The Downtowner has an informal summer tradition of presenting the works of Trenton-connected poets and short story writers.
This year the tradition continues, but there is a twist.
The writings are part of a new anthology that also has a twist. They are all connected by one particular Trenton location, Classics Books.
Edited and produced by Classics Books’ proprietor, Eric Maywar, and published by the Princeton-based Ragged Sky Press, run by poet Ellen Foos, “The Book Shop on Lafayette Street” features poems, stories, and plays by a variety of area writers including arts writer Ilene Dube, internationally known poet Yusef Komunyakaa, nationally known poet and former Trenton Central High School English teacher Doc Long, and noted regionally based playwright and former Passage Theater director David White, and others.
It also includes writing by Maywar, who provides the following overview to introduce the sampling of writings:
“We never planned to write this book. In 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa was working on an epic poem and part of it took place at Classics Books. Independently, I was working on some flash fiction that also took place at Classics Books.
“We bumped into each other (at Classics Books) and decided that we should collaborate on a collection of poems and stories that all take place at our favorite bookstore.
“We thought a collection of excellent work with a shared setting — and a shared love of bookstores and the people in them — might be an exciting project. We reached out to some of our favorite writers and artists to make it happen.”
The book, $15, is available at Classics, 4 W. Lafayette St., or online at www.raggedsky.com. Excerpts follow.
Anything You Need
I boarded the express in Brooklyn that morning.
“This train is making no local stops,” announced the conductor, the brass buttons on his epaulets shining like gold. Outside the window, I viewed the seamless transition from one set of industrial-era buildings to another—the gray skies soon had me craving a coffee.
The rush of passengers in wool and down swept me onto a concrete platform where a passing train created a gust of wind that would have blown my wig, had I been wearing one.
I passed a park and then went through another, and a few blocks down found myself entering a bookshop. The tinkling of the door chimes drowned the sounds of outside, transporting me to another world. The purveyor, a man with a beard and a button-down shirt, looked up. “Let me know if there’s anything you’re looking for.”
“Coffee?” I knew the answer before the word escaped.
He told me about a nice place on Cass Street, but it was too far to walk on this blustery day. He showed me a selection of books on coffee, but their covers, with images of dark-roasted beans and laurel leaf patterns in milk foam only deepened my cravings.
The store was filled with blond wood shelves packed with books. There were only single copies of each title. Books were also piled onto tables and in boxes. The smell of old books was like a mix of chocolate and—oh god—coffee.
There were cookbooks and art books, and books I’d read years ago: The Master and Margarita, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Things Fall Apart, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Beloved, Slaughterhouse Five.
“I’m looking for my great grandfather,” I told the proprietor. “He was an ironworker. His son, my grandfather, grew up on a cooperative farm for Jewish immigrants in New Jersey. His brother became a butcher in Trenton. He was murdered in his shop. His son was an architect who worked with Louis Kahn on the Trenton Bath House.”
I’m not sure how much of what I said was true. That is, I’d known these things to be true before boarding the train that morning, but as I spoke these truths I began to wonder.
The proprietor led me to a section on Trenton history. Crossroads of the American Revolution went too far back in time. Trenton: Images of America focused on landmark buildings. Where were the Dubes of Trenton?
“You might try the Trenton Free Public Library,” the pleasant store owner suggested. “Or the State Archives.”
I wondered if either of those places had coffee.
I was now aware of a group gathered at the back of the store. Mostly women, they were knitting. Or talking about knitting. Or laughing about knitting.
One of the women came to the front. Balancing with a cane, she walked slowly. “Did you want to know about the butcher who was murdered?” she asked.
I nodded. “Louis Dube.”
“I used to go there for meat,” she said, her face suddenly becoming young again. “Lou was my mother’s butcher. Everyone in Trenton was devastated by what happened.”
As it turns out, there’d been a reading the previous week by the author of a book about Trenton in the 1930s. The talk was so well received; the book had not only sold out but was out of print. But it may have had a footnote about Louis the murdered butcher.
The old woman introduced me to the knitting group. They greeted me like a long-lost relation. I confessed I didn’t know how to knit. One woman handed me a kit. It was for a blanket that had different panels outlining my family history, from the ironworker who left Russia to the cooperative farming communities and the murder at the butcher shop.
A woman with curly hair that matched the yarn she was using opened the plastic wrapper, took out the needles and cast on stitches in a golden thread. Then she handed the needles to me, and soon I was knitting for the first time in my life. Every stitch, seemingly made at lightning speed, was perfectly neat.
We heard the tinkling of the door chimes. The coffee vendor had arrived! He had bicycled over with his coffee cart. “Trenton Makes Coffee,” read his shirt. He even smelled like coffee as he made us each a cup of the best brew I’d ever had. In the crema on top, I could see my grandfather’s beard. It curled like the yarn of the woman who’d taught me to knit.
The proprietor called me to the front of the store. He’d remembered something: “Sasha Parubchenko — Trenton’s blacksmith. Maybe he can tell you something.”
The bicycling coffee roaster was waiting for me outside. As I climbed aboard the back of his bike, the woman with the sheepskin hair came running after me, presenting the knitted blanket of my family history. I wore it on my back like a cape as suddenly the coffee roaster’s bicycle lifted off the ground. Below, I could see the crowd at Classics Books, waving at us in the sky.
— Ilene Dube
The Cat in the Hat in the Box in the Bookstore: A True Story
When I first opened the bookstore, I was adamant that it was going to be a store for readers, not collectors. I was not going to sell first editions; I was going to sell books for people who liked to read not collect; blah blah blah. Then somebody brought in a first edition of War of the Worlds. How cool it was to hold that book in my hands. It took me about 30 seconds to throw out my rule and carry some collectable books.
One busy Saturday at our first store, I had a line at the register and a woman came in with a box of books to donate. I invited her to wait a moment and I would let her know how much credit I could give her, but she said not to worry about it — she had just tried to sell these books at a garage sale and she just wanted to get rid of them. On the side of the box read “Old Kids Books $1 Each.”
About a week later, one of the New Hope floods came and I had to pack up every book in the store. Martines (a restaurant across the street) let me pile up books on her tables (I would eat at a restaurant like that!), friends and customers loaded up their vans and cars and we emptied the store.
We already had Classics, a second used bookstore in Trenton, and we decided to close the New Hope store and deliver all the books to Trenton. We still hadn’t opened that box of kids’ books.
It took us months to settle in to the Trenton store, unpacking, sorting and shelving all the books from New Hope. It was maybe six months later I opened the box of books.
It included a first edition early Maurice Sendak’s A Hole is the Dig ($150) and a first edition Tasha Tudor ($800). But the mind-blowing book was a first edition (200/200 on the price tab of the flap) of The Cat in the Hat. It was in perfect condition, no single mark or scuff, no price clip. It looked unread. List price? $7,000. (We eventually sold it wholesale to another bookstore for about $2,000).
What an amazing collection of books, which had sat unwanted in a box at a garage sale for $1.
There is something essentially human about used books. Life may leave us a little battered and worn, but we still have the capacity to inspire, to teach, to entertain, to love and be loved.
And no matter how unwanted we may feel at times, how neglected and overlooked, all it takes is the right person to open our covers and recognize us for the treasure we are.
— Eric Maywar
At Classics Books
Old bookstores *Wise silence *The overfed cat napping on the windowsill *
Specks of dust ride lasers of light *Stillness haunted in an unseen world*
Open any book and the sulk of wine and incense all the way from Dakar or Tashkent*
Subversive revolutionary* Things hidden in the name of freedom * Music* Is that music*
Bebop walking down the street dancing reading a book* The cat yawns goes back to sleep*
Small town *Saturday afternoon* Planets swarming in silver light*
— Doc Long