Why Vinyl is Today’s Most Dynamic Music Medium

Consider this remark from Dave W. of Wax Tracks Records in Denver: “I have noticed that at least two or three times a week some father or mother comes in saying that their kid asked for a turntable for their birthday or Christmas present. So it’s not a case of the older generation just giving their turntables to their kids and saying ‘Here’s what we used to play music on,’ but rather the kids saying ‘This is what’s cool and happening right now and I want in on it.'”

The Governor Who Lived in a Bubble

Ohio Governor John Kasich is a pathetic example of a public official. “I don’t read newspapers in the state of Ohio, Kasich said Monday at a college in Columbus. “Very rarely do I read a newspaper. . . reading newspapers does not give you an uplifting experience. I have found my life is a lot […]

“Least Cynical Place on Earth” as “Third Place”

“It was like the least cynical place on earth,” according to one customer quoted in the New York Times profile of Raconteur Books, a sweet second-hand bookstore and theater space set to close in early 2012. The owner of this Metuchen, NJ shop is not losing his lease or being forced out by his landlord, instead he said he “still love[s] being here and meeting the people. But I feel like I don’t want to be a shop clerk anymore. That’s what it boils down to.” A longtime bookseller myself, I sympathize with anyone who wearies of keeping a shop running day after day. At the same time, I love places like Raconteur and sympathize with the customers who feel bereft.

I recall one such place I frequented during a vacation in 1992 in Scotland. Located on the very special Hebridean isle of Mull, in Dervaig–a wee village that boasted the theatre with the smallest number of seats of any venue for plays in all Europe–it was called “Coffee&Books,” just down the lane from the B&B where my wife and I were lodging. I was sitting on a stool in the shop on a Saturday morning just as its owners were setting off on a holiday to Venice. Several locals had assembled to see them off, as with a bit of ceremony the owners anointed Colin, a sheephish lad in his mid or late teens, as shopkeeper in their week’s absence. Chiefly, this would mean brewing coffee and ‘stuffing’ the many weekend papers due to be delivered later that morning. The shop handled all the usual British papers–Telegraph, Daily Mail, Times of London, plus the Scottish papers, the Glasgow Herald, the Scotsman, and a few tabloids whose lurid front pages I had never seen. Turned out though, Colin really had his hands full. By noon that morning he was awash in a tangle of dozens of weekend supplements, funny papers, racy tabs and sober broadsheets. Things were looking a real mess. Customers began rolling in looking for their usual papers, ordinarily reserved under their name every weekend. Unfortunately, however, none were ready. At first a lot of kidding ensued as the regulars saw that Colin was overwhelmed. But as it became apparent to each new arrival that Colin wasn’t finding any humor in his plight, they shed their sweaters and anoraks and got down on the floor with him to, at first find their own papers. But these regulars didn’t just leave after assembling their own weekend reading, they helped Colin master the untidy piles all around him, sensing he was determined not to fail in the challenge that had been left in his lap.

Clearly, Raconteur Books and Coffee&Books had come to fill the vital role of a “third place” in the lives of their customers. The Wikipedia entry for Ray Oldenburg’s influential book, Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories About the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities, describes the third place as “a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. Oldenburg writes that third places are “important for civil society, democracy, and civic engagement.”

Someone may still step forward to take over Raconteur. If not, sadly, its regulars will soon have to to find a new venue for their shared passions. Meantime, the spirit of cooperation that prevailed at Coffee&Books struck me then and since as a stellar example of a microcosm for a healthy society.

January 13, 2011–Update: In a tweet this morning novelist and book critic Lev Grossman (@leverus) writes “The Raconteur bookshop in Metuchen, NJ is closing down on Sat night. I’m going to help them. By reading. Who’s w/ me?” 

Literary and Cultural History Preserved in Wood, Paint, Ink & Graphite

“Mrs. Frank Leon Smith has a door for sale. On the door are the autographs of about sixty people who in the early Twenties were important, famous, talented, unusual. Im [sic] telling you, this is a fabulous door….Want a door? Ask Mrs. Smith at 321 East 52nd Street, New York 22. —’Trade Winds’ in the Saturday Review, 1960”

#Fridayreads/Nov. 25

#fridayreads Finished ‘The Whore of Akron,’ @scottraab64’s gonzo fete of Cleveland sports history. This old Clevelander loved the fierce takedown of Lebron and Raab’s scalding humor.

Striking a Blow for Justice, Abolitionists Favored Maple Syrup over White Sugar

Fascinating article about how early Americans regarded the sweeteners they craved in their diet. I had no idea that, as explained here, “The pure, white, crystallized product of sugar cane was still an expensive luxury, imported from plantations in the West Indies. Maple sugar offered an accessible and affordable substitute. These colonists, out on the […]

#OWS & Muhammad Ali in New Hampshire’s North Country

Heartened to see that the North Country, where I went to Franconia College, has its own Occupy contingent, seen here in a moving video from Mother Jones, filmed in Littleton, near Bethlehem, Sugar Hill, Easton, and Franconia, where my college was located. Such moving statements here, especially by the man who laments the lack of educational opportunity in the region. He mentions Plymouth State as the nearest college, and it’s south of Franconia Notch, 40 miles over the mountains. Lyndonville State College in Vermont is almost as far.

When Franconia College was still hangin’ on, before it folded in January ’78, we started a program called the FRED (Franconia External Degree). It awarded associates’ degrees to people for significant life and work experience–to folks who’d never til then had a shot at any higher education. To draw attention to the FRED, we conferred one on Muhammad Ali and invited him up to receive it. The cool thing was he accepted! We wanted to honor him because of the persecution he’d endured, being prosecuted for claiming conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, losing his title, being condescended to by columnists like Dick Young in the New York Daily News. He came up to the College in October  ’77, as I remember it. Biggest thrill of my life to that point, along with meeting Neil Young in 1969, was meeting Ali that day. He’d driven up the night before from New Haven, where he resided then, came with 20-30 people on a bus he drove himself. There were women, other big men, and kids who hung off him like he was the Pied Piper. It felt very much like a large extended family. Shaking his hand was something else–like shaking hands with a pillow–his hand was so big and soft, it enveloped mine. He was very gentle and spoke in a sweet, high voice. I gave a speech that day, and can still see Muhammad up on the riser with me and others. In my address I thanked him for coming all the way up from New Haven to join us. His visit made newspapers the next day, via this AP dispatch * that ran nationally.

Muhammad Ali with Erin, daughter of FC student B Elwin Sherman. (thanks to BES for use of both these pictures)

Erin climbed on Ali’s lap during the commencement.

Franconia College was an avowedly experimental institution and one thing we had were student members on the Board of Trustees. I was one of them. At this point in the late 70s, the Board was far along in aligning the College formally with the fledgling Elderhostel program. Like FRED, this initiative was designed so students of a wide age divide and diverse background could have access to higher degrees, and to create the opportunity for students in their 20s to mix with those in their 50s, 60s, 70s, all being in classes and on campus together. This would have been a true union of the Sixties’ promise of experimental education coupled with lunch-bucket commonsense equal opportunity.

So College staff had written a grant application to the Dept. of Aging in the old federal cabinet department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) for funds to support the joint program; we’d received verbal assurance from people in the Carter Administration that they wanted to fund it. Alas, it was not to be. The Manchester Union-Leader, whose arch-conservative publisher William Loeb** had always despised the ‘hippie college in the White Mts.’ printed a false story about the grant. It was during the long winter break at the beginning of 1978. The campus was empty as classes wouldn’t resume until late January, and I was back at my family home in Cleveland. In December, our enrollment, always so low as to imperil the College’s solvency, was even lower than usual, but we believed the infusion of new students in the coming spring was going to insure the College’s future. However, the same newspaper that had torpedoed Edmund Muskie’s presidential candidacy in 1972 somehow reported that our grant was a ruse to fund a sham program, that it would go right into our general fund. (We never did learn how the newspaper even learned about our grant application, though somewhat wiser now in the ways of Washington, I suspect a Republican holdover from the Nixon or Ford administration who shared Loeb’s resentment of the College.) The story painted a dark picture of a scheme that would divert money into the College’s general fund, with no noble program being mounted.  The Carter administration backed away, the grant died, and the college never reopened for its next term.Ali at FC

Given Franconia College’s perennially parlous state, we might have folded later anyhow, though I’ve always thought the College would finally have reached stability. Seeing this video from Littleton, it saddens me to think how Franconia College could have really become an educational force in the North Country. All this is a testament to why we need a movement like #OWS more than ever.

* The picture of Ali ran with the AP story linked to above. It reports that Dr Kenneth Clarke, an  eminent sociologist of African-American life, also got an honorary degree that day. I learned at the time that Clarke had had a key role in swaying the US Supreme Court to make the Brown v. Board of Education ruling they did, integrating schools, in 1954.

** Loeb was a full-blown renegade, and also pretty careless about printing potentially libelous material. At this time in the late 70s he’d had so many lawsuits filed against him in the state of New Hampshire that he was compelled to live across the border in Massachusetts. If he crossed the state line, he’d invariably be served with liens and summonses to appear in court.


Love for the CBC from the LA Times

In what I judge to be an interesting assignment by editors at the Los Angeles Times, I read Marcia Adair’s article on the unifying effect that the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, has on the country’s civic identity. The story is partly pegged to the fact that “in a delicious twist, it seems that the broadest […]