To attend even the tiniest of community colleges I had to move away from home at age seventeen and head to the relatively big city of Bakersfield, which was only half as populous then as it is now. In college one of the few ways a full-time student could support himself was by laboring in the food service industry. I bussed tables, worked as a line cook in hot and miserable kitchens, and waited on customers who sometimes tipped me in pocket lint and arcade tokens. I did not buy clothes or music. I did not trick out my brown 1983 Ford Escort. The only thing I ever spent any money on (aside from rent, gas, school, utilities, and the occasional meal) was books, and that is how I came to hold a second job alongside the restaurant jobs and full-time school, which is a job in itself.
Waldenbooks was the only bookstore in the area. It was tucked into the western edge of East Hills Mall, a spavined and emaciated shopping center specializing in off-brand department stores, an anemic food court (mildew, Sbarro), and assorted bric-a-brac sold on consignment. The bookstore has long since vanished; and the mall itself, now little more than a decaying husk of plaster and exposed ductwork, will probably disappear as soon as someone can pony up the money to tear it down once and for all. It is another sad relic of an era when it seemed that Bakersfield, like so many other Central Valley towns, seemed to be growing in the implacable way that a metropolis can seem to, progressively outward and upward in noble Whiggish fashion. The northeastern edges of the city, slowly elevating through flat foothills toward the Sierra Nevadas, seemed poised for suburban sprawl of a benign and even beautiful sort. New schools and housing communities, master-planned and manicured, were beginning to appear; and if anything the mall was set to expand and flourish. Instead, the mall withered and died, as did the Waldenbooks chain itself. It was swallowed up years later by Borders; and now Borders, one of the few flagship chain bookstores that dotted the urban and suburban landscapes of so many American towns, will soon be extinct too.
But while these retail bookstores survived in the soulless malls of America, they were a kind of refuge for me. I had grown up in a town without bookstores or malls of any kind, and so the feelings I experienced browsing through even the most anodyne chain-store varieties of bookstore in my college years, and then working there to feed my reading habit, were exhilarating, even if the selection was nearly as slim as my income. It was the only retail job I ever had, and I attacked it with missionary gusto, determined to save myself lots of money to fill my own budding library but also equally determined to get good books into the hands of customers who were otherwise drawn only to the latest mass-market drivel of the courtroom, military, or romantic type. It was the first job where I caught a glimpse of the notion that my thoughts and feelings and ideas and taste might matter, and not just the mindless, repetitive manual labor my tolerant young body could perform.
Periodically the corporate headquarters would provide us with a new itemized inventory, and we would spend several days scouring the shelves to cull the proper number of books from the stock. Inevitably we would be left with great mounds of mass-market paperbacks that some obscure set of calculations had determined were no longer profitable for us to keep in stock. These were often books that had arrived in great numbers, loaded down with promotional displays, back-to-school promotional inserts, and more. What was necessary to have on hand in great numbers one month was literally garbage the next. The procedure in this case would be to rip the covers from each of the books, scan and bundle the covers and mail them to headquarters, and toss the piles of naked books in the trash compactor out behind the mall. In addition to being prohibited from selling coverless books, we were also forbidden to give them away; just as, each night, after having spent hours baking our fresh bread at the Italian restaurant where I worked every night cooking pasta, we were told to scoop up the heaping trays full of uneaten bread and throw them in the trash. When you’re poor, the pain of participating in the discarding of perfectly good things is particularly acute; it eats at you, you take it personally, as if that part of the world that can spare these things (a part you are kept from) is going out of its way to rub your face in it.
So I started making off with the coverless books. I’d volunteer to haul the great carts laden with garbage-books out to the compactor, and as I tossed the overstocked romance novels and spy thrillers into the bin, I would set aside the abject copies of Virginia Woolf or Philip K. Dick and tuck them behind the wall, retrieving them at the end of the night, when I would take them home and add them to my humble shelves. Neatly stacked, you could hardly tell they lacked covers. And who needed a cover anyway: hadn’t the old adage taught us how meaningless a cover was? But the feelings I had in saving these books were not merely pragmatic. I planned to read them, and I did read them. Some of the most incredible books I’ve ever read in my life were coverless. But it also seemed as though I was trying to lodge some kind of private, if largely ineffectual, protest against what appeared to my young bookish mind to be a calamity. Being told to keep two copies of a book in stock and to throw away the third, knowing full well we’d be ordering third and fourth and fifth copies in just another month or two, seemed like some kind of cruel waste of so many people’s energies. That coverless book intended for the rubbish-heap suddenly seemed to be speaking about its own commodity history to me in a crude and largely incomprehensible fashion. In its pages, more so even than in the discarded TV sets or old mattresses tossed in apartment dumpsters, I suddenly began to see wasted labors, wasted lives. I knew even then that I was making far too much of a relatively meaningless everyday occurrence, but in retrospect I think it was just one of the many things that was beginning to indicate to me in the simplest terms possible the nature and functions of the marketplace.
Growing up poor, you need no abstract lessons in matters of capital, or labor, or wages, or ‘efficiency,’ or market-logics, because you live it every day; it informs everything about your daily existence. But I was seeing something familiar and beloved now from a slightly different angle. Books and reading, which had always been my first and best sources for enlightenment, enrichment, and escape, were not separate from the thousand demands made on those who wrote or bought or sold or discarded them. Before, books had been portals to other worlds. I hadn’t really understood that they were as worldly and mundane, as prone to dismemberment, as anything else. Like their writers and readers, publishers and mall handlers, they were mere material. I could see the actual book’s fate and believe that I was doing something by resisting it, but I could not yet see the fates of every other living and material thing that touched those books. If there was a life of adult experience that would educate me further about those material conditions, or if there were some critical as-yet-unread books that existed out there to teach me about what a book really was (or a bookstore, or the wage-laborers inside it), I had not yet reached either of them.