Thursday, November 13, 2014

Adolescent Vice

I bought the first thing I ever stole. Maybe it wasn't even stealing, but was really just a bit of smuggling.

The sole place I could buy comics when I was young was the local grocery store spinner rack. Comic book specialty stores didn't exist yet, and especially not in small towns in the Midwest. The problem with the spinner rack is that you were held hostage to buying whatever happened to be there that week, which often meant that you couldn't find consecutive issues of a favorite comic.

About the time I turned 12, that changed. While there weren't comic stores in our neighboring city, I did discover The Book Nook, a used book store which also kept a healthy supply of hand-me-down comics. It may not have been in my town, but it was close enough that I could ride there on a bike.

The Book Nook became my favorite hangout through my early teen years (aka pre-driving license). One of the most amazing revelations was that I could actually buy BOOKS there. Prior to that time, my only access to books was the school library. For a school with just under 300 people in junior and senior high, the library had a decent selection, but once you got past the reference and non-fiction sections, the pickings were pretty slim.

Even then, the book selling business wasn't a great one so the owner committed half of the shop to selling tobacco. The main room was split down the middle, with glass cabinets displaying dozens of flavors and varieties of tobacco on the left, while former bestsellers filled shelves on the right. The packages of tobacco were mainly for pipes, although I’m sure he also sold rolling papers to make your own cigarettes. There may even have been a small humidor on the counter in the back corner.

Odors have never really caused my brain to spiral into childhood memories, but the scent of pipe tobacco is a lone exception. If I ever did decide to take up smoking, I’d do it on a patio with a pipe and a paperback.

Although I originally went there seeking the rare gem of a back issue comic, thousands of books kept me exploring. A cavernous back room held the real treasure of pulp novels and genres you couldn't find in the drugstore book rack. This was where I discovered Gregory MacDonald's Fletch series, colorfully titled Travis McGee novels and a whole bunch of trashy 1970's sci-fi that followed in the wake of Star Wars.

That back room was also the vault that held the used magazines. Every so often, someone would dump off decades of history – 1950's era Life magazines and a lot of classic Sports Illustrated. When I was really lucky, I’d stumble onto an issue of Starlog or Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Eventually, I discovered pictures of naked women. People who have lived their whole lives with the internet may not be able to imagine this, but there was a time when the only release for a young boy going through puberty was looking at bra ads in the Sears catalog. Finding Playboy or Penthouse was the Holy Grail, and usually involved digging through someone’s trash or finding a hidden cupboard in your dad's den.

For the next few visits, I sorted through the skin mags to see what kind of variety they came in. It was a surprisingly robust assortment for a small town book shop, although I quickly discovered I didn't have a taste for the more explicit ones. Penthouse was my choice, because 15 year old me didn't really appreciate all the filler in between the pics in Playboy, even though the "real-life" encounters of Penthouse Forum fascinated me.  

At that age, I couldn't very well plop them down on the counter to buy. Shoplifting wasn't an option for me ethically, plus tucking magazines into my clothes would have been particularly challenging after looking at photos for a while.

My plan was a simple one. For the next few weeks, I found worn issues of Sports Illustrated with loose staples, which were precariously close to falling out of their covers. Then I gave them an assist, pulling the guts out and slipping the remnants deep into long-neglected stacks of Woman’s Daily.

With that slick, colorful wrapper featuring baseball’s finest pitchers in hand, I’d neatly tuck in whichever issue of Penthouse had caught my eye that day. Taking a cue from The Purloined Letter, I’d then slip that masked mag between a stack of three or four more mundane selections along with a couple of books for good measure.

Shaking like a leaf, I carried the whole bundle up to the cashier counter. The owner (and only staff of the shop) chatted with me as I showed him what I was ready to buy. Fortunately, the magazines were all the same price, so he merely rifled through them to take a count and didn't have to inspect each one to ring up the purchase.

Over the next couple of months, I probably smuggled 4 or 5 out of there. While I never had any close calls, I was sure I'd get caught if I didn't quit. If not by him, then by my parents discovering a massive stack of porn under my bed. I’m actually pretty sure they did find it at one point, but that's a story for another day.

On my last visit to my hometown, I drove by the location of the shop and it was long gone. I have no idea if the owner is still alive or if he just closed because he lost his business. In the years since I left, both Wal-Mart and K-Mart moved into town, so any other outlet for books is now a a boarded up bit of nostalgia.  

The Book Nook helped me grow up in a lot of different ways and it still holds a place as one of my fondest childhood memories. I know it would be impossible to make a living with a small shop like that, but as a retirement plan, it's still a dream I entertain now and then. 

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