A visit to one of the “must see” destinations in Quartzsite.
Years ago, when I first visited Quartzsite, I stopped at the local bookstore. That’s when I discovered that the owner was a nudist.
Or as much of a nudist as he could be in public without getting arrested.
The only item of clothing he wore back then was a sort of sack that covered his penis and balls. And maybe a hat, but I can’t say I remember that for sure. All I remember was that he was very thin, relatively old, and had a very even, very brown tan.
On that first visit, I was with my wasband and his cousin. We didn’t stay long. I love bookstores, but I was more accustomed to the kind with lots of new books. This bookstore was old and dusty and disorganized. And it was run by a nearly naked man old enough to be my father. Which was weird. I know it was seriously weirding out my future ex and/or his cousin, so we left after being there only a few minutes.
Fast forward 20 or so years. I’m back in Quartzsite again — heck, I’ve been coming here nearly annually for the past 20 years. I never got around to visiting the bookstore again. Frankly, I thought it had closed. It wasn’t where I remembered it being. And surely that guy had to be dead by now.
Here’s an ad for the bookstore in the local tourist information booklet. It’s definitely “must see.”
But I was getting some work done on my rig the other day at Solar Bill’s and got into a conversation with one of the women who work there. The bookstore came up in conversation. Did it still exist? I asked. Yes, I was told. But where? She told me it had moved to the east end of town. Then she told me that she’d recently sat next to the owner of the place at some sort of event in town and hadn’t recognized him because he was wearing clothes.
Oddly enough, the bookstore and its owner came up on Twitter yesterday. One of the folks who follows me (who I follow back) suggested I visit the bookstore. I don’t think he thought I knew about the owner’s eccentricities. We then tweeted back and forth about it; I’ll let you click the tweet to follow our conversation if you want to.
Later that afternoon, with nothing much else to do, I tucked Penny into my backpack, hopped on my bike, and rode over to Main Street. I turned right, heading east, and pedaled until I saw the bookstore on the north side of the road. I pulled in.
It was surprisingly busy for 4 PM on a Sunday afternoon. There was a bookmobile bus parked outside and a table covered with books by a local author who was sitting there for a signing — more about those in a minute. The owner of the bookstore was sitting on a chair on the porch. I was almost disappointed to see him wearing a colorful sweater, but then realized he wasn’t wearing brown leggings. Those were his legs. And when he got up to greet me, I could see he was wearing the same kind of penis bag — what the hell would you call that thing anyway? — I remembered. It was knitted or crocheted and as colorful as his sweater. I like to think it wasn’t the same one.
He had aged. Obviously. And although he was a lot thinner with a lot less muscle tone than I remember, he was still spry.
I let Penny out of the bag and put her on a leash since there was a loose cat around. Then I went inside to look at the books. He followed me in, pointing out that all used books, including audio books, were 50% off. Then some other folks came in and he went to greet them, leaving me to browse.
Although the bookstore was in a new (to me) location, it was a lot like I remembered it. There were a ton of used books — 200,000 of them, according to the advertisement in the local tourist info rag. They were mostly organized by topic in the various rooms of the small building and, within each topic, grouped by author. There were a lot of books and authors I’d never heard of, along with a lot of old paperback bestsellers. Most of the books were wrapped in plastic — I think that was an attempt to keep them clean in this very dusty environment.
I’ve been wanting to get into some fiction — mostly to keep me from fixating on the latest from the “very stable genius” who is being roasted daily on Twitter — so that’s what I was looking for. I stumbled into the spy thriller area and found the Robert Ludlum collection. Back in the 1980s, when I took a subway to work in New York every day, I used to read Ludlum’s books. I’m a very fast reader and went through two or three of them in a week. After reading about a half dozen, I realized he had a formula and that kind of spoiled it for me. Later, he didn’t even write his books. But the one I found was very old and there’s a pretty good chance I haven’t read it.
There were a few other shoppers around, including a woman a little older than me looking for books by a specific author and a young couple who seemed very interested in older non-fiction books. I was browsing in the same room they were in — looking at some first edition youth books from 1914 for a gift for a friend’s son — when I realized that the music I was hearing was live. I wandered out into the main room in time to see the owner sitting at a grand piano I hadn’t even noticed — it was covered with books and other items — playing a kind of ragtime song with wild hand flourishes over the keys as he sang. I had never heard the song before. There were three people there — all retirees — standing nearby, listening and laughing at the lyrics. The refrain:
If you want an icy cold beer
Set the can next to my ex-wife’s heart.
I wanted so badly to capture it on video and even had my phone out, but I thought it would be rude. I was going to ask if I could for the next song, but when he finished that and we all applauded, he closed up the piano. When asked, he told the folks around him that he was 75 and that he’d been playing for a long time. He wrote his own songs, so that was an original.
At that point, a bunch of us were ready to check out so we lined up in the only area that looked as if it were set up to take money. The young couple bought quite a few books. As he checked them out, he told them about the music that was playing — an old blues song with a female vocalist I’d never heard of — he’d apparently put the music on when he was done playing.
While I was waiting, I saw an old Nero Wolfe paperback from 1966 and grabbed that, too. I’ll definitely need my readers to see the tiny print on the yellowed pages.
Here’s the front and back of the bookmark I bought. Sadly, Paul doesn’t look nearly as hot as he does in this photo. But add a sweater and he was dressed the same.
He was selling bookmarks for 50¢ and everyone was buying them. When I saw the photo, I had to buy one, too. He autographed all of them, which was kind of cool.
As he checked out my two books — for a total of $3.00 with the bookmark — he told me about the song that came on, another blues number by another female vocalist. It was great music from the 1930s or 1940s.
When I was finished, Penny and I wandered over to the bookmobile. It had been a school bus and had been painted black with the words The Road Virus painted on it. The front half was lined with shelves full of books in a variety of topics and genres. The back half was blocked with a temporary partition; it was the living space for a life on the road.
The owner of the bookmobile sat in the driver’s seat, turned around to chat with that young couple and me. She looked to be in her 30s maybe — I’m terrible with ages — and had hair partly dyed blue. She said that she and her partner had been on the road with the bus selling books for exactly a year. They’d been all over the country. They usually partnered with local bookstores or wax museums or other attractions and stayed for a short time before moving on. It was all about local — not chain — establishments. She probably had about 1,000 books on board and I found one — a mystery by an author I’d never heard of — to buy. I really like to support small businesses, especially when they’re run by folks with an alternative lifestyle.
Here’s the book I bought for my friend’s son. You can find it on Amazon for less — but not autographed.
Penny and I walked back to the bike. I had to stop at the table where the older gentleman was sitting with his books spread out in front of them. His name was Stu Campbell, he wore a cowboy hat and vest, and he looked to be in his early 70s. He told me that most of the books had been written based on his own experiences. One of them caught my eye: A Young Cowboy’s Adventures. I asked him if it would be good for a boy about 12 years old and he said it would be perfect. So I bought a copy for a friend’s son who has been helping me with a few things at home. I even had it autographed.
With a bag half full of books, Penny had to jog most of the way back. But when I realized she was getting tired, I managed to stuff her into the backpack with the books for the remainder of the ride. I could see her over my shoulder when I turned my head; she was riding high in the bag with her head sticking out into the wind. I knew she was uncomfortable, but it was a short ride back to our home on the road.
If you’re ever in the Quartzsite area — especially in January when it’s so crazy busy with winter visitors — I highly recommend a visit to Reader’s Oasis Books. You won’t find anything like it anywhere else.