Magazine article The New Yorker

To Catch a Beat

Magazine article The New Yorker

To Catch a Beat

Article excerpt

Brooklyn in the early eighties, like all of New York City, could still sustain innumerable hole-in-the-wall used bookstores. These weren't moneymaking enterprises but, rather, outposts in a minor cultural ecosystem on the verge of disappearing. They were fronted by weary men who lived in bubbles of time-gone-by that hadn't yet burst. These men had a haunted look. As a teen-age book collector with a crush on a dying guild, I did my best to apprentice myself to every one of them. I'd buy books, then hang around the counter and strike up conversations designed to flaunt my expertise, trying to insinuate my voice into the house tone of these grumpy fiefdoms. A handful of the shops gave me work, though my pay was usually taken home entirely in books.

Under gentrification, the storefronts that had housed the bookstores I'd worked in seemed to share the same fate: they gave way first to dry-cleaning joints, then to real-estate agents' offices. The storefront of Clinton Street Books, in Brooklyn Heights, went through precisely those iterations after the shop closed, sometime in the late eighties. I've forgotten the proprietor's name, but for a while in high school I was his afternoon sidekick. He'd leave me to man the small counter while he skulked off for coffee on Montague Street. I'd sit and make sales and look up prices in Books in Print--mostly the latter, as the shop was awfully quiet.

Like any such store, Clinton Street tolerated a few eccentric regulars. One of these was the Beat Generation icon Herbert Huncke, who, though he was known in the forties as "the mayor of Forty-second Street," and ended his life living in the Chelsea Hotel, was at that time a resident of the Heights. Huncke, a legendary junkie, hustler, vagrant, and muse, and a minor, though vivid, writer, may or may not have been the source of the term "Beat"; he appears in lightly fictionalized form in William S. Burroughs's "Junkie," Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," and John Clellon Holmes's "Go." He was also one of the local guides on Alfred Kinsey's safari into the sexual underground, ushering any number of his fellow Forty-second Street denizens to Kinsey's Manhattan hotel room for interviews.

Huncke was still very much the squirrelly ex-con and drug fiend, but he was also marvellously unthreatening, despite a certain doomy charisma. As for books, he wasn't buying but selling, or trying to. At some point, demonstrating characteristic munificence, Allen Ginsberg had taken a carton of his poetry collection "Planet News," in the distinctive square, black-and-white City Lights format that "Howl" made famous, and autographed every copy "To Herbert, from Allen, with love. …

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