Saturday, October 3, 2009


Our bookstores are dying. Not just the big box chains, the independents are also in trouble. Bookstores have always been a risky business.

People think of something that has been around for a generation as a natural phenomenon. I thought it about television. The current generation feels that way about the Internet. Bookstores as we know them seem like something that must have existed since the beginning of time.

It’s not true. Bookstores were something that didn’t come into my life until I was near my teens. I thought they were wonderful when I found them, but they weren’t where I was accustomed to getting my reading material.

In my early years, the Sixties, and Seventies, I found my books and magazines where my family bought everything else in the San Gabriel Valley, down the San Bernardino Freeway from L.A. – supermarkets, department stores, drug stores (I found Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme in a Thrifty’s), and liquor stores. What I found in these venues was so much more interesting than what they were trying to force on me in school and at the library. These were bizarre magazines, gaudy paperbacks, and comic books – my happy alternative to children’s literature.

My favorite was George’s Liquor Store, on Francisquito Avenue, a short walk from my parent’s house. This walk crossed the border between "suburban" West Covina, and "barrio" Baldwin Park. Lots of people thought I was crazy for risking my life among the lowriders and graffiti.

But I remembered the day my mother got a letter announcing that our house that used to be in Baldwin Park was now in West Covina. I went out to discover that everything looked the same, and was disappointed. I learned an important lesson: that borders are arbitrary, and can change without notice. You shouldn’t be afraid to cross them, and you never know when they will cross you.

The magazine and book racks of George’s always challenged my developing sensibilities. Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, and Vampirella were plopped next to second-rate girly mags. The comic book spinner was next to a paperback rack that mixed bestsellers from New York with soft porn books from local publishers. One glimpse of the cover of Ed Wood’s To Make a Homo, disturbed and haunted me for years. I was made aware that there were other worlds out there.

I also found science fiction magazines, Amazing, Fantastic, Galaxy, If, and other latter-day pulps that inspired me to become a writer. When one on slick paper appeared, I was eager to let my high school English teacher know about it. It was called Vertex and had a story that impressed me called "Bleeding Stones" by Harlan Ellison.

When Mrs. Goodman asked me where I found it, I told her. Looking disgusted, she repeated, "George’s Liquor Store?" She made it sound like the last place on Earth she’d want to go.

To this day, I don’t understand academics.

1 comment:

  1. That sounds like my situation. Particularly when I moved to Texas, bookstores weren't an option. My town had one new bookstore (with the Seventies-appropriate title "the Booktique") and one used bookstore on the other side of town, and we didn't see a comic shop until 1983. The used bookstore was full of Perry Rhodan and textbooks from the Fifties, and the Booktique was the sort of place where they'd take special orders for the stuff they didn't have...if they liked you...and if they felt like it. Neither survived the Eighties and the Bookstop that went in on the highway heading to Dallas.

    For me, it was the same situation as you, only my town was completely dry. Thankfully, the grocery stores made up for it. Back in the days when distribution allowed that sort of variety, the "Sci-Fi" sections at the local Safeway or Tom Thumb were loaded with all sorts of subversive material. Considering that Southern Baptists literally ran the town, I still remember the disturbing thrill of snagging all sorts of Timescape titles, including Nancy Collins's Dhampire, from the book section, and wondering about how long this would last before some control freak shut it all down. I didn't have much to worry about: at the time, Texas still had blue laws that prevented most items from being sold on a Sunday, and every time a vote on discontinuing them came up in the Texas Legislature, the Southern Baptists started a huge screaming fit until the bill was dropped. Tom Thumb's parent company at the time got great pleasure from giving the finger to W.A. Criswell and the rest of his sheep, which also explains the extensive collection of "inappropriate" records and tapes right next to the books. I never bought it because I didn't have a record player, but I remember seeing my first Frank Zappa record in one of the bins at that grocery store before going to school.

    Sadly, that's all gone. The interesting selection of magazines and books disappeared with the consolidation of distributors, and I haven't seen a comic in a grocery store or convenience store in nearly twenty years. I'm starting to wonder if the future of magazines and books isn't with specialized stores (we're seeing exactly how well that's working for comics), but with kiosks like the DVD rental kiosks outside 7-11s throughout the country. In the meantime, I'm thinking, and thinking hard, about setting up used book vending machines at a couple of local bars, just to see what the interest would be like.