I have a system

I have a system. It involves numbered notecards and many crates. I start in the basement with the Zs and work backwards to the As. The stairs are the hard part. Even though the crates rarely hold more than fifteen books to maintain alphabetical order, I can only carry three at a time. I load them onto the handtruck upstairs, stacking six, then wheel them teetering down the ramp, into the new space, all the way to the back room.

It’s the future home of Mysteries and Thrillers and also the event space, replacing the old basement that I’m dismantling shelf by shelf.

The crates are practical. They stack and don’t fall apart from repeated use and rough handling, but they’re unforgiving. I have cuts all over my hands from scraping their rough edges. I pour sweat going up the stairs with full stacks and back down with empties.

When a bookcase is empty, I haul it upstairs. The new room is airy and light; totally different than the basement. I think about the millions of words I carry as I work. Some of the authors are factories rather than individuals. James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Clive Cussler, Janet Evanovich, Stuart Woods, and a dozen others have thirty or forty titles each. I stack their paperbacks two deep to save space. Each one’s series has a keyword in its name, like Prey or Girl or Dark. They’re like branding, made to be recognized by repeat reader/customers. When they see the word they know what they’re getting. They keep coming back or else I wouldn’t be hauling these piles.

A few days after I finish with the Mystery room, there’s a play performed in it. A fake author-signing by a pompous self-described thriller writer who sends out his own press-release comparing himself to Fleming and Clancy. I laugh along with the others. It’s cool to see a room that was empty only a week before, now full of people and voices. The blur of multi-colored spines lining the walls is a fitting backdrop. The fact I put all those books there is satisfying in a way I rarely experience.

We keep taking apart the old store, section by section, working mostly back to front. I lose track of time and day. I come home exhausted every evening. It feels like it will go on forever, though I know from the emptying storefront that it will all be over in another couple weeks.

June 3rd I leave town on a weeklong tour. When I return, the old store will be gone and there will only be the new one.

How will I know what to do once there are no more crates to stack and number?

Mallory and I go into Inland Empire.

Flore Medicale

On my way out of town, I leave Dee a birthday present. It’s a painting of a scene from Destroy All Monsters. I make it to Brookline in just under fifteen hours. I know the route so well now entire hours vanish without trace. As long as I have something to listen to, the trip flies by.

I put down my bags in Max’s old room, where I’ll be sleeping, and join my parents in the kitchen for tea. I give my father the stack of old Natalia Ginzburg paperbacks in Italian that I scored for him at Tangible. We talk about this and that. No one wakes up until nearly noon the next day.

We go to the basement and my father points out a shelf full of old books that belonged to my grandmother that he wants me to take back to Chicago and give to the store. They’re worn tomes from the 19th century. The set that catches my eye is three oxblood leather-bound volumes copiously illustrated with colored engravings of flowers.

I top out the box with some of my student art and a couple broken violins and stow it in the trunk of the rental.

The next day a tall Amazon box is sitting on the front porch. I take it inside. That afternoon, I take the bush out of its pot and hold it upright as my father shovels fresh dirt around it in the backyard.

There used to be a swing when they first moved into the house at the end of 1988 but it’s long gone. My painting of it from 1993, when I briefly lived in the house, hangs in the laundry nook.

I make the drive back to Chicago in under fourteen hours. There had been plans to visit friends along the way but they fell through so I decide to just go home.

I see two duos perform on successive nights. Marisa Anderson and Jim White at Constellation, then Gillian Lisée and Jim Becker at the Hideout. Both amazing.

I’m reading something at The Whistler tomorrow. It won’t be the same if you’re not there.

The New Routine

I had my last drawing class and did my last Sunday shift at the bar the same week. I’ve been spending more and more time at the bookstore, so something had to give. It’s sort of an embarrassment of riches but too much is too much.

The story of my life is the search for balance between paid jobs and real work (which is often unpaid or virtually so). The art and writing (including this letter you’re reading) is difficult to price. I’ve tried and failed repeatedly. It always feels too much and not enough.

All the time I’ve spent packing and shelving books lately may finally break me of wanting to publish any more books. Maybe there are enough already. Yet, every day, people come through the front door to bring us boxes and bags full of paperbacks and hardcovers to free room in their basements and garages. They empty out their dead relatives’ shelves. Forests have been felled for these things that are so quickly forgotten. I think about that as I go up with full stacks of milk crates and back down with empty ones.

It took most of a week to recreate the Mystery section in the new space. It’s still mostly wide open but won’t stay so for long. In a month or so 60,000 books will have made the move from 3324 to 3326 South Halsted.

I’m not a big planner but rearranging the shape of my days this way gives me an inkling of the path forward. I could see going to the bookstore most days to see what needs doing and getting my own stuff done around the margins of that. I used to drive a cab 80 hours a week and still painted a lot, so time management isn’t a problem.

I get to stay in the neighborhood which is a big plus. I have little use for the North Side for the most part. Wicker Park to me is the Rainbo Club, Myopic Books, then mostly sports bars & strollers. Maybe I’ll like the neighborhood better when I go there less often.

I asked my students on the last day of class if they got anything out of drawing a person once a week for a couple hours and many answered that they did. They found it relaxing. A reprieve from the high expectations of the rest of their course load. That was gratifying to hear. I guess I did what I set out to do there. It’s so the opposite of my relationship with drawing. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

It’s not a reprieve in any way, yet I can’t imagine doing anything else.

“If birds couldnt fly they wouldnt sing” writes Cormac McCarthy in Stella Maris. I listened to it on audiobook part of my drive east. It surprised the hell out of me. I tried reading The Passenger and barely made it 30 pages. McCarthy is really important to me, especially Suttree, but The Passenger felt like a caricature of his worst overwrought, over-stylized tendencies. Stella Maris is completely different. Basically a monologue told from a female point of view, it’s stripped of all his tropes and tells its sad story more or less straight.

There’s a connection to Labatut’s The Maniac in the Atomic bomb/mathematics theme and not a single mute cowboy killer to be found. There are references to The Passenger but I probably won’t try to go back and read that because it might ruin the good memory of Stella. It’s quite a note to go out on. A left turn in the best way.

I updated my resume. Got a few pieces in a group show that opens Saturday night in Beverly.

RIP Steve Albini.