I wonder sometimes whether people too young to remember life before the internet can ever fully understand the power of the bookstore, record store, or junk shop. When everything you want is just a click away, dusty things kind of lose their charm. I could live in the middle of Wyoming now, and provided I could get a Wi-Fi signal I could still satisfy my lust for books, records, and Nutty Mads.
But that’s not how it always was, and moving to Hollywood meant access to all kinds of cool places that I only dreamed of visiting. First stop: bookstores.
I couldn’t afford books on my Music Plus salary, but I could look. I walked up to Hollywood and stepped along the stars on the Walk of Fame. Hustlers offered me drugs, sex, radios, or they tried to bum change or pull me into their hustle. You new in town? Want to make some money? I passed some nice people giving away a book entitled Dianetics and asking tourists if they wanted free personality tests. A dude in an empty lot hissed at me and jerked his head in the universal “come over” motion.
“What?” I asked.
“I got cell phone numbers,” he said.
He reached into a cardboard box and pulled out a block of Styrofoam. “Activation codes,” he said, and he pointed to the bottom of the block.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“You don’t know what a cell phone is? You need to go back to Nebraska before you get hurt, Opie.”
I found a little shop named Baroque Books just off of the boulevard. The prices were high and the owner was an asshole. “This isn’t a library. If you aren’t buying, get out!” Later I learned that this was Bukowski’s friend Red, and I felt an odd pride that he kicked me out of his shop.
Back onto Hollywood Boulevard, where I found a store that sold movie scripts and posters. Flipping through the scripts was like seeing the man behind the curtain.
I walked home and grabbed my motorcycle, drove down Sunset to Samuel French and looked at the hundreds of plays, then over to the Boddhi Tree on Melrose. The place reeked of incense and shitty new age music. On down Santa Monica Boulevard, past clubs with names like Spike and Offshore Drilling, past the Pussycat Theater, I spotted a store named Circus of Books.
They had some okay stuff, but it was all new releases. I wanted old, dusty, rare, exotic; the signed editions, bound scripts, whatever. I parted the beaded curtain that led to the rare book room. Middle aged men looked up from their magazines. The man nearest the curtain had his open to a photo of a skinny dude sucking off a hairy older guy. I backed out of the cave slowly, careful not to disturb the bears.
When I got to work I shared my adventure with Dennis, the assistant manager who got me the job. “Well of course,” he said. “What did you expect?”
“Not that. You’d think a store with ‘circus’ in its name would be a safe bet.”
“You were in West Hollywood.”
“So it’s the first incorporated gay city in America,” Dennis said.
“Didn’t you wonder why the streets were paved with industrial carpeting and lit with track lights?”
“How do you know so much about it?” I asked.
“I live there.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“I’m gay, James.”
“You don’t act gay.”
“I’m going to assume you meant that as a compliment,” he said. “Now go straighten the videos.”
The store displayed its video rentals as aisles of empty boxes. Most sections stayed relatively organized with exception to kids’ movies and porn, and porn never got too bad because a former sitcom star used to camp out there for hours. Guys were still a bit shy about picking out The Sperminator or To Live and Shave in L.A. back then: Porn was still sort of a trench coat activity. But not for ex-sitcom star. Any poor bastard who tucked a copy of Black Lava or whatever discreetly under his arm earned an enthusiastic “That’s a good one right there. That one you got, that’s a good one.” The horny shopper always backed away slowly, afraid he’d disturb the bear.
I always wondered about that guy, how he went from ’70s sitcom stardom to hanging out in the porn aisle of Music Plus. He was one of many. The former lead singer of Quiet Riot used to come in, too, his wig a little crooked and his belly hanging over his spandex pants. Rumor was that the band ditched him in Japan—literally ditched him.
Faded glory was the nature of Hollywood, though. One morning I stopped at Winchell’s on Vine Street and bought donuts for the opening crew. When I walked in this clown—a literal clown—stared at me through bloodshot eyes. He sat in a booth, smoking a butt and drinking black coffee, half a bear claw disemboweled on a paper plate. Our eyes locked briefly, his look pleading, “Oh Christ, have I made a vocational error. Please kill me.”
And what the hell was I thinking buying donuts for near strangers? For days Jody and I hadn’t eaten anything but beans, ramen, and food she brought home from the restaurant—strange, exotic food with names like carpaccio, caprese, and tiramisu. Red Lobster still seemed classy to me.
I bought donuts because I liked those Music Plus guys. They were dreamers drawn to Hollywood by its overwhelming gravity. Almost all of them were enrolled in MI, or Musicians’ Institute. Most were guitarists, but Pete played bass. After closing he’d throw on a video of his band back in Philly rocking Thin Lizzy covers. Among the guitarists were Bob, who bragged that he could play 8 notes per second; Chris, who fancied himself a Rolling Stone but looked like The Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya; Scott, the bluesy veteran who had fifteen years on us. We even had a woman guitarist on the staff: Betty, who looked a bit like Joan Jett and could out shred Bob. The last of the MI crowd was Joe, a Midwestern guitarist who called anyone who spoke Spanish a Spaniard.
After work we’d walk up to Bob’s Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard, play Sabbath’s Never Say Die! on the jukebox, and drink as long as someone was buying. Around midnight the bartender would spray lighter fluid into the bar’s gutter and fire it up, and then we’d stumble out so Joe could buy a burrito from the Spaniard at the stand next to the Frolic.
“I’m going to buy that motherfucker a fucking conquistador helmet.”
“He’s Mexican, Joe.”
“Speaks Spanish, doesn’t he? He’s a motherfucking Spaniard.”
Sometimes we’d ride over to Penthouse Billiards, located conveniently above Playboy Liquor, and shoot pool until the staff decided they’d spoken enough English for the night. Then we’d stagger down to the parking lot, get on our bikes or behind the wheels of our beater cars and head back to our shitty apartments to sleep it off. Tomorrow we’d be back at Music Plus, selling records and renting porn to faded sitcom stars, each grateful that we’d gotten the fuck away from wherever we came from and blissfully unaware of our vocational error.
—modified photo Julie Jordan Scott /Flickr Creative Commons