There is a bookstore on 16th Street in the Mission, just a couple of blocks up from the BART station, and within sight of the Roxie Theater, called Adobe Books. Maybe last summer I followed my friend Chris there to see an art show in Adobe’s Backroom Gallery. I remember the place was full of people drinking red wine and beer, in the middle of the store, an open, carpeted space was lined by people sitting cross legged, watching two young men steam dreamy ambient music from synthesizer and saxophone. The artwork in the back was simply postmodern. The artist remade baseball and basketball cards from the 1980’s and 1990’s with pen and paint. In the backroom gallery, there is also the bathroom for the bookstore. I scoffed at the art work, I remember, then turned to Chris and said it would be really funny if somebody took a smelly dump in the toilet while the show was going on.
Since then I’ve spent countless hours at Adobe, sitting on the dusty old furniture, scanning the shelves. At times the place can seem magical with the way books appear in front of you, as if they were summoned there by your thoughts alone. I’ll ask the owner, Andrew McKinley, do you have anything by Delmore Schwartz or where did that Kenneth Patchen novel I saw the other day end up, and he will rarely know the answer. The books aren’t catalogued and though the store’s unofficial manager Anande works hard to keep things organized, the books are many, so they are likely to get jumbled. But almost by magic, after asking about a book it seems to show itself. And it is always the exact book I was looking for.
A week or two ago, I rode the 22 Fillmore a little longer than usual, past the stop for my apartment, down Church Street, onto to 16th, and got off by the Shell station near Adobe.
When I walked into the place, Anande was behind the desk writing down the titles and prices of a stack of books he was about to sell to a costumer. My friend Chris, who works there once a week, was sitting on the couch in the front of the store with heavy eyes, his legs spread straight out in front of him. He was holding a red solo cup on his belly; his other hand was cocked behind his head.
Sitting next to Chris was another friend of ours named Alex. Alex lifted an emerald color bottle of Jameson from his lap and took a nip. His face was all scraped up and red. I sat down in a wooden chair across from the two of them, listening to Alex repeat the story about the Safeway security guards who caught him stealing, slapped him around and shoved his face in a grate of pumpkins.
While Alex spoke, a thick man wearing a pork pie hat and a Giants shirt that hugged the rolls around his gut walked into the store. He was looking for buyers for the two bottles of tequila he carried at his sides like a milk maid carrying pales home from barn to house. In the front of Adobe is a rotating shelf in the shape of a column where Andrew puts photographs he’s taken of the “friends of the store.”
The man stopped in front of it and looked at a few pictures before sitting in the wood chair next to mine. He put the bottles down on the floor near his feet then scratched his peppery mustache.
He quickly picked up on the conversation and asked Alex, “Did you have a partner with you?”
“No I didn’t. No,” Alex said, “I mean, if it was just like they busted me and maybe they kicked my ass a little bit, you know, whatever.”
“Alex, you’ve robbed that store blind though, in the past two months, you know what I mean. Let’s be real here”, I said.
“Let’s be honest. Dude, karma was catching up to you,” Chris added, laughing.
I reached my hand out for the bottle of whiskey and Alex handed it to me. I mixed it with some Mexican Coca Cola, the kind that comes in the glass bottle, in a red solo cup of my own. It was becoming clear as we continued to talk that it was going to be a liquid night. I promised myself, though, that I wouldn’t touch anything in those tequila bottles.
The man in the pork pie hat called to Anande who was busy gathering up some change that had fallen under the desk and putting it back in the tackle box used as a cash register. “Anande’s caught hella people stealing from here,” he said.
“Oh dude I would never steal from here,” Alex assured everyone.
“No listen to this. People who come here and read, people who come here every day, and steal,” Pork pie said
“That’s awful,” Alex said. His face was glowing as he looked at the floor, shaking his head.
Anande came out from the behind the desk and hitched up his pants saying, “Hey no, let me tell you. You’d think that it’s all the street people that are coming in.”
“Oh no, but it’s not,” Alex interrupted.
“There was a guy that came in one day, he had suite and he was on like some big fancy cell phone, walking around. Some guy in the back came up and said, hey, there’s some guy in suit shuffing books down his pants. Then, they go back there, and the guy pretends like he’s talking on the phone and his phone starts ringing. While he pretends that he’s talking,” Anande said.
We all laughed. Anande went on to say that the heroin addicts and the junkies, they steal poetry and philosophy. But, girls, it’s the pretty girls who steal the fiction.
“Anais Nin,” Chris said, then mockingly, in a screech, “I want that Anais Nin book really bad!”
I looked at him.
“She was Henry Miller’s squeeze,” he explained.
“There was this one girl I caught one time, I was about to say, you know I may take you in the back room and pull your pants down and spank you,” Anande said.
“Maybe she’d start stealing books more often?” the man in the pork pie said.
Anande took a swig from the Anchor Steam he was holding in his gloved hand. I noticed the only woman in the store squeezing past him as she walked out. As Chris handed me the whiskey bottle he motioned towards the leaving woman. I took the bottle from his hand and he leaned towards me and whispered, “She probably stole a book.”
“I mean at least I have some kind of Morality. I’m not somebody who tries to steal from a real person, from I place I
actually know is struggling,” Alex said.
The man in the pork pie picked up his tequila bottles and rested them, one on each thigh. He asked Alex how old he was.
“Twenty three,” Alex said.
“I mean, you look like your smart. You read. You don’t have to steal,” the man in the pork pie said.
“I know. But I’m poor too,” Alex told him.
The man in the pork pie said, Poor is a frame of mind. You’re not poor. I mean are you poor in heart, poor in spirit?”
“Then you don’t have to rip off, get beat down,” the man in the pork pie continued.
“I only do that whenever I really need food. I don’t go in there otherwise,” Alex said, the light from overheard reflecting faintly off his nose ring.
“Yeah right,” Chris mumbled to himself as he stood up to go outside, a Fortuna sticking to his lips.
“I hear you,” the man in the pork pie said as he put the bottles back on the floor, “I don’t want to give you a Baptist sermon. I mean fuck it. I’ve run my course, in my lifetime, of doing dishonest things. So I’m not no angel, you know what I mean. I’m just saying, one day you wake up-what they say?-the light bulb goes on. Fuck that,” he said, and chopped sideways at the air in front of him like he was breaking a spider web in two, “I’m not getting beat down no more, I’m not. But twenty three years old. I mean, that’s fucked. I wish I was twenty three again. No,” he paused, “I don’t know if I do or not.”
“No, no, you don’t,” Alex told him, “You don’t want to be twenty three because it’s good as you grow up. You gain some wisdom.”
“I don’t got no wisdom,” the man in the pork pie said.
“You got no wisdom,” Alex said, and clapped his hands, “Well!” he stood up and jokingly made like he was walking out. We all laughed again.
Eventually Alex bought one of those bottles of tequila off the man in the pork pie for $30, well below the price it would cost him at Safeway. I kept my word and didn’t touch it, though Chris and I eventually dipped across the street to the K & D Market for more whiskey and cigarettes. When we got back into Adobe, Chris started up a conversation with Paul, an ex-merchant marine from North Carolina. Paul has traveled through the Panama Canal and once spent a week floating on the Mediterranean Sea. He told me that at night on the Mediterranean, lights from the fishing boats are like stars that have dropped to earth. He is also a serious lover of Jazz music and I heard Chris and him talking about the Pharaoh Sanders album “Black Unity.”
I was scanning a fiction shelve, at the top of which was a copy of the E.E. Cummings novel “The Enormous Room.” The dust jacket was the same color green as the empty Jameson bottle we left nestled on a couch pillow in the front of the store. The letters on the cover were bold and white, beneath them the insignia for The Modern Library, a publisher in New York City, leapt.
I pulled the book down and showed it to Chris. He nodded, without interest. Alex walked down the aisle towards me and asked what I had. I showed it to him too and he immediately decided to buy it.
When I went outside for a smoke I passed Alex who was bartering the price of the book with Anande. They had it marked at $10, but with Adobe preparing to close the store after the landlord raised their rent to $6,000 a month, all prices are negotiable. They just need to clear things out really.
The air outside was chilly. I tightened my scarf around my neck and flipped the collar of my jacket upwards, blowing smoke up to the phone lines. “Yo,” I heard Alex shout from the door way. He came at me with a self-satisfied grin, the book held up by his ear like he was preaching the bible.
“Anande let me have it for free. He told me to just pay him the next time,” he said and asked me for a cigarette.
I held out my pack for him to peel one off and said, “Make sure you pay them.”