“… the stories we could tell~ Jimmy Buffett
If it all blows up and goes to hell“
I’m the kind of guy who loves a good story – the telling of it, the listening to it, hell, the living of it. It is said that we all have a tale to tell – this is but a smattering of mine.
So much comes down to my decision to turn in my badge and six-shooter on a twenty-six year flirtation with politics. It was a decision to return to first things – my first things: books and a kind of engagement with the world that leads to writing and a bookish life.
It was a decision made while sitting on a bar stool. The year was 1997. The bar, a hundred feet from the red door that would ultimately open into my own bookstore. That door would open onto much more than just a room lined with books.
Don’t get me wrong, electoral politics offers one of the most rewarding and revealing lives one can ever hope for. It is meaningful work – the kind of work offering ownership in things that can actually change lives. It delivers an unparalleled sense that one is actually writing themselves into the meta, the story of our time. It also offers an often sobering peek beneath the hood of our cultural zeitgeist.
There were people (it always comes down to the people): a slew of US Senators (Dole, Bond, Aschroft, Blunt) – to a man, erstwhile presidents all. There was Blunt the Younger who delivered to Missouri its own poet laureate. There were a couple presidents (Bush the Elder and King Geo II) and a KC Chiefs QB turned Politician – a vast repository of football theory and giant of a man who could literally palm a dinner plate. There was fellow KC homie, the US ambassador to the Queen’s Court. Margaret Thatcher comes into it as does Charlton Heston (now that is a story).
But I get ahead of myself…
Before the politics, I was a child of rock-n-roll. Three years of smoke and bars and late nights at the Interstate truck stop outside Salina. Crisscrossing these middle states from the Rockies to the Mississippi, the Dakotas down into the great state of Tejas. Fellow performers greeted sleepily in the wee hours at the gas pumps: Walkenhorst and Phillips and Ruth still to become The Rainmakers; Dug, Ty and Jerry and their proto Kings X power pop incarnation, Sneak Preview; Donnie Miller and his Rock.
There was that year in London. Note: The Good Pub Guide is your friend. 47 Park Street and Le Gavroche – Albert and Michael Roux’s little Micheline starred bistro with its back hallway encounters with the stormy, enfant terrible, Gordon Ramsey. My months Chef’n for the Priests of the Brompton Oratory, my third floor room with its rattling door and back-alley vista of the Victoria Albert. Hours stolen in the Harrods book shop, surreptitiously cover-to-covering War & Peace and For Whom the Bell Tolls – always a wary eye to elude the floor detective.
In that country, there were trains and trains and more splendid trains. Wine from the jug with a car of students crossing from France to San Sebastian. The only words we shared, the only words we knew how to share, the lyrics to Beatles songs. Hangover heads in Pamplona, a week too late for the running, calling for us to follow the bulls down through Spain to Seville. There was sleeping on the beaches of Malaga. Chilled to the bone by damp sea air, watching passing tankers, the lights of Tangier visible on the strait. Full moon hours jamming and drinking horrible Italian beer in some roadhouse outside Piacenza. Paris and Venice – oh damn, Venice! The poverty of San Remo. The damp wine cellars of Bruges. Fontgombault and L’abri. The places and faces and times – each a novel unto itself.
Mom and dad, both gone now, loved to repeat a story of finding me in far-flung rooms of the house, a toddler, just sitting, speaking words over and over to myself. Puzzling over pronunciations, stringing nonsensical strands together just to hear how they sounded in each other’s company. You’d have to consult a shrink to be certain, but these are probably the first hints of my life-long, underpinning pathology.
There’s been KU Rowing and radiant lovers (on occasion, a contiguous demarcation). A wife has come and stepped away. I have a splendid son to show. Three ladies, waltzing into the late scene’s frame to anchor and expand my horizons, to challenge and stick it out when others didn’t. Thank you Leslie! And, of course, I would be remiss to overlook a menagerie of four-legged friends.
I’ve, now, co-owned Prospero’s Books for 22 years. It seems a lifetime. That cold, damp November 19th, the date, itself, holding a juju I was hell-bent on claiming. Art openings and musical performances (over 2,000 of them) began before the year’s ending. Chap books followed soon thereafter. Spartan Press became a living breathing thing, and has brought to print over 200 (and still counting) books of poetry, fiction, memoir and essay.
Like I said in opening, this could all be a yarn from a book pulled from one of Prospero’s shelves. A hell of a page-turner with week-long poetry readings, literary discussions come to fisticuffs, NYT headlines, flagons of wine and whiskey, intrigue and work. Lots and lots of work. There have been afternoons of cigarettes and conversation with the likes of Robert Plant. Emails with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Delving into the Kennedy conspiracy with Robert Groden (the Zapruder film).
The thing is – there is more to come.
Right here on this page, I will be posting regular blogs. There will be new releases and books. Soon, work currently out of print will again be available. Right here. I invite you to visit again and again … Hell, bring others with you.
In the meantime, leave me your email below and I’ll keep in touch.
~ Will Leathem, October 6, 2019