Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Used Books in St. Pete

I have two favorite bookstores that sell used books here in St. Pete: one is located on Vasilyevsky Ostrov, the other is just off Nevskiy Prospekt. Vasilyevsky Ostrov has a strange air of loneliness about it, and when I interrupt a walk there by going down into the bookstore basement, I continue feeling as spellbound as I did back on the surface. Nevskiy Prospekt, however, is a total mess, jammed and polluted, and when, in early August, I escaped first to Liteyny Prospekt and then into a backyard with a bookstore sign, I felt blessed.

Both the backyard and the bookstore are quite famous, and I've no idea why it took me well over a year to end up there. The backyard, actually, is one of the most incredible things I've ever seen in my life: it's The Graffiti Backyard!

Most of the used books here are Soviet editions, and the selection is quite comprehensive: volumes like the translated world classics series that every Soviet family seemed to own (many still do today); the Soviet propaganda trash that you wouldn't want anyone to see on your shelves; superb arts albums and ethnographic editions (Mishah, for example, keeps buying everything he can find on Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East); specialized works in linguistics, musicology and other disciplines; prose and poetry by authors who, prior to perestroika, had been either misrepresented to various extents or banned altogether.

Used books in English, on the other hand, are very few, and most are maddeningly drab: either some expat's former toilet reading or the ubiquitous Penguin Classics. But every once in while I do run into something worthy, and the surprise factor is what keeps me looking.

Back in August, already blessed with the discovery of the Graffiti Backyard and a bookstore in it, I was further blessed with finding these three items there:

- The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses (the FIRST edition! published in 1976! when I was 2 years old!);
- The Pushcart Prize, II (the SECOND edition, published in 1977!);
- and The Agni Review #8 (published in 1978!)...

I paid 150+80+15=245 rubles for it all (something like $8.50) - and felt too ecstatic to stop leafing through the volumes and actually start reading from them. Like anyone who writes in English, I've heard too much about the Pushcart and the Agni. And everything felt just too overwhelming about this rare purchase for the first week or so: to hold these early editions in my hands and realize that both the Agni and the Pushcart Prize have survived and flourished throughout nearly three decades; to know that in the States you could go to almost any library and check these volumes out, while running into them just like that here is a pure miracle; to try to imagine how they ended up here, who owned them before me - some old Soviet dissident with friends abroad? or some young American writer wanna-be who came to the city of Dostoyevsky in search of inspiration? - could be anyone; to notice passages underlined with a pencil; to catch two old, really old, St. Pete trolley tickets that fell out of one of the books...

But then two planes fell from the sky, and more horrible shit followed, and Mishah's wonderful, dear grandmother passed away five days ago, and there's been little but pain in this month and a half - and no time or desire whatsoever to think about my literary treasures. I've turned into what I call "a closeted American" - I rarely sleep during the Russian night (which is daytime in the States) and take naps during the Russian day (the U.S. night): I'd be considered the normallest person if only I lived on the other side of the the Atlantic. Mishah says maybe I should start reading something offline again to get my sleep back - so this is how I've finally decided to look at the two Pushcart Prize volumes and the Agni more carefully.

(I hope to have an update on my reading and sleeping later this week.)

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