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Books and mortar

A Tulsa revival reveals a layer of invisible lore

Lewis Meyer

Courtesy Tulsa World

“How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” - Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

Idling in Brookside traffic, I found myself glaring once again at the sad facade of the Brook Restaurant and Bar, remembering fondly the patio now swallowed whole by tall panes of looking glass.

I pass by it all the time, often four times a day, but seldom ponder further than the reflection, blue-green like golf visors. But that day I channeled deeper and recalled Lewis Meyer’s bookstore, the former landmark it displaced, at the corner, flanking the Brook Theater. It was a different Brookside indeed, and a much sleepier Tulsa, the day I walked into the shop for the first time, looking to pad my home library.

Over the next four years, following the off-speed pitches of Meyer and his then bookman, Mike Vogle, I bought volumes. Thick things: Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, the Constance Garnett translation of War and Peace, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, a bunch of Michener I never read. And curiosities: The Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons Complete Home Medical Guide. I was an easy sell. They’d give me tea and cake and I’d give them money. Money I didn’t necessarily have, credit being Monopoly money. 

Later, when I got around to A Moveable Feast, a line came home to roost:

In those days there was no money to buy books. Books you borrowed from the rental library of Shakespeare and Company, which was the library and bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 12 rue de l’Odéon.

Reagan was in office. Why rent when you can own?

I’d go after work, pulling up along 34th Street in front of the door. Inside, I was spellbound to a century’s worth of literature dressed in slick jackets. Meyer’s shop was a bandbox, too small for loose curation. I knew every book in the place. The ones I did not own owned me.

I tried, once, in a Brook booth over a platter of nachos and a beer, to recreate the aisles, the stacks, of those days, but they were too incongruous. As were the two halves of my life, each at opposite ends, with only books between.

* * *

The city is undergoing an editorial revision. In this, the 121st anniversary edition, entire chunks of the first draft, previously abandoned, are being reclaimed for new chapters. Outdated excerpts are being rewritten, polished, targeted to a newer, broader audience. Whole scenes have been scrapped, but others shape-shift, their ghostly remnants residing in the margins, tantalizing tales told between the lines.

Certain characters, inevitably, get lost in translation.

* * *

Lewis Meyer has been called, by those who profiled him back in the day, “a small cyclone,” “the elfin man with the leprechaun smile” and “the pixie with the pointed ears.” “His words can be like shiny little knives,” one reviewer wrote before praising his candor. “Lewis Meyer is a madman,” wrote another, less a commentary on Meyer’s psyche than his energy, which was infectious.

He was enough of a novelty in 1967 to make a guest appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the only game in town before cable and YouTube. The significance of this cannot be overestimated. Imagine Henry Primeaux on Jimmy Fallon.

Meyer hosted his own program on KOTV, Lewis Meyer’s Bookshelf, a kind of Romper Room for the bookish, from 1953 until his death in 1995. And he wrote, too: Preposterous Papa, eight editions published between 1959 and 1992, in five languages; Off the Sauce, on his alcoholic bouts; some half-dozen others.

Then there was the shop, which first appears under “Bookstores” in the 1956 edition of the Tulsa White Pages, joining scant others.

“There was no competition,” said the poet Ron Padgett. “The other bookshops were either religious or newsstand/soda fountains. Plus, I guess, the used book stores downtown around Archer.”

In high school, Padgett hung out in Meyer’s shop so much that he got offered a job. When he, Dick Gallup and Joe Brainard launched a literary journal, The White Dove Review, Meyer let him sell it in the shop. All five issues reside in a bound volume in the special collections at the McFarlin Library at TU.

“Lewis and Natasha ran a personal bookshop,” Padgett said. “It had a kind of hominess to it—including their cat, Chat. Between the two of them, Lewis and Natasha could give you a synopsis of every book in the store.”

It became personal for Padgett, too. When Meyer began selling trade paperbacks, he put the young editor in charge, allowing him to stock to his mind’s content, modernists such as Camus and Kenneth Patchen, Lorca and Baudelaire. Books, Padgett recalled, “by authors that Tulsans weren’t reading or buying.”

“Through Lewis,” he said, “I started feeling that I was part—a small one—of the literary world.”

I felt that, but from the outside looking in, a nascent itching I would scratch, always reading and sometimes dreaming, wondering how I was ever going to make time for all the tantalizing stuff crammed into the rows of shelves like Baltimore rowhouses.

Meyer moved his store in 1994 to London Square—down from the Bull and Bear, on Lewis Avenue, named for S.R. “Buck” Lewis, a lawyer, an idea that Lewis Meyer, a lawyer, would have deplored—and of course it was never the same. Out of the nest, he died a year later.

* * *

One of Meyer’s books, Pooped!, I found in downtown branch of the city-county library. “The Last Word on Sex Manuals,” the subtitle promised.

Published in 1972 by Nash Publishing of Los Angeles, it joined a wave. Sex lit was to the ’70s what celebrity cookbooks were to the aughts. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). The Joy of Sex. The Happy Hooker. Our Bodies, Ourselves. Human Sexual Inadequacy. Deep Throat.

From Pooped!: “Take it from me, whoever advocated having sex in Jell-o was crazy. Words cannot describe the awful sensation of having all that rubbery stuff up to your chin. Irma chose lime-flavored Jell-o because I happen to be allergic to orange. Even so, in words of one syllable, I couldn’t get it up.”

The ‘70s, however revolutionary in terms of sex, may have been the beginning of the end of satire. Meyer wrote well in the form. It was in his wheelhouse, for one, but also likely because he knew that it sold. Whatever, that last line triggered a memory.

“Mark, you ever read any Hemingway?” Mike Vogle asked me one day.

I’d not—an almost unimaginable confession for those who know me.

“Read this,” he said, handing me a paperback—Scribner Vintage, with the flapper on the cover and the toro lying dead in the sand—of The Sun Also Rises. “You’ll love it. It’s about writing and drinking and fly-fishing—”

“No, no, Mike,” Lewis said from his corner. “It’s about a man who can’t get it up.”

I took it home, flipped to page one, and that, as they say, was all she wrote.

* * *

This past Easter morning, with most of my coffee shops closed, I went to the one on Cherry Street. While the granola has long been baked out of Brookside, Cherry Street, with its farmers market and New Age bookstore-massage den and myriad pizza joints reeking of oregano and garlic, at least still smelled hippy.

I ordered and went to a table outside. Across the street, where a two-story house turned retail shop had been, was a hole in the ground, and a construction fence roping the perimeter. The wind, or something, kicked up, and I went to find a seat inside.

Waiting for my Americano, it occurred to me, as it sometimes but not always will, that I used to buy used books here, when CHOCS was First Edition, owned by the mother of a guy I used to work with on The Tulsa World copy desk. So much has changed, so many nooks abolished, so much glass case given over to desserts, that I can’t picture it anymore as the den of bookly delight it once was.

Then I noticed another change. Gone were the screen doors that used to let in the breeze and the woodsmoke from the patio chimney, replaced by steel-and-glass commercial units. I went outside and crossed the street, to look back. The facade had been painted, cleaned up, modernized. The wacky mural on the west wall, thankfully, remains untouched.

Easter Monday, back in the saddle, I Googled “Cherry Street construction” and found a line from a World story too precious to paraphrase: “Bruce G. Weber will feature an expanded selection of Rolex products. Store 5a, an upscale, preowned jewelry concept by the owners of Weber, will occupy the first floor of a new four-story building along with CycleBar, a premium indoor cycling studio.”

Four stories? On Cherry? This struck me as excessive. Patrick Fox, of Fox Allen Realty, which recently moved its offices to 15th and Quincy from 624 Boston, the old Oklahoma Natural Gas Building, ca. 1928, occupies a one-story building on Cherry Street.

“We begged for stuff to get better here,” he said, “and I know they are when people start bitching about it.”

The renaissance of Cherry Street, if I may stretch it to that, has been years in the making. Decades, really, ever since the brewpub moved into the Lincoln School building. Jason’s and Chimi’s followed, to anchor. But when Chipotle and others paid more than $20 a square foot for the buildout at Troost almost a decade ago, that’s when things turned.

Bruce G. Weber Precious Jewels, a presence in Utica Square since 1975, took over the not-so-old la Madeleine space. Tidy rows of Birds and Limes line the sidewalk out front. The construction up and down the street reminds me of the supersized mansions taking over neighborhoods like Bryn Mawr and that whole mile south of Edison Prep, all mahogany and gray slate and white stone.

“Keep in mind, the future doesn’t mean all old buildings are torn down and replaced with shiny new buildings,” Fox said. “Good buildings live multiple lives. It’s exactly why Cherry Street is thriving now. Because the buildings are good. The urban environment is good.”

No one thing tipped it, but Fox cites the combination of new housing north of Cherry, and thoughtful renovation of the remaining good bones.

“If a city is static, that’s bad,” he said. “You’re either a futurist, or you’re not. They’re getting nearly $30 a foot in some places on Cherry Street because the old is the future.”

* * *

What goes around.

Back in my car on Brookside—baby Riverside, but for the last three years, when it became the default rerouting for Gathering Place and the Arkansas overflowed its banks. In the Raw, about to open on the roof of the new Vast Bank building, launched its sushi flagship in the old Dunwell Cleaners building in 1998, across 34th from Lewis Meyer’s bookstore. An irony that Lewis, I like to think, would have applauded.

A horn honked and I got back in step. A young woman stood at a crosswalk, about to take her life into her hands. The old Ribbon, still restless, shining white like the Dover cliffs.