Thursday, August 22, 2013

Meet Me in the Dollar Bin

I grew up in a small town in Eastern Arkansas, about halfway between Memphis and Little Rock, an hour or so from either. We had one book store which was Christian; if you wanted to read C.S. Lewis or wanted a new bible, okay, but that was about all it had to offer. The county library was about the size of my bedroom, and I quickly burned through what it had to offer. They had a surprisingly diverse selection, though. I read Clive Barker's early horror novels there (sneaking into the adult section) and I forayed into capital L "Literature." Sure, I could've requested they borrow books from other libraries, which I did with certain things that weren't too risque, but this meant enduring the ire and judgement of the librarian, a slight, severe woman who appeared distracted and confused much of the time but would subject any overly adventurous young people like myself to questions like "Why do you want to read that?" I was actually afraid to check out the aforementioned Clive Barker novels because I was pretty sure if she examined them closely enough to find out what they were about, she'd pull them from the shelves, so I read them straight through, hiding in the stack. Perhaps this was all in my imagination, but coming from an extremely closed society like the Bible Belt, I had long ago learned not to draw attention to anything that brought me joy lest it be condemned. Perhaps this librarian might've been a secret ally, but I had noticed that certain more interesting books did disappear from time to time. Once I inquired about one, thinking it had been checked out, though it had been missing a long time, and she claimed the library had never carried it. I always wondered why she'd ordered the books if she didn't want them there. Maybe she just hadn't vetted them and ordered them blindly, but that didn't seem like a very effective approach to censorship, and I thought I was being clever by slipping past her lowered guard. The reality is probably that she removed them after complaints, but I didn't consider this at the time.

So where to get my reading fix? The nearest mall was in a city called Jonesboro, home of Arkansas State University. When my friends and I became old enough to drive, we'd travel nearly weekly to visit the bookstores, music stores, movie stores, etc. in the mall and near the college. This was in the late 80s and early 90s, after the Tiffany/Debbie Gibson mall tours had thankfully ended. We grimaced at the association, but we didn't have a lot of choices. For music, it was classic rock on the radio or head to the used record store by the college. Most trips, we'd buy music by bands we'd never heard, sometimes never heard of, because there was really no way to have heard of them. In this manner, we found tons of great bands -- many of the "Grunge" bands of the day, but also some really interesting less-hyped bands. I discovered metal, folk, jazz, and all sorts of stuff. I remember buying my first Heavy Vegetable cd in a store in Memphis because the cover looked interesting. This led to a compilation called Mud on the Wheel which also had a song by the Canadian avant garde folk musician Kathleen Yearwood, whose music I was able to acquire through a Canadian penpal (I traded her a Pavement CD). Heavy vegetable led to lots of other bands. Even Smashing Pumpkins and super-successful bands like that were once nobodys whose album a friend or I bought on a whim. (I remember trying to convince a friend to eject his Skid Row tape long enough for me to listen to Siamese Dream for the first time. He preferred Skid Row, as I recall.) Of course, we ended up with plenty of awful stuff, also. The same was true of movies. We'd order the most obscure films we could because the theater in our hometown showed only the most hyped of Hollywood movies. Most of our film forays were into horror, and it was only later in college that we truly began to explore the indie film explosion of the 90s. We did have a movie rental place in town which carried quite a few horror films, but it was only later, in college, that we were able to truly explore Argento, Pater Jackson's early work, and the like.

But the real treasures, for me, were books. Let me backtrack for a moment and mention some other sources I found. Flea markets were a strangely interesting source of books. Many of the classics I read as a teenager came from boxes of battered paperbacks sitting on the edge of some warped wooden table at a flea market or a yard sale. I always wondered why there might be a well-thumbed copy of Plato's Republic in a small town flea market. It was a tantalizing thing to consider because it implied hidden outposts of intellectuality. Likewise, Goodwill often carried surprisingly decent books, which were affordable. I started my love of Dostoevskiy with a copy of Crime and Punishment bought for a quarter when I was a teenager. Similarly, the mall bookstores carried an overlooked secret: the reduced books bin. To this day, I'm surprised by what one can find in these. Many of the books are unsold copies of last year's cut-and-paste Best-Sellers (or not-that-best-sellers) but squirreled away amongst them were some really odd and interesting finds. My first Genet novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, came from a marked-down bin at a mall bookstore. Likewise, Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School, among many others. At the time, they just seemed like interesting books. I bought them, read them, and then followed the rabbit trails of similar authors they led me down. Hardly a month went by that I didn't special order some book that had the staff looking at me strangely. (I remember having to order Frazier's The Golden Bough twice because I hadn't known how to pronounce "bough" and ended up with some young adult fantasy book.) But special orders were an expensive treat. There was something much more fullfilling to finding some random marked-down book whose author I had maybe heard of, taking it home, and discovering a world beyond this world.

Many of these books would've never survived, I think, if they'd truly been discovered; imagine if the people of my hometown, some of whom burned Anne Rice's vampire books as being Satanic, had discovered Acker or Burroughs. It is, exactly, their obscurity that allow books like these to survive, in the same way that a studious, intellectual like myself survived by keeping my head down, for the most part, and avoiding detection. This was a lesson thoroughly made clear by incidents like the persecution of the West Memphis Three. I remember being pulled over by a cop, after the events for which the 3 were wrongly imprisoned, and being asked if I was "in one of them cults out of Memphis" because I had long hair and was wearing a Metallica shirt my sister had given me. This sounds funny, now, but at the time, it was a terrifying situation.

After high school, my closest friends went to college, while I continued my education through books, reading every author I had heard of associated with Literature, or whose books just looked interesting. One boss at a fast-food place maligned Camus, saying it was the kind of crap he'd had to read in college, so I drove for an hour to order every book I could by Camus, and then two weeks later, drove an hour to pick them up when they came in. If I tried to discuss many of these books with anyone, well, I quickly discovered that many of my peers, other than my close friends, were reading Goosebumps books (a series of kids books) while I read Becket's trilogy. They responded with distaste, distrust; they warned me that I was endangering my soul by reading too much. One boss at a grocery store took it upon himself to proselytize to me because I had been reading about myths other than the one he believed in. He'd stop me in the aisles and preach while country music twanged overhead. "You have to be careful," he said. "I'd be afraid to know too much."

But I read everything. I read Stephen King and William Faulkner, Greek myths and apocryphal books of the Bible. I would stack books by my dresser as I finished them and then sell them to a used book store when they reached level with the top of the dresser, maybe keeping a couple if they were really interesting. When I finally went to college, after most of my friends had graduated, I continued reading inside and outside of classes, while most of my classmates seemed to only mention books long enough to malign them. Just down the hill from the University of Arkansas I discovered Dickson Street Bookshop, which is still one of the best bookstores I've ever known. I would get lost in the stacks, leaving with books piled four-feet high. I discovered Baldwin there, and Laurence Sterne, Tom Jones, and Donald Harington, many of them for a couple bucks each.

Of course, a book being remaindered or used means the author isn't getting paid. To this day, because of economics, I acquire most of my books either used or for free as review copies. As a writer, myself, I don't really have an opinion about this; if someone enjoys my books, I'm not going to ask how they got them. If I encounter an author I enjoy, I do buy his/her books. And I write about them. Perhaps that goes some way to paying back the debt I owe, but it's a large debt.

Nowadays, it's difficult to find something truly obscure. I can order a book from Amazon that I used to have to drive an hour to maybe be able to order. Music is even more accessible, as are movies. I'm not arguing for obscurity, I'm simply considering that these discoveries meant so much more to me when they were so hard-earned. These books were shining beacons in a wasteland of anti-intellectualism. Kathy Acker understood things about life, clearly, that C.S. Lewis never even considered. And some people want to pretend those things don't exist, but they do. I'm not saying I totally empathized with Acker, but the fact of there being a dissenting voice at all filled me with so much hope. I think it's safe to say that books like hers and all these I've mentioned were more salvation to me than the Bible ever was, though I've found it to be an interesting read as well.

-CL Bledsoe

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* The title comes from a Les Savy Fav song.

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