The Coffee Shop Days

“When we talk about this period of our lives in the future,” I told Nora the other day via gchat, “we will call these my ‘coffee shop days.'” She laughed (virtually), and I listed the different establishments in which I had spent the past week: Atlas Cafe on the Lower East Side, McNally Jackson in SoHo, OST Cafe on Avenue B and 12th street, and so on. Each had a distinct personality, a different sort of clientele, a different music selection. In each, I made myself at home, ordered some sort of tea or hot chocolate (I have learned by now that coffee and I do not mix well), opened my laptop, and settled into the same familiar search. It is time to find a real job.
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My internship ended right before Christmas, and I have spent the weeks since returning to New York searching for a full-time job. So far, I have gotten a part-time position hostessing at a hip Asian restaurant in Chelsea, which begins next week. But until I get a job with an office and a desk, Atlas Cafe on Clinton Street has become my post-grad equivalent of Cafe Opus on Hamilton’s campus (where I could be found pretty much every minute I was not asleep, eating, or on Kylie’s couch). I get up before nine each day, shower, eat a granola bar, and head down the block to my makeshift office, where I sit and apply for jobs until it is time for lunch, when I usually come home and cook before returning to the effort. So far, it has been two weeks, almost thirty applications, and countless cups of tea. I can only hope, in the end, that all of these numbers will somehow add up to one job.

Until that time, I have rung in the New Year with the most wonderful friends, a few New York adventures, and a slew of visits to wonderful bookstores. Nora and I had brunch last Saturday in TriBeCa, and then walked around SoHo, stopping at Housing Works (a café, bookstore, and thrift store with locations throughout the city whose mission is to counteract the dual problems of homelessness and AIDS), to drop off clothing Nora was donating. We wandered between the shelves of this temple of literary second-chances, pulling out art books and anthologies, books on sexuality and zen gardens. We scoured the fiction shelves for Proust, but Marcel was nowhere to be found. I returned two days later to try to use this new location as a work spot, only to find the bookstore closed for an author event, and a line down the block of people waiting to go in. I joined them, for no reason other than knowing I had to be back in that space, whether productively or not, and spent the next hour listening to John and Hank Green rehearse for a show they were performing the next night at Carnegie Hall.

photo 3 (3)On Wednesday, my friend Lindsey came to visit me from Baltimore, and we spent two days zipping from one end of Manhattan to the other, eating macarons, seeking out gluten-free dim sum in Chinatown, and exploring the used book room of the Strand. Lindsey and I have been friends since the age of five, and literature has always been one of the main things we have in common (as well as eating, that is!). It was only natural, then, that we made the goal of her visit to find and visit the fabled secret bookstore on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

I had first heard of Brazen Head books in the summer after my Junior year of college, when I worked for a historical magazine in Union Square and heard the young, hip editors discuss a bookstore zoned as an apartment which a man ran secretly, only admitting guests by word of mouth. Late that year, the New York Times ran a story on the New Inquiry, a magazine started by a group of intellectual, underemployed young graduates whose academic interests and refusal to give up their literary dreams in the face of a routine day job, had led them to found a modern literary salon. The group met once a week, in the secret location of a bookstore in Manhattan, which had once been located in a retail building in Brooklyn, but closed once the owner could no longer pay rent. Lindsey had read about this very same place in an article in the Paris Review, and when she proposed we endeavor to find it, I knew this had been in the works for nearly two years, and it was time to see what magic we could work.

We looked up the name of a man in the white pages, whose phone did not pick up, and at whose apartment we knocked and were met by a British woman, who gave us a telephone number and another address, and told us in hushed tones to call later that day, and a man would meet us. We did so, and, yesterday afternoon, found ourselves ringing an unlabeled buzzer in a prewar building, and climbing a narrow staircase to stand in front of a blue painted door.

The owner led us inside, and I was struck by a sensation I have not felt in years. It was beyond wonder, beyond disbelief, beyond awe. In those four narrow rooms, lined floor-to-ceiling by thousands of books, smelling of pipe smoke and whiskey and the dreams of young writers, I had found what can only be described as magic.

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In Marcel’s words,

I was glued to the sensation of the moment, with no extension beyond its limits, nor any object other than not to be separated from it, I should have died in and with that sensation, I should have let myself be slaughtered without offering any resistance, without a movement, a bee drugged with tobacco smoke that had ceased to take any thought for preserving the accumulation of its labours and the hopes of its hive. (540)

We wandered from shelf to shelf for what felt like hours, talking to the owner (a character and a true bibliophile, who curates every book in his exquisite library), opening first-editions and breathing in their scent, climbing on stools to reach bindings that felt like leather and smelled like possibility. Come back on Thursday night, he told me. I have groups of young writers who come, drink, and discuss literature. You would fit right in. I promised I would, and left in a state of total bliss. I had found the thing for which I had been searching for these past aimless few weeks. I had found once again the reason for which I write, the joy that comes from words, and words alone.

photo 4 (3)There are moments when I wonder if I could have chosen a more secure or profitable profession, moments when I become frustrated by the life of a writer and consider alternatives, moments, quite simply, when I doubt myself. This was not one of those, and I left Brazen Head books with two well-worn volumes and a newfound resolution. I would not write to get a career, would not write to achieve fame or success or any measure of recognition. I would write, quite simply, because words are the nearest things to magic in this world. And to be able to create them is what lets me feel alive.

So here’s to the coffee shop days, to hidden bookstores and waiting. I cannot promise glamour, in any shape or form, cannot assure you any success or fortune. But I will say, if you stick with me, there will always be words, and the hope that they can get us through the longest of winters.

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One comment on “The Coffee Shop Days

  1. Lindsey says:

    What a perfect description of our visit to Brazen Head Books. I’m so glad we persevered and found it together!

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