From the cover of Robert Kyle’s The Crooked City, a pulp novel.
I love bookstores, but there’s something that needs to be said: they’re often filled with lurking creeps. True, creeps lurk everywhere, certainly in New York City, and true, bookstores are also filled with wonderful people who love to read and are interested in things other than making strangers uncomfortable. This should go without saying. But just as a book gives an aspiring interlocutor a better opening than an inscrutable mobile device—“Are you a student?” “What are you reading?” “Is that a novel of old Paris?” (granted this last was an isolated situation)—so, too, does the tangible presence of large numbers of books embolden a certain subset.
Perhaps it’s the fact that bookstores are, like museums and big-box hardware stores, said to be good pickup spots, places where you can meet like-minded people in a nonthreatening way—or so goes the perceived wisdom. In a bookstore, you can even narrow down your “audience” by interest, if you choose to lurk only in a certain section. I’ve seen creeps creep on women in the romance section—“I bet you only read those for the sex scenes”—the self-help section—“I’ll give you advice”—and, most horribly, the cookbook section.
Only last week, I found a spot on an unoccupied bench in a neighborhood bookstore and had just settled in with a pile of absorbing novels, planning to read the first few pages of each and select one or two. What bliss! It was raining outside, I was surrounded by readers, and I had a seat. I let out a contented sigh. There was another guy on the bench, quietly reading.
Then this other man marched up. He smelled strongly of stale cigarettes and maybe beer. As he threw his backpack down, the headphones fell out of his phone and thrash metal began to blast across the store.
“Sorry about that!” he said, turning it off. I gave him a tight smile of objective forgiveness and returned to my book. “This fucking thing!” he said loudly. “Guess this isn’t really the place to play Bloodspot, right?”
After a moment, his phone rang. “Oh, fuck this shit!” he said loudly. “These fucking guys think they can call me all the time.” I was starting to debate leaving—but it was a really good seat, right against a radiator. I stared fixedly at my page. He had a pile of comic books.
This happened a couple of times—spates of cursing and general announcements. He took two calls, from either a boss or his dad. He was very surly and swore a lot. I tried to ignore him. After a certain point, it felt like I’d gone this far, and I could handle whatever happened.
Until he said: “I just noticed where we’re sitting.”
I looked up. Oh no! The erotica section!
And then the other man, my bench-mate, got up and left. Traitor! Judas! Chivalry is dead.
“You like … erotica?” the cursing guy asked suggestively. “Maybe we could read some together.”
“Excuse me,” I said coldly, waiting for him to move so I could grab my coat.
“What’s wrong?” he said. “I just want to talk about books.”
I jerked my coat out from under him.
“Bitch,” he said loudly.
I found a teenager who looked anguished when I explained the situation; I didn’t stay to see whether they called security. Maybe one day this will be the sort of old-fashioned thing we’ll tell our grandchildren. Not his and mine, I mean—the collective “our.”
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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