October 30th, 2013
We had our second anniversary of the store here a few nights ago. It was a cold and blustery one (for D.F.) so we weren´t crammed, just twenty or so dedicated regulars and dear friends. We didn´t have a reader scheduled. Since the store moved in over a bar, the onus is removed from us to be a liquor-pouring, beer can-rinsing type host. More catching-up was done, and poring through boxes on the floor (as the wallpaper-peeling, ceiling-painting, stamping and pricing and rug-laying had left me high and dry energy-wise when it came to the stuff that didn´t absolutely have to get done). I owe a big, big thank you to Tom Nissley, Dave Kalil, Brian Pew, Laura Munoz, Phil Wohlstetter, Bill Walters, Kim Suther, Chris Zacker, Mike Eros, Dick Earley and Kevin Odlozil for making this last Texas trip a good haul.
I gave a short and rambling speech, about how our parameters make us a very special kind of store in this Twittery age. We don´t do special orders – that kind of overhead is out of our range -we are getting new stock in almost daily. We don´t take phone calls, because I don´t want to carry around two cellphones, or pay for a land line with money I could spend on books. This is really a place (I emphasized) you have to come to in order to experience. Browsing, and its incumbent promise of surprise, are what we are about.
I also talked a little bit about how my view of the store has changed since starting it. I had originally imagined something like a kind of Expat Readers´Society. The native English-speaking population isn´t just too small to put out a literary magazine. It´s not even big enough to buy a literary magazine if we published one. Literary culture, as it almost always does, exists here in the lap of the solitary reader. I meet this people, one at a time, make recommendations which lead down long corridors of further reading. That is our so-called scene. And furthermore, most – nearly 90 % – of our customer base is native to the city. This store is Mexican, and with few exceptions, for Mexicans. (Not that expats, tourists and passers-through are anything less than welcome.) I wanted to make that clear to any of our Mexican friends who think the place is not wholly and entirely their own. I address my customers in Spanish because we are in Mexico, and while we gather here to read in English, we can just as easily be social in Spanish. (When I get a wide-eyed look of panic, I switch to English. Sometimes people are indigant – ¨Do I look Mexican?¨ Actually, yes. Red-haired or blonde, black or Asian, you do ´look Mexican´- unless you are wearing sandals. And if you´ve ever assumed and addressed one of those Mexicans in English and gotten a look of resentment for reinforcing the sense of difference they have felt all their lives, you would say ´Bienvenidos!´to everyone who came in the door too.)
The conversation moved to our hardest-to-keep titles: Lolita, Under the Volcano (natch), The Great Gatsby, The Savage Detectives, and recently, due to my over-the-moon endorsement on the interwebs. Middlemarch. The store is a good barometer of the rising and falling stock of writers in English completely removed from the critical centers – though outposted by them as waves of appeal, disdain and rediscovery cross and finish and rise again. Maybe the most surprising – though small – revival of a long-ignored writer I have seen in the store is the craze of the young for the mid-nineteenth century English poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson. (Not kidding!) Among poets also the surprising prominence of W.H. Auden, with Eliot, Stevens, Dickinson and Bishop holding steady. (Plus Anne Carson, whose books we can hardly ever get our hands on.)
In fiction, people for some reason continue to be very interested in Paul Auster, who must have a hell of a Spanish translator, because, meh. Jennifer Egan continues to rank very high, while Ann Patchett has slipped from a nearly equal place. People who forgot Philip Roth as he repeated himself throughout the 70s and 80s are knocked out by his last fifteen years of dark, amazing work. On the book run, in the basement of the San Antonio library, David Lida urged the works of Cynthia Ozick on me, and sure enough they are already almost gone. (I´ve never read Cynthia Ozick.) John Le Carre continues to convert non-genre readers like myself. Nobody has asked for Nathaniel West in a long time. Joan Didion is not the white-hot rage she was last year (Blue Nights seems to understandably mark the end of her razor-sharp skills, while her other work remains peerless IMHO.) The worldwide Austen epidemic seems to have cooled, and Henry Miller to have dated terribly. Now if people would just recognize that Kerouac and Bukowski have more style but aren´t a whit better. These Marisha Pessl books frankly look like crap to me. Somebody is even suggesting David Foster Wallace was a scam, but nobody is listening to him. Tom Rachmann´s The Imperfectionists sat untouched since the move on account of its pretentious-looking cover, but it is actually damn good. Virginia Woolf continues to fly off the shelves, totally deservedly. These Gaddis books haven´t moved, but maybe that is just because I priced them so high.
I could go on like this forever. Come see what we have in the store. Bring books for generous credit, and if you want to support us from afar, see our donations list (or our Paypal button!) at www.underthevolcanobooks.com.
Thank you and keep reading.