Did you know that until 1993, women were not permitted to wear pantsuits on the US Senate floor? Also, that it’s illegal to buy a mattress on Sundays in Washington DC? Why this is the caliber of trivia I summoned upon entering our nation’s capitol is unknown to me. Perhaps I didn’t want to be among the masses of folks taking themselves a little too seriously in DC, but I’d also like to think I was reaching. Grasping for something hidden in the thick of the power ties, the luncheon culture, the polic-making rigmarole. Does anyone live in DC who isn’t lobbying for power? I needed to get schooled.
It started by having an Anselm Berrigan reading at the DC Arts Center fall coincidentally into my lap. I virtually ran into him on 18th St. in Adams Morgan in an unwitting way that only a bumbling young person can manage. If I have a bias, suggesting Wave authors are the best around, it’s due in part to my endlessly bumping into them and being greeted with hospitality and warmth. With this as an entry point, I was both surprised and pleased that DC seemed to be leading me to more poetic than political ends.
I was hoping for some travel decompression in the form of both book-browsing and possibly an adult beverage, and for this I was directed post haste to Busboys and Poets just off the U Street Corridor. It was upon giving the shelves a going-over that I realized what being in DC meant about being at an independent bookstore: in a city at the confluence of world politics means a great bookstore must serve cosmopolitan reading interests. From studies on gender and body politics to scarcely-printed poetries of far-off nations, Busboys & Poets had a spread designed to make you jettison the idea that dominant culture is in the hands of the few.One White House sighting, a few galleries, and a Lincoln Memorial later, I hoofed among the busy-bodies over to Georgetown—seeking out the unsuspecting storefront of Bridge Street Books. I recognized some familiar faces from my run-in at Anselm’s reading, among them the seemingly omnipresent Rod Smith. Talk to Rod for a few minutes and you get an idea of his vast knowledge and experience in the industry. Take a look at the bookshelves he curates at Bridge Street and you’ll want to weep, you’ll want to live your life over again in a padlocked room fed only with material selected by his hand, you might just want to get the hell out of there before your head explodes. I chose the first and tried to muffle my sobs. As if the poetry section wasn’t enough to contend with—its dizzying Wave selection, poet after poet both underexposed and prevailing in the canon, editions I’d never thought actually existed in stores—then I had to try to compose myself throughout the rest of the store. It’s a staggering selection, truly, and once you see it you’ll wish every city had a Bridge Street Books.I had one more stop to make before leaving office. Politics and Prose would later be described to me as the place where Matthew Zapruder grew up playing tag with his brother among the stacks (sorry Matthew), and this would make sense as it felt a natural home for Wave to be absorbed into the world. Got caught thumbing the spine of Rodney Koeneke’s Etruria by Mark LaFambroise, who is exactly the kind of paladin of a bookseller you want to talk to on a trip like this. I got to talk with the whole P&P crew in fact—caught up on the industry while they sprang to action around me. The instinct of booksellers, the space they work in, the invested personal histories in that space and in the books they fill it with—it feels like the kind of place that DC would exalt as an institutional stronghold of independent thought. A home really (as illustrated, sorry Matthew) where, for 30 years this autumn, social, educational, and community concerns have guided the endeavor—bringing books to people and people to the best kind of book experience.
The coastal shores of South Carolina came into view and memories of the West coast were flitting about with the sea breezes of on-coming Charleston. How long since the dramas and drudgeries of Southern California, the embellishments of memory itself. But indeed, it had been in the ballpark of some 9,000+ miles since I’d last seen that tender blue. I recalled my correspondence regarding a last glimpse of the Pacific: waxing lyrical on its undertow as a sort of mascot for our endeavor—the charm & levity of its greeting concealing the integrity & persistence of its cause.
I admittedly entered a state of leisure once the sand was again in my toes (and all over the car). Charleston’s energy, the severity of its historical glare, and the splendor of the Southern city in full bloom left me bewitched! and feeling in need of fanny-pack. This didn’t mean I couldn’t take time out to talk to some book folk though..
Down on King St. it seemed to be all happenin’. Blue Bicycle Books was front & center as the place to drop in for used, rare, and local picks. One thing that struck me about this Southern belle was being surrounded by the smoothed edges of the previously-owned and the rustic imagery of old, maritime South, yet feeling perfectly integrated within the crispness of a very conscious modern design. After ogling the hardbound Faulkner, I was leafing about the new books up front. Local history was on parade, but I was digging the local poets. I realized the edition in my hands was a new release from the manager perched in front of me, Sara Peck, and we got into a little on the small press world.
As much relief as I got from being by the water again, it was time to return to the interior and trade in those palms for pines.
Imagine this: a place where a major, quarter century-long educational experiment lasted until 1957, then 57 years later I meet a man who landed there for a Rainbow Gathering in 1987, and now I’m pulling Wave spines out from the shelves at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC. The math may seem garbled, but incidents in Asheville have a way of appearing a little witchy. Malaprop’s—taking up, in a way, where Black Mountain left off and perhaps encouraging, in part, such Rainbow gatherers—is a model haven for the writing and arts communities, and community itself, on a local and global level. Started in 1982 by a political exile from Hungary, the priority has always been inclusion—rejecting any level of censorship to create a space where voices from the periphery are exalted and all are immune in the exploration of free expression. Appropriately heady I realize, but I also recognize that these booksellers, buyers, and events organizers really know what they’re doing. They’ve created a vibe, as it were, that draws the entire spectrum from the curious to the purposeful to those in need of inspiration—nobody seeming left unsatisfied.
I sputtered up the Blue Ridge Mountains, through the fog and some pretty hairy switchbacks—making a campfire or two and enjoying the quietude of ancient geology—until I came back down to flatter planes and roads in Old Dominion and eventually made a surprise visit (for me) to the greater Richmond area. Equally a surprise was walking into Fountain Books in the Shockoe Slip district downtown. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many signed editions in my life. Owner Kelly Justice was in, fresh off a handful of big readings and sounding both relieved and raring to go for another of their deluge of events. With Amazon operating two large distribution centers in the Richmond area, keeping the doors open at an indie coming up on 40 years old is no small success. Fountain Books looks good doing it too.
As I had now made it to the sticky convergence zone of the Mid-Atlantic, it was safe to say the South was in my past—glad as I was to have seen and learned as much as I had. The highways pointed North from now on and I tell you the bookstores keep coming.