Death and Resurrection
10 December 2008 |
I was up on a West Philly roof, in a sky filled with ramparts and turrets and phallic chimneys, with roofer Ray Nocella, the king of troubleshooters. He told me he’d been at the poet Steve Berg’s Spring Garden house to fix an unfixable leak. “He’s not well,” said Ray. I told him Berg is a giant of poetry.
“I know,” he said, “I Googled him and your name came up, that’s why I’m telling you.”
I’ve only met Berg once and after that lunch last year organized by the publisher Paul Dry, we exchanged e-mails. I had hoped to continue our conversation but he got injured and then, apparently, became ill. In my last e-mail, I told him his questioning poetry had the effect of making my prose more sensitive, more alert. “You’re making me a better writer,” I told him.
He probably didn’t care about that. Since I write about the city, he may have been particularly bothered by me linking my voice to his. The city isn’t the object of my work, he told me, that’s not it. Surely not. But his questions so often take such delicate form in the city’s grime and delirium — in fragments of conversation on the trolley, in the summer’s humidity, in a “garbage can erupting with the praise and grace of existence“— that his writing can’t be separated from the city where he lives.
Now, part of that city, the city of language, of reading, searching, observing, of writing and listening, is dying. Robin’s Bookstore is closing. I bought my copies of Berg’s poetry books at Robin’s, and there kept an ongoing affair with James Baldwin. At Robin’s, I also encountered James Agee and Roberto Bolaño and some six years ago gave my first reading. That great long wall of literature and the round worn table below the poetry books, jammed shelves of political commentary — left-wing favorites like Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy and all those who made careers reporting on Iraq and exposing the Bush administration — that great room filled with questions will be no more.
“I just can’t afford to keep $300,000 worth of inventory,” explains Larry Robin, who must be the unofficial mayor of 13th Street. He’s worked there since 1960, in the store his grandfather opened in 1936. “No matter how good you are,” he tells me as we sit at his second-floor desk, his hands gesturing, his white beard and bright eyes flashing before me, “you can’t overcome the short-term thinking” that strangles the economy. He goes on to explain why it’s so difficult for an independent bookseller, how the chains make their profit not on books but on fees publishers pay them for special placement, (how even Borders is likely to close anyway), and how Internet used booksellers live off shipping fees. “I have to make my money selling books.” On the average day, Robin’s comes up a couple hundred dollars short.
In Shaving, a book of poetry that begins with a scene on 13th Street, Berg asks of the departed, “Could it be they are here with us but in a form we refuse to recognize … could it be those lost beloved voices, transparent as the air itself, are singing songs silent only to consciousness, to us, the living?” Indeed, nothing in Philadelphia disappears completely. The beloved voices of Robin’s, soon to be silent to the 13th Street sidewalk, will rise above.
“I call it death and resurrection,” says Robin. We’re standing in the light of the store’s iconic bay window, as workers transform his office into a stage. The downstairs retail space will become Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney’s latest, Verde, offering plants and accoutrements for the urban gardener. Upstairs will be Robin’s literary salon. Events are the part of the business that’s already working, and what Robin enjoys the most. His partner Paul Hogan will continue to sell used books and remainders, and days and evenings will fill with the sound of language, the profit of ideas. The irresolute city hangs on.