Unsleep’s Village

unsleeps-village

I worked for The Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles for nearly a year; it served as a bridge for me, between increasingly frustrating days staring blankly into a dead future at the sad and rapidly deteriorating Book Soup and my current position with TASCHEN. I wasn’t there long enough for it to have impacted me personally in any significant way, and it served mostly as a means of solidifying my desire to have nothing more to do with sales-floor-bound retail work. I didn’t spend much time getting to know my co-workers, most of whom seemed like good people—the kind I might’ve enjoyed spending time with in a social setting. But I’d been pretty burned by “work friends” shenanigans at Book Soup, and I think, on some level, I closed myself off to the possibility of forging any real bonds with this new gang of colleagues because of an overwrought sense of self-preservation.

I went out once with the gang—a going away party for woman who’d worked with me in the Arts Annex, and who had ingratiated herself with the larger group better than I had. She liked me, though, and asked me to come along. I was, ostensibly, her “manager” in the Annex, but the hierarchy there was a confused mess, owing primarily to the owner’s lack of desire to stick with any particular plan of action, driven as he was by day-to-day whims. It was a nice gathering, and I felt comfortable among the people there in a way I wouldn’t have expected, given that it was held at a bar, and I had given up the demon alcohol several years before.

I was, at the time, somewhat infatuated by one of my co-workers, though I had made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t approach her, stunning as I found her, because of lingering scars from previous, awkward workplace romances, or attempts at such. Gorgeous and tall, with dark, penetrating eyes and one of the best laughs I’d ever heard, Jessalyn Wakefield, I’m certain, had a number of admirers on staff, and that was another reason for my reticence—I had no intention of adding to what, in my mind, had become a bombardment of clumsy advances. Better that I remain quiet, somewhat aloof, yes?, that I stick to brief engagements, hoping that quick bursts or witty repartee might ignite some spark.

Didn’t happen. We exchanged a few words, a couple of laughs, and even shared a touch of personal information during that going-away party, but eventually she tired of Los Angeles life—I assume, anyway—and went back whence she came, to the lush trees of Northern California. On her last night she gave me a cursory goodbye hug, and that was that. I sighed for what might have been, and moved on.

Months later, I discovered that she’d written a novel.

Unsleep’s Village is a bizarre and exciting piece of fiction, and I’ve read it twice, the first time without thinking I liked it that much, the second with a great deal more admiration. It’s unabashedly experimental in form and in scope, a mix of dreams, images, and perceptions slathered upon page after page in a confessional stream of consciousness, broken into three parts: “The House of Saul,” “The House of Teeth,” and “The 8th House.” The book is a rumination on yearning, loss of power, and realities of womanhood that are generally perceived as filthy and untoward. It is a knife with serrated edges, but a particularly sharp one; you don’t realize how deeply it’s gouged you until you’ve finished and the images really begin to spill out.

A book so deeply entrenched in the psyche of its author is not one to be pulled out of some digital bargain pile; the means by which I came across it involved the dusty remains of a decaying bookstore at the south end of Hollywood.

For a few months, a friend of mine and I thought we would run bookstore of our own. We are both bookselling veterans, with ideas about how we would go about running an indie shop honed by years of experience in the trenches. She’d gotten the idea during a trip to the late, lamented Cosmopolitan Books on Melrose and La Brea; the clerk at the time had mentioned to her that the owner, aging as he was in a market that was unfriendly to independent book shops, was planning on closing the store down, leaving a wide literary gap between Book Soup in West Hollywood and Skylight in Los Feliz. She had what she’d initially dismissed as a crazy notion—take over the lease from the owner; overhaul the shop; and reopen with a new name, a streamlined selection of books, and an event space. She pitched the idea to me, I assured her that the idea wasn’t lunacy, and we set about doing what we needed to do to make it happen.

Unfortunately, the primary thing that we needed to do—raise a great deal of money—did not happen. Neither of us had direct access to the kind of capital that was necessary, and the people we approached were either skittish about dedicating the money to an independent bookstore or intrigued by the notion, but never so intrigued that they wanted to do more than have a cursory meeting every few months. We had a great idea and a detailed business plan, but it was all vapor. Eventually, Cosmopolitan shut down, and the space remains empty to this day. The area surrounding it, despite impressive population growth, remains a cultural dead zone—a wasteland of furniture outlets, nail salons, and a steady stream of short-lived restaurants. There was an attempt by the art world to move in and create another gallery district, but everyone that tried eventually ran screaming downtown.

Cosmopolitan had technically consisted of two storefronts, with the wall separating them knocked out. You might think that given this amount of space and the sheer number of books on their shelves that this would make for a browser’s paradise, but instead it was more like a hoarder’s den. One of the storefronts served as the bookstore portion; the shelves were crammed full of dusty, yellowing volumes, and the floors were lined with even more, so that walking among the stacks was a perilous journey, fraught with the danger of book avalanches; shelves leaned, precarious; what few ladders there were, were not tall enough to reach the highest levels, and spotting a gem on those upper echelons was generally a precursor to complicated logistics and the kind of physical exertion usually reserved for mountaineers.

The second half of the space—accessible by squeezing between two shelves used as a barrier—served as a storage space… though “storage” might not be the proper term, as “storage” tends to imply a certain level of organization, and beyond those shelves lay only chaos.

I stepped into that space, and my foot landed on a discarded 3×5 floppy disc, and as I made my way around shelving units that had fallen into disrepair and could serve no other purpose beyond bearing weight, I could see rows of sagging Bankers Boxes loaded with self-help titles, water-damaged pulp novels, ’60s era-Life magazines extolling the virtues of the Kennedy administration, and spiral-bound presentation manuals that seemed as though they’d been rescued from a dumpster after a corporate retreat. There were some hardcover books, too, lining the far wall, beneath a sheet of fallen plaster. They were mostly mediocre mystery titles, bearing obvious pseudonyms—an alphabet soup of initials and small towns: A.J. Whitehaven, Grantlyn R. Butler, Emblin H. Harris… the names embossed with gold foil beneath shadowy images of ominous old houses, or atop fading paintings of drawing rooms.

At the back of the space, just visible above the line of shelves and boxes, was a door, but one that had clearly been blocked by the rising tide of history. To the right of that door, punched into the drywall in what seemed a clear attempt to circumvent the door and avoid upsetting the carefully curated disaster zone, was a large, ovular hole. Within the hole, there was only darkness; sunlight from the window near the top of the wall opposite—though filtered through the clutter—shone directly upon it, but I could still see nothing beyond the rim. The play of shadows upon the surrounding drywall produced a disorienting affect; the wall seemed to pulse underneath it. And while the passage of cars along the road outside made careful listening difficult, every so often I could hear a faint wheezing coming from the other side.

Deep as I’d gotten into that senseless labyrinth, the hole was not too far from me, and given that my friend and I were nearing a deadline in terms of finding funding (if we were unable to prove some sort of real intent soon, the building owners, sympathetic though they were to our aims, were going to begin advertising more broadly), I decided it would be best to see the rest of the building now. I pushed some boxes aside, stepped over a fallen lamp, and climbed along a shelving unit to get around what appeared to be a tarped couch. Jumping again to the floor, I found myself directly in front of the hole. I climbed inside

It was damp. It was the height of summer, and hot all over the bookstore, but it was downright humid within the hole, as though I’d entered a jungle. The air was thick and oppressive. The beads of sweat that had gathered at my brow became a torrent. And still there was no light. Oh, I could look behind me, see back out through the hole, but within there was only darkness. My attempts to explore were limited to exaggerated zombie movements, arms out before me, shuffling slowly so as not to trip. I moved forward, in as straight a line as I could. I wanted to reach the very back wall. I said, “Hello?”—not because I thought I would get an answer, but because I felt that I could use the sound to tell how much farther I had to go. No echo. And eventually, I did trip.

The floor (ground?) was damp beneath me, and soft. I lifted my hand and held it in front of my face. I couldn’t see it, of course, but I could feel it and smell it; it was covered in a sort of musky residue. I reached down to feel what I had tripped over. It was a box. The cardboard had weakened, but it hadn’t begun to disintegrate quite yet. Inside the box I could feel still more books—just a few, and they were also damp, but they seemed intact, though the covers felt soggy and worn. I took hold of the box in one hand and crawled back toward the hole. Once I’d gotten back to it, I lifted the box and pushed it out before me. It hit the floor and exploded. The books inside tumbled out and sprawled; spines broke and pages crumpled, and I had been right about the covers—moisture had eaten them away and left them anonymous at a glance. All except for one, that is. I could see it peering out from beneath the small pile, and once I’d pulled myself from the hole, I picked it up. The cover was a defaced map. The title and author were printed in small cursive font at the upper right hand corner. It was Unsleep’s Village.

unsleep

Unsleep’s Village, Jessalyn Wakefield, 2010.

I recognized the author’s name and flipped the book over. From the back cover she squinted at me, teeth exposed, her mouth dripping blood. I didn’t see mockery on her face, or scorn, but revelation. Perhaps it had been best that I didn’t pursue anything with her. Maybe knowledge isn’t power, but the death of mystery. Maybe a present without mystery has no teeth. But in this photo, and through this book, Jessalyn Wakefield has teeth forever.

“What happened to you?” my friend said once I’d left the storage area. She was standing at the front counter with the clerk. I looked down, and my hands and knees were covered in a rust-colored grime.

“There’s a hole in the wall in the very back. I went in to check it out,” I said.

“What was in there?”

I held up the copy of Unsleep’s Village. “Books. More books.” Then I said to the clerk: “This one has no price. How much?” I handed it to him.

He flipped through the pages and weighed it in his hand. “Just take it,” he said, and smirked. “A keepsake.”

 

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