M. G. Stephens
From six to midnight six nights a week I worked as a clerk in
the Eighth Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village. For a young writer
to work in the Eighth Street Bookshop was like a young painter
apprenticing with Michelangelo or Titian. Like City Lights in
North Beach and the Grolier in Harvard Square, the Eighth Street
Bookshop was no mere bookstore; it was a literary hot spot of
people and ideas. It was the ideal job. I could drink after work
from midnight to four in the morning, the best time to be in the
bars. In the mornings, I wrote, usually in a notebook because
I could not afford a typewriter and my living conditions were
too precarious to have possessions other than the clothes I wore
and the bag I carried with my notebook, pens, and whatever book
I was reading at the time. Often I slept at the apartments of
friends or with some girlfriend or in the abandoned building on
Second Avenue and Second Street, where the Saint Marks in
the Bowery Poetry Project held its writing workshops during the
Besides the books on the shelvesthe
shop consisted of four floors of booksand the books being
read and forever discussed behind the counter and out on the floor,
there were the customers who regularly visited the Eighth Street
Bookshop. Everyone who was anyone in the literary and cultural worlds
had a charge account at the store, and to charge was not some impersonal
credit-card affair, but a clerk writing up every purchase: one sheet
filed in the cash register, the other given to the customer. The
regular charge customers included Edward Albee, Anaïs Nin,
Donald Barthelme, Albert Murray, and several times a weekusually
on his motorcycle, which he parked outside the storethe author
and neurologist Oliver Sacks. The list of writers and celebrities
whose charge accounts had been frozen was equally illustriousa
whos who of downtown cultural life.
Friends stopped by to talk, as did
such Village locals as Djuna Barnes, author of Nightwood,
who lived in a chic cul-de-sac around the corner. Blustering, drunken
celebrities wandered inPaul Ford (Sergeant Bilko),
Jack Palance, and perhaps the most unusual of them all, one of the
Gallos, a local Mafia superstar who lived across the street.
I read a lot of Albert Camus,
Gallo once told me, perusing the fiction section. A lifetime later
Id walk by Umbertos Clam Bar in Little Italy, and to
whomever I was with Id say, Where one of the Gallos
got whacked, as if my having talked to one of those Gallos
in the bookshop on Eighth Street gave me a greater proximity to
this hoodlum and his brother.
Nearly everyone I met in the bookshop,
whether a clerk or customer, had an interest in literature. Interest
is perhaps not the right word; they were passionate about ideas,
and obsessed by books and writers. Their love seemed almost erotic;
they talked about reading a book the way someone else might speak
of a love-conquest.
I read all of my first volume
of Proust over the weekend, not leaving the apartment once,
a clerk would say.
Another clerk might respond with: Ive
been locked away with Madame Bovary for days.
* * *
When we first came on our shift, the
owner, Eli Wilentza small, neat, casual man with a Nat Shermanlike
cigarillo stuck between his lips or burning between his fingertipswas
finishing his business for the day and oversaw what was going on.
Eli reminded me of an older Bob Dylan, his size and wan complexion
and his face. Sometimes Wilentzs son Seannow a well-known
historianwas there, too. Our day manager was something of
a celebrity, too, a poet by the name of A. B. Spellman who, when
he left the bookshop, became a prominent arts administrator. The
night shift was taken care of by the night manager Conrad and his
Both were well-read and brimming with
recommendations about what to read. They almost never agreed with
each other, though. Conrad was far more patrician in his tastes;
Dudley was more eclectic, more willing to contradict himself and
because he was a painter, I thoughtmore easygoing. Yet who
could top Conrad for intellectual vigor?
Every clerknot just the managershad
an opinion about the best books to read, the authors to seek out,
and the ideas that were worth pursuing. Their tastes ranged from
Homer to Simenon. One of these clerks, Andrei Codrescu, had recently
emigrated. A Romanian poet, he had come to the East Village by way
of Budapest, Rome, and Detroit, where he met his young wife. Lets
say that Andrei was a classic surrealist, whatever that might bethough
he told me more than once that surrealism was the state art-form
of his country, that his real name was Perlmutter, and that he had
taken the name Codrescu in homage to Tristan Tzara, the great surrealist
poet whose real name was Andrei Codrescu. After he married, Andrei
moved to California, where his reputation as a poet took off. Later,
he lived in Baltimore and was a key figure in the citys 1970s
literary revival. Eventually he settled, improbably enough, in the
bayou country of southern Louisiana, where he became a professor
and a well-known commentator on National Public Radios All
Andrei recommended that I read a wide
range of poets from Andre Breton to Pablo Neruda (neither of these
names was familiar to me at the time). He spoke of Rimbaud, too,
as perhaps the greatest poet ever (Codrescu thought so). Certainly
he was the purest emotionally, having completed his major works
in his late teens, whereupon he became a 19th-century gunrunner
and revolutionary in Africa, a romantics romantic. One night
I heard Andrei shout: Oxidize the gargoyles! I learned
later that he was quoting Rimbaud. Another time I heard Andrei say
something to the effect of: The arctic honey blabbed thus
causing darkness. When I asked him what he was talking about,
he pointed to a poetry book called The Tennis Court Oath.
John Ashbery, he said.
the most durable Andrei madewas to read the Argentine fabulist,
miniaturist, and witty philosopher of time and prose, Jorge Luis
Borges, starting with Ficciones, which Andrei thought of
as a kind of sacred text for a young prose writer. But he also recommended
Paul Valérys novel Monsieur Teste and Huysmanss
Against Nature, a book which Conrad, the night manager, also
recommended. The Huysmans was filled with late 19th-century decadent
prose, and Valéry once wrote what became a lifelong writing
belief: we do not finish writing a poem, only abandon it in despair.
* * *
Conrad had his own strict reading list
that he drew up for me one evening shortly after I started working
at the bookstore, during a lull in the usual crush of people buying
books. He considered me to be hopelessly saturated in Irish literature
(Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, OCasey, Synge)I was steeped
in Irish Catholicism and came from a large immigrant family in Brooklynthough
Conrad did have some begrudging interest in James Joyce. I might
be saved, he felt, by reading some European modernists. He told
me to eschew James Joyce and Flann OBrien and read the books
on his list.
Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos
The Charterhouse of Parma and Lucien
Leuwen by Stendhal
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, The Gift,
Bend Sinister, Glory (early version) by Vladimir
The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil
The Sleepwalkers (trilogy) by Broch
A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
The Apes of God, Tarr, Self-Condemned by
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Envy by Yuri Olesha
Sword of Honour (trilogy) by Evelyn Waugh
Pornografia and the Diaries by Witold
Israel Potter by Herman Melville
Flann who? I asked.
OBrien, he said,
as if everyone knew the writer. At Swim-Two-Birds.
Now I wasnt sure what he was
talking about or even what language he was using, but fortunately
OBriens comic masterpiece was in print and Conrad lent
me a copy. This wonderfully funny book would go in and out of print
throughout my life, proving that the fortunes of a book are not
assured simply because it influences every writer who reads it.
But OBrien was only a sidebar
to the modernist reading list Conrad had in mind for me. Starting
in the 19th century, when the novel reigned supreme, Conrads
list rushed into the 20th century, a modernist express. There was
no Borges, Beckett, Kafka, or Calvino on the list, and no women
writers whatsoever. (At the time, no women were employed in the
bookshop, although that was to change within a few short years.)
The list was a literary equivalent to Conrads interests in
architecturea solid house of a list for a sort of Nabokovian
Conrads list included, in fact,
several of Nabokovs novels. But it also included Ford Madox
Fords Good Soldier, Wyndham Lewiss Tarr,
Huysmanss Against Nature, Choderlos de Lacloss
Dangerous Liaisons, Robert Musils The Man without Qualities,
and some books by Gombrowicz, Lermontov, and a few more names that
now escape me. Vladimir Nabokov I knew to be a great, living Russian
émigré writer and author of Lolita, a bestselling
novel at the time. Ford and Lewis, I would learn, were great English
prose stylists from earlier in the century, and I certainly had
heard their names from reading Ezra Pounds poetry. A good
friend, the poet Ross Feld, then working at Time magazine
and soon to become an editor at Grove Press, had written a poem
about Ford in a series called Plum Poems. Huysmans and Musil,
I learned, were both experimentalists.
Conrad was reputed to have known Vladimir
Nabokov. Had he studied with him at Cornell? No, Conrad told me
that he was a dropout from the University of Michigan, not Cornell.
It was said that they had once been friends but had had a falling-out.
Another rumor was that Conrad had written the introduction to Nabokovs
first published novel in America, a book that had come out from
New Directions but was out-of-print at the time.
It was clear to me, observing Conrad,
that he was a type of intellectual with which I was not familiar:
he was not a writer nor an academic. With the exception of a few
bookshop cognoscenti with whom he talked, his intelligence seemed
strictly a private matter, existing for its own sake. Conrads
readingand his breadth of literary knowledgehad nothing
to do with acquiring academic promotions or pedantry to feed a shaky
writers ego. It was a kind of pure intelligence, someone who
simply loved books for their own sake.
A woman came into the bookshop one
evening. She was writing her dissertation on Nabokov, and she asked
Conrad if he was the person who had written the introduction to
the New Directions novel. He looked her straight in the eye and
said, No, Im not, and walked away. When I asked
him about it later in the evening, he said, Its a long
story, and once again walked away.
Many years later, browsing a bookstall
on Broadway, I came across that novel. Conrad had indeed written
* * *
I would receive two masters degrees
and teach at many prominent universities, but nothing ever quite
equaled this downtown education on Eighth Street.The ideas found
in books were discussed so fervently and yet thrown about so casually;
the discussions were intermittent, between customers, but they were
intense and deep, full of loving detail for literature and the art
of reading. What I acquired was not a set of literary categories
or methods of analysis or substantive insights about specific books,
but something more fundamental and vastly more precious: a full-body
immersion in the world of writing.
* * *
A customer came into the bookshop asking
for the Proust biography.
No, Marcel Proust,
the man said. He was a French writer.
I mean the Painter
biography, Conrad said, not losing a beat, not breaking from
his stony countenance.
Obviously you didnt hear
me, the customer said, ever more annoyed. I dont
want the biography of the painter Marcel Proust but of the writer
Conrad walked away from him and came
back with Maurice Painters biography of Marcel Proust while
the customer held the book in hand, without noting the authors
last name and repeated, Yes, yes, this is it, the biography
of the writer.
Another time a customer could not think
of the title of a book she was looking for. Dudley walked to the
back of the shop, and came back with a bestselling book on memory.
Wow, man, how did you figure
that out? Andrei asked.
A wild guess, Dudley said.
Dudley and Conrads taste in books
were as different as their physical appearances. Conrads neat,
casual ivy league look stood in contrast to Dudleys lumberjack
shirts and rawhide vests, his corncob pipe, and his Maine accent.
It was Dudley who first recommended
that I read Gabriel García Màrquezs One Hundred
Years of Solitude, arguably the most influential book of the
late 20th century. I recall reading the novel in two or three sittings.
Then came the discussion of the book, usually during slow periods
in the evening when not too many customers were lined up at the
counter to buy books.
Dudley loved the book,
saying it was the best novel he had ever read. Conrad could barely
tolerate it. He pointed to a fast-selling novel by Toni Morrison,
and he said, Toni was begat by Gabriel and he was begat by
William Faulkner and and looking to me, Irish
will tell you who Willie was begat by.
I said, tentatively.
But who is Joyce
begat by? one of the clerks asked.
Time to work,
Conrad said as a parade of customers came marching in, picking up
copies of Erica Jongs Fear of Flying or was it
Toni Morrisons Sula?
I never heard an answer from Conrad.
Perhaps he believedas did I, along with Faulkner and Nabokovthat
Joyce was sui generis, a being electrocuted by the
divine fire of genius, as Faulkner once described him. Yet
Joyce did not make Conrads list, even though Conrads
mentor Nabokov considered Ulysses the great novel of the
* * *
My reading was thought adequate by the
overly read clerks and management. Some of them thought I read far
too much American poetryWilliam Carlos Williams and such Black
Mountain writers as Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, in turn, the
teachers of my poetry teacher, Joel Oppenheimer, the director of
the Saint Marks in the Bowery Poetry Project. Ezra Pound,
though his politics were deemed deplorable, was considered an acceptable
stylistic influence. His anti-Semitism and his siding with Mussolini
during World War II, not to mention his anti-American speeches on
Italian radio, were all reasons to vilify Pound. But the brilliance
of the ideas and writing style in his Cantos was reason enough
to read Pound, if with a grain of salt. I still recall writers having
difficulties with Pound, and remember a well-known writer leaving
a party in Brooklyn because people were talking seriously about
him. Usually it was Pounds anti-Semitism, not his writing
style, that divided them and turned them against him.
But neither Pound nor Williams was
the poet of choice for the Eighth Street Bookshop crew. They preferred
Neruda, Vallejo, Montale, Celan, and Cavafywriters who, with
the exception of the Chilean Neruda, were European, not provincially
North American. Others dismissed all poets except Mandelstam and
Akhmatova as literary elves.
Disagreements in the bookshop were
not always civil. A red-haired Cuban refugee used to take offense
at nearly everything I uttered, finding me unrefined, unlettered,
vulgar, and a bore. He would say this to me or others he did not
like: You are so boring and dull. The only person he
seemed to tolerate was Andrei, who sympathized with his Castro-
centered leftist Cuban politics, which is not to suggest that anyone
in the bookshop was anything but left of Cheit was the height
of the Vietnam War, and Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side
were right there at fever-pitch center of the antiwar movement.
Fistfights did not break out in the bookshop, but they did at the
Poetry Project, often between groups of young writers loyal to either
Joel Oppenheimer and Black Mountain, or Ted Berrigan and the New
York School (second- and third-generation poets under the influence
of Frank OHara, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery).
I defy you to tell the difference
between a Ron Padgett and a Dick Gallup poem in the dark,
one young Black Mountaineer said, tossing down the gauntlet.
Black Mountain poetry is stripped
bare of everything, an acolyte of Frank OHara said.
Then he picked up the challenge. Bare of everything, including
When the dust settled,
one of them had a black eye and a bloody nose.
* * *
I tried to read everything
that was suggested to me at the bookstore. This included such short-story
writers as Flannery OConnor, a keenly observant Southerner
with an acid wit. But it also included the Russian short story writer
Isaac Babel, the master of the genre of silence, as
Joel Oppenheimer said. Babel was a Jew from Odessa who became a
Cossack in the Red Cavalry, at a time when these marauders were
known for their vicious anti-Semitism, especially in Poland.
I also read and re-read Hubert Selbys
novels, including Last Exit to Brooklyn and The RoomI
was so enamored of Selbys prose that I took a leave of absence
in the middle of my second stint at the bookshop, and went out to
Los Angeles to find him. Certainly I read anything that Conrad or
Dudley recommended to me. But I even read a novel recommended by
my Cuban nemesis. His recommendation was a magical realistic novel
called Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante.
I read Herman Melvilles Bartleby the Scrivener
on Selbys recommendation; I read Under the Volcano
by Malcolm Lowry because one of my drinking companions said it was
the ultimate alcoholic novel. I would read Anaïs Nin, Maurice
Sendak, and Oliver Sacks, too, simply because they were regular
customers in the store. I read Auden after he stopped by one evening,
Allen Ginsberg another night.
I would read A Hero of Our Time
by Mikhail Lermontov, the creator of the modern Russian novel, and
rush to work to discuss the importance it had for Nabokov. Then
I would rush back home to read Nabokov. Eventually I wound up reading
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, discussing it with the
manager and the clerks and my girlfriend and her friends, long into
the night in some Village bar, usually some writers dive in
Sheridan Square. The writer David Markson frequented these places
too, and he would stumble into a joint, drunk and wearing a serape,
and someone whispered that he had been a friend of the great Malcolm
Lowry, who tried to drink himself to death in Mexico, and then finally
succeeded by choking on his own vomit in British Columbia.
* * *
wide range of poets visited the bookshop. Often I would see a poet
whose work appeared in one of two recent anthologies: Don Allens
New American Poetry and Paris Leary and Robert Kellys
Controversy of Poets. Though downtown Manhattans poetry
scene was dominated by the New York and Black Mountain schools,
these two anthologies presented a bigger picture to us, including
San Francisco poets like Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan, Western
poets like Ed Dorn, mystical ones like Robert Kelly, and even an
earlier generation of experimenters like the Objectivist poets Louis
Zukofsky and George Oppen. Before I took the bookshop gig, I was
a regular at the Monday night open reading run by Paul Blackburn
(another poet who appeared in these poetry anthologies). On Wednesdays,
I attended readings by the better known poets like the Black Mountain
poet Robert Creeley or the older Objectivist poet George Oppen.
Prominent women poets included Denise Levertov, Carol Berge, and
Diane Wakosi, all of whom were published in these alternative anthologies,
too. Although there are plenty of women poets today, in those days
they seemed few and far between, and their readings acted as a fresh
antidote to the dominance of male writers.
Looking back, I see that the poetry
readings fed a need for performance, but the bookshop is where all
my book learning went on. The books I was exposed to
then remain the foundation for all my reading. But it is Conrads
list that I most often return to, more than three decades later.
I need to go back to that list again:
re-read Ford, peruse Lermontov, going back to the Nabokov I read
before and reading other books of his for the first time. (I wonder
what Conrad would think, for instance, of Nabokovs Speak,
Memory, because, to my mind, it is a great memoir.) Nowadays,
too, I dont have to rely on the heavily edited paperback of
Robert Musils masterpiece, The Man without Qualities,
because I have the two-volume hardcover of the complete text. Wyndham
Lewis seems a bit tough reading today. Yet when all else fails,
there is still Flann OBrien, comic master or even that other
master of the fools, Joyce himself.
Conrad is retired from the book business
now, but I understand that Dudley is still working a bookshop in
the East Village. Andrei is a radio commentator, poet, professor,
novelist, essayist, filmmaker, celebrity. I am writing more prose
than poetry, more nonfiction than fiction, more personal essays
than anything else, and when I think about it, no one from that
time at the bookshop ever discussed essayists, although in the Lions
Head pub on Sheridan Square there was an insider crowd who admired
Edward Hoaglands pieces in the Village Voice.
Sometimes I think that the dead mafioso
was right. Perhaps Albert Camus is the one to go back and re-read,
with his clear and perceptive prose, subtly lyrical (even in translation)
and provocative. Then, too, there are the lists provided me by the
women clerks at the bookshop. I havent failed to mention them
out of malice or phallocentricity but because there were no women
working in the Eighth Street Bookshop until years later when I returned
thereoh, I forget how many times I worked at the bookshop.
The last was in 1974. During that final period, one of these women
made up a reading list for me that consisted of Virginia Woolf,
Joan Didion, Nathalie Sarraute, Natalia Ginzburg, Anna Akhmatova,
Elizabeth Bishop, and Doris Lessing, not to mention Grace Paley,
that curly-headed, gray-haired, lady up the block who used to protest
the war every weekend and who tried to talk my old girlfriend out
of dropping out of college and going off to San Francisco with the
likes of me. Paley is on a lot of those lists I was given. So was
Djuna Barnes. Then along came Jean Rhys and Kate Chopin.
what about reading the decadent fin-de-siecle French prose stylist
Huysmanss Against Nature again? Or how about Rimbaud?
You cannot go wrong reading Rimbaud again. Or Neruda? Why not read
One Hundred Love Sonnets again? One could not even go wrong
even reading the Irish one more time. For instance, Id ask
myself: when was the last time you read Ulysses or Becketts
prose trilogy or Yeatss later poems? Well, I still read Yeats
with almost clock-like regularitya copy of his poems is rarely
far awaythough I cant remember the last time I read
Joyce other than Dubliners, and I havent read Becketts
prose in maybe a decade or more. Ford Madox Ford Ive not read
since Conrad made his list for me. For that matter, I havent
read too many of the other books on his list in recent times except
maybe Lermontovs Hero of Our Time. Sometimes, too,
when Im feeling sentimental about the past, I also think of
those two poetry anthologiesthe Don Allen and the Leary/Kellywhich
I used to read religiously every day. Wouldnt it be nice to
go back to them again? Yet each of these memories of a book or an
author always brings me back to that place, the Eighth Street Bookshop,
which is no longer there.
* * *
ruined part of the shop. Then Eli Wilentz decided to get out of
business. Or perhaps Eli got out and the fire came. I cant
remember now. At any rate, the bookshop is gone forever. It was
that great megastore before such things existed; it was the paradigm
of a bookshop. Besides the floor upon floor, shelf upon shelf of
books, there was that element of feng shui, not simply location
but the geomancy of that locus, its spiritual otherness. Then there
were the customers, charming, annoying, irritable, angry, and yet
somehow in retrospect always brilliant. But mostly it was the people
who worked there. The clerks were masters of hermeneutics but also
pop encyclopedias and wells of irreverence and wit. Conrad was our
boss, the maker of that ultimate list, the one I could write a whole
book of essays about because each book was that good to read. I
have to try to find the list again to see which books I may have
forgotten or, more likely, which ones I added to it that Conrad
himself would never have sanctioned. Perhaps Andrei might know.
Or even Conrad. I could give him a call. But its been so many
years that were I to call he might think I needed to borrow money,
was in trouble, needed help. The last thing to cross Conrads
mind would be that list he wrote for me a lifetime ago. <
Michael Gregory Stephens has
published 18 books including The
Brooklyn Book of the Dead, Green
Dreams, and Where the Sky Ends. He currently lives
in London, where his play Our Father is to be revived in
Originally published in the December
2003/January 2004 issue of Boston Review