Peter John McLean
Campbell’s Books and Liquor (Personal History)
When I was nineteen, my mentor Stevo called me out of the blue one day, alleging he was “running a bookstore.”
“You’re serious,” I said.
He went on to explain vaguely how he had befriended an eighty-year-old WWII veteran who owned a bookstore and now, for whatever reason, he was operating it on his own. I should join him and help out, he suggested.
I lived in an apartment nearby and didn’t have any hobbies, so I dropped by. Sure enough, it was a hole in the wall with dusty shelves packed with beat up paperbacks, vinyl records, and random antique shit. Pretty much what you’d expect.
Stevo was there, sitting in a saggy old chair, legs crossed, cigarette dangling from his fingers, exuding his characteristically girly affect. He jumped up when he saw me and guided me around the store, prancing like a ballerina as he showed me all of the books and cool toys there were to sell, gesticulating about with his tattooed arms. There certainly was something magical about the place: the owner had actual cats that lived and roamed in the store, sleeping in the front windows, and wheezing from the latent cigarette smoke. Smoking hadn’t been legal in Colorado for at least five years, but neither Stevo nor the WWII vet seemed to care.
One of the reasons I kept hanging out with Stevo was he always had some weird shit going on. I guess my life wasn’t interesting enough on my own, so I would usually tag along on whatever adventures he had planned as, for better or worse, they were never boring. I quit my job working at a call center so I could sit around at the bookstore, illegally smoke cigarettes inside, and occasionally try to convince dawdling tourists to buy a fucking book.
At first it was just me and Stevo and occasionally the veteran, who would sit pensively in his special chair that no one else dared sit in because he frequently pooped himself. Stevo and I would sit across from him in metal chairs, equally pensive. Everyone was pensive in the bookstore, even the cats.
Stevo and the vet would talk over my head about Salinger, James Thurber, the going rate of silver and gold, the vet’s wife’s antique doll collection, and the Internet. They spoke about it ominously; they were unsure of its use but relatively certain it would bring about their demise.
At this time, Campbell’s Books averaged five dollars a month in sales. The vet feared that the Internet might take that away.
I was nineteen, I could only take these five mile per hour conversations so long. I quit my job for this shit. I convinced my friend, Paul, to start hanging out, then another friend, and another, and another. A week later there were four of my friends, myself, Stevo, and a twenty something unemployed Juggalo who I think lived with his ex-girlfriend or his sister or both who Stevo knew and insisted was “totally cool, bro.” We never got along with the Juggalo. It was partly my fault, and TCK’s fault, and maybe Paul’s fault as well. Anytime Paul or I met a Juggalo, we would share a quick collusive glance and then ask the Juggalo what being a Juggalo was all about.
“It’s about family,” any given Juggalo would say. And Paul and I would nod somberly, wondering where and how all Juggalo’s had been briefed in this exact same answer.
When we weren’t inquiring about Juggalo philosophy, we tried to earn the store some money. Stevo alleged that the store was earning way more money than it was when he had started and that was probably true. Stevo would find scraps of wood and paint angels with the faces of pro snowboarders on them, sure that this was marketable and not weird. I would write on my laptop, smoke cigarettes illegally, and drink and Paul would try to convince Stevo to stop painting tits on Marky Marky because his parents might visit the shop one day.
It seemed normal enough that Paul would ask Stevo to reduce the overall breast count of the store, but Stevo often cried over this and then danced, smoked, got drunk, and curled up in the corner of the store in a blanket for the night. I usually slept at the bookstore too. Sometimes my friends did as well.
In a few more weeks, Stevo was crying every night. No one knew why but since it fit with his otherwise overtly effete behavior no one really cared. He also started drinking earlier in the day, smoking in front of the rare customers the store attracted, and – worst of all – sneak dissin’. He had transformed into a 1950s caricature of motherhood right before our eyes and no one had the heart to notice.
He’d ask me to deliver some shit for him since I had a car, a driver’s license, and was sober during the day time. I’d blow him off and he would whine to my friends. He would drink a martini and a cry. He would run his fingers across the fine china to cheer himself up. He was spiraling.
I started helping the shop out. Not because my 55 year old ex-con homosexual mentor had convinced me to be more responsible, because I was fucking bored. I started listing the high dollar antiques on Craigslist, responding quickly with emails to anyone who sounded interesting. I posted the seventy year old camera on Ebay. I started advertising locally.
Things got worse when RJS and I took the day to drive out to my parents’ ranch and do laundry. Stevo had planned on having a little tea party and doing some drywall, which he assured us he was an expert at. After his tenth Tom Collins, however, he apparently couldn’t figure out how to work plasterboard and had an episode. To everyone’s surprise, however, the Juggalo was a skilled builder and managed to complete the whole drywall project himself. I admit I was amazed when RJS and I pulled back into the lot. Stevo was sobbing into his oversized knit sweater, knees against his forehead, a cigarette dangling from his fingers as usual. The Juggalo seemed cool, though he was covered in sheetrock dust and drywall.
Stevo threw a tantrum – at me, not RJS, about how unbelievable it was that we abandoned him at the store. In his time of need, he said.
It was weird.
He went back to drinking, even earlier in the day now. Paul and I, being the supportive friends we were, would laugh behind his back about how he had escalated to drinking straight gin at nine in the morning, often greeting customers with one hand while guzzling his sunrise martini with the other. The man was losing his mind.
He would cry every night, about different things, and give everyone hugs that lasted far too long. He would tell us about prison and how he definitely didn’t do what he was incarcerated for (he totally did) and how he would never go back to prison no matter what. He would complain about his mom, who he lived with, and how abusive she was. She didn’t respect him. She wanted him to get friends his own age.
I think that was why he stayed at the bookstore. He lived with his mom and would have to crawl back into her house and listen to her berate him about being a fifty something ex-con living in a bookstore with a bunch of post-highschool assholes. His relapse into alcoholism had been recent as well and no one was sure if his mom knew.
RJS and I made selling shit a bigger focus. We met an aging New England woman who called herself something like Tree or Arbor and told me with a straight face that some of her best friends were trees. I remember because I laughed out loud and she said, “no, I’m serious.” She paid me and RJS to clean up her dead brother’s apartment and told us to keep anything we wanted. I got all of my luggage and some of my oldest lamps from that apartment. Thanks, tree lady.
Stevo continued to spiral. He was drinking all the booze we bought, smoking all the cigarettes, and streaming gay porn on my laptop after everyone fell asleep. He didn’t have the slightest idea how to delete history, so we would all get up in the morning and giggle at his search terms the next morning. He had no idea.
And then it ended. We were all in Colorado Springs, ignoring Stevo’s whiny texts and drinking martinis at a bar that claimed, “Jagermeister is our house wine.” He got sad that no one would answer his increasingly neurotic texts, threw all of our stuff out behind the bookstore, and sent us a picture text. We rushed back, took our stuff, and stopped going there.
That was the end of it. RJS and I went back to drinking and sleeping at our apartment. Paul and TCK went back to visiting the apartment, sleeping on the floor, and ignoring Stevo’s calls and emails which continued for weeks afterward. It was a lot of fun and even now I tell people that I ran a bookstore, allowing them to assume I managed some actual business that did shit like selling books, when really I just drank, smoked, wrote on my laptop, and laughed at the porn search terms of a fifty five year old ex con who lived with his mother.