Richard Grayson is the real thing: born and raised in Brooklyn, he's equally at home in the old neighborhood and the hipster revival. His name may be new to you, but he's been writing fiction and nonfiction since the 1970s, and he often writes about current literary events in New York on his MySpace blog. I'm grateful that he followed up on our earlier email correspondence by writing about his memories of the bookstores of Brooklyn; his knowledge of the borough, and his love for it, is deep and wide.
Brooklyn Lit Life Interview
Describe your particular literary project, and your role in it.
I’ve been writing stories since the early 1970s. They’ve been collected, rather haphazardly, into various books, but I never intended to write any books. My first three books, published in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were all the result of publishers contacting me, taking all the stories I sent them, and working them into collections. Later books were published pretty much the same way. I also write memoir and other nonfiction, from humor pieces to op-ed opinion pieces, and in 2004 McSweeney’s published my diary as a Florida congressional candidate on its website and I turned that into a book.
Why Brooklyn? What made you decide to live/work here, in both practical and emotional terms?
I was born here, in Brownsville, in 1951 and grew up in East Flatbush, Gravesend and then mostly in a neighborhood known variously as Flatlands, Old Mill Basin and Kings Plaza (after the mall opened a few blocks away in 1970). Most of the kids I went to public schools and Brooklyn College with couldn’t wait to escape the borough for someplace nicer. I loved growing up here, in a place half urban, half suburban. Our house had a swimming pool, I started driving as soon as I could, yet – unlike most of the kids in my neighborhood – I adored going into “the city,” as we called it. But the future of the borough looked pretty grim in the 1970s, and by the 1980s I was living in Florida and spending most summers on the Upper West Side.
I’ve lived most of my life in Florida and other Sun Belt states and came back here last year. However, I did have brief sublets in the intervening years in Sheepshead Bay, Park Slope and Williamsburg and visited often, so I never really lost touch with Brooklyn.
Brooklyn’s my hometown. I think it’s greatly instructive to return to your hometown when you’re over 55.
Is there a Brooklyn sensibility or character? How would you describe it? How does it differ from the character of New York City as a whole?
I think it’s a kind of feistiness, perhaps engendered by a sense of inferiority to Manhattan. Everyone in the US and maybe the world had heard of Brooklyn. I grew up on all those World War II movies where there always seemed to be a Brooklyn guy in the platoon, with his funny accent and street-smart ways. Obviously that’s morphed a lot in the past half-century, but I think a version of it remains.
There’s also the sense of diversity that I grew up with, although neighborhoods were always quite distinct. I always enjoyed that and liked to travel on buses around Brooklyn outside my own neighborhood, which was very Italian and Jewish. As a kid, I was so nerdy that I liked to collect bus transfers from the different lines. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been continuing to ride the buses. A whole lot of non-brownstone Brooklyn exists that many newer and younger residents reading this probably rarely see.
I love living in Williamsburg, but when I was growing up and even in college, I felt sorry for people who had to live in what I thought was a run-down, decaying neighborhood. Some of my friends who did grow up around here don’t have such good memories and don’t enjoy coming back.
What about your particular neighborhood? Does it have its own unique character? This can include the kinds of people you tend to find there, particular characters or places that epitomize the neighborhood, etc.
I’m in Williamsburg now, pretty much at the center of things, with a short walk to everything the neighborhood has to offer. It’s exhilarating to live here. I like the energy, but to an old-time Brooklynite, a lot of what’s going on is pretty amusing.
I live in a house that belongs to friends I’ve known since forever, on a block I’ve come to for many years, and the older residents are the ones I relate to well – though I go to a lot of the readings and concerts and performances and art galleries and McCarren pool events where I see mostly younger people – I hate to use the term hipsters, but what are you going to do?
But I also feel comfortable all over Brooklyn because I know these neighborhoods well. Last week I was one of very few white people at an Anita Baker concert at Wingate Field in a neighborhood I grew up in. My great-grandparents owned a house a few blocks away, and innumerable other relatives were nearby. I feel I belong in Bensonhurst or Gowanus or the Heights or Canarsie or Kensington because I have personal history in all those places.
I was on my old block – East 56th Street between Avenue O and Fillmore – a few days ago, and the neighborhood seems even more idyllic than it used to be, a great place to grow up even if the subway was a 20-minute bus ride away. There was a moving van in front of the house next to door to ours, and I heard the family out front with their stuff speaking Creole. So I asked a teenage boy looking bored off to the side, “Sak pasé, are you moving in or out?” Out, he said, to Florida – where they can get a house twice as big for half the money. Just like my family when they moved to Florida in 1979. My parents had lived in Brooklyn all their lives.
What do you think of the direction Brooklyn, or at least your neighborhood, is going? What does the future look like in terms of economics, demographics, culture, and other changes?
Thirty years ago, when I was in my twenties, the long-range prediction was that Brooklyn would go the way of Buffalo, Detroit, and St. Louis. There were contrary voices that proved more prescient but the predominant mood was gloom over the decay and a nostalgia for the gloried past of the Dodgers, street stickball, eggcreams, etc.
I try to deal with the changes I’ve seen in some of my stories in And to Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street, such as the title story which alternates between 2005 and the 1970s, or in quasi-memoirs like “The Lost Movie Theaters of Southeastern Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach,” that deal with some of the things that are gone (I’m writing something now about the old Norwegian neighborhood in Bay Ridge that’s mostly disappeared), and in current-day pieces like “Diary of a Brooklyn Cyclones Hot Dog.”
I always thought Brooklyn was a cool place, and I think it will continue to be a cool place. On the other hand, I’ve lived in other parts of the country, and Brooklyn is far from being the only cool place.
I suspect that a good portion of the future literature and art of Brooklyn won’t come from where you’d expect but from non-brownstone Brooklyn, with its immigrants from all over the world. The diversity is breathtaking when I ride the bus down Coney Island Avenue or Third Avenue or Church Avenue.
Two kinds of immigration that saved Brooklyn: the obvious one I just mentioned –fostered after House Judiciary Committee Chairman Emanuel Celler, who represented Brooklyn in Congress for fifty years, got the landmark 1965 immigration bill passed – and the migration of the artistic and professional classes into neighborhoods that started becoming trendy as early as the late 1970s right in the midst of the general decay.
Is there a Brooklyn literary sensibility? Which writers or works most emblematize Brooklyn for you? Which older writers set the tone? Which contemporary writers are you reading with interest?
Growing up, I loved books about other kids in Brooklyn: first and foremost, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and then Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, Irving Shulman’s The Amboy Dukes and later Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and Jay Neugeboren’s An Orphan’s Tale.
Other great older Brooklyn books are Daniel Fuchs’ Williamsburg Trilogy, Wallace Markfield’s hilarious To an Early Grave (later turned into the film Bye Bye Braverman), Aflfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, Michael Stephens’ Brooklyn Book of the Dead, Jack Pulaski’s The St. Veronica Gig Stories (a terrific Williamsburg book), Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete and Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant.
Fiction writers whose works emblemize Brooklyn for me also include Irwin Shaw, Norman Mailer, Woody Allen (whose photo I used to pass every day changing classes at Midwood), Gilbert Sorrentino, James Purdy, Paula Fox, Pete Hamill, Gloria Naylor, Jonathan Baumbach, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Jane Schwartz, Thomas Glynn, Jacqueline Woodson, Pietro di Donato, Thomas Boyle, Edwidge Danticat, and Robert Greenfield.
In poetry, Marianne Moore and later Harvey Shapiro, Robert Hershon and Martin Espada. In drama, Arthur Miller, whose mother used to play cards with my great-grandmother, as well as Donald Margulies.
The best recent Brooklyn writing for me has come from Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster. Touré told me about a novel he’s working on that sounds wonderful.
Why do you think Brooklyn has such a dense population of writers? Is there something particularly literary about Brooklyn? Where and how do people read here?
I got an incredible literary education at J.H.S. 284 in East Flatbush, at Midwood High School, and then at Brooklyn College, where I studied with writers who themselves had grown up in Brooklyn. Despite coming from a working class background where the only college graduates I knew were my teachers and my doctors, since I was very little I assumed living in Brooklyn meant I could become a writer.
In my story “Branch Libraries of Southeastern Brooklyn,” I explore my love for the libraries here. But there were also numerous places to buy books in Brooklyn in the old days, when all bookstores were independent bookstores. The one I liked best was a tiny store, The Book Worm, on Flatbush Avenue off Church, a couple of stores down from the Dutch Reformed Church and across from Erasmus Hall High School and the Astor Theatre, which played foreign and “art” movies. I’d go into The Book Worm with a twenty-dollar bill that my father or grandfather had given me and buy loads of Bantam and Signet paperbacks for a quarter or 35 cents each – later they got more expensive, of course, but still relatively cheap. I can recall buying The Crying of Lot 49 there, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Franny and Zooey and Manhattan Transfer.
But it seemed every neighborhood at least the next best thing: the stationery stores, family-owned drug stores and little holes-in-the-wall that sold cheap mass market paperbacks, including the “classics” lines with everything from Greek drama and Shakespeare to Mark Twain and James Joyce, along with the latest bestsellers (and yes, I read a lot of wonderful crap, too).
There was the My Friends Bookstore that also had used comics on Clarendon Road east of Flatbush Avenue and a store whose name I can’t remember on Kings Highway around East 18th Street owned by two young lesbians who introduced me to writers like Rita Mae Brown and Colette and Jean Rhys. Not far away, just off Kings Highway on Coney Island Avenue, there was a little used bookstore run by the mother of a Brooklyn College classmate that had some odd and interesting volumes. And Sandy Tischoff’s Mostly Books on Cortelyou Road was like a country store gossip exchange for Flatbush that lasted until the 1990s.
Earlier, first-class book departments existed in the department stores like Macy’s on Flatbush Avenue and at E.J. Korvette and Abraham & Straus on Fulton Street, where I worked in my uncle’s slacks store in my early teens, and where I’d spend my money during lunch hours. There were also a couple of musty Fourth Avenue-style used bookstores one block south of Fulton on Livingston Street and another one on Montague Street in the Heights and on Utica Avenue near Carroll Street in Crown Heights that also had comics (I remember buying the first issue of Green Lantern there). A candy store every few blocks on Avenue N and many other avenues sold the comic books I was crazy about.
The Barrons and Barchas bookstores on Hillel Place sold not only college textbooks but also some great literary books when trade paperbacks started becoming the norm.
And there were the really good Community Bookstores in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, where a few stores down on Seventh Avenue there was also the Second Story Bookstore whose yellow steps said something like “Don’t be lazy, books are waiting for you upstairs.”
But by the time I started Brooklyn College in 1969 and taught at LIU downtown in 1975, most of the venues that sold good books had closed. In 1970 when Kings Plaza opened, Waldenbooks – the big shopping mall chain -- had a store there. It wasn’t great, but it was three blocks from my house, and they did take a lot of copies of my first book of mostly Brooklyn stories, With Hitler in New York, when it came out in 1979.
However, by then I pretty much went to Manhattan for books: Eighth Street, Gotham, Shakespeare & Company, Soho Books, Doubleday, B. Dalton, Books & Company, St. Marks, Coliseum and the rest, including a bunch of literary bookstores whose names I’ve forgotten and which are long gone.
I’m glad to see we have some new and wonderful bookstores in Brooklyn again.
What events, series, readings, happenings, places, stores, publications, movements, etc. seem to you currently interesting or important in the Brooklyn literary world?
I’m no expert on today’s scene, but I’d say the Brooklyn Book Fair, Fort Greene Summer Literary Festival, and the many reading series at a number of venues around the borough, in bars and bookstores and other places, such as at the Stain Bar, Unnameable Books and the Old Stone House. Also there are excellent literary events at the public library, at Brooklyn College (where the MFA program is now one of the best in the country), and at less-heralded venues like Medgar Evers College. 826NYC in the Slope is doing amazing things for kids. There are great organizations and publications located in Brooklyn. The borough president’s office has been very helpful, and I don’t say that just because I’ve known Marty Markowitz since his graduate student government days at BC in the early 1970s.