Book Learning

by Brian Clarey

It’s warm in Glenwood, bright enough for Al Brilliant to read by daylight at the narrow desk in his bookshop, the Glenwood Community Bookshop, while the rest of the neighborhood’s commercial district is still getting to its feet.

He’s open — he’s always open, unless he’s prowling the warrens at UNCG or traversing the city by bus — and there’s always work to do, it seems, though sales are anything but brisk today.

There’s a stack of stories to be collated and bound, for one: Escape Artists, a collection of shorts by Andrew Rayle, will be manufactured into a few dozen volumes, lovingly cut, stitched and glued by hand by Brilliant himself, an independent publisher of long standing.

But now a fellow pokes his head in the door. “You seen Fred?” he asks. Brilliant considers this. “I haven’t seen Freddie in six weeks,” he says. “I hope he isn’t locked up,” says the man at the door. Brilliant holds. “I’ve known Freddie a long time,” he says. “I think he’s okay.” He turns to me. “So what do you want to know about books?” There’s a lot I want to know about books, having realized after I published one that I am largely ignorant of the entire business.

For example, I was astounded by the throng who showed for Snooki’s recent book signing at Barnes & Noble — easily 20 times larger than the biggest group to attend one of my own humble readings — though in hindsight I guess I understand.

I’m perplexed by the notion of making an e-book, or an audio book, or a print-on-demand book; confounded by the pressures of publicity and marketing; made anxious by the suspicion that, perhaps, people really don’t want to buy books anymore.

I mean, there’s websites and smart phones and iPads, and when was the last time you saw anybody outside of a beach or a bathroom actually sit down and read an honest to goodness, letters-on-the-printed-page book?

To add to my unease, just this morning Borders bookstore declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

To navigate this landscape, I reasoned, I could really use some advice. On some levels, it made sense to tap Brilliant as an advisor. He’s been making books, quite literally, since the early 1960s, eventually becoming part of a burgeoning West Coast anti-war poetry scene. Under his Unicorn Press, he published Cry of Vietnam by Nhat Hanh, an internationally renowned Buddhist poet, in 1968. It would become a definitive work of the era, moving, he says, more than 35,000 copies.

But that was before relocating to Greensboro in ’72, before the art gallery in the Village, selling the press about eight years ago, settling into this little shop here on Grove Street, surrounding himself with volumes on art, philosophy, theater, novels both classic and new, textbooks for a well considered life.

“So what do you want to know about books?” I think I’d like to know how to sell more of them, I say.

He thinks this is funny. “I always tell people, ‘Once you put poetry on the page, it becomes unsalable,’” he says. “If you keep it blank, someone might buy it to draw in or keep a journal.”


“I’m not a promoter,” he says. “I believe in ‘attractions not promotions,’ half because I’m lazy, but half because in the tradition of small publishing…” He tapers off, pausing, again, to consider his words.

“People have to make an effort to get these books,” he says, “and I’m not gonna do it with my effort, my money.”

Love this guy. But still, I’ve got these books I want to move. I remind him of his Bus Journal, a copy of which he laid on me after I did a reading at his shop, a straight-up chronicle of his musings and actions during a threemonth stretch of riding the Greensboro bus line.

In between itinerary notes are flashes of backstory, an unfolding series of social events, political commentary, personal memoir and genuine wonder. It is a fascinating chapter of a human life, and I couldn’t put it down.

So what about that? This, too, strikes him as funny. “You want to know what happened with that?” He chuckles. He started that one because of circumstance: He had no car and needed to get to UNCG for a class he was teaching. He’d knew he’d be taking the No. 2 bus from Glenwood into town regularly, and the journal was begun, he says, “to keep myself from feeling anxiety or boredom.

“And once I had the journal,” he says, “why not type it up and publish it?” He made 35 copies — made them. Typed, edited, paginated, cut, bound, stitched, pressed in an old-school wood vise. He sold, he says, exactly one.

Somehow or other, UNCG communications Professor Spoma Jovanovic got her hands on it, and she rearranged her syllabus to accommodate the slim volume. She’s been using it ever since, she says, as a way to introduce her students to the narratives behind the social issues that affect our city.

“Al’s book is a jewel as you know,” she says by e-mail, “an ethnography in our vernacular, that probes serious issues through the lens of personal, embodied experience. That’s powerful. That kind of writing and research is what I am encouraging my students to engage in so that they can learn a little more about our city and about the politics, economics, and social dynamics that influence policy.”

This was in 2008. By now, he says, he’s sold more than 750 of them as textbooks for courses at Elon University and Dudley High School as well, and these days he’s good for about 30 or 40 of them a year.

But that, I say… that’s not a lot of books. “It is for me.” His eyes twinkle when he says this, like a man sitting on an inside joke.

He holds a thin paperback in his craftsman’s hands — each page, each image, each very letter a product of his labor and his love — turning it in the sunlight, considering its existence.

“Maybe you’re asking the wrong person,” he says. But, I’m thinking, maybe I’ve got the right guy, after all.