocket, he wipes the newsprint from the tips of his fingers. “She was suicide. Poor guy. Isn’t that just so awful?”

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