Back in the day, when I was a teenager, I used to hop on the bus to Seattle and spend a day wandering the seedier parts of town. I’d get off around Pike Street, near the Farmers’ Market, and wander around 1st and 2nd Avenues, which were not nice places for a quiet young man. But I had an obsession and a pocket full of change, and I was jonesing for a fix. I’d go to the porn shops.
Maybe you don’t remember 70s-era porn shops. Maybe you weren’t even born then. But the like of these beasts is something that we’ll not see again. They were beautiful.
The typical layout was to have walls covered with display racks, and displayed in all their blatant, lurid glory would be the covers of these glossy, over-sized magazines, and the covers would always be closeups of orgasmic women in hardcore action. There was a kind of battle going on: each one was competing to be brighter, shinier, brassier, sexier than the next, so you’d walk in to these little shops and be radiated with pink. Squirming, pulsing pink. There’d be spots of contrast provided by silky mats of pubic hair — this was the 70s, when “beaver” was the usual synonym for good reason — and by the segregated strip on one wall of black women, usually entangled with pale pink men, set aside like some exotic perversion.
These did not look like cheap operations. The magazines were often European imports, printed on thick stock, and with prices that were hard to believe at the time: $30, $50 each. They were published as if they were museum-quality works of art, but they weren’t going to last. VHS was on the way, and it was first going to replace the tins of 8mm and 16mm films kept in a cabinet behind the clerk’s chair, and then it was going to creep out and replace the pink flamboyance with little plastic boxes. And then, of course, the internet was going to arrive like a bomb in the mail and demolish everything.
But this was still the 70s, and I would walk in and do my usual ritual: I’d stand near the center and turn in a circle, brazenly taking in the art on the wall with my eyes wide-open and startled, looking for the real treasures, the actual purpose behind my entry into this pinkly glowing den of iniquity.
You see, the owners would always have a stash of cheap, entirely random books somewhere, usually unsorted and piled without care somewhere in the store: in the front window, on a low table, in a bin near the clerk. They looked totally out of place, with their faded covers and yellowing pages, like dusty, tattered insect carcasses beneath the feet of the lubricious mammalian sleekness prowling above them. I always imagined there must be some loophole in a law book somewhere, so that when the police walked in to harrass the owner with the obviously pornographic nature of his wares, he’d be able to grandly sweep a nicotine-stained hand around his emporium and announce, “Nah, officer, see…this is a bookstore!”, just by pointing out a few tatty, moldering piles.
And it was. That’s what I was after. There was absolutely no discrimination in the collection, and the prices were cheap: 5 or 10 cents. There’d be old pulp novels from the 40s, there’d be cowboy stories and romance novels, there’d be stacks of National Geographics (there was always National Geographic, guaranteed), occasionally you’d find battered old comic books (but not often; comics were becoming serious collectables, so they’d be quickly gleaned when left there), and of course, what I was after: cheesy science fiction. It was my addiction.
I’d find old Hugo Gernsback stories buried in there. There’d be Asimov and Clarke and Bradbury and A.E. van Vogt. I discovered the SF New Wave in a porn shop, with worn copies of Moorcock’s New Worlds, Leigh Brackett, Alfred Bester, and Harlan Ellison lying discarded and neglected until I picked them up and brought them back to life. I remember one beautiful moment when I pushed aside a stack of Argosy magazines and there beneath them was a black-bound, thick hardcover book, which I opened to discover Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, with color plates, waiting for me. $3. The clerk gave me such a strange look when I bought it, reverently — an old poem? When I was surrounded by wide-open beavers? He probably thought I was a pervert.
Even now, with those old porn shops gone, I’m a sucker for a used book store. Amazon is very convenient, but there’s nothing like browsing through second-hand stores and being surprised by something eclectic and weird, the kind of thing you wouldn’t actually search for, but when it’s there in front of you, there’s an irresistible urge to pick it up, read a bit of it, and then, of course, take it home with you. And like a true addict, I also hooked my kids on the habit, taking them on trips to Cummings Books in Minneapolis (which is no more, alas, and fortunately also lacked the pink walls of my youthful haunts), and coming back with a car trunk of exotica.
Nowadays when I prowl the second-hand stores it’s with a decided kink: I’m usually looking for creationist literature. I’m gleeful when I find a copy of the Necronomicon of creationism, The Genesis Flood, by Whitcomb and Morris, or some obscure tract that I only knew otherwise from some brief reference by a creationist elsewhere. I collect these things: I have a cluttered shelf in my office reserved for wacky religion.
What triggered this reminiscence is that on my trip to London, while browsing a bookstore (a dangerous habit, since if I succumbed to my addiction I’d be hauling trunks of books back across the Atlantic), I discovered a man after my own heart in Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club: One Man’s Quest to Uncover the Books That Time Forgot(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Apparently, Robin Ince has my same addiction, but lacks the discipline and restraint and willpower that I possess, because he seems to make the most amazing hauls of diverse printed matter during his comedy tours. I envy him so much.
Also, I feel so narrow-minded now. Robin Ince collects everything, and he describes it all in the book. When he finds poetry, for instance, it’s not just some hoity-toity Alfred Lord Tennyson cast-off, it’s epic doggerel about Elvis. While I considered those common romance novels to be the chaff that I had to wade through, Ince picks them up and reads them, and discovers jewels of weird prose. Ince possesses the secrets of how to pick up sexy ladies — although, I doubt that he’s actually tried them out, because if he had, I suspect we’d see him wandering about on the arm of a brain-damaged, drug-addicted chimpanzee, because I think that’s the only population that might fall for those secrets. Ince finds books about vicious predatory earthworms and sordid thrillers about a menage a trois involving a woman and trawlermen.
I did detect some differences in our national populations, though. He talks on and on about Mills & Boon, publishers of common generic romances, but I’ve never heard of them. Instead, the ubiquitous American version is Harlequin; I recall appreciating them greatly, because their hot pink covers and spines made it easy to recognize and ignore them while I was rifling through piles of miscellany. Also, in the US, the other extremely common paperback is the generic western cowboy story, which generally did their covers up in manly brown, with a picture of a rifle somewhere on it. Ince doesn’t even have a chapter on cowboy stories. I can’t really blame him: I tried reading some of those, once, and learned only that Louis L’Amour is an appallingly bad writer, with all the style and grace of a brain-damaged, drug-addicted chimpanzee. Which means that maybe Ince’s special secret pick-up book is about how to get a date with the sexy zombie Louis L’Amour, so maybe Ince did try them and was repelled from the cowboy genre forever, explaining why there is no discussion of them in his book. My logic there is impeccable, I think.
Anyway, I’m inspired. Next time I’m in a second-hand bookstore, I’m going to wander from my usual narrow range and peek into the romance novels, the horror stories, the poetry section, and broaden my horizons awfully.
I’m off to a good start. While browsing a London bookstore, I found this bizarre book by Robin Ince about bad books…