Either/Or Bookstore and “Barbarian Days”

Linda’s late sister, Brenda, had two sons, Mason and Luca, and when we saw them at a wedding this past fall, we gave each of them a gift that we hoped they would enjoy. Since Mason is an avid (and by all accounts, an extremely adept) surfer, I suggested that we give him a copy of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan. I ended up buying two copies of that book, in part because I started marking up the first copy with notes or underlining sentences that deserved some kind of commentary. At the top of page 114, for instance, Finnegan recalls applying for a job at a bookstore in Hawaii, where he landed with his girlfriend, Caryn, with not much in the way of financial resources. They were living out of a borrowed car, and using an allocation of food stamps to allay their hunger pangs. While Caryn snags a job at a restaurant, Finnegan passes a “comprehensive book-knowledge test” administered by the owners of Either/Or, an off-shoot of “a larger store in Los Angeles.” Finnegan twice cites the location of the original store as “L.A.” in that paragraph, so I have to take his generic geographical attribution as a lack of faith in a reader’s desire for precision in a memoir. Either/Or Bookstore was located on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach, which at the time had a surprisingly active “underground” arts scene. Not that the local cops tolerated it more than they had to. The Burbage Theater, for instance, had its first theater located there, only to be invited to leave town by the authorities.

Finnegan does mention one detail that correlates with an odd feature of the bookstore: it didn’t have a phone. You could get a bookmark from the store with the days and hours of its operation, and its address, but there was no phone number listed. The rumor was that the owners had disputed a phone bill, and refused to pay. The phone company, it was said, informed them that they had better pay or they would cut off phone service. “Fine,” the owners supposedly said, “go right ahead.” “How do you expect to survive as a business without a phone?” “Watch.”

And they did. The store had a terrific selection of books. In fact, it had a better and more comprehensive rack of literary magazines that Papa Bach Bookstore did in the early 1970s. It was at Either/Or that I found issues of Pebble, edited by Greg Kuzma, and The Lamp in the Spine, edited by Jim Moore and Trish Hampl. I also saw a copy there of the first book of poetry by a writer named Charles Baxter. It did not have a picture of him.

Either/Or lasted at least in the 1980s. I remember spending a chunk of my Christmas bonus money from working as a typesetter at Beach City Newspapers at the bookstore. One of the books I bought was Sam Shepard’s Hawk Moon.

Finnegan has the rare ability to make his subject matter a metaphor for how he uses the language to convey his experiences and perceptions. The first sentence of the final paragraph reads, “The waves kept pouring through, shining and mysterious, filling the air with an austere exaltation.” The “waves” are also words for Finnegan, and the afterglow of the book is indeed “shining and mysterious.” I wish Either/Or were still around for young surfers in Hermosa Beach to buy a copy of. The poet Mark Jarman surfed that beach back when Either/Or was flourishing, and I would recommend some of his surfing poems for anyone wishing a supplement to Finnegan’s recollections of a “surfing life.” I myself, by the way, can barely swim. My efforts at dog-paddling are so rudimentary and excruciating that it often seems to onlookers that I am attempting to do a parody of Jim Carrey’s antics.

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