S&R Literature

S&R Nonfiction: The Bookman, by Elizabeth Titus

Blame it on four-dollar cupcakes. And capitalists and philistines. Because of them, the bookman has been forced out of his spot on Columbus Avenue just outside 67 Wine at 68th Street. At least, that’s what the angry words scrawled in black magic marker on a piece of salvaged wood propped up against a parking meter would lead one to believe. He had been a fixture there for at least twenty years. Not permanent, it seemed.

From 1982 until 2002 I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on West 70th Street. During that time the bookman was part of my life, the way other dog owners in Central Park and the pharmacy and drycleaner staff were. I used to walk by his piles of books every day and always stopped to see what had been added. After a decade in exile in Weston, Connecticut, I returned to my old neighborhood in early 2012, purchasing a small apartment on West 67th Street. Much had changed, but the dry cleaners with the outdated signage depicting, for some reason, the Eiffel Tower, remained, as did the pharmacy with the ancient and slightly bizarre window displays. Rigoletto Pizza was still there, with a facelift.

And there was the bookman! He was in his long-term spot on Columbus Avenue, sitting on a white plastic lawn chair next to his piles of books. We nodded in recognition that we remembered each other, but that was it. Few words passed between us.

Dressed in a Mexican cape-like shirt and a safari hat or occasionally a black beret, with grey hair to his shoulders, he was of indeterminate age. He smoked a cigar, which smelled terrible, but he could care less if it kept customers away. His attitude seemed to be, buy a book, or don’t, but don’t fuck with me.

I often wondered where he lived. The battered old green Honda with New Jersey plates parked next to his books became the nighttime storage unit. Every day he patiently took down all the piles and carefully placed them inside the car. There was no room left for him to sleep. So what did he do? He couldn’t drive back to New Jersey because the car had been repurposed as a book depository.

During our brief renewed friendship upon my return to the city I talked with him often, sharing my collecting tastes and seeking his help. I am especially enamored of the book jackets done by Alvin Lustig in the 1940s for New Directions books, and he said he’d keep an eye out for me. One day he called me over and said he had something for me: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West. The real thing, a New Directions book, but without its Alvin Lustig cover. He sold it to me for ten bucks, and when I got home, I found the missing cover tucked inside the pages. I felt kind of guilty, knowing it was worth at least ten times as much, but I never told him about the cover.

Then one day in March I saw the sign.

His pile of books was gone, but the Honda was still there, filled to the bursting point. There was tape on the car, as if to hold it together. I’d often wondered about his privileged parking space, since I have to fight other drivers for spots and sometimes feed the meters. His car, though, sat there, untouched.

What would life be like without the bookman? I couldn’t imagine it. I once asked him where he got all the books, and he said from estates in New Jersey. You can always tell what departed people were like from their books. In an essay in The New Republic, “Voluminous,” Leon Wieseltier reflects on the meaning of books and a personal library. He writes, “A wall of books is a wall of windows … a library has a personality, a temperament.”

I returned to the city recently after a trip to Italy, and as I walked along Columbus Avenue heading to a dinner party on West 81st Street, there he was. The angry sign was still there, but his books were back, as though nothing had happened. On his table was a gorgeous Rizzoli book on the Art Nouveau architecture in Istanbul, where I will go in October. “How much?” I asked. “Twenty-five bucks,” he said. I found my wallet empty and told him to set it aside and I’d return the next morning.

“It’s okay,” he said, “take it now. Pay me later.”

I really did not want to lug the heavy book to the dinner party, but I worried that I’d insult him if I declined his offer. Somehow, it seemed a sign of trust, an acknowledgment of our long relationship, where few words were exchanged, but two people were connected through a love of books.

“Thank you,” I said, taking the book from him. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”