March 19th, 2013
If you are a foreigner living in Mexico City, or anyone interested in what our November reader David Lida calls ‘The Capital of the 21st Century’, you must listen to this interview with our customer, forthcoming reader, and author of ‘Several Ways to Die in Mexico City’ Kurt Hollander, in full.
March 8th, 2013
John Roderick, musician and songwriter and frontman for the band The Long Winters – an old personal friend – wrote a shocking manifesto Wednesday in the cover story of the current Seattle Weekly bluntly titled ‘Punk Rock is Bullshit’:
The piece begins with a dead-on introduction to the why of punk’s birth and ascendance beginning thirty-five years ago:
For those of us who grew up in the shadow of the baby boom, force-fed the misremembered vainglory of Woodstock long after most hippies had become coked-out, craven yuppies on their way to becoming paranoid neo-cons, punk rock provided a corrective dose of hard truth. Punk was ugly and ugly was true, no matter how many new choruses the boomers added to their song of self-praise.
But Roderick goes on to make wild and dangerous assertions, wild because they are false synecdoches for the experiences and emotions of millions, and dangerous because in a culture stuffed with cultural product and now sliced into innumerable tribes talking on the internet mostly among themselves, they might be mistaken for the truth: young Siouxie Sioux begging for shock in a Gestapo outfit was the movement’s high moment; “Punk encouraged us to hate innocence”. A multitude of semi-credible generalities about Northwest insularity and laziness-as-rebellion applied across the spectrum, and well-deserved criticism of dumb-punk clichés (“Hate was the only emotion we could express”) damn what for so many of us – to risk the hyperbole of the penny Rimbauds and kitchen-sink manifestos Roderick rightly pillories – rescued meaning and civilization when those things seemed extinct in America.
A fair-minded bystander might ask, why all this fuss about music? Can a social or intellectual movement even engage the world, with its wars, rigged elections, drones, billions in poverty, continent-sized gyres of ocean plastic, if its defining arguments circle back to rock bands playing piss-and-beer smelling venues, or downloads posted by indie ‘record’ labels?
Music is not the forum: it was the key that opened the door.
Think about life before the Internet – as hard to do now as it was for us Xers in our 70s childhoods to imagine a world of horses and buggies – in which there are three television networks bowing to the lowest common denominator, FM radio pumping pap approved by Columbia or RCA with their sidelines of ‘serious’ music, Prince or Dylan or Springsteen as deep or dangerous as anything within reach. Bookstores, in which the wisdom of centuries mostly sleeps waiting, failing schools hardly equipping anyone to set foot there, like art museums a province of the elite and the elderly. In a recent movie about that time ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’, teenagers in 1989 Pittsburgh love a song that comes on the radio and wonder for months what it had been: the world was like that.
The only thing which offered the post-Baby boom, white suburban majority another imaginative model for living – a counter-narrative, if you will – was the very specific and directed circuit of ‘punk’ or ‘independent’ bands, small record companies and stores, music venues and (mostly college-based) radio stations that comprised a subculture whose motivating spirit, identity and style were the direct descendant of what the larger world for the span of a few years (1977-1980) understood in a very limited way as ‘punk’.
Those interested in how this relatively small group of people influenced so much of a generation, and what people mean when they say to Roderick before he dismisses them, “Punk rock saved me” should watch Color Me Obsessed, a documentary about the Minneapolis band The Replacements on Youtube which features not a picture or clip or song from the band and is instead about what the band meant to the people who used them as a tool for understanding the world and their lives:
I’m not unaware the cradle of this culture was rife with idiots as Roderick claims (though he seems to define decades of cultural association with the worst kind of punk thug, people Ian McKaye and Jello Biafra were castigating nearly from the start): I lived in London when punk was a costume for young criminals sometimes put on by truly frightening racist skinheads whose ire extended from ‘Pakis’ and ‘wogs’ to the children of American occupiers, and was in L.A. for some truly rough shows just a half-decade after those immortalized in the doc The Decline of Western Civilization. But somewhere between that time and the mass-explosion of this culture brought on by the popularity of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the slam pit was a peaceable venue where adolescent male aggression became a dance of brothers (yes, sisters needed Riot Grrl with all its own preposterous excess and serious intent to invite them to the front).
Roderick’s essay claims crediting a generation’s DIY ethic as expressed in independent businesses to punk ignores what small business has done since Ben Franklin or something, but we, in the suburbs, in the 80s, didn’t have those models. Those of us drawn to what punk became were the lost, without models, stability, resources beyond the next minimum-wage check, as Roderick acknowledges:
Admittedly, punk rock was a club that accepted all the misfits. It channeled adolescent anger and frustration into positive and inclusive feelings of belonging. This is not an insignificant achievement.
I think of myself to this day as a punk because for a very long time the culture that called itself that was the point through which I met people like myself: trying to recover some dignity from growing up abused, needing cultural touchstones more meaningful and connected to real experience than the next episode of Cheers. As time went by, the place where I found this aura of a real culture, deeply engaged with life as it is lived and the mysteries which extrapolate from it, was in literature. I came to feel that engagement with the soul that I felt seeing My Bloody Valentine or fIREHOSE also happened with the novels of Thomas Pynchon and Virginia Woolf. I began to write stories, a novel, and later poems and screenplays with an artistic identity I first found dreaming in the dim red lights of TRAX in Charlottesville and the Palomino in North Hollywood and Emo’s in Austin and Moe’s in Seattle.
It caused me to be so brave and foolish that I even fancied the ecological ruin falling on America might be cured at the country’s edge, where the magnetism of its bands and bookstores drew lost thousands through this culture, full of hope and the intention to live as more than a consumer. I went into local politics.
I was wrong, and was attempting the impossible. But this life is full of dead ends, and bands that have broken up that once seemed to change everything with a song. Consider Walt Whitman, or W.B. Yeats (“he became his admirers”) and Neutral Milk Hotel.
The approach to life I developed as a punk brought me to Mexico City, where I saw what was missing and with help from a community that gathered online from the real life lived in those times, created it.
A cultural gathering place, a church of literature, a net to receive the migrants moving down from an impoverished America to a place where what I’d once called punk was all around: an old woman, selling tamales from a kettle on the street; bands playing as they walk with a boy running under the windows of apartments to catch coins; hawkers playing pirate CDs out of backpacks on the metro or selling gum or cough drops or medical dictionaries or peanut bars. A place in which the apocalypse has already happened (and has been happening since the Spanish arrived) and survival in these margins is improvised, with good cheer despite the desperation.
It’s all punk to me, and not bullshit in the least. And I am very far from alone. It can be said that this is just the world, but punk, however anyone might want to abuse the term for their own psychosis or fashion show, is how I got to it.
February 14th, 2013
This is the first blog post in a long time, and the first since we announced moving into our new location. The silence has been thanks to the giant task of moving in – and that’s why you haven’t seen any pictures yet – building new bookcases, swapping out ugly-ass florescent lights (and buying a bunch of lamps once we found out traditional bulb wattage over 75 is now illegal), planning events, promoting the store and settling into the new and very different character of the store.
We’re located upstairs from a chapter (Alan Seeger Post II) of the American Legion. Yes, there is an American Legion chapter here – and many others all over Mexico. It’s not unlike chapters of the organization you’ll find all over the U.S., with a bar downstairs, where tender Emilio has worked for forty years, and by my judgement the very best hamburgers in the city. It’s great having a bar so close (and if you know me, you’ll be surprised I’m not ‘watching the store’ from a barstool) because now I can host events without being bartender, janitor, and bouncer while trying to sell books. I have way, way more events than in the old location where I had to perform that balancing act.
Every Friday evening, I invite our customers, friends and out-of-town guests to join us in sitting out the vicious end-of-the-week rush hour – the hora pico we call it here, the hour that bites – for 2-for-1 cocktails and Mexican beers, karaoke hosted by local legend Factor, and occasionally other mayhem: last week we had a standup/sketch comedy team, which, while I won’t say they were honed and polished, or even for that matter very funny, had a lot of balls and introduced an atmosphere like that of old punk shows in which you suddenly felt like anything might happen.
We restart our reading series this coming Tuesday with Missoula, Montana novelist David Allan Cates, who will join Matthew Stadler, Nick Zedd and David Lida on our UTVB reading Wall of Fame (once I find somewhere to replace that). Sorry by the way it’s been all dudes thus far. I leave it to others to speculate why this city draws a certain type of (male) English-language writer, whether to visit or to live. It’s out of my hands.
As far as my own reading goes, I’ve been in a strange kind of funk: I haven’t stopped reading, but after a quick gobble of a totally random new find, Keith Scribner’s The Oregon Experiment – not the 70′s Christopher Alexander plan for U of O’s dorms, but a novel set in contemporary NW college town activist-world, rather solid though suffering from a reverse pathetic fallacy in which the work takes on the tameness of the subject (I fantasize of how William Styron would have written it, like a Greek tragedy) – I started reading the novels of John Le Carre. (How do you put an accent on a letter with an English keyboard? I really need to learn this.)
They are awesome.
In short order I made my way through the serviceable A Murder of Quality, following it with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (clearer and more ingenious than its small and big-screen adaptations), The Honorable Schoolboy (maybe the best so far), A Call for the Dead, Smiley’s People, and The Looking Glass War. Everything my father told me 30 years ago was true: this writer knew his subject, its mundane real face, verging on the most dramatic human hopes and fears. (My dad knew more than a little about the Great Game himself.) We inherited a ton of these titles from the American Legion’s old semi-storage room/semi-bookstore, and they are cheap. You should come buy them.
Also, there’s T-shirts! (150 pesos, in black, red and green and available in most size-color combinations). We’re painting the ceiling sometime in the next couple of weeks, and waiting for donation of a big, big rug (anyone?). So many books are coming in the door here, for trade and to donate, that we only really need to request a select several dozen titles from our stateside buyers. So road trips are not planned until summer. If you can’t find something you want to read on these shelves there’s something wrong with you.
See you some Friday!
February 14th, 2013
It’s time for another reading: Missoula, Montana novelist David Allan Cates, author of Hunger in America (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year) and X Out of Wonderland comes visiting with his new book, Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home.
Part fabulist, part allegorist, part Old West yarn-spinner, his is a truly original voice that rages against the habits and mindsets of the Matrix century.
Before – at 5, ish – and after the reading (which will take place in the American Legion Bar’s Angel Room) there will be live jazz on the mainstage, drink specials, and as always, the Legion Grill’s famous Best Burgers in D.F. If you miss a great burger here, wait no longer.
Tuesday, February 19th, 7 PM, Alan Seeger Post II American Legion/Under the Volcano Books, Celaya 25, Col. Hipodromo Condesa. Tell us you’re coming on Facebook! http://www.facebook.com/events/463408287048479/?ref=3
January 3rd, 2013
We open up again post-holiday at 1 PM today, resuming our regular hours (1-7 weekdays, 1-6 weekends, closed Wednesdays) at our amazing and convenient new location upstairs in the American Legion at Celaya 25, Colonia Hipodromo Condesa.
Friday night rush hour here (‘hora pico’, or ‘the hour that bites’ and man does it ever) we invite our customers to join us in the downstairs bar where cocktails and domestic beers (already cheap for Condesa) are 2 for 1, while upstairs special sale prices are in effect for the duration of that nasty end-of-the-week crunch on transport and in the streets. Skip it and join us.
October 29th, 2012
Things happen fast, when you let them.
This is our last business day at Cerrada Chiapas 40-C. Tomorrow we’ll be here packing boxes, and soon after we’ll be out, to reopen shortly inside the American Legion, at Celaya 25 in Colonia Hipodromo Condesa.
It’s been a secret from exactly no one that our default location this first year has been a great disadvantage. At the end of an alley, in a still-forgotten rim of La Roma – two blocks off booming Orizaba, but it must be admitted that even Orizaba is an offshoot of the Obregon drag. We took what we had to (without a fiador to co-sign our lease) and while we appreciate both our luck that allowed this enterprise to start, and that the location had considerable charm, it was a mightly struggle to make the high rent. By summer’s end, returning empty-handed from the twin and twined disappointments of the releases of my book and the film about me stateside, the writing was on the wall, we had to go.
October 11th, 2012
We have some truly magnificent art books… and nobody ever, ever buys them. Perhaps because in an art book the text is only incidental, and there are stalls and stalls of used books on Donceles, or Cuauhtémoc, or on the camellón of Alvaro Obregón, many of which are art books and are the same price more or less because nobody had to bring them here from the United States.
This isn’t a beauty salon. From now on we’re sticking to books with words in them, and words alone.
October 5th, 2012
It’s been just nine days short of a year since the store opened – and unloading a surprise delivery of 14 file boxes of amazing stock I accumulated this summer, I’m in the rhythm that keeps this all going, piling the books up high to save my back: open, stamp, price, stock. I remember where each of them came from, donated or bought at bargain price, and I think about why I’m doing this.
In Austin tonight, there’s going to be a kind of event that happens once every few years when the tribe among which I grew up gathers as it can only do outside the virtual huddle of the internet. We know each other still like nobody else can, peculiar as were the circumstances of our common adolescence. Some of these folks are the people who made this store happen, without question. (Certainly time will be taken to mourn the passing of one of our most steadfast friends here, Blane Sparhawk. The store is a memorial to him, in every aspect, and we miss and honor him to the highest degree.) Its existence scratches a certain itch that lay buried, for most of us, since we were very young. But to scratch it takes us home. Have one for me, Centralites, and I’ll try to make the next one. You are all welcome here, all the time.
At some point between 3 and 4 PM today, on one of the two TV Azteca stations broadcasting nationwide, there will be a little segment on the store. It will be repeated on the Monday evening news. Big, big score for us. I’ll post a link as soon as I get it.
Remember our 1st anniversary party on Saturday, October 27th, noon to midnight, 40 pesos at the door. That will get you a lot of pulque and various other beverages, and the entertainment of hearing from David Lida, author of First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, Capital of the 21st Century, certainly the best book about this city written in English. Music will be provided by my two favorite local bands, Kannski and Torrente, and DJ Zorrita, and DJ Pinchegringo (that’s me). It will be fun.
How are things going? It’s still tough. Our inventory just increased by a fourth, and there are so many new books I’m truly thrilled to have in-store. Still looking at options to bring our rent down, more on that later. There will be a reliable, PO-type mail drop in Laredo very soon, where people can send their book donations. Our Paypal button remains on our home page at www.underthevolcanobooks.com for anyone who can help with our day-to-day costs. We’re not self-sufficient yet, but hope to be soon, and with your help, we come closer all the time.
I’ve been thinking, having just moved my own living space, about how we compartmentalize our lives, how much of it we share with technology, and with one another, and how. I don’t think, in this day and age, that any of us are reading enough.
Get in here.
September 13th, 2012
Just found out the store is in the 2013 Lonely Planet.
This is a big deal, and the kind of thing that takes time. Several years ago I wrote for Fodor’s Mexico, and I know that since the economy took that hit in 2008, the big travel guides have gone from updating their information entirely every three years to something much less frequent. We are very lucky to see this change come so soon to the most-used guide for economy travelers in English.
Thanks to everyone who got us here. We will survive.
September 11th, 2012
Running this store has required a nimble resourcefulness and an openness to quick change and sudden new strategies. Witness the end of our sweet deal on the smuggled-clothes run from McAllen, TX (easternmost of the hideous sprawl at the mouth of the Rio Grande – you know Mexicans don’t call it that, they call it the Rio Bravo?) after this summer’s donations and discount purchases had already arrived there.
So I’m headed up to get them next week, and on my way back to finally set up a permanent stateside maildrop for donations just across the border in Laredo. This – and my book pickers in Seattle and New York – will allow me to make quick, 24-hour runs up the safest and smoothest highway in Mexico and keep the store stocked in a manner far easier than ever before.
Other logistics have been switched around, too: this isn’t whimsy, it’s the enterprise finding it’s way. We went from monthly parties to weekly parties to none at all to, now, some. It’s not that I don’t like having parties here exactly, but they need an event to summon folks around. Just ‘come by and get shitfaced‘ neither helps me sell books or keep on a workmanlike schedule.
Events aplenty are coming up, though. This Saturday we’re having a barbecue for the lead-up to Independence Day Eve, when the president reenacts El Grito, the shout of freedom from the Spanish and the gachupines. 202 pesos at the door will get you a share of my awesome, garlicky gringo guacamole and as many shots of Presidente as you think you can handle, and a regular-sized mass market or trade paperback of your choice.
October 4th is, we’re having John Bilger read in the store. His books on Mexico and the drug trade have been published by City Lights Books and he is a very passionate and knowledgable binational. We’ll get a mezcal table set up for that one and get totally lost.
And you know what’s coming Saturday, October 27th: our 1st Anniversary, with awesome local bands Torrente and Kannski, and a reading by David Lida, author of First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, Capitol of the 21st Century. Pulqueria Insurgentes is going to sponsor us some of their deliciousness. Lots of out-of-town friends will be flying in and this should be awesome.
Meanwhile, the institution that built this store – Facebook – is turning into a swamp, at least as far as business pages are concerned. My own FB use is also a little out-of-control (our kids really are going to regard us as we did our parents with TV) and so I am trying to transfer all the ‘Like’ ers of the Under the Volcano Books page to my personal page, depersonalized and rebranded ‘Utvb DF‘. If you haven’t made the leap please do so soon, and get on our mailing list by sending an email headlined ‘Bookstore list’ to email@example.com.
Times are tough and literature is a life. If you don’t read 100 books a year I can’t take you seriously. So get in here.