“I took the transmission of the shelves”
From The Believer:
The Believer: When did you first start collecting books?
Jonathan Lethem: It really begins with my walking into a shop, one that’s a big part of my life history: Brazen Head Books, on Atlantic Avenue. I was fourteen, and the place was a really strange amalgam of a puppet theater, a moving company, and a used-book store. It was run by these two guys, Michael and Larry. They took me under their wing and I became a simultaneous triple apprentice to all three enterprises. I’d help them with the moving jobs. I’d do special effects—I mean, lighting the flashpots and so forth—and collect the tickets at the puppet shows. And I helped Michael with the bookshop. He became this guru for me. I read what he told me to read, and I took my pay home in used books. Michael was the first person to make me see how, for the used-book seller, the store’s an extension of your collection—things flow in and out of your home and onto the shelves in an uncanny, unpredictable way. Though you treasure your books, there’s also this pleasure you have in having this sort of public interface, a space where the books don’t yet belong to someone else, but could. You’re showing them off and also implicitly setting them free at the same time.
BLVR: So becoming a bookseller was a big part of your education?
JL: It was my college, all the way down the line. The books I read from my mother’s shelves, and then out of Michael’s shop, the books I read through my high-school years, and what should have been my college years—I basically kissed off a formal education in favor of a bookseller’s autodidacticism. I took the transmission of the shelves. It meant that my interest in contemporary writing was always subject to a ten- or fifteen-year time lag. In the mid-’80s, I didn’t even know that Pynchon and Barthelme and Coover and Richard Brautigan were not “the happening thing” anymore. To me, they were still breaking news. I preferred old stuff and found it more relevant. I dislike new books. It’s like drinking wine that’s not ready. When my first novel was published, Gun, With Occasional Music, I insisted the jacket be made to look like it was old. The gimmick was that it was going to look like a pulp paperback, even though it was a brand-new hardcover. I wanted to be a writer like Philip K. Dick, or Charles Willeford, or some others I revered who’d been published only in these disreputable, ephemeral ways, and who you could find only in used-book stores. I wanted to be out of print before I was even in print.