Las Vegas: A Potemkin Village
By Bruce McKinney
On the crowded planes fired from distant places, rifle shots of people determined to have fun and heading for the Las Vegas bulls eye - McCarran Airport, are warming up in expectation of becoming overheated once they reach the strip. The flights are the dead spot that precedes the hoped for euphoria. Whether the draw is the gambling, the girls or adventure, everyone has a reason for going, an objective. Even the prissy sorts that will soon parade their “I’m not doing this or that” are part of the tapestry. Howard Hughes, it turns out, had a good eye for depravity and we, today’s recruits, will spill our credit cards in obeisance whether we gamble or not. We are heading into an America with its hair down.
So it was recently that I visited Vegas, the trip the prize for my wife reaching a signal level of years. Her wish was to bring in our families for a memorable long weekend and two weeks ago we did just that.
As a person good with numbers the probabilities for me outweighed the possibilities so I used my free time to visit old and rare book dealers. What I found were three companies working their opportunities, each in different ways.
I first visited Bauman Rare Books, the Philadelphia based upscale booksellers with locations on the upper east side in Manhattan and on the strip in Las Vegas at the Gallery – The Shoppes at the Palazzo. Their facility here is serious, the shelves lined with the visually appealing as well as the historically significant. The presentation is very “A” scale and the audience, more often than not, the well-to-do cardiologist, psychiatrist, broadcast anchor, businessman or movie star. They are located at 3327 Las Vegas Boulevard, Suite 2856 and keep open-every-day Vegas hours, that is open 5 days a week from 10:00 am to 11:00 pm and on Friday and Saturdays 10:00 am to midnight. The audience tends to change dramatically from week to week and so inventory is airlifted in to put a first of Common Sense in front of lawyers, Freud’s firsts in front of psychiatrists, and rare cookbooks in front of chefs. It is altogether a smart way to sell books, customizing the inventory and making it visible along the route that the world’s talent takes in its circumnavigations of the Las Vegas bubble.
By car or taxi five miles northwest two other dealers go on about their business. Nevada is very over-built and the city, in its heyday thought it needed square miles of shopping centers that have now gone mostly vacant, the spaces running down, the signs bleached white by the sun and wind, grass sprouts bending away from the wind and portending a victory by nature if this race continues its present course. Here, on opposite sides of Decatur Street and perhaps three quarters of a mile apart across eight lanes of traffic, are some of the true believers, people who grew up with books and now, well into their sixties, continue to believe in them. Myrna and Lou Donato, once of San Diego and here for thirty years have been local long enough to have seen the ponies breakdown. But never mind. Myrna specializes in cookbooks and was recently recognized in Vegas Magazine for her skill and selection. Lou looks after everything else. In their eyes are friendship, even fun but not a lot hope. The empty buildings nearby, the evident wear, the empty parking lot and the stray weeds make clear this is a battle zone, a Beirut of books and civilization mashed by a declining economy, a situation so tough even Democrats may vote Republican. While we talk a young mother and her child course the shelves of used children’s books and try to negotiate for a handful of worn titles. “Half off, that’s it. I can’t do better.” Next-door is a commandeered boarded-up store to stack, sort and price the lucky books that will make it into the retail space. The remainders will disappear, going to good homes and causes that can benefit. It’s a business and a tight ship and needs to be. Just a month ago and three miles distant The Book Magician, the Donato’s old shop, cashed their chips.
Across the way Greyhound’s Books hangs out under a Used Books sign about the size of Rhode Island. The sign needs to be big because what traffic they get needs to see them from the distant highway. With for-rent signs everywhere they have become a destination retailer without ever leaving their mall’s precinct.
Here one half of the DeFlumear life-long partnership, Phil, takes some time to talk. They’re open six days a week 2-6. It’s quiet today and I expect quiet most days. In my experience bookshop owners often live in the thrall of their material and I think this is the case here. Phil, 68, is new to the Vegas game, being here only 7 years after a Washington DC career that included a steady transition from bureaucrat to bookseller going back to the 1980s. Books are in the man’s blood, he needs them and I think its fair to say they need him. To keep the embers alive he teaches “bookselling” at the UNLV, once the stalwart university basketball powerhouse under Jerry Tarkanian. No doubt a few bookmakers have misread the synopsis and signed up. He’s a true believer.
Phil and his wife Barbara, with no children of their own, are helping their niece to attend Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. Such gestures are important because the real world seems to be a planet or two away. Rumors of bankruptcies and closings are rampant, holding steady in the grim economy a feat.
I didn’t go to Vegas with any expectation but came away with an impression that biting adversity has sharpened the wits of these booksellers. If Noah said there was only room for a few I’d nominate this group. They are toughened by their experience, their eyes narrowing into a natural, well-earned skepticism that says "I'm listening and "now what." They are interesting people; even a throwback to an era I thought was gone. But no, old ideas and approaches were responses to problems then and similar problems now evoke similar responses. Today, with times tough, the bones in their vertebrae are fixed and firm and they, if they live long enough, will see the present turmoil through to that moment when the planets once again align.
In the mean time, if you can break free of the casinos and are in thrall of the printed word, give yourself a positive experience. Visit these folks. They carry a precious piece of the old world into the new, a piece that is needed if not often enough appreciated.
Originally appeared in Americana Exchange February 2012 Issue