Within the last four years I have been in the St. Louis area at least half a dozen times, but I have never had the chance to see the actual city. I have always traveled there on business with a group of colleagues, and since majority rules, we always stayed at Harrah’s, a casino hotel supposedly built on the river so it is exempt from local gaming restrictions, though it always looked to me like it was built on dry land. We would shuttle back and forth to the client’s offices in an industrial park in the suburbs, and the closest I got to the famous arch was to see it from the airplane, on the flight back to New York. In the evening, after long days of talking to difficult clients, my colleagues would unwind by playing high-stakes poker late into the night. I, in turn, would sit in the lobby after a tawdry casino buffet dinner and watch busload after busload of senior citizens race into the casino (some dragging oxygen tanks attached to their walkers) to wager their children’s inheritances. I quickly tired of this rather depressing spectacle and after wagering about $5 of my children’s inheritance on the slot machines, I’d head up to my room to read.
A few weeks ago, my 20-something daughter who lives in Boston called in a quandary, because she had applied to graduate schools all over the country and been accepted by most of them.
“I don’t know how I am ever going to be able to make a decision,” she said. “The two best schools that offered me financial aid are the University of Texas, at Austin, and Washington University in St. Louis. I have friends in Austin, so I am going down this weekend, but even if I like it I don’t know what to do about Washington University.”
After almost a quarter of a century of acquaintance, I think I know my daughter pretty well. If she went down to St. Louis alone, and did not know anyone there, she would not leave with a very good impression of the place. Most likely, she would run from it like the plague. Since I am not a big fan of the state of Texas (I must confess this is based upon only 2 days in Dallas and 7 years of the Bush administration), I said, “I have a great idea. Why don’t you plan a trip to St. Louis the following week-end. Your Mom and I will fly down and meet you. She has never been there, and I have never had the chance to see the actual city. I can do some book-buying. It will be lots of fun.”
My daughter hesitated. “Suppose we go and see the school and I don’t like it?” she asked. “I don’t want you to think you are wasting your time.”
“This is strictly a spur of the moment adventure,” I tried to reassure her. “There is no obligation . . . at worst we will see a new city. And, I may even get to buy a few books.”
I started to sing a few bars of “Meet me in St. Louis,” and she agreed to the plan.
Ten days later, my wife and I were up at 4 A.M. on a Saturday, racing to the airport for a very early morning flight from LaGuardia to the Gateway to the West. I had put out a query on the web looking for bookshop recommendations, and was surprised that I received so few responses. I figured that since this was a university town there had to be some worthy bookshops and planned to do some research in the yellow pages once we arrived.
The flight was unusually smooth, and we actually landed 45 minutes ahead of schedule. In spite of an interminable delay at the rental car office, we arrived at our downtown hotel mid-morning St. Louis time with the Boston contingent not expected until mid-afternoon. I went through the yellow pages and made up a list of shops before heading for some sustenance at the Depot, an old train station converted into a food court and shopping mall. After lunch I dropped my wife back at the hotel for a nap, checked the local map and drove over to the first used bookshop on my list, about 15 minutes away from downtown in a non-descript part of the city. It was a large warehouse type building well stocked in most categories. I explained that I was a dealer from New York. There was no dealer discount, but they were willing to ship any of my purchases for a small fee. I managed to find about a dozen books for re-sale, nothing extraordinary, as the prices were on the high side. Also with some prompting, I obtained the names of some other shops that I might be interested in.
Fortunately, my daughter, too, arrived right on schedule. When I picked her up at the airport shuttle station she had an armful of research she had done about St. Louis neighborhoods, night clubs, restaurants, etc. After a quick stop at the hotel to drop off my daughter’s luggage and pick up my well-rested wife, we went out to explore the sights.
Our first stop was a funky student neighborhood not far from Washington University known as “the Loop.” It looked more like a straight line of half a dozen blocks of shops and restaurants to me, but maybe we just never found the actual loop. The area is home to a first rate bookstore—Subterranean Books, a large shop containing a blend of both new and used items interspersed together. My daughter headed off towards the used clothing store across the street, and my wife accompanied me into the shop. As luck would have it, they were having a 40% off sale on all used fiction, so a dealer discount was unnecessary. They had a special section on counterculture literature, and I found some interesting Kerouac material for myself, as well as some great items for re-sale. I decided that since my suitcase was half empty, I would take this batch home with me. The owners were very friendly and we had a long conversation with them while waiting for the true family shopper. They had high praise for both the city and the University.
We all reconvened at a local Mexican café, I with a large bag of books, and my daughter with an even larger bag of clothing. In honor of Cinco de Mayo we ordered “grande” marguerites accompanied by “muy grande” bowls of chips with salsa. The Loop is also the home of the St. Louis Walk of Fame, so before we left we paid tribute to some of the city’s literary luminaries such as T. S. Eliot, William Burroughs and Tennessee Williams, to name just a few. It was now time to move on to another neighborhood. We drove to an area called “the Hill,” which is the St. Louis equivalent of Little Italy in New York or Boston. It was surprisingly suburban looking, three or four blocks of widely spaced houses and apartments with about half a dozen Italian restaurants, one coffee bar and one Italian food shop interspersed among the residences. We broke tradition with the neighborhood by having dinner at the one non-Italian restaurant, an excellent Spanish tapas place.
After dinner we headed over to yet another interesting neighborhood—Soulard. This is one of the oldest sections of the city. It is right near the river front, and the old warehouses are being converted into music clubs and bars. We found a lively bar with a local band that played a combination of blues and rock, so we sat on the terrace soaking up the ambience and enjoying the warm spring evening until it was time to return to our hotel.
Sunday morning, after a leisurely breakfast, it was time to visit the famous arch. We were all surprised both at its size and its beauty. It is a wonderful example of the philosophy that “less is more.” The design and the materials are perfectly simple, but it stands in a park by the river, glistening in the sun, and looks like a true symbolic gateway to the West that is the city’s claim to fame. Underground at the base of the arch is a museum dedicated to the Westward Expansion Movement.
I never knew that inside the arch there is a platform at the very top, and if one is willing to pay a fee and squeeze oneself into a tiny compartment with other adventurous strangers, one can actually be shuttled up to the top. The views were spectacular. Illinois is right across the river to the east, while the western windows provided a panorama of the entire city of St. Louis. We walked along the path by the edge of the river, admiring the arch from the ground, then headed for Forest Park, a very large park at the western end of the city, near Washington University. The park has playgrounds, ball fields, museums and gardens. There is also a very large zoo with free admission. The zoo is divided into habitat sections, and most of the habitats are large expanses that attempt to replicate the animals’ native environments. We saw the hippos and the rhinos and the famous baby elephant born at the zoo. We shivered through the penguin house, which is kept at about 40 degrees—great for penguins, but a bit chilly for humans in summer attire. As we left, we all agreed that the zoo was a wonderful gift especially to the young families of St. Louis as it provides a nice and affordable way to spend an afternoon.
At dinner time we headed back to the Soulard neighborhood. This time we had a Cajun meal, served al fresco, to the accompaniment of another blues rock band.
Monday was to be my major book-buying day. I dropped my wife and daughter off at the university, and headed for the Central West End, a beautiful neighborhood which looks like a more spacious version of New York’s Greenwich Village, with low brownstone apartment buildings interspersed with interesting shops and sidewalk cafés. It is also home to a superb bookshop—Left Bank Books. This shop, too, contained a mix of both new and used books. This time they were segregated, with the new books on the street level, and the used books in the large well-lit basement. The used fiction section had some wonderful books, and I spent quite a bit of time pouring over the shelves. I selected a large carton of items, and arranged to have them shipped back to New York. My one regret is that I did not buy more books. I passed on some unusual new items, British imports, mostly, that I have not been able to find anywhere else. Alas, I should know better, as my motto is that what you regret the most are not the books that you bought, but the ones that you didn’t buy. I still remember that gorgeous copy of Confederacy of Dunces I saw in New Orleans back in 2001 for $700. Now the only copies I see are three times that price in half the condition.
My next destination was a used book shop a few miles out of town in a nearby suburb south of the city. When I arrived, to my disappointment the shop was closed. I peered through the window and saw books piled from floor to ceiling. I made a mental note that it would definitely be worth returning on my next visit.
I was in need of a cup of coffee, so I asked someone where I could buy one. They recommended a shop called the St. Louis Bread Company. I walked in and it looked just like the ubiquitous Panera that we have back home. I asked the waitress if they had been taken over by Panera. She explained that Panera started out as the St. Louis Bread Company. They changed the name when they went national, since St. Louis in not known for its bread. The only stores that retain the original name are in St. Louis. St. Louis is also the birthplace of both the Burroughs adding machine and Tums.
I arrived back at campus about half an hour early, so I decided to investigate its bookstore. This was final exam week and with the semester winding down there were tables full of clearance books all throughout the store. I found some inexpensive, esoteric university press literary treatises that I expect I will be able to sell in due course.
We had just enough time for a very late lunch in a town right near the University, before heading to the airport. During the meal we talked about my daughter’s impressions of the city, and the university. She was still in a quandary, as she liked both schools, and each had its own plusses and minuses. My wife and I urged her to take some time to think about her impressions before rushing into a decision. We parted company at the airport, she heading to Boston, us to New York. As we said goodbye, we all agreed that whatever the outcome, the weekend had been a success. We had visited a new city and had a great time. I had even managed to purchase a fair number of books.
A few days later, the phone rang.
“Dad,” my daughter said, excitedly. “I made my decision . . . (long pause) . . . After much thought I decided to go to the University of Texas at Austin.”
“Congratulations,” I replied. “I am glad that you made a decision. Well, I guess in October after you are settled in, I will have the chance to explore another new city.” I certainly hope that it has at least a few bookstores. According to the New Yorker magazine, their library has one of the best literary archives in the United States. In the meantime, I better start learning a few bars of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
Joe Perlman operates Mostly Useful Fictions out of East Northport, NY and can be contacted at http://www.mostlyusefulfictions.com.
IOBA Standard, Summer Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 3.