Thursday, September 30, 2010
Thursday, September 23, 2010
This morning I woke up early and decided it was such a beautiful day that I’d play hooky from the story I’m supposed to write and head down to Chinatown. I always like to go to the Mayahana Buddhist Temple when I’m that far south. I’m not a Buddhist, but I find the temple comforting and beautiful, and when I go inside during the weekdays I’m usually one of three or so people. The temple sits at the mouth of the Manhattan Bridge right off of Canal Street. Walk into the front atrium, and there are two small shrines of different deities. Each is surrounded by baskets of fruit, oranges being the most common offering. There are two red cushions in front of each alter where the devout bow and pray. They make hand gestures, waving the incense that burns, or the spirit, through their hair. In the middle of the room and throughout the whole of the temple there are podiums whose purpose is to collect donations. Give a dollar, take a fortune.
When you step into the main room, you are transported into China. Monks in saffron robes play drums with sticks; elderly ladies line the walls, chit chatting despite the “Please Keep Noble Silence” sign. There are antique prints, framed in plastic, that wrap around the entirety of the room, telling the story of Buddha, from his beginning as Siddhartha, to the end of his life when he achieved enlightenment. But the thing that steals the show is Buddha himself. He stands golden at 16 feet tall, surrounded by oranges, and by ornate pedestals of brass lotus flowers that shine like the sun.
The first time I entered the main room with my, at the time, 5 year old son Jamie, he observed a young woman at prayer below the mammoth Buddha. She kneeled on a red cushion, and then lay prostrate on the ground. When she stood up to leave, Jamie stepped into her place with confidence. The old Chinese ladies chit chatting along the side of the temple paused to watch as my blonde haired, blue eyed kid waved his hands into the air, dispersing the incense around him. They watched as he lied down on the floor, his forehead touching the tile. Mortified by his devout offerings, I felt the first stirrings of independence twist away from our connection. He was doing his own thing, and in that moment, we were gone to him.
“I want to give the Buddha big respect,” Jamie later told my mother, a few months after that first visit, as we strolled down Mott Street. I’d taken him and my mother and stepdad down to Chinatown for the afternoon to introduce them to our usual weekend round of soup dumplings, bubble tea, and the Chinatown playground. Jamie loves the fortunes. I always give him a dollar to drop into the podium, and he always fishes around the huge pile of scrolls in ecstasy. I know it feels good to him, like sticking your hand into a burlap sack of dry beans. It always makes a rushing noise of paper scratching paper, but the Temple, while solemn overall, is still a busy place, and I let him indulge in this tactile pleasure. A couple of times when it’s been less crowded, the paper rustling echoes, and in my hyper-parenting state, it seems to disrupt the occasional local who’s stopped in to pray. At these times I stage whisper “Jamie, go ahead and pick. You can only have one.”
This seems to be the closest thing to regular religious outings I’ve embarked on with Jamie. I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and was quite active in the church when I was younger. I started singing in the church choir, marching myself and my little brother to practice on Thursday afternoons at Holy Faith in Santa Fe. Later, I served as an acolyte and attended a church camp every summer. I loved the music, and maybe I loved the ritual of the mass, or maybe I just found it boring. Whichever it was, it left an imprint that I’ve walked around with forever. I don’t call on it often, but it’s there if I want to access it. I liked watching Father Campbell turn his back from the congregation, lifting up the chalice to the cross, and then knocking the leftover communion wine back until the bottom of the chalice was pointed toward the vaulted ceiling.
My husband Jim was raised in the Catholic Church, and attended Catholic school for much of his primary education. He remembers the knuckle raps and getting pulled around by the scruff of his collar by nuns. Although Jim has volunteered at the Catholic Worker on and off on East 1st Street, he’s never become a part of a congregation in the 20-plus years that he’s lived in the city.
So when I passed by our bathroom tonight to check on my now seven year old, who was taking a bath, I was more than a little startled to hear “[murmur murmur] and keep us from sin at the hour of our death…[murmur murmur]… pray for us sinners… pray for us sinners…” was he saying the Hail Mary in the bathtub?
Jamie has been a part of a unique special education program that uses the only inclusion model in the city; they house themselves in the Catholic schools, where they’ve been welcome. Full inclusion for Jamie is a great thing. He gets to be in a room full of “typical” kids, for the first time in his little life. I see him gaining confidence on the playground, in reading, and now, in his faith, which is not cynical and fractured like my own. In short, he’s happy. To pull him out of religion because of my ambivalence feels selfish; after all, he was learning about every holiday under the sun in his last class’s diversity curriculum. Why should this be different? He comes home and tells me he held hands and sang songs in church, and it was beautiful.
“Hey Jamie, whatcha doin?”
“Do you want to hear my favorite prayer?” he asks, pouring his bathwater through his red funnel and into a Curious George bucket. He went on to recite it, beautiful as a child’s prayer would sound. I felt guilty for the cocked eyebrows I must have worn, and the sneer on my face. Why should a kid be referring to himself as a sinner? So what if he didn't eat the second half of his ham sandwich at lunch? And why did he come home with a drawing of a crucifixion, replete with a guy holding a sword, leaping out of red flames like a superhero, and an angel hovering above in a cloud, during his very first week of religion class?
I haven’t given Jamie religion in his young life. He’s gotten tastes of it, sadly, at funerals. We’ve had talks about god and spirituality, and I don’t dismiss the idea to him. I have painted a picture of, probably, agnosticism with Jesus as an avatar who did a lot of people a lot of good. I skipped the parts about him rising from the dead, and at this point he has no idea what a Virgin is anyway. When I went to church, I always felt like there was a line drawn in the sand between the language of the Episcopal and the Catholic masses. Catholics, it seemed to me growing up, were far more interested in reciting the things we couldn’t explain. They talked about the Virgin thing. They prayed to relics, boxed up and treasured, whether a tooth of poor, tortured Appolonia, or a fiber from a shroud held by Veronica. There were no confessional boxes at Holy Faith Parish. Sin was a word used in prayers, but not something referred to about ourselves in our daily lives.
This isn’t something I feel like I can summarize with a kicker. It’s going to be an ongoing process, I think, of his attending classes, becoming a part of the one community who would take him, and who understand his daily struggles and challenges in the classroom. I’m grateful to them for giving him this safety, but it’s still strange to hear my only begotten son saying the Hail Mary in the bathtub.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
This marks the end of my English bookstore blog entries in Europe (for this year, anyway!). I'm grateful to my editor, Ed Nawotka at Publishing Perspectives, who gave me the chance to wander and write whatever I wanted to about pretty much any bookstore I felt like writing about. There were dozens more had I had the time, and my hope is that I can pick up the thread in years to come. In the meantime, I saved the oldest for last....
• Paris' venerable Librairie Galignani lays claim to being the oldest English language bookstore on the European continent.
• Despite its age — the store was founded in 1801, but the publishers of the same name date back to 1520 — it has weathered the years well and continues be an important part of Paris’ vibrant literary community.
PARIS: A publicist friend of mine who was staying at Hotel Costes in Paris had waxed on about the famous hot chocolate around the corner from her at Angelina’s on rue de Rivoli. Although the end of summer is stultifying — even in Paris and doesn’t usually mean the Best Hot Chocolate Weather — I decided to take my little chocoholic boy to try it out. We’d been on a bickering roll lately and I felt like offering him the ultimate olive branch instead of dragging him through yet another museum. I hadn’t even put together that Angelina’s would be across the street from Fete des Tuileries, an amazing little fair in the Tuileries Gardens with a Ferris Wheel and tons of rides and games, right across the street.
On the walk between the “chocolate l’Africain” which — at the princely price of seven euros — was actually to die for if not slightly nauseating in its richness, and the carnival, was a handsome bookstore called Galignani.
The sign outside claimed it to be “The First English Bookshop Established on the Continent.” On their website, they say it’s been in business since 1520 (as publishers), though the store was originally opened in 1801.
Galignani does boast an impressive history: “The Galignanis were among the first to use the recently invented printing press in order to distribute their books to a larger audience. Beginning in 1520, Simone Galignani published in Venice a Latin grammar (the oldest “Galignani” known)…. However, their greatest success was the Geografia by PTOLEMAUS published in 1597, an incredible bestseller in both the 16th and 17th centuries.”
Not surprising, the shop has moved locations several times in four centuries, and only as recently as 1856 has been parked in the posh arcade of the rue de Rivoli. It is still run by direct descendants of the original family.
I used the carnival as a carrot to keep my kid in check while I took a few spins around the bustling store, which is lined with enviable hardwood shelves dating back to the 1930s. This is an international bookstore, so there are of course massive amounts of titles in French, as well as other languages.
English-language book seekers should walk straight through to the back of the store (passing an incredible International Fine Arts section chock full of esoteric coffee table art books) where they’ll find a comprehensive selection of titles in English, with a strong emphasis on modern fiction and classics alike.
I was happy because my mom, who was doing an apartment swap in Anzio, had run out of books to read in English, and had requested one or two to be thrown in my suitcase for when we visited. She’s obsessed with dark Swedish mysteries, a la Detective Kurt Wallender, and it’s nearly impossible to find something that she hasn’t discovered on her own. The multiple display tables heaved with fun choices — not with any new Swedish murder mysteries — and I was able to snag a couple of lightweight (literally) choices that wouldn’t overburden my strict RyanAir luggage limit.
Small disclaimer: Those who seek out Galignani’s to soak up the atmosphere of an ancient bookshop might be disappointed, not in the selection of titles, but by the newness of the place. It’s pristine, which isn’t of course a bad thing, but I was surprised to learn how old it really was, including the wooden bookshelves. They’re gorgeous, but don’t scream “Old! Made in the 1930s!” I guess I’m always up for a mustier, dustier experience, but I certainly can’t blame Galignani’s for being as high-style as the block that it calls home. Take a look for yourself: their website offers a charming video tour that takes you right into the store (click here).
Librairie Galigani is located at 224, rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris.
Friday, September 10, 2010
First, let me say that I am telling this story because for a decade I've been teaching magazine journalism at the New School, and I think this story emulates a very real side of the freelance journalism life. Why would I drive nearly six hours each way to stand in a freezing courtroom just so I can get paid $1,500 by a crappy teen girl's magazine? Am I crazy? Two years ago, when (the far superior) CosmoGirl shuttered its doors forever, I made a hard decision. I would make a go of freelance writing, a sort of horrifying prospect for a couple with a kid to feed. My husband is an independent general contractor, and my job always gave us the stability of health insurance. As an aside, my decision was helped in huge part by the fact that the New School provides decent insurance coverage since I'm in their adjunct union.
Thursday, September 2, 2010
Last week I found myself at Coney Island on a rainy Sunday. My Uncle Steve was visiting from Dallas, and a bunch of us were able to snag a few overcast hours of boardwalk, Cyclone, and Nathan's time. When the rain started we spontaneously made our way to the Coney Island Sideshow; five minutes to go before Heather Holiday (or somesuch) would swallow swords and fire, and Vick the Vomiter (or somesuch) would slam nails through his sinus (Sideshow sidenote: There's an X-ray of a nail through a nasal cavity at the bar, perched into a corner of the illuminated Pepsi case, to prove it).
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
It was an honor for me to be able to write a feature about one of my longtime favorite bookstores in New York City. When I left my first job in publishing at American Heritage magazine, going back over a decade ago, my kind boss Richard Snow picked up a sizable gift certificate from them as a Thank You. I'll never forget how much it meant to me, in those lean days, to be able to wander through the West Village and pick up a book-- for months!--from this little shop...
On Not Changing With the Times: How Manhattan's Three Lives & Co. Bookstore Endures
• Three Lives & Co. Booksellers in New York City has managed to survive increasing economic pressure that has forced the closing of numerous other bookstores. Three Lives' longevity is the result of staing very much the same as it did when it first opened in 1968.
• Owner Toby Cox — formerly of the marketing department of Broadway Books — likes to keep signage and salesmanship to a minimum. “The store exists for the reader, not for the publisher or the marketer.”
NEW YORK: Three Lives & Company Booksellers, located in the West Village of Manhattan, sits perched on its corner of West 10th Street like a dependable dear friend who’s always on time, smiling, and happy to meet you. In many ways, the friend remains the same after all these years. The ubiquitous red brick in the Village frames the corner windows, which are stuffed with handsome titles that face the street. For many regulars, it’s hard not to put a full-cover price dent in their wallet every time they pass by. How is it that when other bookshops in the neighborhood are shutting their doors or moving to spots with more favorable leases, Three Lives keeps standing firm? While many businesses are rushing to change with the times, Three Lives’ success rests in staying very much the same as it did when it first opened its doors in 1968.
“See this little sign here? You’ll never see anything bigger than that here.” Toby Cox, the owner of the shop for the last nine years, points to a small standing poster about 2½ by 2 feet tall, celebrating the 75th anniversary of Penguin Books, sitting atop a table full of Penguin Classics. Ironically, Cox worked for three years in the marketing department of Broadway Books before walking away to take over the store. “You know, I’d never considered book selling as a career. In marketing you’re so focused on getting books to booksellers, not to readers, and I was certain I didn’t want to go any further with that.”
Cox bought the store nine years ago from the original founders when they decided to retire. He was a long-time FOS (friend of the store) and when they came ready to pack it in, they thought of him. He had had a stint selling books in Providence, Rhode Island at the Brown University Bookstore before moving to New York, and after his droll and unsatisfying turn in marketing, he took the leap.
“When I first took over the store… I had a table out with my favorites so people could see that I did — now it’s full of staff favorites.”
When you ask Cox if there is anything new going on to speak of — say, new initiatives, business plans, collaborations with publishers — he sort of wrinkles up his nose and offers up a decided: “No. I guess the new thing that I’m trying to do is to do nothing new at all. When I first moved here 12 years ago, I used to come into this store about once a month. I loved it, and made friends with the owners. They used to tease me because I’d always come in and start straightening out the books on the tables… ‘Once a bookseller, always a bookseller,’ they’d tease.”
Cox excuses himself to pick up the phone. In the store today are just himself and his staffer Amanda, a 6-year veteran and relative newbie among his four person staff, the longest clocking in at over 13 years. She’d been helping a lingering and indecisive customer about what to pick up for her summer reading. “Is this like The Secret History?” she asked, holding up Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. “Well, it’s really quite different,” said Amanda, diplomatically, “but maybe you might like this.” She ducks behind the counter and emerges with a couple of other choices. They talk back and forth.
Visually, the shop’s exposed brick interior is heaven for any book jacket junkie. The walls are packed with floor-to-ceiling shelves, and floor space is dominated by browser-friendly display tables. In the front of the store, books are generally arranged face-out, offering up a cacophony of color and subject matter. “Generally, when books face out, it’s just a pleasurable way to browse,” offers Amanda. Toward the rear of the store is a wall of travel guides and a massive wall of fiction. Small sections hone in on books about New York; another houses literature by Americans in Paris.
Another gentleman comes in looking for a journal; they have it, he’s happy and on his way. “More and more booksellers are moving away from the notion of community,” Cox considers. “It’s more and more fractured. I want to be a place of retreat… The store exists for the reader, not for the publisher or the marketer."