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At The Tom Verlaine Book Sale
An afternoon waiting in line, with lines intersecting.
Today, a guest post from close friend of ours and editor of this newsletter: Joe Levy. If you enjoy hard-hitting reporting from book sales and the wider variety of ideation you get here, remember to subscribe. Or think of it for the first time, and do it. (The photos and all text below come from Joe, not Sasha.)
The line for the Tom Verlaine book sale isn’t that long. Not at 2:30 in the afternoon, when Rob Sheffield and I get there. But it doesn’t move that fast. We spend about half an hour standing on the sidewalk of Greene Avenue in Bed-Stuy. A woman from the neighborhood has set up a table with books of her own for sale and a cooler filled with water, $2 a bottle. She’s playing Sade. There’s a lot of sun, except when in the shadow of one of the trucks filled with books, so don’t trust me here, but in my memory it’s all dubbed-out Sade remixes, which are out there, certainly, but are there hours of them?
This whole afternoon is going to be like that: Did that just happen? Is this real? On our way up the block to get on line, we run into Rob’s friend Liz Pelly, hauling away her purchases. On our return visit five or six hours later, we run into her twin sister Jenn. Lines intersect at central points. Of course they do. A lot of lines will intersect today.
There are two garages. In one, each book is $10. In the other, each book is $5. You’re supposed to start in the $5 garage (where you can fill one of the cardboard boxes on hand for $75) then go to the $10 garage (where you can fill a box for $150). But after about 30 minutes one of the organizers comes and pulls down the flyers with the instructions. The $5 garage is bottlenecked, the $10 garage isn’t, so no more rules.
We start in the $10 garage. If you grew up in the suburbs “garage” means something else than it does here, where it denotes a small basement space that can fit a car with maybe enough room left over for a few cans of paint. They’re letting in about 15 people to browse at a time. The shelves run in currents, and the currents seem to have more meaning than the individual books: Islam, China, water, women, music, Catholicism, naturopathic healing, spiritualism.
Some of the books frighten me. Many are self-published, or small press books, writing without the packaging and mediation of publishing. Did I really hold in my hands an autobiography by an Italian woman written at the instruction of her spiritual advisor and then published without her knowledge? I definitely read a few pages of a compendium of apocalyptic thinking — a historical accounting of end-times thinking that goes back hundreds of years — written by a former cult member. Just its existence opened a box in my mind, making me wonder what would happen if I actually read it. One book has a cover that reminds me of Verlaine’s 1984 album Cover. It’s a collection of essays by the writer, critic and artist John Miller. When I show it to Rob he’s so struck by the resemblance he buys it.
But most of it is just paper. Pages between covers. Accumulated, yes. Read? Who knows.
On line for the $5 garage (still somewhat bottlenecked) I start thinking about Donald Judd’s library at his compound in Marfa, which you can tour, how the books are sculptural to him, how anything and everything in that compound, from the cast-iron pans in the kitchen to the copy of Learning From Las Vegas I was overjoyed to see on a bookshelf, is an art object. I think about Harry Smith, collecting paper airplanes he found on the streets of New York, tracking the way people folded them and the ways in which this functional origami changed over time, with shapes disappearing and then reappearing years later. I keep thinking of a word that Philip K. Dick invented: gubble. The acceleration of decay, or the accumulated forces of entropy, or mental or physical detritus—I can’t remember, and you can’t exactly look it up. But that word is here. There are boxes of books in the driveway, all of them about either China or water. There are boxes of books in two trucks. When space clears on a shelf, a box is carted in and the space is filled. Gubble.
We fall into conversation with the guy ahead of us. Rob shows him a few copies of Vintage Guitar Magazine which he’s just bought. They still have mailing labels to William Miller. They are talismans. The guy ahead of us shows us two slim pamphlets he’d found of RCA tubes — not RCA catalogs, if I remember, so much as RCA instructional manuals. They look like they’re from the ‘40s or ‘50s. They have red covers. They belonged to Tom Verlaine, born William Miller. Now they belong to the guy in front of us, a guitar player. Talismans.
I don’t buy anything. I just want to feel the currents as they flow past us, sniff the magic. There are a lot of feels, a lot of magic.
After an hour or two — time is definitely funny in these garages — Rob and I wander off to get something to eat. We stop two blocks away at a Cuban place which — as it turns out — is serving its last night of meals before closing for good. We look at the John Miller book to figure out if the photographer is the same one who took the picture on the cover of Cover. It’s not. But Rob remembers that Verlaine had a brother named John. Which he did. A twin brother, John Miller. Who died in 1984. The year that Cover came out. Then another take what you have gathered from coincidence moment: Rob opens the book and finds an essay on a 1973 film by Benoît Jacquot of Jacques Lacan improvising a lecture, responding to questions posed by psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller. After it was broadcast, the filmed lecture was turned into a book entitled Télévision. Lines. Intersecting.
There’s more. More books? Yes, because as we’re lingering in Herbert Von King park after dinner, listening to toasters on the mic of a sound system that’s been pumping out reggae all day long, Rob says he’s still thinking about a few issues of Vintage Guitar Magazine that he left on the shelf, and we go back for them. (The woman out front selling books and water teases us: “You’re back!” We thank her for the Sade.) I fall into conversation with a poet and nonfiction writer, Heather Christle, who’s taking notes because there may be a book in the sale of all these books, which of course there is. She and Rob talk about Catholic relics, which I know nothing about. But everything here is a holy relic of a sort, everyone here a seeker.
More book sales? Maybe, says one of the organizers around 8:00, as the sun dips low and things are packing up. This was a test run of a sort. There are certainly plenty more books to sell.
More lines, intersecting? Two more, among the many in the wind: that Jacquot film of Lacan answering questions posed by Jacques-Alain Miller is from 1973, the year that William Miller started a band called Television. The epigraph that Lacan put in the book Télévision, published a year later: “He who interrogates me / also knows how to read me.”