by HUGH GILMORE
(Closing scene from Part 2 – last week – of this series)
A: The Monolith
Happily hunting books on Penn’s campus, I’m singing the old song, “C’llegiate, c’llegiate, yes we are collegiate, nothing intermediate,” but then remember my mission and change the words.
“Europa, Europa. I want to read Europa.”
I was hunting for Europa Editions novels, looking through every fictional work in the Penn Bookstore, hoping to find a few. But, hold on, what was that? I thought I heard an orchestra’s brass section beginning to blow behind me. I stood still.
No? I started browsing again.
Wait, this time, drumming. I stood looking at my shoes. My toes were trying to make me walk toward the exit. I refused. The brass sounded again. Three drawn-out notes. Uh oh. More drums. I couldn’t avoid starting to realize what my feet knew was dawning.
I gave in and looked up and saw at once what a terrible place I’d wandered into. A place where books are given only three months to sell before being removed. A place where the staff won’t even look at you. A sullen, sterile place where they’ll barely speak to you at the help desk. A place where all its “We Recommends” are Best Sellers. A place where they don’t carry a single work of literature in French. Or German. Or Spanish.
Wait! I try to talk myself out of leaving: Well, listen, Hugh, they do have 20 feet of comic books … oops … “graphic novels.” Oh, and they also have 20 feet of “Manga,” … and they carry six sweatshirts and a mug for every book they offer.
It didn’t wash. I thought: Penn Bookstore: the best and the brightest that the mighty University of Pennsylvania has to offer by way of presenting the written word for future generations. Aaarrgh. My delay had allowed the time for the theme from “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (theme from “2001”) to rise up from behind the monolith …
“Help!” I yelled, running up Walnut Street, “Help! They’re trying to poison the Children of the Light!” But, like the prescient George Fox before me, my words were lost in the general din of this Quaker community that has lost its way, like poor little lambs.
B: HAL 9000
Finally calmed, my breath back, I realize I’d been hallucinating back there. There was no 2001 music. I’d imagined it. I’m safe now, in The Last Word Bookshop at 220 South 40th St. A used-book shop. I’m way in the back of the long row of fiction, hunting once again for Europa Editions. I clutch three nice French books under my arm – bought as gifts for my Francophile wife.
But then I hear the voice of:
HAL 9000: Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going.
I can’t tell where it’s coming from, but I’m sure I’m really hearing this. I stopped browsing and crept to the end of the row and looked around. The voice continued:
There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a…fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song.
I’m not hallucinating this time, I’m sure. I looked around for a TV or DVD player, but saw none.
HAL: If you’d like to hear it, I can sing it for you.
Dave: Yes, I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
HAL: It’s called “Daisy.” (slowing down) Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do. I’m half crazy, all for the love of you …
And then the dialogue ended, and a rather cool R & B song came on. Was that a radio station I’d just been listening to?
I approached the proprietor and said, “What was that I just heard?”
He smiled and said, “Oh that’s WFMU in Jersey City, the public radio station. I like to keep it on when I’m working here. Never know what you’re going to hear.”
Like its owner, whose name is Larry Maltz. Together with his co-worker, Helene, he’s usually on the scene from 10 in the morning till 10 at night. Charming, helpful, and most of all – human, they’re two persons devoted to books and people who read. Used-book storeowners are the only palatable antidotes to corporate big-box America’s desperate need to make every inch of space be “productive” every hour of the day. They illustrate the difference between handcrafted and machine-made goods in the way their “products” combine their tastes, their knowledge, and their customers’ needs. No two used-book stores are alike. Ever.
The retail book world isn’t even near there yet. But for people who like to touch, feel, smell, and browse books in person, charming old-style used-book shops still carry on. Happily, I found three French books as gifts for my wife, and one Europa, a book titled “Sorry,” written by the Australian writer Gail Jones.
I exited feeling warm and happy on an otherwise cold January day. I had to hurry a bit to make a visit to House of Our Own bookshop at 3920 Spruce St. I stopped in, with very little time to spend, since I was keeping someone company at the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.
The proprietor greeted me, guided me to the section of French language books, and to fiction, where I might find some Europas. I bought two of the former, and one Europa, Carmine Abate’s “Between Two Seas,” a beautiful novel set in Calabria.
Fortunately, the very positive experience of visiting two used-book stores in a day helped wipe the soundtrack from “2001: A Space Odyssey” from my head. At home that night, with two more Europa Editions at hand, I searched the Free Library’s website for more. What luck!
By typing “Europa Editions” in the “Keyword” space of their search form I found about 40 titles. What a wonderful library system we are blessed with. I started ordering. After the initial disgust with Penn Bookstore, it turned into a happy day.
But … guess what? One week later, something happened to dilute the purity of my quest to “read nothing but Europas.” The schism began on a Tuesday morning in the dentist’s office when I ran into Chestnut Hill’s Carol Michaels.
To be continued …
PS: As long as we’re on the subject of colleges and universities and the U of P, the song “Collegiate” was written by two Penn Wharton-then-Law students – Moe Jaffe and Nat Bonx – while they were still students. It may be the only Tin Pan Alley song to mention Bryn Mawr College in a song that also contains the words “pastrami, salami, and baloney.” My son, Andrew, also reminded me that the song was played by Chico Marx in “Horse Feathers.” Hail to Pennsylvania!
PPS: The University’s bookstore is run by Barnes & Noble, but that just makes the sterile nastiness of the place even worse. It’s really a gift shop with books. Go to its website … you won’t see any books pictured. Ralph Lauren, though? Oh yes!