Monday, June 16, 2008

The delicious delirium of delving into dead books: a visit to The Monkey's Paw

I’m thinking about dead books, those out-of-print, forgotten, lost or hidden volumes that slip into our hands after revealing themselves in shops or garage sales, in dust-coated boxes abandoned in attics or even floating atop the contents of trash cans. These are books not sought out, but discovered. Everyone has some hanging around: children’s books, textbooks, oddities. From where I’m seated I spot The Fabulous Flight to the Mushroom Planet, a teenage thrift store find, The Truth About American Diplomats, borrowed and never returned, The Truth About Fonzie, a birthday gift. Many seem mere novelties, but they’re also artifacts. Some contain secret knowledge from the past, ideas and voices otherwise lost.

Across from a liquor store in a Portuguese neighborhood in Toronto lives a small bookshop called The Monkey’s Paw. I was directed there by another bookseller months ago while searching for, appropriately enough, scholarship on Poe. But I quickly abandoned my hunt upon entering, as preserved biological specimens, manual typewriters, engraving plates and a few thousand carefully selected dead books caught my magpie eye. In the afterlives of dead books, this place appeared a significant junction.

I got snared by one shelf in particular: every other title struck me as a gem. I was trying to discern what linked them together, and, just to prove what a nerd I am, I think I actually laughed out loud with delight when I realized this was, as the proprietor himself labeled it, The Death Section. I left that afternoon with a copy of Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial and Death. I darted through traffic, bought some Fuller’s Porter, walked home and nestled in for hours of folklore, forensics, decomposition and delicious, chocolaty beer. Before that afternoon I never knew getting rid of a corpse could be so cumbersome!

I returned to The Monkey’s Paw today to speak with its owner about dead books. The window display showcased a stellar crop: Clinical Assessment of Malignancy and Deception, Cornish Guernsays & Knit-frocks, Women on Heroin!, What Wood is That? and The Life and Work of Walt Whitman: A Soviet Perspective. There’s also a Remington Rand with a toy raven perched upon it. Wow.

Inside I admired a Blue Velvet pres kit, a 3-D display called LIFE OF THE SILK WORM, a sinister little volume entitled Morbid Craving for Morphia and, hung like tiles upon a narrow wall, a collection of Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books with titles like Ventriloquism Self Taught, Sex Life in Greece and Rome and Facts You Should Know About Digestion. Ridiculous phrases like “penetrating an enigma” were being typed in my brain. This is truly the dead letter office of books.

As Nico chants above the rumble of streetcars, Stephen Fowler sits before a map of the USSR, happy to discuss his enterprise. He opened just six months ago, after moving to Toronto from San Francisco. The spirit of The Paw, Fowler says, is characterized by “the beautiful, the arcane, the macabre, the absurd.” What with the store and a family, he admits he doesn’t read like he used to, though whenever he’s got a cold, he curls up with a big book about ants.
I ask him what makes a guy enter a racket as tough as selling dead books.

“What I’m banking on,” he explains, “is that out-of-print, odd books is a growing market. I believe we’ll soon see the end of the book as we’ve known it for 500 years. Big publishing houses can’t wait for this, as it means an enormous drop in production costs. New bookstores are doomed. But old books, I mean, in the 20th century, how many books were published? You can’t undo them. They’re still out there. Waiting.”

What, I ask, is the allure of a dead book. “There’s the sense of something that’s fallen through the cracks, and you’ve retrieved it,” says Fowler. “I only stock the weirdest books I can find, and if somebody like me wasn’t salvaging and reintroducing them to others, they’d be gone. So I think of my vocation as kind of curatorial. Here’s this piece of culture I select from the morass, place on a table, and suggest that it’s a real and valuable thing.”

Of course, books also possess immediate, practical value. As we converse, a woman of Caribbean descent –let’s call her Delvina– pokes her head in asking to examine something in the window called A-Z of Jamaican Heritage. Delvina won’t come inside because of her unusual breathing problems, she explains. She peruses the book outside for some time before re-entering and informing us that governments searching for “Pharonic power” are trying to destroy her via the magic of her own people. She says she’ll buy the book later. Fowler, a seasoned bookseller, just nods like he sees this sort of thing daily.

But maybe Delvina’s somehow at the heart of these thoughts about the afterlives of dead books, the journey of rare objects holding rare knowledge trying to find precisely that individual reader who’ll summon up their wisdom and usher their dead words back into life. I think about Delvina as I head home, with more beer and more books that I wonder when for the love of God I’ll ever find the time to actually read.

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