Coming of age in Oklahoma City wasn’t always the all-out adventure I know I tend to make it seem. Actually, more days than not, I was trying to find something constructive to do with my dwindling time. With the futuristic era of cyber-jacking info-loads onto the neural-net still about fifty or so years down the dark timeline, chances are you’d probably find me just hanging out at a bookstore.
Back in the days before Amazon, before Borders, before even Barnes and Noble, in the Metro, we only had two bookstore chains: Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, both in the various malls around town. While they were great for shoplifting copies of The Crucible for school and maybe even a Playboy for yourself, at the time, there were actually a few great independent stores around the city that usually garnered much more of my respect and even more of my cash, and are still fully deserving of my respect today.
When I first moved to OKC in 1990, I was pretty dang excited that a bookstore—Jean Barnes Books, actually—was at the end of my street, on N.W. 50th. That very excitement deflated, however, when I learned it was a weird self-help bookstore offering weird self-help books. I couldn’t tell you what they really did in there or why, but no section of books about the Beatles? They said hello and I quickly said goodbye.
Traveling across the street to Mayfair Village though, by the ol’ barbershop where I used to get my sides buzzed, there was a used bookstore with the wondrous name of Aladdin Book Shoppe. At first, of course, I quietly hoped it was the type of antique book store that would sell me a dusty tome of mystical tales that’ll transport this lonely child to Fantasia. Instead, after digging around like a nosy hound in the back of the store, the various stacks of men’s adventure paperbacks and sleazy sci-fi rained down upon me, giving me a new passion for rank, rotten and ribald literature.
Paperbacks became a slight obsession for me sadly, where I was stopping at just about every thrift store, garage sale and library dumpster from here to, well, a few blocks from here, collecting as many as I could. But, I told myself, who needs all that running around? This was the 90s and the book market was still an embarrassingly booming business. And few places took as great a pride in it as the Book Rack, a paperback home for unwanted reads down on May in the ancient Lakeshore Shopping Center.
Between their cheap selection of paperbacks and that great 2-for-1 exchange rate, I was buying, trading and selling books quicker than I ever could read them, if they were to ever got read. From Ray Bradbury to Raymond Chandler, that summer of ’91 I managed to get through every book that was on the middle school lists, every book that was a few years away on the high school lists, and plenty of yellowed dog-eared trash for fun in between it all. The Book Rack, sad as it may sound, became my vacation away from my vacation.
Sometime in the 8th grade, I apparently won a Native American student award for my writing and received a gift certificate to the books and magazine outlet, Bollinger’s Books, located even further down May Ave., right in the Village; before bookstores became glorified breakfast nooks and syrupy coffee shops, this was what a true neighborhood bookseller was fully expected to be. It was the 90s, how did we know?
Lou Reed’s Between Thought and Expression and Chas Balun’s More Gore Score got my first wadded up ball of filthy lucre, but it was when I found that first stack of ‘zines in their magazine pit that they got even more of it every week. I still feel the same xerography-based love for them today as I did then; ‘zines changed my life. Finding locally self-published goods like Rod Lott’s Hitch to national breakthroughs such as Factsheet 5, forget being a kid in a candy store—I was a burgeoning teen in an indie bookstore.
But, almost as soon as I even thought these book-nooks were going to be in my life forever, corporate America smiled as they came in and stomped them out like a well-smoked cigarette under a bland heel. Places like Barnes and Noble—with two on May, no less—as well as Borders came into town, killing off Bollinger’s pretty fast. It was shortly followed by the Book Rack. Remarkably though, after holding on for dear life longer than probably anyone expected, Aladdin’s lamp was rubbed one last time about six or seven years ago now, the spot still empty, I believe.
Jean Barnes is long gone too, in case you were wondering.
Sure, there’s still a few rarities around town, places like Half-Price, Full Circle and Commonplace—and don’t get me wrong, they do their job of sticking it, mostly, to the corporate readers—but I do wonder where’s the towering infernos of old paperbacks, the ragged stacks of detective mags and the moldy collections of ‘zines that’ve sat there for a year?
We’re probably never going to see them again, of that magnitude, in our lifetime, at least in a burg like Oklahoma City. But, for a good ten years, anytime I was too lazy to find some real adventure, a decaying 272-page one that I picked up for a buck would suit me just fine.