Last time I fell in a shower room I bled like a tumbril dandy and the hotel longed to be rid of me. Taken to the town clinic, I described how I tripped on a steel rim and found my head in the wardrobe. Scalp-sewn and knotted and flagged I thanked the Frau Doktor and fled, wishing the grab-bar of age might be bolted to all civilization and thinking of Rome's eighth hill heaped up out of broken amphorae.
When, anytime after sixty, or anytime before, you stumble over two stairs and club your forehead on rake or hoe, bricks or fuel-drums, that's the time to call the purveyor of steel pipe and indoor railings, and soon you'll be grasping up landings having left your balance in the car from which please God you'll never see the launchway of tires off a brink. Later comes the sunny day when street detail whitens blindly to mauve
Let me answer that customer question, but then, let's just take a moment to review recent developments in the bookstore where I work, and the business of bookselling and the wider culture, shall we?
Back up. How sweet is it that there are still people in the world who can confidently ask such a question with every expectation that there are books -- plural -- on leather-working AND that those books are in-print and on the shelves at a bookstore? It's touching, that conviction that needs will be met. It speaks to a faith in publishing, and capitalism, and the resources of independent bookstores that is frankly breath-taking in 2019.
Then there's the charming notion (?) that leather-work is still, as they say, "a thing." Is it? Not appropriate in a retail setting to compound the disappointment that awaits my interlocutor by answering her question with another and obvious question as to why on earth she is asking. Has Madame broken the strap on her Roman sandal? Does Madame miss the belt she made at scout camp? Looking for promotion at the tannery? Etsy?
Even if every option from The Beast That Eats Bookstores was actually on our shelves, the word "books" would now seem optimistic.
None of which one said. One instead made the all too common sympathetic-face and suggested that, alas, Madame might do better to direct her inquiry to the central library. Nobody is suggesting that there have not been books, surely hundreds of books, on the subject. Some may yet to be culled from the stacks. (Dewey decimal # 675, "Leather and Fur Working." I just looked it up online. Ah, the Information Age! We do live in truly remarkable times, do we not?)
Before I'm accused -- perhaps not unfairly -- of dyspepsia, let me just say, I sympathize. The expectation that a large bookstore should have books on almost any subject did once, within my lifetime, at least feel true. It may not have been. In fact, I'm sure it never was, but it did seem so when I started in the business some thirty or more years ago. Indeed, I do remember selling books on leather-work. I can also remember selling books on egg-tempera painting techniques, shoe-making, the Civil Engineering Exam, and un-ironic instruction in blacksmithing, building a personal computer from scratch, bookkeeping, and record-collecting. I'm so old, I remember Signet Classic, the Thomas Bros. driving maps, mass-market paperbacks of 18th Century novels, anthologies of the year's best plays, children's books not "written" by celebrities and other television personalities, and biographies without pictures. I remember when all publishers weren't the wholly owned subsidiaries of Random House. Hell, I remember when there were bookstores that specialized in sailing, mysteries, engineering, car-repair, and gardening.
Set aside for the moment out-of-print or unavailable books about which I may myself care: like a standard edition of Yeats' poems, the novels of Jorge Amado, or Tobias Smollett, or The Essays of Elia. Where are the nonfiction books for which we still get asked every day? Where now are the tabs for the Building Code? Where is woodworking? Fence-building? Mexican history? What's become of photography instruction? Opera scores?
The short answer is "check online." The short answer is also, "good luck," "I'm so sorry," and "excellent question!"
Again, the books our customers remember were not all lost in a fire. What was may still be, elsewhere, for now. (And there are all those helpful Youtube videos!)
Q: Does anyone really mourn the US Master Tax Guide? (A: Yes.)
The attachment of readers to established forms is a subject for better minds than mine. Yes, we want the calendar we've always bought, the Moleskin notebook we bought last year, another book with a sixteen year old heroine who saves the world. I mean, I just bought a new translation of the second Three Musketeers book. Who am I to judge your devotion to books about standard-gauge railways?
And, yes, a bookstore can probably order you your calendar, or the third book in the series you love. (Though if you make me look up your favorite Moleskin -- lined, with the not blue cover -- We cannot be friends.)
The cliche of the day is that access to information has never been easier, better, simpler. That's as may be. The reliability of said information is, again, a topic for another day and a different writer. My question though is what does access mean? Obviously the answer, the answer in fact to any and all questions now, is digital. Go on. Ask Google or Alexa the meaning of life. May not be the answer for which you were looking, but answers there will be.
When I was a boy I found most answers in books. Better than this, I found the right questions. Some of the answers I found were ridiculous, even harmful. See Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), by the much misinformed and surprisingly not yet dead Dr. David Reuben, MD. For me, books represented authority. Eventually I learned that just because something was in a book -- let alone what people I grew up with could still smugly call "The Book," -- did not mean a thing was true. Still, better a book than a bathroom-wall, the neighbors, or my disastrously ignorant seventh-grade history teacher. It seems that even now I am not alone in my prejudice in favor of print -- and facts.
Should anyone assume that I plan here to wax nostalgic for the public libraries of my childhood, you know me not at all. Those institutions were woeful even then, both in terms of selection and access. I wasn't meant to use the library in town, as we lived outside of town. The libraries in my public schools were sorry things, meant more for detention and napping than reading, and all of the libraries I knew then seemed to have been staffed by that same angry virgin; a lady devoted to blacking out with a marker the bare breasts in The National Geographic, quieting disruptions, and insisting that children should read at the appropriate "grade level."
No. I am a product of yard-sales, junk-shops, and that first demi-paradise of sweet memory, the Waldenbooks in the Hermitage Towne Plaza, or was it the Shenago Valley Mall?, in Sharon, PA. My OZ was borrowed from a neighbor, my Huckleberry Finn and Long John Silver were met in the pages of a dead uncle's books. I traveled to the Galactic Empire by way of musty paperbacks had for a quarter apiece and the first night I spent with Scheherazade was in a stray volume and was well into her reign.
I know something then of the haphazard education to be had from just the books that happen to be to-hand. I also know if only anecdotally what it feels like to not have access due to class, place of origin, and income.
The great glory of the great libraries and bookstores in which I eventually found myself was not just that the doors that opened to everyone, but the abundance of what was inside. I well remember stepping into my first college library, my first big bookstore. (And hang, incidentally all discussion of "atmospheres". Both were as ugly as the taste of the time for metal shelving and florescent lighting could make them.) The impact of such institutions was numerical, not aesthetic. Here at last was Aladdin's cave! The collective treasures of humanity's wisdom and petty preoccupations, of history and hobbyhorses, "of shoes and ships -- and sealing wax -- of cabbages and kings', all of it seemed to be on those noisy, bowing shelves.
"Red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather..."
Some things are hard to say. It isn't easy saying "no" to customers who in their innocence have come to expect not only "yes" but the all but instant gratification of their every retail wish. People's patience is not what it used to be.
Recently I went on a tear and ordered online three out-of-print books by a writer I'd only just discovered. What a pleasure! To be able to get at books I did not know I needed until I looked for them. Straight to my door, a week or so later as I didn't need them badly enough to pay for expedited shipping.
I get it, I do.
But how did I know any such thing? Well, I found a book in a bookstore and wanted more. What then if what I'd wanted hadn't been an out-of-print novel? What if what I wanted hadn't been literature as such? What if what was wanted was a book on, say, leather-working?
"And yet it almost provokes a smile at the vanity of human ambition to see how they are crowded together and jostled in the dust; what parsimony is observed in doling out a scanty nook, a gloomy corner, a little portion of earth, to those, whom, when alive kingdoms could not satisfy; and how many shapes, and forms, and artifices are devised to catch the casual notice of the passenger and save from forgetfulness for a few short years a name which once aspired to occupy ages of the world's thought and admiration."
"Emerald's children looked up at her out of a colored earthquake-city. Unnerved by her manner they turned to retreat; gilt, flowered and brightly pictorial boxes scrunched with the unresistance of cardboard under their wildly-placed feet. They evacuated, with shaken majesty, an empire of chocolate boxes."
From Giants in the Earth, by O. E. Rolvaag, translated by Lincoln Colcord
"... As he opened the door that morning, saw two feet of covering the ground, and felt the bitter cold stinging his face, he had the irresistible impulse to fling himself down in the snowdrift and cry like a baby!..."
From Book II, Chapter II, The Power of Evil in High Places, II
Yesterday was National Coming Out Day. Been there, done that, right? Where's the novelty in that? Where's the excitement? Where's the necessity -- now? We all of us do it, have done, sooner or later. Right? Most of us anyway, do. All the gay people I know, all the transgender and the non-gender conforming people, the bisexual people and the queer people and the gender neutral people and all the people on the full spectrum of sexuality and gender, we all of us come out, have been out, remain out. Who's left?
Well, me. There's still me, and you.
First though, the point was and still is for lots of people that first declaration. That was the motivation in designating a day. National Coming Out Day originated back in 1988, created by activists Jean O'Leary and Robert Eichberg, and designated October 11th to mark the anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The momentum of that event had to be sustained, the struggle needed a day of commemoration and new purpose. People, other people, straight people needed to know that they already knew gay people. More than that though, we had to be willing to say who we were, all of us, if we were to be seen, if anything was to change in the society that continued and continues to oppress and deny the sexual minority. The definition of who we are has expanded, the necessity of claiming our individual and collective voices, our rights and dignity, has not.
No easy thing still. Coming out is still necessary and still not without cost and genuine danger in most places. People are still being bullied, beaten, killed for saying and just being who they are. Our acceptance is far from universal. The forces arrayed against us remain powerful, well organized, motivated, and in deadly earnest. Our existence still threatens to undermine the assumptions that sustain misogyny, homo and trans phobia, racism, sexual violence, class privilege, inequality and exploitation. We are still a threat.
We need to be a threat. We still need to say who we are. The most fundamental expression of solidarity with all others who struggle is to claim our identity, but that is not an end. That is and must be a beginning.
Until I come out as a gay man I cannot be who I intend to be.
Until I come out I cannot be honest with the people I love.
Until I come out what I do not say can be used against me.
Until I come out I cannot participate fully in our struggle or the struggles of other oppressed people without compromising the integrity of their efforts.
Until I come out I continue to accept the definitions imposed on me by my oppressors.
Until I come out I can not be an example to anyone coming up after me.
Until I come out you will not know me.
So I have to come out, again and again and again, and so do you. That's how it works. That's what it has come to mean over time, to be out. It isn't enough that I know and can say so, that my family knows, my friends, my employers, my neighbors. To be out must mean to be engaged in an ongoing campaign, wearisome as that may sometimes feel.
Coming out is bearing witness for those who cannot speak.
Coming out is standing up for all who fell before they could, or were put down when they stood.
Coming out is expressing a willingness to listen to the experience of others.
Coming out is a commitment to the liberation of our people.
Coming out is a commitment to the liberation of others.
The other phrase from my youth was, "openly gay." Sounds ridiculously old fashioned now, doesn't it? Nevertheless it still has meaning for me, if only in the negative. To be, for example, an openly gay Republican isn't to my mind being out. It is an incomplete liberation that supports the oppression of others, the exploitation of the worker, the persecution of the immigrant and maintenance of ignorance, superstition, privilege, and poverty. A gay man who doesn't support a woman's autonomy over her own body isn't out, he's just not heterosexual. A lesbian who opposes transgender rights isn't out, she's just out of touch.
If we are not coming out anymore, we are just accepting what we've been given by those that came before us, and devil take the hindmost. If we are not coming out anymore we are colluding with the silence that still kills our brothers and sisters around the world.
One last point. There's a word I used earlier that needs to be addressed again, "witness." Any that grew up in or near certain faith traditions as I did will recognize that word as more than just a way of saying. That word is weighted with the whole history of the church. I choose it deliberately not despite of but in defiance of that tradition. I do not bear witness so that others may come to my understanding of the truth, but so that I might better understand my own and through this, come to know others. I seek no converts -- a ridiculous and long since repudiated notion worthy of contempt. I am a witness not to your God's grace or the absence thereof but to the reality and necessity of our struggle for equality before the law. My witness need not exclude yours, but they are different in both purpose and kind. I came out to be myself. I come out still to be and do better in this world, not to earn a place in the next.
So I guess we have to keep coming out, people. What choice do we have? I may never march in another parade, or dance on a float in my underwear -- Heaven forbid -- I'll leave all that to those better able and more inclined. But I will keep coming out, and so should you.
Tell your truth. I will listen. You show me yours, and I'll show you mine, honey.
(And to the young? Go on. Discomfort me as I did my elders. That's your responsibility now. Make the bastards jump! We may well deserve it. Some of us are trying -- in every sense of that word, but still.)