Funeral for a Friend: The Last Days of Books, Inc.
Books, Inc. 505 NW13th Street, Gainesville, FL. Note the ominous green realtor's sign on the left, which everyone has been pretending not to notice.
There’s a comfortable uniformity to college towns. Visit enough of them and you’ll notice certain distinctive traits: First, each thinks it’s utterly unique. Second, each will invariably boast an aesthetic sensibility dominated by the school’s colors and the near-obligatory presence of tchotchkes bearing the school’s mascot in every store display. Finally, each is likely to have at least one funky used bookstore featuring (a) the owner’s cat, (b) beat-up second-hand furniture of suspect provenance, and/or (c) organic coffee and really thick vegetarian soups.
Until moving to Gainesville (home of the University of Florida – if you’re not a Gator, you’re Gator bait!), I’d never lived in a college town. But I knew what to expect, and I found it. I soon grew thoroughly sick of orange-and-blue–themed everything. Every possible physical object around here, from the city’s recycling bins to Christmas ornaments to corporate logos to baby booties, comes in the University of Florida’s aesthetically vexing color combo. And whenever I travel to other towns, the absence of Gator-shaped key chains, bread rolls, pillows, cookies, and lawn ornaments now strikes me as conspicuous.
But just as I had hoped, there was a funky independent used bookstore to compensate for all of this. Books, Inc. fills a sprawling old house near the university, is furnished with the obligatory frayed armchairs and beat-up side tables from who-knows-where, and boasts a tiny vegetarian eatery (The Book Lover’s Café) that serves sturdy earthenware mugs of soup and organic coffee to a loyal population of students, aging hippies, writing groups, and Dungeons and Dragons players. No cat, though – the place has enough interesting characters on hand that it doesn’t need one.
I’m not a hippie type. Nor am I a vegetarian. But the first time I stepped into Books, Inc., something about the scruffy, casual vibe of the place just felt good and right. And over the past few years, it has come to epitomize the best of Gainesville for me.
Its cashier’s desk – a retail establishment’s place of honor – features not bestsellers and bookmarks, but an ever-changing jumble of works by local and regional writers – everything from paperbacks by nationally known locals to collections by critically acclaimed poets to self-published zines and charity cookbooks, along with books about local flora, fauna, and history. (This brings up another thing I love about this place: While a lot of big-box outlets around here try to cop a “local” vibe by painting “GO GATORS!” in the front window and hanging a few posters of Tim Tebow, the commitment to local culture at Books, Inc. is deep and genuine – and miraculously, expressed without a single shred of orange-and-blue crepe paper). Local writers who manage to get published also know that Books, Inc. is the place to host book-signing parties.
The store’s most loyal and colorful clientele, however, are would-be creative luminaries, who are also nurtured and fed, intellectually and literally, at the dozen or so mismatched tables scattered throughout the store. One of my two writing groups – the one whose members compensate for their chronic flakiness with peerless conversational skills and brilliantly incisive critiques (on the rare occasions they actually get around to reading each other’s submissions) has held its weekly meetings there for the past two years, and is only one of several writing groups that regularly jockey for table space in the busy store.
My husband had his first-ever photography exhibition in its tiny art gallery – and every time I came in during the time the exhibit was up, Anne, the owner, made a point of coming up to me and telling me excitedly about how some customer or another had loved his photos. When we hosted an opening night reception in the little gallery, she mixed up a huge bowl of punch, put out hummus and chips and cookies to supplement our supply of wine and cheese, helped us set everything up, and waited along with us, as eager for Glenn’s success as we were.
At the end of the month-long exhibition, Anne told us that Glenn’s exhibition had been their most profitable in years. He eagerly agreed to do another show in the following year. Now we were both established members of Books, Inc.’s creative community, and I envisioned Books, Inc. becoming for us what Shakespeare and Company was to Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.
Then last month, Glenn got a call from Anne. His next show was cancelled: She and her husband were retiring and closing the store in early 2012.
There had been a big “For Sale” sign outside Books, Inc. since forever, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But business inside the store seemed to go on as usual, so it was easy to not to think the unthinkable. On a couple of occasions, members of my writing group speculated about it, but we did our best to stay in a state of denial. Surely, they couldn’t be serious about selling the place. Maybe just the property was being sold, and the store was only renting it. Books, Inc. is so well established in the community, someone would come forward to buy it – wouldn’t they?
My writing group, to my annoyance, has recently moved our meetings to a thoroughly mediocre restaurant down the street at the request of a member who declared he didn’t like eating “rabbit food.” (This member quit soon after for unrelated reasons.) But I’m going to petition to move our next few meetings back to Books, Inc., for old times’ sake.
Some of my fondest memories of life in Gainesville will always be those writing-group meetings there – evenings of wandering conversations that typically veer from vampires to Watergate to space travel to food, Florida history, and gun control, and then back again, all fueled by tempeh Reuben sandwiches, creamy-but-cream-free soups, and a mysterious house-made fresh ginger brew that none of us have been able to replicate. On a typical evening, Lina would struggle to get her laptop connected to the store’s touch-and-go wireless network, Wes would meander about during breaks, looking for books on European history, and I would drink in the place’s signature scent of coffee, cumin, and old paper while eavesdropping on other groups of readers, writers, and diners, all having conversations just as pointless and random as ours.
One item on the Book Lover’s Café menu that I haven’t yet gotten around to ordering is called “Our Plumber’s Pasta.” It seems to be a typical college-town hippy-ish mixture of pasta, vegetables, and almonds in a sort-of-Asian-style sauce. But only after buying the Book Lovers’ Café cookbook as a souvenir recently (it was, of course, right on the cashier’s table, along with all the other local works) did I realize how true my characterization was: the base of the dish, and the source of flavoring in the original formulation of the recipe, was a notorious student standby -- instant ramen noodles and flavoring packets! But the truly novel and creative part of the recipe is that it requires no cooking whatsoever – instead, the “instant” noodles soak overnight in a soy-and-vinegar-based marinade until tender. (And according to the cookbook, the popular dish was indeed the invention of the original chef’s plumber.) Of course, I had to try my own version of it.
The book didn’t say who this plumber was. But I picture him as a bright, independent-minded UF dropout who decided he wanted to do real work with his hands rather than spend his life pushing paper around. More than any of the other, more conventionally wholesome dishes on the café’s menu, with their locally sourced organic ingredients, this plumber’s creation speaks loudly and clearly to a distinct sense of place: Where else could such a dish have evolved and flourished except in a community dominated by starving students and aspiring artists with dreams of far-away places and bigger things?
OUR PLUMBER’S PASTA
(Adapted from The Book Lover’s Café Cookbook, by Ian Schliefer)
Note: The original recipe called for balsamic vinegar, but I substituted Chinese sweetened black vinegar, which has similar tangy, caramel notes and is a LOT cheaper.
For the pasta and vegetables:
3 (3.5 ounce) packages instant ramen (according to the original recipe, all the ingredients in “Oriental”- flavored ramen are vegetarian, but check the ingredient list if this is a concern. If not, any basic flavor will work.)
1 large green bell pepper, diced
½ medium red onion, diced
½ cup red cabbage, diced
1/3 cup sliced or slivered almonds
For the marinade:
¼ cup canola oil
¾ sweetened black vinegar
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 seasoning packet from an instant ramen package
I teaspoon finely grated garlic (about 1 medium clove)
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
1 cup water
1. Combine the marinade ingredients in a medium bowl; set aside.
2. Break up the cakes of ramen noodles into small pieces (about ½ inch across), and put them in a large bowl. Toss thoroughly with vegetables and marinade. (Discard remaining two flavoring packets or reserve for another use.)
3. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow to rest, overnight, in the refrigerator. (Instant ramen noodles are already cooked; soaking them in the marinade will rehydrate them into their more familiar “cooked” form.) Serve cold or at room temperature.