Street Smart Chicago

When the Aspidistra Was Flying: Home, Among the Bookshelves, For the Holiday

Holidays, Lakeview Add comments

By Vincent Francone

Thanksgiving, 1996. The Aspidistra Bookshop was open 364 days a year. If it wasn’t Christmas, the store wasn’t going to close. My family refused to believe this. Who would stay open on Thanksgiving?

I explained to my mother that I would not be coming home that year, that even though the trip was short—just an hour or so from Lakeview to the southwest suburbs—I had to open and close the store.

“Who’s going to buy books on Thanksgiving?”

Not a bad question. I didn’t expect many people to wander in, though few surely would, mostly the oddballs who fit right in among the dusty books and empty beer bottles that littered the shop. They haunted Clark Street drinking endless cups of coffee at McDonald’s and trading conspiracy theories before coming to our store to make my day a bit more surreal. They asked me questions like: “Do you know who really discovered  Halley’s Comet?” But they never bought anything.

One of these oddballs, Bill Beverage, was standing at the counter trying very hard to engage me in an analysis of Mayor Daley’s latest dictatorial move when Ron, the owner of the Aspidistra, arrived to count the register. Since taking his advice and reading William Faulkner, Ron had decided that I was worth talking to. Prior to that, I was the kid who liked the inferior books of Hemingway.

“You can knock off if you’d like,” he said.

But I didn’t leave. The store was scheduled to stay open for another two hours. Ron could’ve handled it by himself, but I couldn’t get it within me to abandon my post. And I was in no mood to see my family. I loved them and they loved me, but Thanksgiving was awkward. Still is. I hate football and turkey, so I always feel excluded from the fun everyone else is having. My male relatives tolerate my presence as long as I don’t talk over the game; the women don’t want me anywhere near the kitchen. I usually spend Thanksgiving reading in the relative silence of my mother’s bedroom, waiting to eat and leave.

The Aspidistra sold one book that Thanksgiving. Some weirdo wandered in, exclaimed “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE OPEN!” and spent an hour browsing the chess section before buying Bobby Fischer’s “My 60 Memorable Games.” Ron and I were drinking by that point. This was a common occurrence at the Aspidistra. He’d show up an hour before close, hand me a twenty, and send me to the liquor store for one six-pack. And then again for another. Never more than one six-pack at a time.

“Hurry up, please, it’s time,” I said, invoking T.S. Eliot. But there was only Ron and Bill and a few other wayward Clark Street regulars to shoo away. And where would any of us go? We were in our place to be, our community. The Aspidistra was where we gathered to drink and talk about books and politics and quasi-philosophy and, mostly, sex.  And that’s what we did that Thanksgiving night, happy among likeminded oddballs with no place else to go.

The store closed less than a year later. I have gone home every Thanksgiving since then. I sit at the dinner table, carb-loading and trying not to drink too much. The conversation is respectable and the company is pleasant, but as much as I love my family I don’t think I’ll ever feel that same sense of belonging like I did while drinking bottles of Guinness behind the counter with my boss while the Clark Street regulars discussed the Illuminati and grilled me about my mafia connections. When the Aspidistra died, so did my community. I’m a vagabond ever since, an oddball with no place to go.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.