Mastodon Beer Mystic Burp16: Books – Increasingly Illegal Intoxicants

Beer Mystic Burp #16: Books – Increasingly Illegal Intoxicants?

An interview with Karen Lillis

When I was just beginning high school I was one scared, miffed, gawky, pimply kid, unlike the rest of the kids somehow. But what kid of 13 didn’t feel that way? (photo: Karen in the Minneapolis Public Library)

The older, wannabe bullies who needed to prove their cruelty credentials had a 6th sense for any style deviation, tic, or idiosyncrasy [my fake leather, grey penny loafers] and would home in on home in on that and tease, spit, punch, trip, roughhouse, taunt, muss-up my homemade haircut, or  play keep-away with your eyeglasses. I did not fully comprehend the ecstatic necessity of cruelty and did not know how to deal with it other than be confused and withdraw even further. And, man, you start balling, sniffling, runny nose, red eyes, the works, as a result of their well-honed efforts and you were like naked, bloody carrion to a pack of hyenas. 

That the school bus was also hell was only mitigated by one cool chick – a “slinky bird” one would have called her in 60s Swingin’ London – who looked unlike anyone else in our school, with her op-patterned Yves St. Laurent knock-offs, and mod blond bob. Later, after seeing Blow-Up for the first time, I thought I understood her. She stood up to these guys, having nothing to lose because they’d already pegged her for a whore, and in a convincing way stared them down and with a series of intimidating and somehow convincing arguments managed to get these guys to leave me alone.

Of course, once off the school bus I, a pathetic dreaming bookworm, had to fend for myself. This went on for an eternity or, at least, until I proved myself to be a new long-distance running talent. [But that chapter will be filed away somewhere else under growing pains and glories or loneliness of this long-distance runner or something like that].

During free periods I was escorted to the school library by one nice teacher-bodyguard who told me I’d be safe here. I mean, thinking back, it was like my sensitivity was seen in the same light as statutory rape or something. It was like, given the chance, these guys would have lynched me in the boysroom. Or thrown one of my fake penny loafers up on the school roof…

But indeed, the teacher was right, I was safe here; books were like garlic to a vampire and the lady guardians of all knowledge and mystery saw to it that I was welcomed into their midst. They showed me the mysteries of the Dewey Decimal System, the secret garden of the stacks, the area where I could sit in a cubicle and read poetry, dream on maps, reinvent history. These librarians were cast as old-fashioned, bad-hair, teetotaling biddies, out of touch with what was happening – typical image of the high school librarian, really. But nothing could have been further from the truth. They would instruct some angelic young coed to guard the entrance – did she get extra credit? – just in case any of the many who would never have stepped foot in a library under normal circumstances, tried to breach security to drag me off to the boysroom. The library was like a dream in a bed, a genius, heavenly, no-go zone, a diplomatic immunity consulate-type of place. And signing out books was a bit like, like … flirting, like foreplay, like … So, my life, aged 13-14, was – eventually – saved by my ability to run a decent mile, but more significantly, by women, by librarians, by extra-credit angels … It’s not like I’ve known Karen all my life. In fact, I only recently met her via mutual book fiend, Ron Kolm [book seller, Unbearable author & generous drinker]. Karen is a novelist who worked at St Mark’s Bookshop at the turn of the Millennium, and is currently writing a memoir about her bookstore years, Bagging the Beats at MidnightShe’s as generous as someone I’ve known my whole life, offering advice, strategy and hosting an excerpt of BEER MYSTIC in Pittsburgh as it circumnavigated the globe on the longest pub crawl. Lillis and her blog Karen The Small Press Librarian and her other internet presences are indeed essential online, on-pavement, in-bar links between writing and doing, an emissary between books [as object, consumer good and intellectual property] and the inebriating/illuminating/agitating promise of words themselves. She combines erudition with agitation, politics and aesthetics, a less common synthesis than one might think. I asked her some questions recently about books and upcoming battles. She has certainly made me even more aware aware of the Temporary Autonomous Zone  nature of libraries and bookstores. 

bp: What came first: reading, bookselling or writing?

KL: Writing is always first. I’ve been a compulsive creator since I was very young. First drawing, then photography, and then writing became primary. Reading was also an early passion, I remember fighting with my dad when I was 10 or 11 because I wanted to read my book through the basketball game I was being taken to as a spectator. Now reading and writing are totally intertwined for me. When the writing is hitting a good momentum it’s often because I’m feeding off books and authors I love. Being a bookseller didn’t feel like a job, it felt like an extension of reading. Which is partly to say, I wasn’t really conscious of what it was to be a bookseller until I wasn’t one anymore. And of course, spending 30-40 hours a week in a bookstore was a welcome surrounding for a budding writer. St. Mark’s Bookshop kept me in the company of (inspired by) excellent and engaged authors, whether it was the books or the customers.

bp: One of my best jobs ever was working for the University of Michigan library in Flint under a benevolent maternal boss who, as long as I did some work, would let me drift through the stacks to read books at random. What a dream that was.

KL: We were not allowed to read on the job, and mostly it was too busy anyway. But even selling the books was always a kind of conversation, either literally or metaphorically, with the New York reading public.

bp: What led to your activism, concern for the decline of small bookstores, or the attack on intelligence/books in general? I remember in the 1980s when book-burning fever was high, books were once again being burned by idiots. Teachers and librarians were – and remain – on the front lines of freedom of expression. They were a lot hipper than they get credit for.

KL: The struggle of indie bookstores … is certainly a concern that motivates me to write about bookstores. Independent bookstores are one of the places in American culture that serve as a public forum, at least on a small scale – a place where the curious and the engaged exchange information, where humane individuals feel free to say what they think and feel. People go off and have intense private relationships with books, and then they return to the bookstore and, among other book people, manage to share some of that interior life with strangers who can speak easily from a similar place. It’s not something we can take for granted in this society. It struck me recently – when I was distributing fliers for the October 15th Occupy Pittsburgh march, bookstores (and some cafés) were the only storefronts who gave an enthusiastic YES when I asked if I could hang a protest flier. The other store managers all hesitated or said no – they all seemed to worry first about what their customers would think, rather than what they themselves thought. … It reminded me that the air is more free in independent bookstores than in other places in America. “Bookstore America” is like a whole different country.

bp: They’re outposts, which doesn’t say much for what’s out there since those who NEVER go to a bookstore and always opt for paintball or 6 Flags or casinos outnumbers “us” 100 to 1. Not that readers/writers don’t do “normal” things. I sympathize somewhat with smallstore owners altho they can be pretty conservative chamber of Commerce types. If I hear a store owner mistreating a customer for no reason or I hear a racist comment I DO think twice about going back. I stopped going to one NY bar after the bartender was a dickhead to customers…”

KL: Maybe it’s less useful to think of it as “us vs them” than to think of it as “asleep vs awake.” A condition rather than a solidified type of person. Anyone can wake up at any time and join the ranks of the indie bookstore seekers.  Small businesses are just individuals, with all the varieties under the sun. When I was on book tour, I remember being really surprised by these California post-hippie store owners in Santa Cruz. They were now the bourgeoisie and stuck on defending their corner of “alternative” California to the death. A few of the middle-aged store owners selling alternative lifestyles were really nasty to me. I was asking them incredibly politely if it was ok to hang a flier for my reading in their window, and they treated me with a surprising level of disdain and condescension.

Back to your earlier question, I hadn’t thought about my interest in standing up for bookstores as colored by the American antagonism towards intellectuals, but maybe I should. I grew up in a pro-sports, anti-intellectual suburb. I was pretty viciously bullied for being conspicuously tall and smart, and my instincts to advocate against injustice surely came out of that period – several years of enduring this aggression from my peers on a daily basis. Lucky for me I lived in a well-read household that explicitly encouraged education. We frequented the library and the bookstore. I was never tempted to stop appearing smart or to stop reading. Reading engaged me in interests that the opinions of others couldn’t take away. My bullied years were a period of my life that passed. If I hadn’t lived in such a household, that peer pressure might have shaped me into the person the others wanted me to be. Long live small bookstores and public libraries and the readers they encourage to become themselves when no one else wants to permit it.

bp: I read your “The Revolution Will Be Catalogued” and agree almost totally; although the solidarity is there in flesh and blood I do see that many from all classes and backgrounds have been blindly supporting the very people who robbed them blind. Reagan is the second most popular president of ALL time and won landslide election victories with his policies to strip the very people who voted for him of their rights and their livelihoods. Blair and Clinton learned their lessons from Thatcher and Reagan… Back to the future, forward into the past…

KL: This sort of misguided populism is something that motivates me to write fiction. I think of Reagan as a gentle-voiced manipulator who offered the people what they thought they wanted. Most things in American pop culture are things people are told to want. But the challenge of writing fiction is to write to the level of unmistakable human need that still exists underneath the false level that will accept consolation prizes. Some needs exist BECAUSE we keep accepting the consolation prizes. I believe, for example, that people are hungry for real stories that help us make sense of our lives, but if Hollywood hokum advertises itself 25 times a day, the people will settle for Hollywood. When I write fiction, I always hope to hit a nerve that the reader can’t deny. …

bp: A prime example is – you can even watch it on Dutch TV – is Extreme Home Makeover, which is all about sentiment and compassion for a model needy family. The media dilemma in a nutshell: Makeover distracts us from many essential American [although it happens almost everywhere] truths: the substandard housing that so many people live in; the poverty so many people are experiencing; and the lack of community / local / federal support UNTIL these people are SO desperate they have to beg a major TV network [owned by the very perps who caused the crisis] to bail them out and save them from destitution.

KL: I always think of television as this invention that was dumbed down enough to create one huge country (America) out of many disparate regions. If I think of America as a nation of television viewers, I think of it as a pathetic excuse for a culture. But I also believe that you can unite people by different aspects of themselves and have them appear as a whole different group of people.

bp: True!

KL: The rabid right-wingers can unite people in their fear of immigrants, or Walmart can unite them in their desire for deep discounts, or reality TV can unite people in their most knee-jerk emotions, or a humane leader (or writer) can unite people in their hope or tenderness. Here in Western Pennsylvania, we watched a really interesting turn-around in the 2008 election. A number of working class whites, many of them union members, went from eyeing Obama cautiously or suspiciously as a black “Muslim,” to volunteering for his campaign, calling registered voters to talk him up.

bp: But Obama is a strawman who allowed people to feel good about their profiles as non-racists. And now he’s holding up a lit match to his/our own future… But I see your point. He offered hope and so they desperately leaped into a void to clutch it. But if they’d read the fine print they’d have come to the conclusions that are now only [too late?] emerging about his complicity in all this. He is the proverbial wolf dressed in sheep’s [or hero’s?] clothing.

KL: I don’t know a progressive person who isn’t disappointed with many of Obama’s moves. But I’m also frustrated for him that the Republicans in Congress seem to have made it their main agenda to thwart and obstruct him. This is an unprecedented situation, even in our dysfunctional government.

bp: This entire crisis phenomenon did not happen without the complicit aid of the victims themselves. Bush 2 enjoyed an approval rating of 90+ after 9/11 and any of the grumpy/cynical leftist seers who saw the writing on the wall were considered traitors – or worse! I remember my disillusionment when unions [not so much the leadership as membership!] went wholeheartedly for Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 1&2. This is somehow related to bully’s never going to libraries to learn history. People began blaming unions, totally buying the Republican argument, for what ails the US and sat on their hands as the rich dismantled and demonized unions. Many normal people continue to blame unions, watching their own social safety net disappear. Many of them [like my father who was a very ethical and non-investing man] invested royally in the booming junk stocks that eventually bottomed out and with each successive year, stockholders demanded ever more insane profit margins – this collective greed was rewarded with so many election victories that many Democrats, in reaction, are now positioned to the right of Rockefeller and Nixon.

KL: I remember in 2004, eating lunch at Veselka and overhearing the cook talk about his SYSCO stock to another cook. And I despaired for the election because I thought, “Everyone owns stock now. People are going to disappear into the booth and vote their wallet, vote their stock portfolio.” Up until then I was holding high hopes for the fight against Bush, but at that moment I knew that too many people were seriously short-sighted. Large numbers seemed to have moved to the right on a very selfish level.

bp: I think that is important! People were no longer just duped consumers; they were investors in the duping company. So the shift has been significant toward the perceived owners/stockholders and away from consumers/voters. 

KL: Lately I’ve been listening to speeches and interviews with the journalist Chris Hedges, who is offering some very intelligent commentary and insight on the Occupy movement and its precedents.

bp: I repost his Truthdig articles. He speaks clearly, rationally and engagingly. it’s what I used to like about Alexander Cockburn in the Voice in the 1980s. 

KL: Hedges points out in the Charlie Rose interview that American workers are being asked to compete with workers across the global marketplace, but today that means competing with Chinese workers who work in conditions so punitive that they are committing suicide. It means competing with Chinese prison labor. It’s one thing to point out that unions have been subject to corruption, it’s another to abandon all the promises of improved conditions unions once stood for, or to scorn the concept of unions as something that makes American labor “uncompetitive.” What Hedges is talking about is less an open competition and more of a threat (”you will accept these minimum wage jobs because you’re lucky we haven’t off-shored them yet”) or just a done deal.

bp: The Clean Clothes Campaign addresses issues concerning working conditions for garment workers worldwide. Yes, the Right declares that we must destroy the unions to punish corruption. If corruption is the barometer, then we may as well dissolve state, local, fed, international governments and law firms, insurance companies, munitions contractors, prison contractors, media… 

KL: …university football programs, the Catholic Church, municipal public transit authorities – state governments for sure. Lately I feel like I’m living in the 19th century in Pennsylvania with the “natural gas rush” going on here and the Republican governor willing to sell off land to the highest bidder. He allowed state parks to be used for drilling, and wants to keep the gas companies’ profits tax-free for the first several years – he’s willing to give away our clean environment to gas corporations for ZERO state tax revenue in return. Meanwhile, the paper just reported that the drilling companies in Southwest Pennsylvania are using psy-ops to deal with anti-fracking protesters…

bp: Maybe it ultimately went too bold and blatant and the message could no longer be avoided because it was now creeping into everyone’s homes.

KL: The US is considered a moral nation, a nation of law, and yet we haven’t tried George W. Bush or Cheney for war crimes. This is unbelievable to me. Nixon can get caught out, but not Dick Cheney. I recently read more about Halliburton’s shockingly substandard care of our troops in Iraq, while they overcharged taxpayers for these services. Every time I think I understand HOW immoral or amoral these creeps are, they raise that bar even higher.

bp: The problem is that this US as moral nation perception has been invalid since who knows… The hypocrisies have caught up with it and that is why the US is surprised when many people no longer readily accept the Hollywood/MTV/Disney indoctrination. There are so many great Americans who are not adequately represented by government, but also not by hollywood, glossy mags, television, contemporary music or talk shows …

KL: One of the most urgent things that the left must do is reclaim the rhetoric, the ability to call a spade a spade. The right wing has been so savvy in taking command of the rhetoric. They manage to take ideas that will benefit the people and paint them as something the people should hate instead. “Death panels” and “socialism” as the reasons you shouldn’t want universal healthcare, “big government” as the reason you shouldn’t want regulations or social services. Progressives have got to turn this around at all levels, and the Occupy movement is right now starting to change the terms of the national discourse. The brief but intelligent slogans on the Occupy protest signs are creating a powerful shorthand of the important progressive issues, the neglected issues, the people-centered issues. Maybe the left spent too much time on editorials and not enough time coming up with short, to-the-point phrases that will stick in people’s minds.

bp: Despite the attempts of straight media to manipulate OWS it is the strength of social media, internet, blogs and street signage to reveal what is actually happening that has made it easier to disprove the straight media’s wanton ignoring of this movement and its blatant distortions.

KL: If I want to know what’s going on with Occupy Portland, Occupy Cleveland, Occupy Oakland, or Occupy Erie, I go straight to Twitter. If I want to see what the latest misconception of the Occupy movement has morphed into, I check the New York Times headlines.

bp: I hope that the upside of this will mean a serious attempt to unleash a truly progressive party or a party of conscientious absentia, that the Fugs’ Tuli Kupferberg advocated. Consumers would riot if their only choice in cereals was Cheerios and Wheaties, but when it comes to candidates for higher office they don’t seem to mind.

KL: You make a good point about consumers and their all-important choices. Options, even self-destructive (or other-destructive) ones, are considered the hallmark of American freedom (the flung-around retort “Nanny State” comes to mind), yet the idea of having a viable third party consistently strikes out.

bp: It’s disturbing to see so many people accuse Obama of being a socialist. This shows a great misunderstanding of the term and certainly of his pro-business policies. It means there is very little common understanding to base a conversation on with those on the rabid right.

KL: People who call Obama a socialist are so out of their minds; I don’t think a conversation with them is possible. The Dems have moved so far right in my lifetime – it’s maddening when they still get tarred with out-of-date leftist slurs they’re not even living up to. And yet I haven’t gone as far as imagining a party restructuring yet – I’m still hoping for many more of the 99% to step out into the streets and make a show of standing up against the corporate oligarchy. I’m hearing people talk about Occupy in terms of Hakim Bey and Immediatism – we’ve got to get together as warm bodies face to face, breath to breath, before the next level of action can be decided.

bp: I just got a letter from Hakim. He received a letter saying that the first book in the OWS library was T.A.Z. 

KL: We’ve been divided by our cubicles, isolated on our laptops for too long…. I am really focusing on what citizens are doing – are they recognizing and reclaiming their power? There’s a power structure that has been making decisions that affect our lives for the worse, for a long time. That includes politicians, lobbyists, too-large corporations, huge financial institutions. We have to figure out how to dismantle the societal structures that uphold … their power. Right now that’s happening in terms of exposing the naked force of the police state, which is no longer protecting democracy but carrying out [the] regressive and paranoid orders of mayors and university chancellors.

bp: Let’s not forget they probably cracked down upon the advice received from some of Obama’s closest advisors at Homeland Security. The UN is ready to denounce the repressive measures involving free speech. The encroaching surveillance state in the name of anti-terror is a real danger.  

KL: Is Homeland Security the new COINTELPRO? … The people must keep gathering in numbers and consciously reclaiming our power. Eventually we could run a people’s candidate or influence some of the last uncorrupt politicians (and hopefully that’s happening as we speak), but I think the most important thing is to get to the tipping point of numbers and support in the Occupy movement. The 99% needs to become a force too united and committed to ignore. I think there’s a lot of people watching from the sidelines, wondering which way things will go. But there’s also a lot of people who are less-visible supporters of the Occupy movement. They’re donating money, food, sleeping bags, but they’re not always able to be out in the streets or camping. We’re just seeing the beginning of this movement, not the end.

bp: What is the role of the writer in the US? I notice that here in the Netherlands and in France [and elsewhere] writers/novelists are often as much a part of ‘serious’ discussions on talk shows as the official wonks or standard talking heads… Do social media offer Chomsky, grumpy old men like Vonnegut, acerbic critics like Hedges or Amy Goodman, more ops?

KL: Good question. I think that there is an audience for thoughtful writers in the US, but writers are still in a mostly separate ghetto from “the general public.” America is divided into those who seek intellectual food and those who don’t. Being inside the writer’s ghetto, I am certainly influenced by writers, poets, and novelists on social media (I first heard about Occupy Wall Street from poet Amy King’s posts on Facebook), but I’m not sure how far and wide these writers’ words are distributed. I think that social media still creates a habitrail – customizable networks rather than one wide public forum. When literary types write about OWS, it seems to be digested largely by other literary types, whether it’s someone’s post on social media or an essay in an online lit journal. I don’t see a lot of novelists writing editorials for broader news sources, or poets being asked for their opinion in the mainstream media. In America, there’s a long tradition of the arts being relegated to “harmless” realms like academia or entertainment.

I may have a skewed perspective: I worked in an intellectual bookstore in an intellectual neighborhood at a time when physical books were still king (1997-2005). NO LOGO by Naomi Klein and anything by Noam Chomsky flew off the shelves. I had the feeling that many people were passing these books around to their friends. By contrast I’m not seeing many articles by either of them passed around on Facebook. Who knows why, maybe I’m not in the right network or habitrail, or maybe their peak has passed, or maybe their peak has passed among my particular colleagues who discovered them years ago. I’m certainly seeing Chris Hedges’ essays and speeches all the time on the internet; he’s in a unique position to speak well about/for the Occupy movement because he has witnessed and written about so many of the world’s revolutions in the past few decades. He can speak about the conditions that come before the tipping point of a society about to revolt, and he’s superb at articulating and almost translating what’s happening for Americans, who have no clue what a revolution would actually look like….

With Pittsburgh's Jay Dantry of Jay’s Bookstall that lasted 55 years until it closed in 2008

bp: Do you think DIY/indie efforts at publishing/proliferation circumvent a publishing world compromised by the fact that they are all owned by major conglomerates, many of which have huge business investments in armaments?

KL: The great thing about the small press is that an editor might take a look at your manuscript even if you are not the ghost writer of a celebrity bio, a sitcom star, or an expert on sudoku. Not being associated with armaments is just an added bonus. The small press is one of the great bastions of free expression due to its lack of concern with mass market preferences. Editors publish what they like, to a large extent. Readers benefit from a flourishing small press, driven by the sheer grit and passion of dedicated editors and publishers who exist on modest (or meager) budgets. … Because of the market-driven publishing houses (remember “AOL Time Warner Book Group”?), many writers of literary fiction who used to publish with larger presses (aka “midlist fiction”) are being driven out by those celebrity bios. So those authors [are] looking to the small presses for publication when they never thought they’d have to go there. Downsizing and layoffs are not just for office workers.

bp: In a strangely related way, the problem with real estate in NY is that capital is seen as the natural state of homo economis and that demands or desires to engage in barter or social constraints put on the free exchange of capital is seen as an infringement upon the natural order of things. This is a very entrenched American/Western value. Maybe this is why in a supposedly liberal city like NYC, Giuliani was popular and, NY has NEVER had a progressive mayor. The idea that capital should behave in a sociable way went out with FDR and was strangled by Reagan and Clinton et al.

KL: Yes, I’m trying to remember how Jim Jarmusch put it in the recent documentary, Blank City. He said something to the effect that “New York’s always been a port city full of merchants and hustlers. Now the merchandise is real estate.” Cooper Union has a long history in real estate, starting with Peter Cooper himself. But to have power in real estate means, to Cooper Union, to choose to maximize the profits from those land holdings. They’re turning the East Village into another Midtown, taking advantage of sky-high real estate prices AND helping drive those real estate prices up so that the rich can play there, but the poor and middle class won’t be able to live there.

Imagine what real estate holdings means to a bookstore. Book Court (in Brooklyn) and The Strand are lucky enough to own their buildings, but they’re not rushing to exploit their own land and screw their neighbors. They just want to stay in business and remain an active part of their respective neighborhoods. They want to keep serving their customers who consider them an asset of their area. These bookstores, then, raise the actual quality of life for their neighborhoods, not just the rent prices. Can Cooper Union say the same?

bp: the flagship Barn & Ignoble Disney type stores not only use it for hi-profile branding but also to divide and conquer, drive indie stores out of business… I remember hipsters consistently saying ‘let’s meet in the B&N cafe’ when meeting people after work. So I blame hipster book-loving patrons, the chains but some blame should also go to indie booksellers who refused to change. When my yodel book out Itried to engineer a tour of alternative bookstores. Very few reacted despite follow-ups and appeals to the potential ‘hipness’ of my book, many others rejected my offer to do a reading. Meanwhile B&N was all too happy to accommodate. Sometimes these indie bookstores lose vision, flexibility – they certainly deserve to exist but they do bear some of the blame…

KL: There are less obvious stories about what’s been going on for bookstores, such as the rise in new-book prices as driven by Barnes & Noble [see REBEL BOOKSELLER by Andrew Laties]. The cover price for new books went higher and higher because B&N coerced publishers into deep and exclusive discounts. So, the profit margins and the sales opportunities got slimmer and slimmer for retail indie bookstores in particular. I think it threw many indie bookstores into realms of competition that they didn’t necessarily expect to be in. I don’t think, for example, that hosting readings is the strong point for every mom and pop bookstore – the thing about small businesses is that they are each their own quirky fiefdoms, for better and for worse. Perhaps there’s a good side to the homogeny of a Barnes & Noble if they establish some industry standards that are beneficial – lately I’ve been noticing more small bookstores establishing an “events coordinator” position. That’s not necessarily a direct effect of Barnes & Noble, but perhaps it is a sign of the times, a sign of the creativity and outreach that is necessary to survive in today’s bookstore/publishing climate.

bp: Where for you is the edge of conscience/activism and aesthetic pleasure in your writing?

KL: I’ve gone back and forth between activism and aesthetics for a long time. (From street protests to guerilla postering to underground newspapers to advocacy to the experimental prose ghetto, etc.) Many times I’ve combined the two, which early on did not always have the desired effect. Other times I have gone off to focus on one or the other: art or activism. I think finding the edge between the two is an ongoing experiment that gets better results over time, as I get more adept at the craft of writing, and as I respond to the world with more experience and insight. I think one thing I’m getting better at is deciding what is the correct response for the situation. Is it time to march in the streets, write an editorial, write a blog post, hone my poetics, or speak through a character in fiction? Recently, I was sure I was supposed to be writing an article about smaller-city American Occupy camps, but what I had to say ended up working much better as poems. Ten years ago, I might have set out to write such a poem precisely to write a hard-hitting political poem, but this time it was because the point I was trying to make came out more clearly in that form. On the other hand, I’d still like to write an article to reach a different audience.

bp: How is the bookstore memoir going?

KL: I really like how the chapters are coming out, but writing memoir is a new kind of challenge for me. I’ve spent a lot of my writing years cultivating a deeply subjective point of view – using poetics, marginalized characters, and stylized voice to reach a prose that describes realities under the surface. But with this memoir, I’m going for describing a place that other people will recognize – I’m allowing a collective reality or collective point of view to come into the making of the book. I consider St. Mark’s Bookshop, the entity, to be made up of owners, employees, authors, and customers – I’m willing to imagine beyond just my own experience there. So, while readers might find a “standard” narrative non-fiction when they read the memoir, for me it’s a crazy, difficult (but worthwhile) experiment to achieve this sort of naturalistic nonfiction. I’m also learning that there’s more definitions of memoir than I realized.  I really like what New York Times editor Neil Genzlinger wrote, “ If you … must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it.” In my bookstore memoir, I make myself an organizing principle or jumping-off point, more than a developing character.

bp: What do you think got revealed in the St Mark’s Bookshop rent crisis?

KL: One thing that got revealed is the way “non-profits” like Cooper Union are really acting more like corporations, and “small businesses” like indie bookstores are just really a few human beings trying to keep putting food on the table. Meanwhile, the language and structure in our current culture suggests the opposite – the non-profits still get tax breaks even as they usher in new hotels and condos for the 1%, and the small businesses keep getting the squeeze from every angle, AND get all the flak of the old “free market” mantra. “If they can’t sell enough books to pay the rent, then they shouldn’t be in business,” etc.  When really this is just another instance of who gets subsidized (the more powerful entity, Cooper Union) and who is actually thrown to the sharks of the market (the small business, which may as well be a family farm). St. Mark’s provided full-time employees with health insurance, and were surely punished for it by the rise of insurance premiums.

bp: Exactly – and it’s the most vehement opponents of subsidies / tax breaks who often receive the biggest bundles of money.

KL: I’ve loved seeing the enormous amount of support that customers have shown the during St Mark’s Bookshop during the rent controversy. I was so happy to see how quickly the petition grew, and how many people articulated why they were signing.

bp: Personally, I was pretty amazed at how low the total was for an urban area covering some 15-20 million people and it’s hi traffic location and its longevity…

KL: Artists and intellectuals from all across the country and overseas spared no superlative in praising this bookstore where they shop whenever they come to New York, or have shopped continuously, or shopped when they lived in New York 15 years ago.

bp: I think it deserves MORE support – the $2500 rent reduction seems more like a pubic relations victory for CU than a fiscal victory for SM. The fundamental issue of institutional greed, avarice, speculation, slumlords etc. seems to barely come up.

KL: I wondered recently if we’re in the mess we’re in because The Businessman (I mean the Wall Street version, not the small biz/mercantile version) has become an untouchable figure in our culture. There is nothing we won’t do to pave the path to new heights of capitalist ambition and success. The Businessman is above the law (bends or creates laws); anyone who gets in his way is a “dirty hippie” or a “socialist.” The concept of an academic institution imitating the corporate structure or raking in money from un-real real estate prices (or an overhyped athletics program) is hardly questioned in our capitalist country. It’s merely considered smart, savvy, necessary. Why is it necessary? Why can’t colleges survive in a way that doesn’t seem to undermine what most of the professors teach? The good news for St. Mark’s is an East Village of the mind still exists, even as the actual neighborhood gets overrun with frat bars and glass-and-steel skyscraper condos. And for many people, St. Mark’s Bookshop is still the ground zero of that East Village. It still aggregates and disseminates so much art, culture, and thought – the store’s book buyers are not only top notch but are highly attuned to a particular progressive view on politics, culture, and aesthetics.

bp: I like “East Village of the mind”! Like a take on the old Ferlinghetti title… St. Mark’s was the only NYC bookstore to ask me to come in and autograph copies of my books YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO and WIGGLING WISHBONE and were positive about any developments in the publication of Beer Mystic. [photo: Books & beer in NYC’s Mars Bar with Danny Shot]


Cooper Union development articles

Karen Lillis’ Eyescorpion blog

I Picked Pittsburgh: Karen Lillis’ Escape from New York

Beer Mystic excerpt hosted by Karen The Small Press Librarian 

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