Kirby Fields revisits Joplin, Missouri's Book Barn, and poses the question: What does it mean to be the cultural center of a community that has no culture?
The Book Barn was at the ass-end of Main Street in Joplin, Missouri, a street name that would be ironic if weren't so sad. Everything along that stretch of road was used: from the baby cribs at the thrift store to the carburetors at the salvage yard to the people themselves at Soul's Harbor, the local homeless shelter. Sure, like so many used bookstores, the Book Barn stocked its shelves with Romance, Horror, and Science Fiction novels -- books that easily could be read while the TV blared in the other room -- but they also had a surprisingly smart section of "Literature" (novels, short stories, poetry, and drama all crammed together). The books in this section were mostly pawned by local college students at the end of the semester when they needed money for beer. There was no shortage of Milton, E.T.A. Hoffman, or Norton anthologies, their pages as thin as a bible's, not even strong enough to sustain the notes from a well-sharpened pencil. Searching through those stacks always raised a fundamental question regarding life in certain pockets of the Midwest: What does it mean to be the cultural center of a community that has no culture?
At the time, however, I was too young to know what "culture" even was, much less be aware that I was in the midst of its deficit. I was 15, newly relocated to the Midwest from San Diego. I suffered humidity-induced migraines in the July heat, the warmth so oppressive that you could see it rising off the ground, like in westerns, like in Do the Right Thing. The only thing I liked less than my family was myself, and I didn't like myself for not liking my family. As was true with everything else in my life at that time, my wants, though simple, were conflicted: I wanted to be out of the house; I wanted air conditioning.
The mall was air conditioned, and it had Camelot music, Spencer's, even a B. Dalton and a Waldenbooks, all prime hanging-out possibilities. But the mall was clear down Range Line, a road that never met a Wal-Mart Supercenter it couldn't accommodate, a road on which a yellow light meant "gentlemen, start your engines," a road on which the turning lane could sometimes be confused for a parking lot. You risked death by turning left against traffic on Range Line, so you damn sure wouldn't ride your skateboard to the mall. In short, the mall meant begging a ride. And begging a ride meant acknowledging my reliance on others, which was a slippery slope toward the realization that said others had feelings too, a point my 15-year-old self was ill-prepared to allow.
By virtue of its aforementioned location on the ass-end of Main Street, the Book Barn required few obstacles for its patrons. It was a quiet enough stretch -- that stretch where the cruising stops and the public library starts -- that pedestrians and cyclists and skaters could get there with little peril. Occasionally, Joplin's finest would use their loudspeakers to tell those of us on skateboards to get off the sidewalk; then they'd circle back and tell us to get off the street. But hassling skateboarders in Joplin was as popular as hunting -- which is to say it was an unofficial pastime, passed down from fathers to sons -- and besides it was worth it to be out on your own, God Knows Where as far as Mom and Dad were concerned, a point made all the sweeter because they wouldn't object to an afternoon spent at the bookstore anyway.
The proprietor was named Carl? Bob? Ron. The proprietor was name Ron, and he would keep my skateboard for me behind the counter so I didn't have to navigate it around the tight corners of the narrow aisles. Ron looked like a lost member of the Lone Gunmen from The X-Files. I had the sense that his long, stringy hair would come out in clumps if he ran his hands through it. He wore glasses, plaid shirts -- snaps not buttons -- tucked into his size 28 jeans, the end of his belt wrapped around him half again. He was 40, affable, there from Open to Close. I refused to believe it when somebody told me he had spent time in jail. But when I heard it was for possession of stolen property I remembered the tapes in shoeboxes, the price tag on the antenna of the boom box, the revolving series of under-priced bikes tucked in the corner, and I had to concede that it might be true.
At the mall, the Rent-a-Cop would move you along for standing still for too long. "But we're not doing anything", arms raised, faces incredulous, though we didn't yet know the word and some of us probably still don't. "That's the problem," in my mind ushering us along with his baton, though maybe I've seen too many movies. The Rent-a-Cop was wiser than he even knew. That we weren't doing anything was precisely the problem, though by "doing anything" he meant "spending". A kid in a shop with barely enough money in his pocket for a Vess soda was just taking up space that could otherwise be filled by paying customers, and not only that but he was probably driving them off in the process, to boot; so, of course, the kid must be prodded along, for the only thing worse than a vagrant on the move is a group of vagrants who are not. Their methods, though, the Rent-a-Cops', ultimately proved to be counterproductive. We never went to the mall intending to shoplift. Honestly, we didn't. It was only after we were treated like criminals that we decided to behave like them. Many a rock-n-roll biography -- 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky, No One Here Gets Out Alive, Hammer of the Gods -- left that Waldenbooks in a jeans jacket, not a bag.
For whatever reason, I would never have thought of stealing from the Book Barn. Doing so would have felt like taking a dollar out of the street musician's guitar case. And, in any case, they were significantly less bourgeois. To say that loitering was permitted doesn't quite capture it. It was encouraged. In fact, above all, it was perhaps the Book Barn's most important service: providing a haven for loiterers. They were mostly voices to me, unseen and un-seeing in the stacks, which made them all the more intriguing. The tinkle of the bell above the door. Ron behind the counter, a five-and-dime king greeting his two-bit people. They would talk about men named Quisenberry and Saberhagen. They would talk about the new parking meters being installed up and down the street. About girls -- women -- whose complicated relationships with men was to be both desired and feared. They would say things like, "You know what 'Ford' stands for, don't you? 'Fix Or Repair Daily'". They would say, "His bitch mother got it for him". They would say, "It's not so much the heat as it is the humidity".
But the best was when they would barter.
"I'll give you seven dollars cash, ten credit."
"But that's a first edition."
"It's a paperback. There is no such thing as a paperback first edition."
"That's what makes it so rare."
What I liked especially was that the things that mattered to me the most -- books, music -- were considered currency. So far as I could tell, the rest of the world cared very little about such things, but here was a place where not only were they appreciated but they were just as valuable as real money, the kind that folds. I might be able to turn my pocket inside out without losing anything that was even worth the trouble of bending over to pick up when it fell, but when I looked around my room -- some old tapes, some books I'd accumulated from here and there -- I was a wealthy man. It seemed appropriate that this place that refused to equate "used" with "spent" would accept alternative forms of payment.
The rule was that -- in addition to cash and store credit -- three used books would net you one new. This financial arrangement was, I'm sure, designed to reward avid readers. It kept them coming back for more; provided that fix for which they were jonesing. But for someone like me who didn't yet consider himself a reader of any kind, much less an avid one, the effect was slightly different. It didn't feed my addiction so much as it set me on addiction's path. I had enough books in the bank at home that, indeed, the first one was free. After weeks of simply loitering, I finally plunked down three worn books of my own -- Rumble Fish , A Separate Peace, and Flowers for Algernon, all lifted by way of never having been returned to the class sets in San Diego -- in exchange for Stephen King's Skeleton Crew, a volume of short stories, that cover with the broadly grinning monkey, his face framed by cymbals in each hand as he readied a clatter; one story, "The Ballad of a Flexible Bullet", still vivid in my memory even now, a mad writer picking off "fornits" with the keys of his typewriter as if he were a sniper, their blood splattered across the pages of his manuscript. From there I worked my way through the tall wire rack of King's works: The Shining, Pet Sematary (Dad square enough to ask if the title was spelled correctly), Salem's Lot. Because of its thickness, It felt like a crowning achievement, so I knew when I abandoned The Tommyknockers half-way through that it wasn't because I couldn't finish it, but rather because I didn't want to. I had lost interest. King had given me whatever it was that I had needed to get me started, but I didn't need him anymore.
That was how I discovered "Literature". At the time I was on the lookout for books that even today I only care to vaguely define as "good", and I figured that the books in this section at least had been vetted by time and by people who were smarter than I was and who had read more. "Literature" was dominated by your standard secondhand bookstore fare: books that academics dreamed about when they closed their eyes at night (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), books that people vowed to read in a fit of self-improvement (Crime and Punishment), and books that are second-tier offerings by first-tier writers (Franny and Zooey). Apparently I wasn't yet too committed to the books in this new section, as I pulled from the shelf The Old Man and the Sea, a choice determined as much by its slim spine as it was by the book's reputation.
"Switching things up a little," Ron said as I checked out.
"I guess," I replied to the top of the counter.
"Here," he said, as he grabbed a book off of the New Arrivals stack behind him. He slipped the second book into the bag. "More bang for your buck," he said, though it could also have been "more bang for your book". The second book was Of Mice and Men.
I read them both in my room that night, The Old Man and the Sea and Of Mice and Men. I led my parents to believe that I was sulking, made it clear that I did not want to be disturbed, demonstratively slammed the door. Then I read one book; then I read the other. I'll forego any talk of the "magic" of that night, of "being swept away", "transported", and all of that shit. I'll say instead that this period inaugurated my reading life, which is to say that it inaugurated my life as I know it. I'll readily admit that I had a knack for such interests anyway and that the Book Barn merely inspired a love that was already there, brought it to the fore. The extension of this argument is that if the Book Barn hadn't entered my life at this point -- or vice-versa -- then some other girl would have, so to speak. But there's something to be said for being in the right place at the right time, else people wouldn't make such a fuss when they are. And, besides, that other girl didn't. The Book Barn did.
I visit Joplin twice a year now, and usually on one of those trips I drag my eldest niece, Savanah, to the Book Barn, or at least to what the Book Barn has become. It's still on Main, but no longer at the ass-end. Now it's on a corner with a light that makes the traffic stop all four ways, in a strip mall, no less. Across the street is a Walgreens. Across the other street is a place that sells buck stoves. The place next door isn't even memorable enough for me to know what it is. The truth is that the Book Barn isn't even called the Book Barn anymore. It's not even one store. Like a portfolio, it's diversified. Those shoeboxes filled with cassettes and VHS tapes has expanded into a store of its own: DVDs, some music, video games. The one with the books -- the one in the strip mall -- still sells books, but now it mainly specializes in things that are wrapped in plastic -- to borrow a phrase from the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, a show that shared the Original Book Barn's heyday. There are action figures and comic books. Baseball cards. All carefully wrapped, preserved. Virginal, un-fingered, overpriced. They are meant for shelves, not for tiny hands.
They do still sell books. Actually, in fairness, they still probably stock just as many books as they did before. The problem, if it can even be so called, is that the amount of space in the store has quadrupled. One might find in these shrinking proportions an apt metaphor for the ever-decreasing role of literature in American society. One might even find there something to be said about the encroachment of other media, about the fetish of collection. One might find all kinds of meaning here, if one is inclined to look.
None of this is to say that what remains of the Book Barn is not without its charms. Savanah likes to go there well enough. On Saturday afternoon a guy plays piano next to the trophy case that houses all of the autographed Chiefs memorabilia. She likes to browse the children's books -- though surely she's past even chapter books by now -- and I usually can't escape without at least one purchase. The last was a paperback version of Jack Kerouac's Maggie Cassidy, the cover un-ironically in the style of a harlequin romance -- a bare-chested woman (Maggie?) whose long blonde locks strategically fall over her chest, a strapping man caressing her head in his left hand, as if Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss" had been re-imagined by an airbrush artist. This edition of the book is clearly an attempt to coerce a purchase out of the non-bongo-drumming set. I bought the book for its kitsch value. The spine remains un-cracked by me. I doubt that I ever will read it. There is simply too much else. I know, I know. It might as well be wrapped in plastic.
On the inside cover, in pencil, it says, "$2.25". Ron was no longer behind the counter. I paid in cash.