distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views

April 07, 2010

Beginnings of a Lifelong (Addiction) Love

When I became infected by literary influenza (a longterm, chronic condition treatable
by a steady diet of words) I had four sources of books.  The library, of course, both the one at school and the public one; the books my mother had bought through the Doubleday Book Club and had stored in boxes in the basement; the Scholastic Book Club at school; and Leukens’ Pharmacy around the corner from my house.

At first my reading tended to be omnivorous, with strong leanings toward books upon
which favorite films had been based.  But these weren’t that easily obtainable then.  Jules
Verne and H.G. Wells were the most prominent examples—they along with many other
writers whose works comprise the category Classics.  My mother’s collection contained
mostly contemporary mainstream—contemporary to her youth and late adolescence, writers we seldom hear of these days.  Sometimes I wonder if any of them will be read in centuries to come and which, if any, will become the basis of new canonical debates.  Some were prominent writers at one time: Paul Gallico, Frank Yerby, Kathleen Winsor, Mildred Savage, Paul Horgan, Edison Marshall, Norah Lofts.  I haven’t seen their names on anything, reprint or otherwise, for a long time.  I went to a parochial school, so the books in that library were limited by the strictures of religious sensibilities.  As to the Scholastic Book Club, it seems to me now that they consistently underestimated the sophistication of its customers.  Still, I made considerable use of it.  Flyers were passed around in class periodically with an order form attached.  After a couple years, it got so the orders came in two boxes.  One contained the books everyone else ordered, the other box was all mine.

There was very little science fiction available through these sources.  Even the public
library I went to had little at first.

But Mr. Leukens stocked the stuff.

Summer days soon entailed almost daily walks down the block, around the corner, up
to the next intersection, and across the street to the pharmacy.  This was the real thing.  He even had a soda jerk and you could buy honest-to-goodness Cherry Cokes and hand-dipped malts, served by a high school student in a paper apron and cap.  Along one wall—to the left as you entered—stood the magazine rack.  This one was made of wood, but the design hasn’t changed fundamentally since.  Leukens’ stocked a lot of science fiction magazines, which you could read there if you bought something at the fountain.  I pored over the pages of Worlds of IF, Galaxy, Venture, Analog, and  F&SF.  The word at the time was “keen”.

But to the right of the big glass door, just as you came in, was a circular rack filled
with paperbacks.  I have no idea how orders were handled then—I gather Mr. Leukens had very little say in what paperbacks he received and certainly there was no logic to what you found in wire slots—but he seemed to have a source for some of the neatest books.

The summer of ’67, when the country was beginning to be impacted by the emergent
Youth Culture and the Summer of Love was on-going, I bought my very first Isaac Asimov book, plucked from the circular rack in Leukens’ Pharmacy.  It was Foundation and Empire, the Avon edition with the Punchatz cover.  I didn’t know what a trilogy was, but the back cover copy alluded to two more books related to this one.

The book simply felt important to me.  There is an aesthetic to the physicality of
books rarely talked about, but everyone acknowledges, even publishers, else why so much money and effort taken on covers?  But there is a smell, a feel, things only incidentally related to the text, but details that can shape a book’s reception.  This book represented everything I wanted in those terms.  I didn’t realize this at the time, but it turned out that way.  This, I thought, was what a book—especially a science fiction book—was supposed to be.

Then I read it.

What is the process of imprinting that goes on between a reader and a text?  What is
it that creates a reader, transforms someone passive into someone active in the pursuit of reading?  I have no way to reconstruct the experience, only the memory that it was a
complete one.  I took that book home, having spent all of seventy-five cents on it, and read it over the next few days and became a science fiction fan.  The magazines hadn’t done it, much as I liked them.  I still read westerns and comic books and war stories and if you’d asked me then what my favorite television shows were I’d have given a list of ten or twelve, not even half of which were sf.  Certainly Star Trek was on at the time, but I’d missed the first season because of parental disapproval (my mother thought it would give me nightmares) so I can honestly say that, while my aesthetic had been prepared by a lot of science fiction, it wasn’t until this encounter that I became utterly enamored of the genre.

It took me nearly a year to track down the other two volumes.  I haunted Leukens’
Pharmacy waiting for them to arrive.  I had no idea how unlikely it was that he’d actually
get them in, only faith that if I waited long enough they’d turn up.  In the meantime, I rarely left the pharmacy emptyhanded.

Years later the incongruity of it all struck me with a large dose of melancholy.  The
pharmacy is gone now, of course, part of a vanishing feature of our culture.  Leukens’
Pharmacy was a hold over from a mythic American past.  Ironic that I had encountered the future within its fading reality.

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