Lou, the Underground Bookseller, Resurfaces

Near where the bookstore was located

After Lou left Lorry’s Book Company, one of many times–this one sticking, he disappeared from the book world, and mine, for years. I’d no idea where he was, what he was up to, if he was surviving in a world he seemed to shun, or  hide from. Not that he was a total recluse, at least, I don’t think so. But he never discussed activities with friends outside of his work. And we barely knew anything about him. Vague things like his parents were both deceased, he lived in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium in a rapidly disintegrating neighborhood, this being the early 1980s, was about as much personal info we had. No relatives were mentioned, no siblings existed. But we knew Lou–the essence of Lou, if not facts. He was a bookman through and through. And, as mentioned before, he preferred working in the subterranean world beneath the store proper. He had interesting ideas about politics and he liked the fantasy realm of fiction. He could expound on some political point for quite some time during work, not stopping his actions, punctuating his points with the sound of a box cutter slicing, 0r the singular noise stacking books make as each one is added. He was what is generally known as a character. To me he was a sweet man who taught me everything he knew about working in an independent bookstore.

But work friends have a tendency to fade away. Work circumstances being changed, you haven’t as much in common any more. No longer  involved with books, I had a cottage industry making and selling hand sculpted jewelry to upscale boutiques and department stores. My reality of the moment wasn’t related in any way to the small bookstore downtown across from city hall.  If I thought of Lou, it was fleeting, wondering if he still shambled along when he walked, if he was still in the Bronx, if he was doing OK.

In the mid-80s I had a weekly appointment that required me to travel through Grand Central Station. Unlike the old phrase, ‘it was like Grand Central Station’ it wasn’t overwhelmed with traffic as in the past. Most trains went via Penn Station now, only the suburban upper NY lines ran here now. With time to kill, I’d wander through the immense place, checking out the upstairs magazine shops, restaurants, and independent bookstore. During one of my excursions, traveling down to the lower bowels, where the famous Oyster Bar resided, to my incredulous surprise I came across a teeny book nook strategically placed exactly where the commuter trains unloaded. Hoards of men and women rushed by trying to make their trains. Some lingered, looking through titles on a stand. I was perusing some mystery when a familiar voice boomed at my elbow. Lou, books in hand, sat behind an old register ringing up a sale. He looked as if he had just arrived for a day of work at Lorry’s a couple of years before. Same nondescript shirt, same dull pants, same rolled up sleeves, same glasses, same huge hands, same flat immense feet. And same humorous glint in his eye and sweetness towards me. He’d been working there for quite some time, unbeknownst to myself or my fellow past Lorry’s worker and currant roommate Bob. If we had known, we would have visited often, of that I’m sure. So now I’d stop by every time I had that appointment, and I’d chat in between sales and his various tasks, which weren’t many, considering how small the space. It was so fitting, though. Another lower level spot that Lou could rule, with unicorn stickers and political buttons marking his personal territory. The store was an offshoot of the larger one above, and he had complete autonomy over this tiny cave. His dream job, I’d no doubt. He had regulars he’d shoot the breeze with. They’d hang out for a good slice of time, discussing whatever, enjoying the lively political arguments or ruminations on life, that only Lou could supply. And books were sold. How many, enough to keep the store open, I’d no idea. But for the moment it was obvious that Lou had found his nirvana. The one place where he could feel at home. Below the usual public arena, but within the boundaries of social contact that were just enough to satisfy his needs. And he was surrounded by books. Glorious books.

My appointments ended, and again I lost touch with Lou. The next time I was in Grand Central, the store was gone. I asked above, but no one remembered when it closed or where Lou may have gone to work next. I never saw Lou again. After learning of his death, we visited his Bronx apartment for the first time, to find a memento. The police had seized his possessions due to lack of kin and was offering them for sale. The contents were jumbled, whether because of police rummaging, or because he lived as a hoarder, I don’t know. We left with sadness. The memento consisted of a tiny wooden frog–it somehow conveyed Lou to us.

I think of Lou a lot, especially since writing for the blog. I sometimes hear his voice and the way he would look at me–his eyes narrowing down his nose and glasses, in a mock glare, while he explained how I had just messed up an order, or whatever.  And I wish he were still with us. The stories he could tell about the book business!

4 thoughts on “Lou, the Underground Bookseller, Resurfaces”

  1. I’ve meet such great people in the book world. One bookstore owner I visit here regularly and have got to know rather well sounds very much like Lou. What a wonderful tribute to a true character.

    • J F, thank you so much! for your nice words. Lately, it seems as though the responses have been made by disgruntled poltergeists, lol. It’s refreshing for someone not only to enjoy the article, but to leave lovely comments. 

  2. The odyssey that is Lou is one of my favorite NYC bookman stories.  I still yearn for the book of t him as a crime solver similar to Nero Wolf except he never leaves the bookstore like wolf never (except once) leaves the brownstone.  Well told Diane.

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