Tag Archives: Sweetbitter

Judging Books By Their Covers

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad / Collage by Richard Kehl/Getty

Jason Diamond | Longreads | October 2017 | 19 minutes (4,639 words)

I had two wardrobes growing up: The first, at my father’s house, was made up of Air Jordans, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein. At my mother’s house I had no-name brands, sneakers that were worn until they were falling apart, and second-hand shirts and sweaters that we’d pick up at the local Goodwill. That was life living under two different roofs of divorced parents in different economic brackets. My father had everything, my mother had very little. My father took us to the mall to buy things, my mother, more often than not, to thrift stores. Malls, where everything was laid out perfectly, were places to be seen carrying shopping bags; thrift stores, meanwhile, were intimate and offered more adventure. At some point, despite kids making fun of me for my shabby clothes, I grew to like the second-hand places more; you never knew what you would find. As I got older, I still shopped at thrift stores out of financial necessity, but it was also an aesthetic choice.

When I think back on the things I found in thrift stores as a teenager, my mind flashes to the jerseys of former Chicago Bulls who played during the first-half of the team’s dynasty run in the 1990s (#54 Horace Grant, #10 B.J. Armstrong), electronics no more than a decade old that were already considered obsolete, and countless copies of Whipped Cream & Other Delights by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Like a prospector, I spent my high school years combing through Abercrombie & Fitch shirts worn by the kinds of kids I tried to avoid, strings of used Christmas lights, power suits I considered wearing as a David Byrne in Stop Making Sense Halloween costume, and other things people didn’t want or need anymore, all to find one tiny morsel of gold. Those little nuggets included an “Aloha Mr. Hand” Beastie Boys ringer T-shirt when I was 14 at a Salvation Army, an autographed picture of Tim Allen that I taped up in my locker as a joke, a sealed vinyl copy of Let it Be by The Replacements, and a Mies van der Rohe-designed Barcelona chair for $40. In my trash heap of a college apartment, I played video games and spilled beer on this pricey piece of designer furniture. I assume my roommates threw it out after I left.

I’ve always gravitated towards older things. I didn’t want to wear anything brand new from The Gap or “No Fear” shirts like my classmates did, and I liked the idea of being surrounded by items people didn’t want anymore. I preferred the old VHS players that went out when DVD players came in. Cassette tapes, old copies of National Geographic and Esquire, along with other relics, served as an education of sorts. They were things I saw as a small child but hadn’t been allowed to touch or own. I’d look at old furniture and notice hand-carved signatures in the wood, a sign that somebody had made it — it wasn’t some mass-produced lump of particle board.

Then there were the books. High school had taught me about Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin. Thrift stores gave me my first tastes of Karl Marx, Saul Bellow, Albert Camus, Mary McCarthy, and Salman Rushdie. Both invaluable curriculums, but second-hand books allowed me an opportunity to design my own for about 25 cents a lesson, or five for a dollar. The covers made me feel like I was in a dusty little art gallery: The Modernist designs of Alvin Lustig for New Directions; the iconic, handsome, orange Penguin paperbacks; the seedy, sexy characters of 1950s pulp fiction.

I mostly judged the books by their covers, but there was one in particular I became obsessed with, inside and out. Used copies of this ghostly relic from 1984 are as common in thrift stores as old Barbra Streisand records or Sega Genesis video games. It’s a book I love, which I’ve had on every bookshelf I’ve owned; a book and a cover that I think sum up so much of my taste: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

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