To go with Marc Spitz’s thoughts on the closing of Shakespeare & Co., here’s an excerpt from his memoir “Poseur,” in which he remembers his stint at the beloved bookshop.
Eventually, I got a job at Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers on Lower Broadway, right next to the warehouse that used to be Unique, where I bought my new wave T-shirts and sunglasses in the mid-eighties as my bored, slightly disturbed father wished he was anywhere else in the world. The staff were well-read and well-behaved; there wasn’t a real rebel among them. Any one of them would chase an escaping shoplifter across Broadway, then deep into Washington Square Park. I never understood that. What if the panicking thief turned and realized you were just a weedy or out-of-shape retail employee making $5.25 per hour and charged back? What if he had a flip knife? Or sharp teeth? Would you shed blood for the store’s owners? Not me, baby. I wouldn’t even step up to Push-Up Man, the eccentric homeless person who’d frequently wander in, clap his hands, drop, and start doing push-ups on the floor as the startled customers gave him his berth.
The staff rules were pretty strict too. Despite the indie conceits, this was no free-form collective of beatniks. There were floor managers and underlings, just like in any corp. Most of the grunt staff were struggling actors, writers like me, or students from NYU or the New School or the School of Visual Arts. None of us had made it. If we had or were going to, what were we doing there? Making an honest buck, sure, but every employee who didn’t seem too like a reject stood out and made you pull the old Billy Joel question, “Man, what are you doing here?” Owen, another manager, was one of a trio who didn’t seem to be covered in loser dust. He was trim and bespectacled. There was talk that he was wealthy and worked at the store just to stay busy. He certainly had a permanent smirk, the kind of expression that says, “It’s cool. I don’t need this.” Then there was Christina Kirk, a willowy blonde who, like Julie Bowen before her, made my life worth living for a few moments at a time. I fell in love with her immediately and thought of her in the morning when I didn’t want to go in. “At least I get to see Christina.” If this woman was working in this hell pit, then how bad could it possibly be. Christina was another struggling actress. Years later she would make a name for herself on the New York stage, as would I, but at the time, we punched in and sold books; I killed the time by begging her to get a drink with me, and she killed the time by rolling her eyes and rejecting my boredom-fueled, lustful entreaties. Finally, there was Ron Richardson, who quickly moved up (or down) from sales to management. Ron R. became a book buyer for the store. He was attending the New School and lived nearby in the dorms. Alone by a computer at a desk next to the owners, he was free to listen to whatever music he wanted and provided the store with its inventory: he decided what new titles seemed “Shakespeare” and how many should we order. Upstairs, we were only allowed to listen to jazz or classical on the store’s sound system, so the music coming out of Ron’s tiny speakers made me float on a Bugs Bunny ether cloud toward his work space, and his good nature kept me close by. We’d chat, and Ron would always refer the conversation back to something called “the Internet.”
What the fuck was the Internet? It sounded like science fiction, something out of Blade Runner. The Internet? Surely that couldn’t be anything good. I still typed on an electric Smith Corona. The blue-screened word processor that I wrote my first novel on was Zoe’s. The IBM computer we wrote Terminal Gossip on was Justin’s.
He’d show me the website for Paper magazine, where he was filing book reviews.
“You mean that’s Paper?”
“It’s Paper’s website.”
“This is the Web.”
“Web. Is that like the Internet?”
“The Internet is the Web. The World Wide Web.”
“The Internet and the Web are the same thing?”
Explaining the Internet to me in 1995 was like waiting for a duck to roll a blunt with his slick, webbed feet. Ron was patient to a point. Sometimes after work, we’d go grab a pint and shoot some pool at Mona’s bar, past the crusty punks along Avenue A. Rudy had yet to start rounding these kids up too. They would sneer at us, with their gray skin and tattoos and studded, painted leather jackets. I hated them. I preferred the squeegee men. I was working eight hours a day selling books. I’d have loved to just panhandle on Avenue A for beer money and conduct myself with an even shittier attitude than the one I already had, but I was sober now. I wanted things. My ambition was back. And I was too smart to be that free.
The worst duty, the mutually agreed-upon short straw, was overstock. I spent entire days atop a ladder, rearranging hundreds of mass-market paperbacks. If you’re of a certain pre-disposition, being surrounded by books can give you a physical sensation of pleasure. Running your hand across all those spines and thinking, I could swim in these pages, is a dreamy act. But overstock was just fucked. Like the taking of the U.S. census, overstock and inventory were abstract projects in a retail universe. They never really had a beginning, middle, or end, but when it was my shift, I was expected to play along and wave my hands around a little bit and pretend to count and record the inventory. The second-worst task was bag check. I would have to sit right by the door like one of those sleepy-eyed French bulldogs in the pet shop windows of the West Village, the ones that whimper, “Please take me home. I hate it here.” The main phone was at bag check as well, which meant I would have to answer it every two minutes, then transfer the calls, plus check people’s bags as they entered. There’s a presumption of guilt in retail. A manager catching someone on the floor with a bag would assume that person was a shoplifter, and I would catch hell for letting him or her by, distracted by a parade of Hare Krishnas moving down Broadway or locked in conversation with a visiting old Bennington friend, like Chrissie, who’d gotten a job working at Vogue.
“How cool it must be to work for a magazine. God, that would be like . . . the dream.”
Customers would also come in and ask me if we had a book in stock, like I had the whole inventory memorized. It would be flattering, their assumption that I had such tremendous brain power and recall, if they didn’t also treat me like a moron. And why would I be collecting bags if I wasn’t one? I’d have to direct them to the big computer at the back where we kept the art books and other items that were frequently jacked. Sometimes I manned the big computer myself when ordered to spend some of my shift at the “information,” or customer service, post, and I’d punch in the title or author or ISBN number and wait thirty full seconds for the slow-as-dick software to cough up a title. Oh, to have an ISBN number of my own. At lunchtime I’d go to Au Bon Pain and get the soup of the day and a piece of bread, just like all the other retail kids. I’d drink strong coffee with a lot of cream and sugar and sit alone and read the paper. Broke, with ten minutes of freedom before I had to return to the store, I’d have a smoke and walk around Lower Broadway listening to I Should Coco by Supergrass on my headphones. British pop was everything then, and fortunately most of it was inspired. Alex and I listened to it almost exclusively at night and on days when I wasn’t working: our romance was scored to Radiohead, Oasis, Blur, Elastica (whom Jack and I saw play Tramps), Pulp, and even Shampoo!
The big book of that season was The Celestine Prophecy, a New Age tome that every other customer seemed to come in looking for. We literally could not keep it in stock, even though the customers had no idea exactly how to ask for it. “The Cellophane Prophecy.” “The Cellphone Prophecy.” I could spot them when they came in, and sure enough that’s what they’d ask for. “The Cel-Ray Prophecy.” But the only prophecy that still held any water was the aforementioned Travis Bickle prophecy: “Some day a real rain will come and wash the scum off the streets.” The city, cleaner than ever and gentrifying with shocking rapidity, was no longer a place for low-renters or fuckups or even barflies. Club kids were bedazzling themselves and acting like they were trust-funders. Crusty punks were now rocking expensive piercing and elaborate tattoo jobs. One couldn’t truly slum here, or squat, or troll or cop without feeling conspicuous and a little ashamed. A young man had to have a new hustle and a good, charming racket. I needed to find a new, post-smack, Giuliani-compatible energy from somewhere because I wanted to survive in this Manhattan. Smack makes you tired. It’s demanding and exhausting. It takes over your ambition, but it doesn’t kill it. Not if you’re young. It merely puts it to sleep. Clean up a little, and that hunger, impatience, and frustration can come back in a forceful wave. It’s like when you oversleep and then scramble when you realize you’re late. You shower quickly, shave hastily, and throw on whatever clean clothes you have to beat back the clock. That’s how I felt on Giuliani Time.
Excerpted from “Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the ‘90s” by Marc Spitz. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.