We agree to meet at the Strand, the venerable, vast and lively
bookstore at the corner of Broadway and East 12th Street in
Manhattan. The area used to be called Book Row, but of all the bookshops that
flourished here around the time the Strand opened its doors in 1927, this is
the sole survivor. It has remained a family business, ownership descending
through the progeny of Ben Bass, the founder. In the time when the Strand
boasted that it contained eight miles of books, a wag stated that the eight
miles of New York worth preserving were inside its walls. The bookstore has grown since; it now boasts no less than 18 miles of books.
In the year I lived in Manhattan, my
arms were often sore from toting big shopping bags of twice-sold tales from the
Strand up to my modest apartment in Yorkville. On flying visits to the city
since, I have often failed to ration my book-buying at the Strand sufficiently
to pass the weight inspection for suitcases at airports. Besides the expected
and unexpected treasures in all the cases of old books, the Strand is the place to get a new book at half
price. The velocity at which review copies pour into the store makes it hard to
believe that many of those reviewers even opened their copies before generating
a little extra income.
The Strand has long been, for me, one of those magic bookshops where the shelf elves produce exactly the right book to guide or redirect a creative intent. When I was writing a chapter of a novella in which W.B.Yeats is at home in his rooms in the Woburn Buildings, off Tavistock Square, circa 1900, my youngest daughter - who did not know about my project - visited the rare book room at the Strand and brought me back a rare prize, a memoir of Yeats by John Masefield in which the English poet evokes beautifully the experience of visiting the Irish poet in that London apartment.
The Strand has a place in my imaginal
geography, as well as my physical rambles. I go there in night dreams, and in wide-awake shamanic journeys to places in the imaginal realm, a world of true imagination beyond the physical (but not the inner) senses where we can access wise teachers and extraordinary places of healing, initiation and higher learning.
When I was writing about Harriet Tubman, who used her dreams and visions to guide escaping slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad before the American Civil War, I found myself roaming the Strand in the middle of the night in my astral body, in that wondrously fluid state of consciousness that sleep researchers call hypnagogia and I prefer to call the twilight zone. Down in the basement, I met Harriet Tubman, wearing a hat pulled down over her forehead and a shapeless coat. She showed me that her skills as a tracker and guide owed a great deal to the shamanic ways of the Ashante, her father's people, and especially to the leopard, the favorite animal spirit of West African shamans and shapeshifters. I used the insights I gained in the basement of the Strand that night in my chapter on Tubman in The Secret History of Dreaming.
I shared this "old" dream with the participants in a shamanic dreaming workshop I led at the New York Open Center last weekend. There was great excitement when I suggested that all of us could use the Strand as a portal for an adventure in the imaginal realm, with the aim of contacting master teachers or practitioners in whatever fields most interested us. Most people in the workshop knew the Strand.
I explained that we could use our memories of the physical bookstore in order to enter a space beyond it. We might find that by opening any book, we could enter the world it contained. We might discover that a bookshop in Manhattan could become the gateway to a Secret Library, where all knowledge is accessible.
When I was sure that everyone had been seized by the intention to explore, and the workshop participants had placed their bodies in comfortable positions for journeying, I used my gee-whiz technology - a single-headed frame drum - to provide fuel and focus for our group adventure. I always journey for myself while drumming for the group; I immediately found myself at the corner of Broadway and 12th. After a cursory look at the sale items in the stalls on the sidewalk, I headed into the store. I noticed a memorial display for Maurice Sendak, and paused to check the prices of recycled review copies of a few novels I had recently purchased: Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Prisoner of Heaven, Alan Furst's Mission to Paris, Joseph Kanon's Istanbul Passage.
I took the stairs to the basement and found Graham Greene waiting for me there. I have talked to that grand English novelist and entertainer (or the part of myself that relishes him) before, and he has given me excellent advice on the practice of writing, advice I have not always followed. Greene was a consummate professional, able to sit down and crank out his 750 words a day however many drinks he had shared with a Soviet agent, a whisky priest, or a bevy of filles de joie the night before. I wondered if he would nudge me towards trying my hand again at a tale of intrigue; in a former life, back in the 1980s, I published a series of popular spy novels. Ah, something more interesting. Greene offered me some tips on writing a memoir. I shall re-read his own autobiographical works, especially A Sort of Life and Ways of Escape.
Behind Greene, among the stacks, I saw a dark-haired young fellow in a trenchcoat. Who was that? It gave me a shiver to realize I was looking at a much younger version of myself, the 1980s thriller writer, seen now very much as he appeared on the dust jacket of a couple of my early novels. I did not engage with him directly.
I went to the right, down book-lined passages, and met other figures, including a magical child with a treasure chest full of stories for children that I might yet write. As I continued drumming, I found myself in a passage where books rose to the ceiling. The passage turned and turned in a spiral until - poof - I came out in a space where the first thing I saw was a spray of black feathers, and the black embroidered hem of a long woman's dress.
I found myself in the presence of a gloriously over-the-top lady of a certain age, still desirable and very sure of her place in a social and literary world she had made for herself. She was dressed all in black, with a black feather boa and a magnificent dress with plunging decolletage. She gave me her pen name and allowed me a glimpse of her life. Her admirers include American tycoons and European counts; she allows only a very select few to share her intimate favors. There are those in high places who rely on her as a psychic medium; it is her special pleasure to connect people with their past lives. Out of this life, she has written a wildly successful series of romps that blend the metaphysical with the bodice-ripper and the policier.
I was astonished, though not altogether surprised, to realize that I knew this lady writer. At the end of the 1980s, when I had abandoned the commercial path, I found myself held up for a long time at a customs inspection. While I submitted to questions and inspections, I noticed a flamboyant woman in furs breezing past complaint officials at a parallel checkpoint; they whisked her Louis Vuitton bags through, uninspected. The lady in furs turned to me and blew me a kiss. She called to me, "Maybe we'll meet again."
That was, of course, a dream. When I thought about it at the time, I chuckled, realizing that I had caught a glimpse of my inner Happy Hooker, the part of me that had been willing to put out my work for a price. Here she was again, in a black feather boa. Why?
Write in my voice, said my Happy Hooker. Write in my name, if you like. You can still write about the things that matter to you, while you give people even more fun.
Hmm. I'll need to think about that.
When I sounded the recall with the drum, our intrepid dream travelers brought back a marvelous set of personal reports, featuring encounters with dead poets and master chefs, with a children's writer and a Neoplatonist philosopher, with Chekhov and with Virginia Woolf. Wonderful what one can find, in the Strand of imagination.