True Book Man

Jay Dantry 1928-2016

When I look back on the influences on my life, I think readers have been more important than writers, and bookstores more important than teachers.  That isn’t to diminish the influence of men like Reynolds Price and Wallace Fowlie at Duke, or my high school teacher David Britton, who was a huge help.  But I was an introvert when I was young, suffering from the pain of my father’s illness and death.  Also from being overweight and shy around girls.  Reading was a huge solace—it was my love of reading that made me want to be a writer, to share in that great conversation—and I was thrilled to find people who shared that love, and made me feel I wasn’t crazy.

My seventh grade math teacher, for instance, David Mancosh, once casually dropped the information that he read a book per night, which just about knocked me off my chair.  (Years later I spoke to his son, who told me that his father would go to bed at 2:00 and get up at 6:00, reading far into the night.)  Our public speaking teacher, Charles Fleming, a man who wore pastel colored shirts and matching socks, sat in class smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee that he brewed in a percolator, once began class with the astonishing statement, “I read five books this weekend.”  He often spoke of his reading, as if we were his peers and might go read those books ourselves (a couple of times I did).  He would give any student a Library Pass, because he wanted students to go where the books were.

But the greatest reader of my youth was also the man who owned the most influential bookstore in my life, Jay Dantry, the owner of Jay’s Bookstall on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh.  That was a place where I spent hours, looking at books, dreaming about reading them, dreaming about writing.  At a certain time in my life it was probably my favorite place in the city.

My brother Bill let me know that Jay died this week at the age of 87.

A couple of blocks up the street was the Pitt Bookstore, a huge academic store that had a larger stock than Jay’s, but that was completely impersonal.  Jay’s store was small—the original, before he moved down the street, was a hole in the wall—but the shelves were high and jammed with books, and they were chosen by the one person who, Bill and I believed, had read them all.  We never mentioned a book he hadn’t read.  It was uncanny.  Bill worked there on various occasions, and thought Jay read through the whole stock.  One day Jay came in and put William Gass’ In the Heart of the Heart of the Country back on the shelf after taking it away the day before.  He apparently did that every day.

Jay’s life partner, Harry Schwalb, states in the obituary that Jay had read seven books per week, while Harry, in the same apartment, spent the day drawing and painting.

An English professor can tell you what the official canon is.  You could probably piece it together from a good college catalogue.  But a bookstore like Jay’s told you what people were really reading, and browsing in that place was an education.  That was where I learned the titles of many authors, picked up books and read a page or two.  The public library was helpful in that regard, but it was also rather indiscriminate; utter trash might sit beside a masterpiece.  Jay stocked things he thought were good.  If he had a book, it was worth reading.

I especially appreciated in those days that he had a section of quality erotica.  The court cases that allowed books like Ulysses and Lady Chatterley to be published in this country had only recently happened, and they opened the floodgates; Henry Miller’s Tropics were both published, followed by Sexus; such classics as My Life and Loves and Fanny Hill came out in handsome editions.  Jay knew where the section was; he know what young man was standing there paging through the books by the hour.  Strictly speaking, it was probably illegal.  He never said anything.

I’ve often thought that, as a gay man who had lived through the forties and fifties, he knew what it was like to want to read the books that people were keeping from you.  My memory is that he sold me some of the books I perused, though I’m not certain.  I bought them one way or another.  Years later, when I published The Autobiography of My Body and he held a big book party, with a major display in the front window, he may have remembered the boy who stood at those shelves.

I worked for Jay for a short period, one summer when I got laid off from a factory job.  I actually didn’t like it.  It turned my favorite place to relax into a workplace.  A lot of the work was deadly dull; for a while we did inventory, and it was torture to just read off a book’s title and the price without looking into it.  Jay was also a diva about bookstore displays; we would spend hours putting one together, trying to get it just right, and he’d take a final look and say, “No, take it down, that doesn’t work.”  We’d have to take all the books we’d carried up from the basement and put them back.

I like everyone else lament the loss of the great bookstores.  We still have a good one in my city, The Regulator (where I’ve also worked) does a solid job of getting in new titles, but its backlist is tiny, probably because of problems with space and the cash flow.  Malaprop’s in Asheville has a larger backlist.  The best I’ve seen recently in my area was Quail Ridge in Raleigh, which has recently moved.  But I have to say that a lot of the bookstore clerks I run into don’t seem too knowledgeable.  You ask them if they have The Sound and the Fury and they ask for the author (?), look it up on the computer.  In my youth the bookstore clerks were readers, but even at the best stores, there was never anyone else like Jay.  Yes he had read it and yes he would tell you about it.  He wasn’t trying to sell you.  He wanted you to know.