QUINN ON THE BOOKS: “Pulp Fiction”
review of The Pocket Book Guy: Sidewalk Words by Kurt Brokaw
For more than thirty years of Sunday, Kurt Brokaw hauled a table on Broadway (somewhere between Lincoln Center and Zabar’s specialty food store) to take to the sidewalk. He’s there to sell his collection of pulp fiction magazines and vintage 40s and 50s paperbacks. From 8:00 am to 8:00 pm, in his trademark fedora, Brokaw sits on a stool, picks up a magazine and waits.
The Pocket Book Guy: Sidewalk Words (available from Small Press Distribution, spdbooks.org) is both a fascinating testament to Brokaw’s passion and a concise history of the genre. Brokaw begins by making some important distinctions. “Pulp fiction magazines and vintage paperbacks are not the same thing,” he explains.
“Pulps” predated glossy women’s magazines and was printed on cheap, ragged paper (hence the name). Sold for a penny in newsstands, these magazines donated a portion of the 20e Century’s best-known writers (including Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ray Bradbury) make their debut. Pasta evolved into novels for economic reasons. “Publishers felt there was a much larger market for quarter-length novels than for penny news magazines,” Brokaw writes.
What pulps and paperbacks have in common is their distinctive cover: paintings that are at the same time colorful, dramatic and suggestive. Brokaw notes that “glamorous girls of the time were often drawn to look like Lana Turner.” Color photos showcase a few of her favorites.
Today, Brokaw can sell a security between $ 15 and $ 1,000. With most of New York City’s specialty bookstores closed (long before the COVID-19 pandemic), there is no competition and the cost of the bus and a cup of coffee is exempt, with little overhead. Brokaw does not accept credit cards, does not own a mobile device, and does not distribute business cards.
As an outside salesman, Brokaw has to contend with the weather, an occasional dog lifting one leg against the edge of his table, a bird relieving itself above its head and trying to find a place to relieve itself.
Most disheartening of all? On any given day, he might sell nothing. “There’s nothing to live for in this,” Brokaw warns, estimating that he is ignored by about 95% of the people who pass his table.
While the income that accumulates allows Brokaw to “put some steaks in the freezer,” he’s not here for the money. Former advertising executive, professor at the New School for thirty-three years, and professor of cinema (especially dark movie) at 92Y (where I learned from him how “literature migrates to the screen”), Brokaw continues to work as a senior film critic for The independent. Part of a “small group of rabid collectors,” Brokaw’s Sunday concert is a passionate project. He finds that “the attraction of organizing a table for 8 million people is irresistible”.
Born in Iowa in 1938, Brokaw says he learned to read from pulp while his father shot pool, building his collection as a teenager from “spinning racks at Rexall drugstores and cigar stores” .
These stories of “tough guys and cowardly girls with too much past and too little future” seem to have left a deep mark on his sensitivity. He’s become his own kind of New York character, with a clear idea of who he is and what he values, as well as his rights.
“People think the sale of books is a First Amendment right. This is not the case, ”writes Brokaw. He points out that while anyone is free to post something, the method by which it can be sold is determined by the local government.
An obscure clause in an 1893 law “originally designed to protect Jewish immigrants who peddled chapbooks in handcarts through the hustle and bustle of Orchard Street for a penny a copy”
allows Brokaw to sell writings without a license (although it collects and pays New York sales tax). A surprising ally? The late Mayor Ed Koch (his grandfather had been a peddler), who assured Brokaw that “as long as I am in office, you will never have a problem selling your books.”
Surprisingly also, Brokaw writes that 95 percent of New York City’s sidewalks can still be used for this purpose to sell written material. Vendors can occupy a 4 ‘x 8’ space as long as it is ten feet from a residential door, twenty feet from a commercial entrance.
While Brokaw hawks “a bit of everything: classics, tough crime, sci-fi and fantasy, romances, westerns, sports, gay / lesbian, African-American literature, related movies, war-related fiction and non-fiction, titles for kids “- the main thing he seems interested in peddling are stories. “Sharing stories is a big part of an item’s value,” Brokaw writes. Meetings with famous clients include Phillip Roth, writer Beat Gregory Corso, Whoopi Goldberg, Madonna (“not once, but twice”), and a friend of Marin Scorcese who was shopping for a birthday present for director. Brokaw remembers little of his meeting with singer Rod Stewart, blinded as he was by the beautiful woman on his arm.
Over the years, Brokaw has witnessed changing tastes (less interest in science fiction, more in queer pulp), but he gives little thought to the larger changes in the city itself. Reading The Pocket Book Guy, you get the impression that Brokaw inhabits a self-created world, full of mystery and romance. Brokaw admits to imagining himself as a character from a story, no doubt populated by tough chicks, hard-nosed detectives, smoky rooms and Remington typewriters.
Brokaw, now in his eighties, came to think of selling his collection as a passage of “life”. He also seems resigned to reluctantly writing his story (calling it his “gas bag tale”). He only did so at the request of a dedicated client, now his publisher, David Applefield.
In writing the introduction to the book, Applefield praised the kind of kismet that comes with second-hand shopping. “With used books, you never know what you’re going to find. The joy is also deeper in the fact that you don’t even know what you are looking for.
It is Applefield who points out that while these stories may be new to Brokaw’s clients, they are “stories that have been told countless times and whose pages have been silently turned in the past by anonymous fingers. “. Maybe those fingers keep pointing and waving, leading someone to grab a story that has a special resonance.
Brokaw is the intermediary. But it doesn’t just connect authors and readers. It provides a unique experience of access to a unique past. This is a temporary offer. If the past few months have illustrated anything, it’s how quickly a way of life can disappear.
If you find yourself on the Upper West Side on a Sunday, look for the man in the hat sitting by his table of books. There might just be one title that speaks to you. For Applefield, “the mission of literature is accomplished thanks to the courage and patience of the bookseller.”
Michael Quinn live review