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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Community Bookstore
I live off Court Street, a busy two-mile strip that begins at the courthouse in downtown Brooklyn and dead ends behind the Red Hook projects. Walking south from the courthouse toward my apartment, you will pass a multiplex, a Trader Joe’s, several expensive clothing boutiques with little or no clothes in them, coffee shops that discourage sitting and drinking coffee, overpriced restaurants and grocery stores, and a few places of worship. You will also pass three bookstores. The first one is a Barnes and Noble. The second one, Book Court, is in many ways the Platonic ideal of an independent bookstore: it has inviting signage, warm lighting, a friendly staff, and a spacious room for events.
It’s the third one I want to talk about.
A few blocks past Book Court, on the opposite side of the street, is The Community Bookstore. Its sign is hand-painted: wonky black letters on a dirty white background. Its windows are in need of pressure washing, its facade is in need of paint. Often, when I mention The Community Bookstore to friends, they’ll assume I’m talking about a bookstore in Park Slope with the same name.
“I think I’ve been there,” they’ll say.
“No, you haven’t,” I’ll say. “You would have remembered.”
Alongside the boutiques and restaurants of Court Street, The Community Bookstore and its lone staffer, a sullen-looking gray-bearded man with dark eyebrows, seem out of place. Out of era, even. The man, who I assume is the sole proprietor and whose name I’ve never felt comfortable asking for, wears a ratty coat and reading glasses on a lanyard around his neck. He usually sits cross-legged outside the store on a foldout chair or crate, smoking a cigarette. Bins of books clutter the stoop and sidewalk around him. He fascinates me. There is something about him that is both shabby and distinguished; F. Murray Abraham might play him in a movie. When someone walks up to the store, he’ll get up and move nervously inside, waiting to see if the person will buy anything. He avoids eye contact, continues smoking while ringing you up. Amazingly, he accepts credit cards.
Probably most people never make it that far into their first encounter with The Community Bookstore. This is understandable. The interior resembles a hoarder’s lair. Piles of books, mostly used, though some new, scrape the ceiling, growing in a sedimentary fashion, slowly over time, until they spill out into the aisles. The aisles aren’t really aisles either: they’re just the spaces where, for the moment, there are no books. The business model seems to be: fit as many books as possible into all available space by any means necessary and never get rid of anything. I find the lack of pretense admirable. Here, simply, is a place crammed with books. Not without its perils though. You have to inch sideways through a dizzying labyrinth of book piles if you hope to access the deeper, danker caverns of the store, where a handwritten sign announces the “Autobiography” section. You must move at a pace which, I’ve found, encourages the discovery of treasures.
Despite the mold, dust, and seeming disarray, I’m always able to find the books I’m looking for at The Community Bookstore. Once, as a compliment, I said as much to the proprietor of the store, showing him a used copy of Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, still in good condition. The other two stores hadn’t seemed to have heard of the book or its author. The proprietor shrugged. “They mostly have new books over there,” he said. His was a different kind of bookstore. That was all.
“You fascinate me,” I wanted to say.
One strange evening a while back, I was on a quest for Donald Barthelme’s Not Knowing. I’d struck out at Barnes and Noble and at Book Court, so I set off for The Community Bookstore. I stepped over the little stoop and through the cramped doorway. I asked if the proprietor knew if he had a copy of the Barthelme book. He didn’t know. He disappeared somewhere into the center of the store. I tried to follow him towards the back, side-stepping apologetically past a customer in a black hoodie. I couldn’t see where he’d gone. In the interval, because the customer had the hood up over his head, I couldn’t see his face until it was two inches from mine. The face belonged to Junot Diaz.
Well-known people were always hanging out at Book Court a few blocks away: I’d once seen Ben Lerner browsing the poetry section; Paul Dano couldn’t find the NYRB paperback he was looking for; Emma Straub might have rung me up. But what felt strange, maybe even slightly portentous, was running into one of my favorite writers, threatened all around by the prospect of death-by-hardback-avalanche.
Looking back on that visit to the bookstore, the most surprising part wasn’t that I met Junot Diaz there, but that they didn’t have the Barthelme book I was looking for. “Sorry,” said the proprietor, returning from his search. “We don’t have it.” There was real sadness in his voice.
I had been so busy working up the nerve to talk to Junot Diaz that I had forgotten about the book. “Oh, okay,” I said to the proprietor, my heart racing. “Thanks.”
Before I had time to psyche myself out, I introduced myself to Junot Diaz. In that musty proximity, I told him that I was a writer and that his work has meant a great deal to me. He seemed humbled, grateful. He was with a female friend, who smiled kindly from near the counter. Recalling it now, the moment seems more and more like an anxiety dream I’m confusing with something that actually happened.
I wish I’d asked Junot Diaz what book he was looking for. That would have been a good thing to say. Maybe creepy. At least, given the context, it would have made sense. I would have assured him that he would definitely find what he was looking for here, exchanging a warm glance with the proprietor. Instead, painfully aware of the Trader Joe’s bags in my hands, I sidestepped past him out of the store onto Court Street. His voice followed me out into the night: “Good luck,” it said.
I wonder how The Community Bookstore stays in business. Sometimes, I’ll find it locked with a handwritten sign taped to the door — by now I know the proprietor’s scrawl — saying that he will return in a couple months. I wonder where he goes. During the months when the store is open, I pop in from time to time, rarely encountering other customers. It seems crazy that such a bookstore can exist in one of the most expensive zip codes in the city. A city where every other neighborhood bookseller without a sound business plan went under ages ago. Whenever I approach The Community Bookstore’s block, I brace myself for the inevitable: construction crews out front throwing books into a dumpster, a real estate sign in the window with a number to call if you’re interested in prime Boerum Hill retail space.
That it somehow manages to survive is certainly good luck: ours.
Mikael Awake previously wrote about a Zora Neale Hurston line for The Open Bar. His stories have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Witness, Callaloo, and elsewhere. He works in Manhattan and lives with his wife in Brooklyn, NY.