Tuesday, February 2, 2016

no place like Manny's

I've written before about my years working in bookselling, and as a result of those years I am registered with a Facebook page for booksellers. This morning, one member posted a photo of how one section of store looked after an evening with fewer staff than usual and more customers than usual, and the ensuing chaos that she came in to today. It got me to reminiscing about Manny's.

The photo above doesn't do justice to how chaotic Manny's Art Supply was. In the 80s in New Paltz, it was given better than half over to used books. There was no pretense at arranging books in order by type or author or anything. The story was, and I believe this to be true because I heard it from a seller who watched him do it, that Manny bought books by the boxload and then simply placed them, handfuls at a time, on whatever shelves had room.

Manny's was an institution before I ever arrived, and by the time I was there the front of the store was devoted to the eponymous art supplies for which every local art student and artist came. But the rear of the store was for me the real joy. Thousands and thousands and thousands of books on hundreds of shelves scattered everywhere. More thousands in piles on the floor. Poor, sometimes non-existent lighting; I remember postponing looking over an area until an afternoon when the sun would peek through the south-facing windows and illuminate the stacks.

The prices couldn't be beat. I bought my first Oxford Bible there, a hardcover (I still have it) from the 60s, for less than a dollar. My first acquisition to what would eventually become my collection of first edition counterculture books was Applegather by John Bart Gerald (or, as it was on the cover, johnbartgerald), and it was 25 cents. I now mourn the giving away of my copy and hope the recipient--a guy I met at a dance conference that same summer--appreciated it.

There was a method to looking for books. You never went in looking for something specific because there was no way to tell, if it was there, where it would be. You started at the first set of eight foot shelves horizontal to the eastern wall, of which there were four in pairs, then the shelves running against the rest of the east wall. Then you moved to the free-standing shelving front and back in the middle of the space. Then the shelves against the central pillar which held the aborted attempt to separate mass market paperbacks from everything else. Then the shelves running along the north wall, and up against the adjoining western wall, to the next room, where you did the same thing, in roughly the same order.

Along the way, you'd read the dozens of hand-written index cards thumbtacked to the ends of rows and along shelves. The cards would be jokes Manny had heard, little bits of everyday advice, comments about Frieda, his wife and business partner, or observations Manny made. Eventually you'd end at the far southern end of the shelving against the western wall which terminated abutting the counters of art papers. You could conceivably make the whole circuit in a single afternoon, but why would you want to? You couldn't do it and scan every title or open volumes at leisure and read a couple pages (or the back copy of books) to determine what you wanted to add to an ever-growing pile or, in my case, to determine you would stop there and buy this one today, knowing you'd find what you wanted sometime, not knowing at that time it was what you wanted. When you did complete the circuit, maybe weeks later, you'd start over again at the first shelf since, in the meantime Manny had bought dozens more books and slipped them in, sometimes a copy at a time, wherever he found room. Sometimes someone would get diligent or the fire marshal had visited and declared the piles couldn't remain on the floor, so there would be a new set of shelves erected and holding a number of books whose titles you'd only read vertically and now, reading them horizontally, you'd discover there was a book you'd always wanted to read, there was a title you couldn't get out of your head, there was an author you'd just heard of, maybe this was something good to start with.

Today, Manny's is cleaned up. The bookshelves are gone. Manny is dead, Frieda rarely has time to show up, and while it's owned and run by family, it isn't the same. It's run for profit now, which isn't a bad thing, of course. But it's not the same. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of place, one of those things you'd find at just the right moment of your life to accept and appreciate it.

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