Saturday, April 11, 2009

My First Bookstore

Moving from Brooklyn to the middle of Suffolk County mid-fourth grade was a shock to the system. For me, it was all good - a single family house, my own room, grass. All of this was brand-new to me, but nothing more so than entering mall culture.

(interior photo, with a Calder, found by fellow maller James W. Keller)

In Brooklyn, Kings Plaza had opened a year before our December 1971 move, but it wasn't that close to our apartment and was infrequently visited, by us at least. But the Smith Haven Mall, virtually around the corner from our Lake Grove home, was a giant complex and social hub. (Remarkably I could not find a 1970's shot of the mall, including a Calder, not Caldor, ). It was here that I encountered my first real book store, Walden Books.

Walden Books was the Taco Bell of bookstores. It was great until you encountered the real thing. I wouldn't encounter a "real" bookstore until years later, when I would find myself at The Strand or the original Barnes & Noble. For my teen years, Walden was the mecca.

A visit to the mall would always include certain sure spots - Herman's Sporting Goods, Sam Goody's, Orange Julius and, of course, Spencer Gifts, for the sneaked look at their risque jokes section (Horny the Snowman pictured on left), to the right of the black light posters and head shop gear. Walden was number one, though, and to be surrounded by hard covers was like ascending to paradise. In fact, one of the markers of true success in my worldview was when I started to buy hardcover books. It is still as fresh a thrill as getting the mail.

I have always had a not so secret weakness for sports books. Everyone has their junk reading - mysteries, romance, et al. Mine is sports. The sports section was my main haunt and rarely, maybe for a birthday or Hannukah, would I get a hard cover. My favorite from the early '70's: The Brothers Esposito. Sault Ste. Marie still seems like an exotic place for me. One book I always had my eye on was the melodramatically titled When All the Laughter Died in Sorrow, by Lance Rentzel.

Speaking of Horny the Snowman, Rentzel had become infamous in 1970 when he exposed himself before a 10-year old girl in Dallas. It was a headline grabbing case and resulted in his autobiographical expose. I finally got the book at the Cooperstown Library Book Sale last summer, in hardcover, and while I'm about 1/3 of the way through it, I already have some thoughts.

It's a fairly typical 1970's sports book, with standard self-reflection. There are plenty from that era - Johnny Sample's Confessions of a Dirty Ballplayer, even Joe Namath's I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow fits the genre, although Namath's high profile lifestyle makes his story way more interesting.

Rentzel's book explores his life in an attempt to figure out why he found himself whipping it out. He was also married at the time to my favorite Vegas minx, Joey Heatherton, which makes one wonder even further about this fetish. I'm 100 pages into the story and I still see no path explaining why he felt the need to wave his weiner at a schoolgirl. Granted, Rentzel had issues. He was a thin-skinned rich kid, moody with occasional fits of rage. Add to this an obsessive mother that puts Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate to shame, and you could see Rentzel had lots of problems. Nothing seems to point to flashing. We'll see how it turns out.

Most interesting to me, having written about A-Rod and 1960's users of "greenies" is Rentzel's offhand comment that during college he used steroids under the guidance of teammate and nut job, the aptly named Joe Don Looney. That's it. Nothing more. No sturm und drang about the evils of medication. Just a plain statement of fact. If a medium talent like Rentzel was doing it, who else was? And will we look back on 1960's football as a dark time? Yeah, we know that's not going to happen. After all those were the glory days of pure athletic achievement, right?

(The dreaded paperback, at left).

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