All Booked Up

Itzhak Volansky insists he isn't much interested in books, or the bookstore he owns. That disinterest is one reason McDonald's Books has become an enormous, wonderful, disordered phantasmagoria that attracts a wonderfully eccentric clientele. And who real

Upstairs, you spy the 10 or more stacks of New Yorkers and remember how you promised yourself you'd look for some John McPhee stories.

You pull out as many issues from between 1970 and 1985 as possible; you have no luck finding McPhee pieces but, suddenly, there is a short piece by John Cheever called "The Night Momma Picked Up the Wrong Fur Coat." One page long, the narrative is simple. On this bare rack, though, Cheever hangs a wardrobe of mannerisms that tell you all you need to know about aging New York society.

Still no McPhee, but you pass a humor piece by Woody Allen, titled "Fabrizio's: Criticism and Response," a satire of an overly intellectualized restaurant review by one Fabian Plotnick.

For example:
Who can forget his scampi: four garlic-drenched shrimp arranged in a way that says more about our involvement in Vietnam than countless books on the subject?

Back to looking for McPhee -- and you find Part 4 of his tome on the Swiss army, but you're distracted by what is surely the aha! moment of the day. In a 1977 issue, in the Goings On About Town section, the New Yorker makes a virgin attempt to describe what at that time had no name, but would later become punk rock. The flailing for words is adorable:

C.B.G.B. & O.M.F.U.G., 315 Bowery, at Bleeker St. (982-4052) -- This mid-sixties neo-Bowery bar presents mostly local, primitive rock bands. On Wednesday, April 20, the Ramones run through their loud, simple, and short-beyond-belief oeuvres. On Thursday, April 28, Television, one of the more music-oriented, as opposed to image-oriented, bands that play here, will come in. The quartet's leader, Tom Verlaine, says his main influences are Ravel, Albert Ayler, and the Rolling Stones tune, "19th Nervous Breakdown."

Still trying to get back to McPhee, you take yet another sidestep and run head on into this guy named Roger Angell who writes about baseball in the most curious way.

Intrigued, you take an Angelled turn and begin to pick away until Sporting Scene articles start breaking loose from the heap. You've completely forgotten about McPhee and Allen and then, realizing that you have spent far too much time in the New Yorker piles, you turn to go downstairs because you want to get to the Transactions of the America Institute of Mining Engineers, Vol. XIV from 1885 and find out what that is all about -- and just then, Volansky approaches and asks if it's OK if he closes the shop, so he and his girlfriend, Carol, can get home to dinner before dark.

You've yet to find that one singular item that you can proudly purchase and feel triumphant about. (Nothing like the six-page newsletter of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals [SINA], a short-lived prankster society led by a then-unknown Buck Henry that convinced S.F. media it seriously advocated the clothing of zoo animals. This, the truly perfect McDonald's discovery, was unearthed a few years ago.)

Then you remind yourself it doesn't matter. At McDonald's, the detours are what's important, and you leave the store with your head buzzing with phrases and ideas and images: St. Perpetua's goat curds from God. Woody Allen's Vietnam shrimp. Jeffrey Miller's sad, crumpled body.

On the sidewalk, on either side of the entrance to his bookstore, Volansky has placed two wooden bins where he displays -- discards is more like it -- his 25-cent material, mostly magazines of seriously questionable value. Car manuals and fashion mags are regularly dumped here.

The other day he ejected a ratty 1960s East Coast College Guide from the interior stacks to the 25-cent bin.

"Where else can you find a 1960s college guide, hmm?" Volansky asked in his still remnant Polish Yiddish accent. "For the procrastinators, eh."

Volansky, a thin, diminutive man with small feet and hands, could have easily thrown the college guide away. He knows full well he will never see a quarter for it. One day it will simply disappear, pilfered by someone who will ascribe value to it.

Still, he took a Magic Marker, wrote 25 cents on it, walked outside, and plopped it in his bin.

Volansky displays his most commercial inventory, the books that keep the store afloat, just inside the entrance; they are paperbacks mostly, mysteries, popular fiction with authors whose names you know -- Grisham, Koontz, and Steel -- and science fiction and fantasy.

Up against the window display case, to the left of the entrance as you walk in, a rack offers equally popular publications: old Playboys, Hustlers, Swanks, Mayfairs, and other pornographic magazines. Next to this rack is a bin where Volansky keeps the more graphic and the homoerotic books. Bondage and discipline and other fetish materials are stored behind the counter.

Beside the graphic porn, Volansky displays his collection of trashy pulp novels from the '50s and '60s, which bear titles such as Commie Sex Trap, the work of one Roger Blake, a Boudoir Original published in 1963. The cover explains the plot: "A Berlin GI's desperate search behind the Iron Curtain for the nympho queen who held the plans to America's most important secret weapon!" The first sentence: "Wow! What a body!"

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.