How many lightbulbs does it take to screw in a book of poetry? Somewhere around 22 and 25. How many poems take note that the arctic icecap has melted a mile wide and become a lake, an Absolut swimming pool? Or that the Great Northwest Passage for the first time in history is a reality, not a myth, since massive ice no longer clogs the path? I don’t know, but poets will probably write about these things, probably already have; having grown gray at the gills, I do not read poetry anymore, so I would be one of the last to ask.
At Spoonbill and Sugartown, poetry is a sore thorn. Both proprietors, Miles Bellamy and myself, once cared a great deal for the poetic enterprise. We know how long it takes a Kerouac to Burroughs a hole in a Ginsberg, and why Stein doesn’t give a Dickinson for Pound. Ashbery White looks good, a little peeled, on the clapboard siding of a house in Wellfleet. Puns aside, neither one of us has settled into the hard row of farming mesclun lines, either. Instead we have become booksellers.
Before I go any further, I want to say to all the poets and Poephiles out there, forbear, I am not hostile, nor anti-poet. Throw Hölderlin enzymes into my vat, give me time, and all kinds of interesting flora will bloom. “To be or nacho cheese, that is the quesadilla.” This was in the last Hölderlin batch. But the point is to be true, to say it like it is without blurb, to say we are selling books, helping them be sold and also thinking about the books we sell. Ultimately, we must come face to face with the ethics of selling books.
Though estranged from the daily practice of reading and writing poems, I have realized that poetry is the holy spirit hovering over the selling of books, the presiding judge ruling over each evaluation and transaction. Hart Crane’s “visionary company” is a company of books, and I believe it always was and always will be this way regardless of the computer or any other inventions. They are solid because the holy spirit behind them is solid. Thus it is not necessary to worry about them being supplanted by other media. Marshall McLuhan, for one, was wrong to declare the end of books.
What is of real concern, and now I speak as a bookseller, is the environment of their exchange. To be honest, I began this essay intending to write about how Spoonbill and Sugartown comes across many fine books and how lousy it makes me feel when we sell them and lose them all. That is where ethics begins, in the difficulty of maintaining good company, in the loss of good company—the crisis of now you see it, now you don’t. Stoicism is the main ingredient connecting my side to the environment surrounding the sale of our books. Keep a stiff upper lip, trust the books will do well by their new owners, and wait for the next pang to the heart. Of course this is not the case with every book, but it does happen with enough of them to feel a low wail of mourning down inside.
Many of the books I react regretfully toward when they leave are obviously valuable—they are simply common and unusual. A month ago, out in New Jersey, I came across a book, in decent condition, innocuously called Graphis: Diagrams. It cost very little, but it immediately seemed a beautiful sort of thing: a collection, done by the Swiss firm Graphis, of abstract data displayed in diagrams, circa 1971. All color, and all in full tribute to the great, funky, freedom-feeling, imaginative largesse of that era, before the conservative restoration, the nasty business, of the last 20 years. Needless to say, I put a thirty-five dollar price on the book, entered it onto the net where I found no other copies, and shelved it, hoping that it would stick around for a while. Sunday night I priced it, and on Monday morning I placed it onto the shelf. Half an hour later, it was bought by a youngish guy I had not seen before. With purchase in hand, he nonchalantly walked out the door.
The next morning a London man whose email address belonged to a graphic design firm contacted us desiring the book. I hadn’t yet been able to delete the title from the net, and so I uttered him e-mail apologies, telling him how quickly it had come and gone. His response? “Those young rascals beat me to the punch. This book is the mecca of graphic designers and I have been searching for it for years. Should you come across it again, I am willing to pay a considerable sum.” Well, so I had clearly underpriced the book. Or had I? Who was this young customer? A book dealer? He bought a few other much cheaper books, so I don’t believe he was. Instead, I consider this to be a poetic incident. The book went where it was supposed to go, and with such celerity. Yet, I was somewhat pissed to be divested. I liked that book.