The Occult Bookstore

This image is of Ray’s Occult Books, the rundown fictional NYC bookstore opened by Ghostbuster Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd). In the time between Ghostbusters I and II,.

Ray had problems dealing with life then. The city of New York had a restraining order on them for the property damage incurred while they saved the city from Gozer in the first Ghostbusters film. Those were hard years following the collapse of the Ghostbusters. He opened a store that specialized in bizarre, strange, and hard-to-find books. Ray tells someone that his books cover alchemy, astrology, apparitions, Bundu Magic Men, demon intercession, U.F.O. Abductions, psychic surgery, stigmata, modern miracles, pixie sightings, golden geese, geists, and ghosts. Peter Venkman was a frequent customer. We know that in 1989, Peter ordered a book a copy of Magical Paths to Fortune and Power.

Discovering this little piece of movie trivia, I immediately remembered an occult bookstore I had gone to with my friends Karen and Bob. Ray’s store exteriors were filmed at 33 St. Mark’s Place, but the store was supposed to be in the cooler part of Greenwich Village. The store I went to was also in the Village back in the 1970s but I don’t remember the location. We always called it “the occult bookstore” and I’m not sure what was its official name – if it had one.

It was as odd as Ray’s and equally odd were the staffers and customers. You could get into some interesting conversations there with people.

I bought a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead there and some incense on one visit. The book is for the living to prepare yourself or others who are dying for liberation and the passage between worlds in the bardo.

I’ve thought about that store and that book, especially when Bob passed from this world and I wondered if he was somewhere in that intermediary place between life and death and the next step.

I know Ghostbusters is played for laughs but I have been haunted my whole life by the idea of ghosts (only once by a ghost) and wondering if there is an afterlife.

Ray’s store shows up in Ghostbusters II, and the third film, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and in the comic book series and board and video games.

Found in Used Books

When I was a student, I used to spend a good amount of time in used bookstores. The attraction was partially the low prices, but it was also the randomness of what I would find. The books were often shelved or boxed alphabetically, by subject, or just in no order at all. One store that I frequented in my Rutgers College town of New Brunswick just had one side for fiction and another for non-fiction. Sometimes browsers did some sorting, making a shelf of textbooks, or putting poetry books off in one corner, for example.

Sometimes, I would pick up a book that had something left in it by the last reader. I found it intriguing in some cases to imagine who was that person and why they had left that item in there. A folded paper as a bookmarker is nothing special, but what about a love note, or a photograph of someone? I have saved several of my finds in the books where I found them.

All this came to mind when I heard a very brief NPR story about the things one library has found in returned books.

I looked into that Oakland Public Library collection that is online where they have classified things (remember, these are librarians) and posted, without comment, a lot of things.

Several of the ones I have found and saved are related to travel, such as airline ticket stubs. In both fiction and non-fiction, I have found 3X5 note cards that suggest someone who was writing a paper for school.

I don’t keep all my found-in-books objects in any formal collection. I went through my bookshelves this weekend and did find a few again that I had recalled. In a paperback of Ellison’s Invisible Man (not the sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells), I found a postcard photo of an embracing couple in the back of a car. On the text side of the card someone wrote “thinking of you.”

The photo is by Bruce Davidson in 1965. It is hard to tell the genders of the couple. Is it two men, women, a man, and a woman? They look both male to me. I don’t recall that Ellison was gay and I don’t recall much of the novel (read 45 years ago). But should the found card and the book that held it be connected?

I found in a used copy of John Updike’s short story collection Pigeon Feathers a payroll check stub and a receipt for the book from a Boston airport bookstore. I met Updike at a reading he gave at Seton Hall University and asked him to sign the book. I showed him the two found items and said “I always thought there must be a story and connection with the three found things.” He signed, smiled, and said “Why don’t you write it?”

I found a crumbled and partial Amtrak rail ticket from someone traveling near Washington, DC. It is dated “27APR17.” I found it bookmarking a copy of Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus which is his first book – a novella and five stories. It is an old book to be reading in 2017. Was someone starting out with Roth and working their way front to back or back to front with his books? Maybe they saw the movie version and so bought the book.

I found an entire packet of photos tucked into a copy of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest. Several of the photos show the same woman. There is a portion of her in the photo shown here. I had to think that this was an intentional insertion, thought the photos were in bad shape. They look like they had been left outside and were water-damaged and wet. Some of the photos have notes scribbled on the back that are difficult to read. Some day I will work my way through them and try to piece together some story. Is it connected to the book which is about Cheryl Strayed’s solo and cleansing thousand-mile+ hike on the trail from the Mojave Desert through California to Washington state?

My final examples for today are the six playing cards I found interspersed in a used copy of Doctor Strange Epic Collection, which collects the first comic book stories about one of the few Marvel characters that I actually have read and watched. This surgeon-turned-mystic superhero is different in these 1951-1968 stories from the Benedict Cumberbatch movie versions. I like both.

The playing cards are strange too. I haven’t been able to identify the game. They all have an island on the back and the fronts have a boulder, a sheep, some wheat, logs and bricks. They seem strange enough to be in a Dr. Strange book and the story in my mind has the cards being tucked in at some comic book store by a kid playing the game. Why did he give up the cards? Why were the cards placed between those twelve pages? I looked for clues. No answers.

Must there be connections between the books and the found objects? No, but I feel like there should be. Maybe the person who put the photos in Wild wasn’t the person who took those photos. Maybe they found the photos and put them in the book and then left both in the Little Library box in a park in Washington, D.C. where I found it. Then again, that too is a connection and story unwritten.

There is a magazine and website for found things in general. I picked up a copy of it when I was in Washington, DC. that was devoted to parking notes. Those are the notes left on a car windshield by someone probably complaining. “Please don’t park here unless you live here…”

I guess I am just one of many who have some fascination with things that have been found. Some were once lost. Some things seem to have been left intentionally. I suspect sometimes the book and objects have been deliberately put together to create a small mystery for someone like me.

Browsing Blockbuster

We use the term “blockbuster” to describe a movie, book, or other product that has commercial success. Back in the 1940s, it described a big bomb dropped from a plane that was capable of destroying a whole block of streets. Somewhere in between the big commercial success and a bomb is the company known as Blockbuster Video.

Blockbuster was an American provider of home movie and video game rental services through video rental shops. They eventually moved, less successfully, to DVD-by-mail, streaming, video on demand, and cinema theater. Does that remind you of another company? Netflix?

Blockbuster was internationally known throughout the 1990s and at its 2004 peak, the company employed 84,300 people worldwide and had 9,094 stores (4500 in the US).

The last three American stores were in Bend, Oregon and two in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska. The Alaska stores closed earlier this year, so the Oregon store got a lot of media attention as the “end of an era.”

The store still looks much like the ones from 20 years ago – all yellow inside, employees in blue shirts and an old computer system. But it still stocks old and new titles. The store still has licensing agreements and leases, and as of now has no plans on closing.

The Alaskan stores kind of made sense. I imagine folks watching movies during those long winter nights and not having cheap Internet. In 2013, there were 13 stores in Alaska.

My own local Blockbuster was in a strip mall. We had two other mom-and-pop video stores locally but they fell to Blockbuster. I have semi-fond memories of walking the aisles with my sons looking for a film that was appropriate and discouraging them from renting film again. “Let’s get something new. Or classic.”

Redbox and other video-on-demand services arrived and I guess people decided they didn’t want to leave their couch to get a movie. In the way that Amazon got people buying books from their couch and killed off many bookstores, Netflix did the same for movies.

I like browsing in person. I find books walking the aisles of a bookstore or library that I would never think to click or search for online. And even with AI, Amazon doesn’t usually find things I am interested in or great accidental discoveries.

Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2010. I didn’t know that the remaining 1,700 stores were bought by Dish Network in 2011.

I hope browsing in stores remains. I accept that the movie store is gone, but I encourage people to walk around their bookstore, hardware store and all small, local stores. Make discoveries.