[Books & Culture, November 1995]
When I was down to the Big City not long ago, my youthful friend Rod took me to his favorite bookstore-cafe. We sat on high stools at a small, sticky square of yellow wood, buffeted by alternative rock flowing from the excellent sound system. I chose, at Rod’s suggestion, a designer beer that the menu described as “fruity and complex.” Nearby, patrons lingered at blond-wood book racks, perusing the handsome volumes with impressive nonchalance. Diversity spread her amiable wings: elbowpatch-and-beret types mingled easily with Birkenstocker-backpackers en tout noir. So when Rod came up to Baltimore I took him to my favorite book source, across the street from the Friend General Store and Love Nest Package Liquors. The bulky one-story building fills nearly a city block; it is painted rosy beige with deeper-brown trim, and topped with romantic crenellations. The orange metal sign bolted to the wall reads “Baltimore Department of Finance, Bureau of Purchases, Warehouse #9.” But those familiar with its charms eschew the formal title; we call it the Baltimore Book Dump.
I don’t recall what was displayed in the window of Rod’s book boutique. The items in the Book Dump window appear not so much displayed as huddling in refuge. Prominent is a large cartoon cutout of a figure in a hardhat, hand-decorated with a smiley face and an unintentionally threatening note of good cheer: “Think safety beyond this point. It helps!” Next to it is a small framed print of two iceskaters, bearing another ambivalent message: “Time with a friend is like no time at all.”
There’s a quart of Duralene oil, a brown metal trash can, a defunct computer monitor, a Singer sewing machine, a few jumbled and overturned chairs. Just visible is an oversized, crudely painted metal globe, emblazoned with a strip of masking tape marked: “Don’t Ask.” This could be another gem of cryptic wisdom. A square of brown cardboard is taped to the window, on which someone has written in bold black marker: “Great Northern Beans, 25 lbs, $4 per bag. Worcestershire sauce, $1 per gallon.” Yes, this is the place.
I steer Rod inside, where we stand in the central of three large rooms; altogether, the Book Dump offers nearly 70,000 square feet of varied treasure. The predominant color plan is gray, as in concrete—floor, walls, and ceiling. High overhead grimy skylights wink at the Baltimore noon, and a few ancient fans turn, and a few don’t. The architectural effect at floor level is enlivened by ramps and steel tracks; this building was originally a terminus of the streetcar line.
Yes, there are books at the Book Dump, but I aim to tantalize my guest first. An army of old metal desks, in various colors and states of repair, are massed in formation near the door. We step over a large tire with a Chevy hubcap, and admire a flock of old microfilm viewers, plastic house shutters still in their cardboard boxes, and a veritable History of Typewriters Museum (one specimen of which has a carriage over two feet long). There’s an early computer with slots for giant floppy disks, lots of plaster molds, and an antique Mobile Maid top-loading dishwasher. A bowling ball. A new plastic sink and an old, rusty medicine cabinet. An industrial-strength record player, circa 1960, with a pop-up for playing 45’s; “Sch # 55” is scratched into the arm. A metal desk tray with the handwritten label, “Problem’s.” Yes, if you don’t really want it, you can find it here at the Baltimore Book Dump.
“We recycle from all the city agencies,” Mr. J. D. Zissimos, City Property Disposal Supervisor, had told me. Though there are other warehouses, this is the only one that offers items for sale. How much staff does it take to run an operation like this? “There are five employees, including the repair guy. Did you see the one-armed, one-legged man? He takes the furniture apart and fixes it.”
I asked about the trolley tracks in the floor. “They give us a fit,” Mr. Zissimos said.
Shall we see the books? No, not just yet. Let the mystery linger; let anticipation grow.
We pass the Great Northern Beans and Worchestershire Sauce, which are in padlocked metal-screen cabinets. Other cabinets hold workshirts, ashtrays, and piles of clipboards; these are similarly locked. But toward the back of the cavernous room, furniture runs wild and free.
First are the chairs, formed in a squadron on the left four deep and a dozen long. Along the front row: an aged rolling desk chair with square metal legs and cracked green faux-leather upholstery; a tubular-chrome model with a lime-green plastic seat; an molded swivel chair lined with mustard-yellow cloth; a black vinyl executive armchair with a slashed back, spewing white stuffing. Despite their differences, they are united in spirit, staring bravely across the aisle at a community of another hundred motley chairs.
Then come the school desks, stacked high with legs interlocked, their wooden tops bearing plaintive legends (“Jen, Brandon sits here for math class.” “Jen, are you friends with Brandon?” “Jen, Brandon said he dumped you. Did he?”) Next are the school chairs, homey wooden ones and jet-age models with tan tubular-metal legs, stacked in a towering wall. A very small one, with worn green paint and a hand-hole through its back, begs to go home with me.
We move toward the second room. Coiled fire hoses stacked in dusty towers eight high. Dented metal filing cabinets. Racks of doors, from hollow-core items with jaunty diamond-shaped portholes, to massive mahogany portals with numbers painted in shadowed gold script. A gymnast’s pommel horse. Dismantled, stacked bannisters. And unidentifiable objects—a pink three-sided construction, four feet high, with mirrors inside—that are at least reassuringly stationary.
At last we reverse our tracks and enter the final room. Rod stops abruptly and stares. “My heavens!” he exclaims. “Where do you begin?”
Spread before us is the equivalent of an Olympic swimming pool full of books. In giant cardboard barrels, in refrigerator-sized boxes, in canvas rolling bins, books are jumbled in hundreds of containers and strewn unheeding on the floor. Along the wall, books stand two and three deep on black metal shelves. It is the fabled book burial ground.
“Can you give me an estimate of how many books you have?” I had asked Mr. Zissimos. “No,” he said.
A sign at the forward edge of this tide reads, “FREE! BOOKS Schoolbooks, Textbooks, Workbooks FREE!” I had asked Mr. Zissimos about that, too. “We used to sell them for a nominal amount, or send them to be recycled for paper. Then in 1988, when Mayor Schmoke named Baltimore ‘The City That Reads,’ we thought it would be in keeping with that to give them away.”
They come from public schools, libraries, offices—everywhere. “Does the amount of books going out keep pace with the amount coming in?” I asked. “Well,” he hedged, “We have an awful lot coming in.”
Rod is already hitting the first box. There are a number of Andrew Greeley titles and a Jane Smiley. Then he finds a 1964 Reader’s Digest and is enraptured by the ads. “Speedy Petits Fours” from a can of date-nut bread particularly inspires him: “Can’t you just see an astronaut’s wife at Cape Canaveral preparing this for her husband!”
Next he seizes a copy of Harold Brodkey’s fat The Runaway Soul. It’s hard not to have a sense of memento mori in this place. “This was eagerly anticipated for so long, at the highest literary levels in New York,” Rod says in wonder. “Brodkey worked at it for years, surfacing every so often to tell the world how it was going. Now look, here it is at the Book Dump.” He looks around the cavernous room, with dust drifting in the skylight air over uncountable thousands of abandoned books. “How much work went into each of these books, and the day the book was published might well have been the happiest day in the writer’s life,” he says. “Now the books are discarded and most of the writers are utterly forgotten.” Rod and I, two writers, are about to enter the Royal Bummer Zone. “You could really get lost thinking about that,” says Rod.
Something about this place makes linear thought difficult; we hop through dusty tomes, scanning the century at a glance. Here is a photo of Walt Disney standing before a nifty laser-light background and smiling hopefully over a model of the New York World’s Fair. “Think how amazing it must have been to actually believe in progress,” Rod says. From the same era, Telstar: Communications Breakthrough! includes a shot of LBJ on the phone, with the caption, “’You’re coming in nicely,’ President Johnson said.”
Then a textbook named The Changing Family catches Rod’s eye.The title appears in yellow letters on a sickly green cover, over a curiously dispiriting shot of a girl drawing on a sidewalk with chalk. “Everything about this, the fonts, the colors, is just like the elementary school textbooks I had in the ‘70’s,” Rod says. “It’s so depressing. It reminds me of the time this local education specialist, Beryl Gene Daniel Field Lott, brought her audiovisual show to our fifth grade class. There was this song— ‘I like chocolate, you like vanilla, we all get along’—a kind of Sesame Street multiculturalism. She was so desperate to make us love one another, so much earnestness, and here she was on her third marriage. We were in these horrible orange chairs,” he muses. “There is nothing good about the 70’s.”
Rod appears to be veering close to the state neurologist Oliver Sacks calls “incontinent nostalgia.” I suggest that we could get a handle on the Book Dump experience by taking an archeological sample of a single container. I kneel on the floor by a low box (when I rise, it will look like my shins were rubbed with charcoal) and together we begin lifting off the layers. Some books get discarded quickly: Norah Lofts paperbacks, Your Ulcer (1954), We Elect a President (1962), Robert Ludlum, Dawn over the Amazon (1943), Pat Booth, Life and Love: The Commandments for Teenagers(1964), and a Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (November 7-25, 1987). We linger longer over a 1927 Norse-English dictionary, Rex Reed’s forgotten Do You Sleep in the Nude?, and a 1977 U.S. Labor Department handbook, The Dictionary of Occupational Titles. “You gotta take a look at it! It’s breathtakingly stupid!” Rod exclaims. “Imagine the bureaucrats in their wide ties, sitting around writing descriptions of the jobs people do!”
We spend a time in stupefied admiration of a hip ‘n’ hideous 1974 children’s book with balloony Yellow Submarine letters on the cover. They spell out contents that would beguile any curious grammar schooler: Real People at Work: Office Worker. The Office Worker is pictured on the front, fortyish with heavy black-framed glasses, in a doubleknit dress with lapels like seagull wings. It’s a jazzy shot from below and she’s grinning self-consciously, outlined in a Peter Maxx aura of yellow and orange. “Probably she worked on the Dictionary of Occupational Titles,” Rod says.Then we come across Being Well-Born, a 1916 tome with a worn red cover, promoting the eugenic dream in terms that seem eerily familiar. Chapter sub-headings tell the story: “World population growth and food supply,” “General increase in world population undesirable,” “School instruction in sex hygiene,” leading naturally to “Urgency of eliminating unfit,” “Corrective mating,” and “Sterilization.”
Next Rod lights on The Galactic Troubadours, a 1965 space adventure about teenage folksingers who save the universe. He is enchanted. He reads selected morsels aloud, from the knowing nudge of the opening sentence (“Parents are probably the same all over the Galaxy”) through subtle messages (“Most of us in my age group were bored to death with everything that came ready made”) and high drama (“’You are a disgrace to the planet! You’ve dragged our reputation in the dust!’”). At the end, “the whole planet had turned out” for the Troubadours’ victory concert. They sang “in perfect six-part harmony:
”I’m just a-goin’ into orbit,
I’m blasting off for deepest space,
I’m going where the stars are burning,
And where uncharted planets race!“
Meanwhile, I have discovered a small yellow paperback that announces, in heavy black capitals, NYMPH IN NEED. Published by Kozy Books in 1962, this little volume has lost all its covers, which accurately foreshadows what is going to happen to the nymph. It’s fairly tame for hot stuff, which lends a certain charm. The prose is editor-proof (”Patti Markey had watched the game, the last half, that is, with bated breath“) and the overeager descriptions of female anatomy suggest less than full working familiarity with the apparatus (”Her breasts were like electrodes,“ ”Her breasts bored holes in his chest“). There are baffling accounts of action that, no matter how many times you reread them, never make sense: ”She gave her body to his clutching arm. He broke contact and held her close for a minute.“ NYMPH IN NEED went into our carry-away stack.
Because, unfortunately, it was getting to be time to decide what we’d carry away. The last time I was here, with my friend Connie, she filled five boxes with books and had to use a dolly to get it all to the car (”Don’t tell my husband about this place!“ she warned). But today we just filled the length of Rod’s arms. I took a photo of him standing outside the Book Dump door, next to the cartoon cutout of the hardhat safety guy, smiling on the sidewalk with his cap turned around backwards.
Had I done enough as a hostess? I wondered. The Book Dump doesn’t have a snazzy cafe, but we could go back in and haul down a school desk and a couple of battered chairs. I would spring for a bottle of Worcestershire sauce—anything to impress my city-wise friend—and we could munch on handfuls of Great Northern beans. It would be the complete Book Dump experience. But no, I thought, let’s not do it all this one trip. We take our reluctant leave, just a-going into orbit, blasting off for deepest space.