dusty haven

Today, on one of the first truly beautiful days of the spring season, I decided to take a little field trip down to one of my favorite neighborhoods - Brooklyn Heights. It is home to some quiet, pretty streets, the generously lovely Brooklyn Promenade, and a whole bunch of good-to-excellent restaurants/eateries. (Including Jacques Torres, but why tempt the devil.) It's also right near the end of the famous Brooklyn Bridge, so you can either begin or end a walk across there.

One of my favorite routes - uncreative though it is - is a walk on Montague Street. I get off at Court Street and walk up to the water. On the way, I would pass by Monty's pizzeria (and when I say "pass by," I pretty much mean, stop in for a slice of delicious eggplant pizza and carry on), a MAC store (danger), and a Starbucks placed conveniently across the street from one of my favorite little used bookstores in the city.

Heights Books was a bookstore's bookstore. It was made for bibliophiles and no one else. The layout was too confusing to run in and grab what you were looking for. There were practically no nods to decorative sensibilities - just piles and piles of books everywhere, narrow wooden and metal shelves crammed so close together that certain sections might have been difficult for a claustrophobic (or a larger person) to access. Everywhere, dust, yellowing paper and well-used spines. Heaven.

My favorite was the poetry section. It was set off in the kind of odd corner that one would easily miss if one didn't know it was there. Once you were in there, you were basically in a tiny, triangular alcove of books, with only a person-wide gap through which to re-enter the world - whenever you decided to do so. They even had an old and rickety swivel chair there.

The selection was totally random. Books in a used bookstore generally are; and more so when it comes to sections like poetry. You had the usual Norton anthologies, the Penguin editions, the Dover Thrift editions (these always multiply at the end of a college semester), you had the usual classics and Big Names, but you also had dozens of poetry books by people you'd never heard of before - or had heard of maybe ONCE, and meant to look up, but forgot about.

I've long had a thing for poetry books. It's more than just reading the actual books, it's being surrounded by all that concentrated energy. One of my very favorite poets, Erica Jong, once said that a poem was "a little container of energy, released by the reader when they read the poem." So, sitting in that tiny space, filled so densely by hundreds of books containing thousands of little unopened energy containers always filled me with a sense of secret excitement and deliciously precarious serenity. I would sit in the chair, then crouch on the floor, looking at every single book on the shelves, savoring the titles and authors' names, fingering the spines, pulling out ones that looked promising and flipping through just enough pages to figure out whether this poet's energy could unlock my own.

Once you've done that for a little while, you enter a state that I call bookstore-nirvana. The right books suddenly stick to your thumbs as you pass your hands over them. They fly into your hands like friendly, dusty sparrows. Sometimes, they make you sneeze. Occasionally, they make you cry. Usually, they just make you grin with total, disbelieving delight at your dumb luck, as though a blind date has just gone really well.

I found one of my favorite books there that way. Hawksley Workman's hawksley burns for isadora, which I actually found on an absolutely horrible, profoundly painful day. (To give an idea of the day's unpleasantness, I started it off normally enough, intending to just push through it. When I burst into uncontrollable tears on the rush-hour train, I decided it might be a good time to take the morning off work and go somewhere peaceful till I calmed down.) I went to Heights Books, bought the jewel-like little thing and read it on a bench on the Promenade. It didn't exactly make me feel better, but the urgently burning brilliance of the words at least shook me out of my sorry state.

That's probably the most extreme example, but it isn't the only one. I've never left the store without two or three marvelous little finds. And I loved the slightly eccentric older man at the register, who answered any and all questions about books with the alacrity of someone who had inhaled several reams worth of paper dust over the course of his lifetime. He would eye your books, tally their prices, and then give you a final quote that, I could swear, knocked off a few extra bucks if he liked your taste.

I liked everything about that place. I liked the opera music that played softly whenever that particular eccentric man was working the register. (Not when there were young, self-important hipsters on duty, though.) I even liked the prices - fair and well below retail, but clearly set by someone who knew the sentimonetary value of a first edition, even when it was a 1971 by a virtual unknown. (And, yes, they had a great selection of rare/old books; but I only allowed myself brief looks at those. Similarly to how I tend to mostly avert my eyes from Harry Winston windows.)

I loved that place. And I hadn't been there in a few months - not since the weather had last been nice enough to take a walk through Brooklyn Heights. Imagine how I felt today when I arrived to find it boarded up, all signage removed, with a "For Rent" sign in the window. I'd planned to take a walk, buy a couple of books and then begin reading one of them in the Starbucks. Like a proper white person. Instead, I ended up empty-handed, nearly weeping into my green tea latte.

This may sound totally ridiculous, but it really did put a damper on my day. I went home with the intention to write a heartfelt eulogy to this beautiful little Brooklyn gem, railing against the recession, the corporations and the illiterates. And then, I had the bright idea to Google it, just to see if anyone else was as upset as I was about this.

A couple blog entries later, my day was looking brighter again. (At 3 a.m., yes.) Turns out, it only closed at that particular location. It's just reopened elsewhere. So, it looks like I'll have to change up my walking route a bit.

But my sweet little dusty haven is still out there, somewhere. And perhaps a friendly sparrow hides inside, tucked between a required English Lit text and a 1998 issue of a high school literary magazine . . . just waiting for me to find it.

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