March 21, 2017
To Catch a Beat: Jonathan Lethem watches Herbert Huncke in a bookstore
by Jonathan Lethem
Edited by the brilliant Christopher Boucher, it’s a wild garden of literary enthusiasms where Lethem, in a voice of both wacky erudition and hard-won dedication to craft, reveals that books are sandwiches (“between their bready boards lies a filling of information-dense leaves nestled together, an accumulation of layers for cumulative effect”), notes that Martin Scorsese is a difficult director to characterize (“his compromises and flops bear contemplation as mistakes only he could have made, lame in an amateurish way”), and tells the story of the two times he has made Philip Roth laugh (“I would have juggled the baby if it would have helped”).
In this essay from the book, Lethem remembers his time working at Brooklyn’s Clinton Street Books, where his responsibilities included keeping an eye on Beat generation legend Herbert Huncke.
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 teenage 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 all 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 and fifties 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 major and 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 Junky, 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 squirrely ex-con and drug fiend, but he was also marvelously 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 copies 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.” He then gave them to Huncke to sell periodically, in order to alleviate a day’s or a week’s worth of his lifelong dire financial straits. In the bookseller’s or collector’s jargon, a copy inscribed thus, from one major Beat figure to another, was a singular and irreplaceable “association copy”: in principle, a valuable book. The fact that dozens existed was ticklish, though: that wasn’t the level of scarcity the signature implied.
Sometime before I began working at Clinton Street, the proprietor had taken one off Huncke’s hands, to offer for sale on the shop’s “autographed and first editions” shelf. It hadn’t sold. I remember the proprietor having to lecture Huncke, more than once, on why we couldn’t purchase a second: two were less valuable than one. He’d have to wait until the first sold before we’d relieve him of another. For months, Huncke’s rounds included dropping in to see whether the copy had been snapped up yet, because he so wanted to sell us a second. Giving him the bad news that it still hadn’t been, so that he couldn’t unload another, became one of my own regular duties. Huncke would be crestfallen. I think it drove him nuts, feeling he had this carton of riches to liquidate, and being denied. I’d shrug and wait for him to slouch back onto the sidewalk. I’d also been warned that when I was alone in the shop I should watch Huncke like a hawk, for fear that he’d shoplift — not fear, really, but the certainty he’d try. This wasn’t unusual in a bookshop in Brooklyn in 1983. You watched every customer like a hawk.
Sure enough, one day I had the honor of joining the long procession of those who, over the decades, had laid a bust on the sweet scoundrel Huncke. He’d been browsing while I paged through Books In Print. The rare-books shelf was to my back, but I sensed activity, and turned in time to see him hurrying an item into his coat. I held out my hand, and Huncke, with saintly intensity, surrendered the article and left the store. He could have filched any number of books priced more expensively, but no: it was Ginsberg’s Planet News. He just couldn’t wait a day longer for the moment when he’d be able to come in and exclaim that it had sold.
Jonathan Lethem is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels, including Dissident Gardens, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn; three short story collections; and two essay collections, including The Ecstasy of Influence, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Lethem has published in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and the New York Times, among other publications. His newest book is More Alive and Less Lonely.