Friday, January 29, 2016

Death of a Bookseller

If, like me, you can’t pass a used bookshop without going in, to emerge at least an hour later with as many titles as you can carry shoved into your bag and your jacket pockets, then you’ll know that such establishments come in two kinds: the carefully curated variety, with titles categorized precisely and books wrapped neatly in protective mylar; and the other kind, where you wander among heaped mountains of books, ready at any time to be stunned by either a rare first edition or an avalanche.  Chicago’s Aspidistra Bookshop, which held down a spot on Clark Street for close to thirty years before closing in 1998, fell into the second category.  And I should know: I had the honor of working there for a couple of years while I finished writing my doctoral dissertation.  The place had two owners—Darrell Simmons, who only stopped in from time to time and who knew more about Yeats than anyone I’ve ever met (and I’ve met several Yeats scholars), and Ron Ellingson, with whom I worked.  Yesterday I attended Ron’s funeral, and I’ve been thinking about him and his bookshop all day.

A lot of people who came into Aspidistra asked about the name (on one occasion a woman told me she liked it so much she planned to name her daughter Aspidistra).  The Aspidistra is a plant, but not just any plant: it’s a plant you can abuse or ignore, but not kill.  You can put your cigarette butts out in its soil and it will keep growing.  You can put it in a coat closet for a month with no light and no water and it’ll laugh the experience off.  For Ron, it was an apt symbol not just for his bookshop, but for literary culture as a whole.  Ron was also a big fan of George Orwell, whose Keep the Aspidistra Flying cast a hard, cynical gaze on the entire literary system, especially the world of bookshops.  Only once did a customer come in and ask if Orwell had inspired the name—and Ron dropped the copy of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book he was putting into a locked glass case, strode around the counter, and kissed the man on both cheeks.

Ron grew up in Decatur where, as his wife Kathleen said at the funeral, no one wanted to talk about anything interesting except Ron, who was always reading and always wanted to talk about what he read.  She married him and they talked for decades, and had a troop of children who talked books too, when they weren’t hauling crates of them around Ron’s Lincoln Park store, or to the second shop he briefly opened in Uptown, or to one of the many weird little attic or cellar book caches he had around Chicago.  Like too many young men of his generation, Ron was sent off to Vietnam.  A clerk in the Marine Corps, he never saw combat, but he had the unenviable task of shipping a great many dead bodies back to the U.S.  “I like what they’ve done with the Vietnam memorial in D.C.,” he once told me, “but there’s no way I’m ever going—I’d cry until my eyes bled.” He took an attitude toward authority that I’ve seen in a lot of veterans: it could go and fuck itself, in all its forms.  That may be why his lawyer, a strange little guy who looked for all the world like Ron Jeremy in a cheap suit, was always coming by the shop with something to sign or be faxed.  I don’t think Ron and the tax system always played well together.  Another time I remember an old-school Chicago ward politician coming by and telling (not asking) Ron to put up a poster for the mayor’s chosen candidate for Alderman.  That guy was lucky to get out without being hit on the head with a thick volume of the Oxford English Dictionary.

A bookshop is many things—at least a good one is.  And Aspidistra, in its scruffy, scrappy way, was a very good bookshop, and served a number of functions.  Firstly, it was a crucial part of my education.  I was living a few blocks north of the store when I worked there, and taking the electric train out to South Bend, Indiana every week to meet with my doctoral advisors and take care of whatever grad school business I had to address.  Grad school was very good to me, but doctoral study tends to make one narrow and deep—the logic guiding one’s study is that of specialization in a field, and concentration on particular problems within that field (for me it was poetry, and questions of poetic influence). But Ron’s bookstore was an exercise in intellectual breadth.  You never knew what books would come in the door—anything from out-of-fashion historiography, philosophy, and literary criticism from the libraries of deceased academics to the books printed locally by the Chicago branch of the Surrealist movement to old Wobbly tracts to large collections of (shall we say) special interest erotica.  And Ron had an opinion about all of it.  In a way, the exposure to the forgotten, the weird, and the academically untouchable has been a kind of secret weapon for me as a poet, critic, and writer—it’s always been a kind of ballast against the winds of academic fashion.

Of course Aspidistra wasn’t just about me and my education—though Ron certainly saw that as one of its functions.  He was always asking me about how my dissertation was going, and I think he hired people largely on the basis of whether he thought it would be mutually beneficial to be in conversation with them.  I remember my job interview: he saw that I studied British literature, and asked me to name three of the best English novelists writing.  It was the mid-1990s, and I said “Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson, and Julian Barnes.”  “Two out of three,” Ron replied, with a grunt of disapproval (he would hold Barnes against me for the rest of his life).  He also asked me to lift a very large cardboard box of books, and when I told him “that’s too big—you can’t lift it, and if you did the box would break” he said “you pass—you start tomorrow.”

When I came back for work the next day, I discovered another of Aspidistra’s great functions: as a kind of ongoing salon for the interestingly weird.  I didn’t see a lot of the old Aspidistra crowd at Ron’s funeral—I think because a lot of them have passed on.  Fred Burkhart, for example, has died—a giant of a man, an outsider printmaker and photographer who used to come by to hang out with his tiny young daughter, and who’d crash on hot days in air conditioned comfort on the floor of one of the less-visited sections.  As, I’m sure, has the man I only knew as “Snowman,” an ancient African-American gentleman from New Orleans who had been a reverend, a jazz musician, and filled every other conceivable sort of interesting role in the world (including, it was rumored, a cocaine dealer, the putative source of his nickname).  I remember others who came by—art dealers, collectors of odd books, Situationists, left-over Black Panthers who’d pull Machiavelli off the shelves to argue over passages, a homeless man who had once been on the Existentialist Party ticket as a vice presidential candidate, a tall astrologer and ladies’ man called “Startouch,” two old cross-dressers who were always pleased to be called “ma’am”, a uniform fetishist (I once asked him which branch of the service he was in, since I couldn’t quite tell, and got a lecture on each part of the hodgepodge of military gear in which he paraded around), and so on.  One of Ron’s sons told me at the funeral service that some of these people are still around, but fringy people are hard to get hold of, so they hadn’t got the news about Ron’s passing.

Once in a great while Ron would feel a sudden urge to throw a party in the store.  “Let be be finale of seem!” he’d shout, quoting his favorite poem, Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “I’m throwing a soirée!” I’d be sent out to lay in a supply of Guinness and fried chicken from the joint down the street, and he’d keep the doors open late for a gathering of all the regulars.  It was always great.

I think what got me choked up at the service was the memory of those moments— it hit me hard when Ron’s son Colin stood up next to the flag-draped casket and read “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” just as Ron would have wanted.  And then the service was over, and the music came on: "Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells.  I remembered Ron putting that song on at one of his soirées, and could see him, Guinness in hand, dancing among the bookshelves among all his friends.  It was a bit much for me, and I headed back to the cloak room, where I reached into the pocket of a jacket I hadn’t worn for years and found a little Grove Press paperback of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera that Ron had given me when he closed the store. I couldn’t quite bring myself to go home after the funeral, and I was a bit too shaken up to stay and talk to the others who’d come. I spent the evening riding the El wherever it took me and reading the copy of Brecht that Ron had placed in my hands so long ago.