Perspectives: Photographic Memory

PM Book Editor Kristofer Collins recalls the many famous authors he met while working at a revered Oakland book store.

JAY DANTRY HOLDING A PHOTO OF HIMSELF AND BEST SELLING NOVELIST DAVE EGGERS (JUNE 2008)

There’s a small photograph tacked to the corkboard above my desk that catches my eye from time to time. It’s a snapshot of another cluttered desk from many years ago. I worked at Jay’s Book Stall in Oakland for 10 years, starting in the mid-1990s. There, tucked into a corner of the basement of 3604 Fifth Ave., was the little cluttered desk I called my own.

Photographs were very important at the book shop. The owner, Jay Dantry, covered every available surface with pictures of countless writers, celebrities and favorite customers who visited the shop in its 50-plus years of existence. During my tenure at the shop, I took a lot of these pictures for him. When the time came, Jay would grab his camera from under the front counter, hand it to me, jump into the frame, and I would snap away.

And then, Jay would insist on taking my picture, too.

In nearly every one of those pictures, I wear the expression of someone dragooned into an unpleasant task. It’s true I have never liked having my picture taken. Even when I think I’m flashing a bright smile, the photographic evidence suggests that I’ve just come from having a root canal.

Jay loved putting me in those situations.

Early on, he decided that I would be the caretaker of visiting authors. We had many, many book signings at the shop. I would pick up a cookie tray from nearby Kunst Bakery, and Jay would break out a bottle of mid-shelf champagne. After some general pleasantries, Jay would leave the writer in my charge. I would get them whatever they needed, making sure they had plenty of working pens at the ready, and even open each book to the title page and hand it to the author to receive his or her signature so as not to waste any time.

Mostly what I offered these writers was a mumbling bit of incoherent small talk, which usually included some variation of, “Are you happy with the critical reception of your book?” or the dreaded, “What are you working on now?” Although Jay never admitted it, I suspect he found it all very amusing.

Looking at all of these Book Stall photos from more than 20 years ago brings a flood of memories. There was the time crime writer James Ellroy burst through the back door, cocked an ear to the samba music quietly playing on the stereo, and cried out, “This makes me want a shot of smack!” much to the fear and befuddlement of our customers.

I recall Anne Perry’s skin as I stood next to her, so near to porcelain I thought it might crack when I handed her a pen. Then there was the eye-patch Andrew Vachss wore, a black vortex that, try as I might, I could not look away from. And what about the time the partially sighted author Stephen Kuusisto showed up with a retinue of likewise-afflicted fans and I wound up on my back on the floor playing with their service dogs?

What stands out most in my memory now, though, is an evening from which I have no photo. Meeting Kurt Vonnegut in 1998 was the first time I encountered in real life an author whose work helped to spark my own nascent dreams of becoming a writer. I read “Slaughterhouse-Five” when I was 13 years old, and it opened my eyes to the wild forms a novel could take. His work primed me for out-there writers such as Richard Brautigan, Kathy Acker and William S. Burroughs.

Vonnegut was in town to take part in the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Creative Achievement Awards Ceremony. The staff at the Book Stall were given free tickets to the event, and I was jazzed to take my girlfriend at the time, who was also a huge Vonnegut fan. As far as I’m concerned, few things in life are better than introducing a girlfriend to Kurt Vonnegut; that scores some serious boyfriend points.

After the talk was over, we were invited to come down to the stage and join the awards recipients for light refreshments. But when I went to say hello to one of our greatest American novelists and shake his hand, those same hands that wrote “Breakfast of Champions” and “Cat’s Cradle,” my attempt was thwarted, for those hands were full of hors d’oeuvres, and so was his mouth. One more very awkward moment between me and a writer.

You can’t see it, but there’s a huge smile on my face right now.

Kristofer Collins is the publisher of Low Ghost Press and owner of Desolation Row Records. As well as being Pittsburgh Magazine’s book editor, he is the co-host of Hemingway’s Summer Poetry Series. He lives in Stanton Heights with his wife and son.

Categories: Perspectives