Bird & Beckett Books is one of those magical bookstores that make it into people’s memoirs. Something much more than a retail shop, it is a family tradition, a community of writers and performers, a refuge from the commonplace. Even the name, with its lovely alliteration and evocation of two great artists, makes the heart flutter. I support all independent booksellers, but, let’s face it, some, alas, are little more than make-a-buck retail outlets with no more imagination than Taco Bell.
The Bay area is fortunate, however, to have many memorable book palaces: Who can walk into Ferlinghetti‘s North Beach temple, City Lights, without a nod to literary history and the ghosts of beatniks past? Or Field’s on Polk, one of the best metaphysical specialty bookstores you might ever encounter. And don’t forget Moe’s in Berkeley or the late, great Cody’s. You can see many more links here.
All booklovers, I’m sure, have distinctive memories of particular shops. I recall a dumpster of a warehouse-type bookshop in a strip mall in Santa Monica, dusty and unkempt, full of damaged goods, run by a surly and indifferent shopkeeper, where I was delighted to discover a much-longed-for three volume edition of Burton’s Arabian Nights (at a cheap price) for which I’d been hankering for years. Southern Californians will fondly recall hours of browsing at Bertrand Smith’s Acres of Books in Long Beach, a place that was like no other. A special bookstore is just that: special. It’s hard to describe, but among the many bookstores both corporate and independent, certain venues stand out.
What makes a bookstore special? Sometimes it’s sheer quantity of inventory, sometimes it’s specialization, sometimes it’s the personality of an extraordinary owner. And sometimes, it’s just an indefinable chemistry. We walk into certain shops and fall in love.
It was like that for me when I entered Bird & Beckett. It is a long narrow shop with bookcases that seem to refuse to stand in ordinary rows but are turned in all sorts of different directions, a maze of the amazing. Books are not lined up neatly on the shelves, really: there are too many. They topple over into haphazard piles, lean at precarious angles, so that they seem almost to be talking to one another or calling out to you to pluck them out of their precarious perches.
Does it sound musty and dusty? Not at all: the haphazard appearance belies the carefully curated nature of the collection and the high quality of used and new books.
Since 2007, Bird & Beckett has also been home to the Bird & Beckett Cultural Legacy Project, a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose mission is “to present, document and archive the creative work of significant living writers and musicians in the San Francisco Bay Area, for a neighborhood audience and future generations.” Projects include POETS!, a twice monthly reading series and open mic, Jazz In The Bookshop, a Friday night music series and Which Way West, a Sunday afternoon music series. As if that weren’t enough, they also publish an annual literary review, Amerarcana: A Bird & Beckett Review.
Given all that, I knew I would sooner or later have to make the scene at Bird & Beckett, or turn in my hipster credentials and hang up my Storming Bohemian beret.
Mr. Sakkis and Ms. Xu are two exceptional poets. Both of them have reputations as translators, and this was certainly reflected in the elegant diction and surprising technical expertise they displayed.
Below, I have selected a sample from each reader to whet your appetite.
For the second half of his set, John Sakkis presented a remarkable series of poems seemingly inspired by science fiction TV. They are so closely knit, I felt it would be an injustice to break the set down further, so here follows seven minutes worth of this interesting poet.
For Lynn Xu, I have selected a lovely poem dedicated to (and in the style of) Gerard Manley Hopkins. This poem is remarkable for it’s evocative language, depth of feeling, and the utilization of the difficult “sprung rhythm” metrical style of her model. This is a very short excerpt, but its density cannot be overestimated.
The featured readers were followed by an impressive open mic session. Participants were highly skilled writers and readers, who were blessedly brief (something that is always a pleasure at open mics, where egos too often run rampant). Here are two fine examples: