…when I spoke to Princess Zuppa, I told her “Princess Zuppa, you said that some people believe in God, but you believe in Decency,” and she said “Yes, Mrs Shepherd, what about it?”
and I said “But Decency didn’t create the world, did it?” and she said “No, but I’m not interested in that, it’s for the physicists to find out how those big balls of stone orbit around each other. Still, you can say that it was decency that created us, people. Without Decency, mothers and fathers would have eaten their children as soon as the children were born, and that would have been the end even before the beginning.”*

When I went for my interview to work at the Book Ex, I’d been doing an excruciating penance in the mail room of a certain product testing firm that employed any vertebrate with the faintest X-ray verifiable cortical enlargement NC State would throw at them. After a year of patient suffering, I felt I deserved a break from folks who genuinely believed the sexual harassment training videos were a primer on how to properly coax fellow employees into the stairwell for a quick stress assessment against the wall, and for whom the English language was never more than an avoidable elective, except for those occasions when it was an embarrassing halo of brain-devouring fire.

For the interview, I wore a new pair of linen trousers and a plain Gitman Brothers Oxford with a tie. It was summer, and a jacket of any kind was an impossibility. Even though I worked out regularly in those days, my body had already undertaken the bizarre reallocations of fat and muscle that make a man look like a jackass in any approximation of fitted clothes. I knew I was going to get the job, but I also had the curious apprehension I was walking to a sentencing hearing with a big FUCK IT tattoo on my forehead.

After my wife let me out of the car at the stoplight two blocks away from the bookstore, she doubled back around Five Points to give me a wolf whistle. This mercifully interrupted the interview, already in progress in my head.

Interviewer: You’re nearly forty, and this is an entry level position. How much do you drink? Are you drunk now?

Interviewee: Uhhh. I was raised among books. My father was a grad student once.

Interviewer: We’ve employed readers here before. Many of them were drunks.

Interviewee: I suppose I’ve drank my way through a book or two, but I’m not reading nearly as much these days since I got the liver panels back. Do you really expect me to work here sober? I noticed the upstairs windows are broken. I can glaze those.

Interviewer: You glaze windows?

Interviewee: Glaze windows, hang drywall, show up after two hour’s sleep, cut and install decorative molding, plasterwork, painting, paneling, frescoes, intarsia, tiling: you know, The jobs you always hire drunks to do. Plus, I can read and count. They made me read a bunch of books in college, and I went through a stretch where I read a lot of books independently because I couldn’t have gotten fucked if I’d been driving around in a gold-plated Bugatti, and you know what they say.

Interviewer: What do they say?

Interviewee: Something about books in a time of no sex. I forget.

Interviewer: Could you work that up into a window display?

The actual interview found me similarly trapped, and offering custodial services as a stand in for actual library experience. But what was clear, besides the fact that I’d stumbled into another job that the swollen army of un and underemployeds would ignore until the last can of Vienna sausages had vanished from the shelves at Shorty’s Quik Stop, and Shorty himself had dialed in an emergency order for Little Friskies, is that I’d been their choice once I submitted one of the three applications received.

As Wayne, the guy who lived in the innermost circle of the law section, put it later, “I worked to get them to hire you. I knew you could at least read. And of course you’d forgotten, but I was your grad student freshman comp instructor. I failed to use English instruction to intervene between so many of you and that Mexican ditch weed. The least I could do was help you get a job.”

Woodrow, the guy who got his bookstore chops running a pornographic video library out of a 7-11 in Tennessee, added “The other two applicants listed Ayn Rand as a big influence on their lives.

That’s an immediate disqualifier.

It’s about the same as saying you’re fascinated by Syvia Plath or Anne Sexton. If there’s one thing we don’t need here it’s a fucking cutter, or someone trying to put their tongue in a light socket.”

So many nervous young women and heavily lacquered frats came to the store looking for Ayn Rand that the left-leaning members of the staff started an unofficial program we referred to as “Let a Hundred Flowers Find That Shit Themselves”, and when the boss wasn’t paying attention we advised customers “The Fountainhead” might be upstairs near the abandoned freight elevator shaft. Or in it. “Atlas Shrugged”? – over by the microwave oven, with the Sylvia Plath.

The location and business plan of the Book Ex made it a favorite haunt of losers of every stripe, not just mine. And if people unaccustomed to the vastness of the place walked in expecting books alphabetized by author and arranged by subject, they were in for a painful surprise.

The store began amassing books in 1933, when Repeal shut down the illegal liquor house that formerly occupied the space. In its early years, publishers’ reps would arrive on a set schedule with their respective house’s offerings and restock or remove items from the shelves as necessary. The store stayed open till around ten in the evening, because more people read then. And it was before the racially motivated implosion of Durham nearly bled the downtown to death.
My theory is the Book Ex employed a small army of orphans who knew the locations of the books published by, among many others, Random House, Harper and Row, Gallimard, St. Martin’s, and the Loeb Classics (during my tenure, reduced to a small band of obscure Greeks, the most notable among them probably Diodorus Sicilus). The little green volumes, and one or two red Latin ones clung to a small shelf upstairs beneath a grimy wired glass window where a local professor tended his sorrowful mushroom garden of archaic porn.

On slow days, we’d dismantle the local prof’s Porn stash, and meticulously redistribute it throughout the stacks. Before long, it would reform itself under the same grimy window. Sometimes new erotic titles would make an appearance there.

No one knew how they got past management, which was Dobsonian fundamentalist in orientation. We assumed the professor was purchasing his books and setting up his “skin crib” away from the prying eyes of his wife, who admittedly, must have been a real hardass if she wouldn’t let him read Fanny Hill at home.

I can see why she might have been disturbed by some of the newer additions, especially if getting roughed up and peed on was not her thing.
Hell. It disturbed me.

A customer would have to approach the long front desk (more like a bar, and probably a relic of the drinking establishment), ask for a book and identify the publisher. If they couldn’t, there were large publisher’s indexes to consult. This was more than likely done by the original owner, a man with the appropriately Dickensian name Marley, who was reputed to be every bit the skinflint his name suggested. I never met him. His beneficiaries ruled from afar.

Marley would then summon one of his dusty, rattle-chested orphans forth into the endless dark stacks to hunt down a law textbook (in my day, that would be Wayne), or Karl Woermann’s “Geschicte der Kunst” which I thought I remembered seeing in the sad professor’s porn crypt, and I would run upstairs, because I was one of the few employees who still had knees.

I enjoyed working there for the most part, at least until the first year law students showed, already jacked up for the elaborate pissing contest they were doomed to lose.
It became unbearable for me to take a bunch of shit from a bunch of gel-scalped mokes lining up for a feeble shot at a fourth or fifth tiered school, in a discipline already overrun with people possessing actual talent and acumen; not to mention the scores of rich legacy shitheads being groomed to rule the country for the next ten years. Although I’m sure some of the latter group acquired their textbooks by theft, too.

I had other priorities, and quit. I had a barn to build anyway.

The Book Ex went out of business a few years back, selling books by the pound.

Now it appears the building is going to be rehabbed into a restaurant. I always thought it would be a much better spot to tie one on than it was to sweat one off, and a plate of fried eggs and a grilled cheese sandwich would have made it heaven. But no books?- screw it.

*Stefan Themerson, Hobson’s Island
One of many lovely books I purchased with my employee discount.