CBGBS meets Shakespeare & Co!
A leather loveseat and a pig-faced bascinet.
Compared to the famed Shakespeare and Company by Gonzague Pichelin, a French filmmaker whose award winning documentary "Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man" celebrates the legendary Parisian shop and its late proprietor George Whitman, The Raconteur is a bookstore in Central New Jersey owned by Alex Dawson and John W. McKelvey. The Raconteur sits on no river and while Shakespeare and Co. faces Notre dame, this Metuchen shop stands across from, well, a dry cleaner, but with its looming bookcase "corridors," an in-house publishing company, and strong connections to many acclaimed poets and novelists, similarities to what Dawson calls his "romantic model" abound.
The Spider Monkey's sideman.
In 2006 Dawson befriended Jeremy Mercer, a writer whose account of living and working at the riverside bookstore, Time was Soft There, was touted by illustrious Beat poet Lawrence Ferlenghetti and won raves from The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal. Dawson had just finished Mercer's memoir and his affection for the book compelled him to invite Mercer to participate in Rac Fest, an annual literary event sponsored by The Raconteur, despite his overseas address. Mercer, who wrote an article for Britain's national newspaper The Guardian titled "The Top Ten Bookstores of the World," agreed to participate in the spring festival as well as write the introduction to Dawson's Raconteur Reader, the inaugural book of Raconteur Publications. Mercer also put Dawson in touch with many of the lauded shops on his top ten list, including Atlantis Books, a store cut into the volcanic rock cliffs of the Greek island Santorini. "That's always been my mission," says Dawson, "to be a village shop, with strong ties to the community, but to also have connections and aspirations that extend beyond New Jersey." And not just to Manhattan where Dawson, a former NYC bartender recently shepherded a group of ten on a literary pub crawl called The Raconteur Get Lit Tour, but to the world as a whole. "Our goal," Dawson says, "is to be on some sort of global radar."
Cover illustrator Chris Gash (w/daughter Lucy) at The Raconteur Reader launch party.
Slowly but surely, they seem to be getting their wish. For two years The Raconteur has been a well kept local secret, but the word has since spread. Time Out New York recently called them "a literary landmark," and Mercer, in his second Guardian article about bookstores, referred to the shop as "a literary sanctuary," dubbing Dawson "a bearded maverick." New York Times columnist Peter Applebome, who labeled the store a "literary center of gravity" in his summer 07 article for the internationally circulated newspaper, has been one of The Raconteur's most resounding advocates. "The Times has a pretty incredible reach," says Dawson, who received e-mails from across the country (and one from Istanbul) shortly after the piece ran. The article's title, "Get Your Motor Running, Head Out to the… Bookstore?" refers to the literary motorcycle club Dawson, who owns a Vulcan Classic, began several years back. The club, which now allows bibliophilic "cagers" (people who drive cars not bikes) to tag along with supplies, meets at the shop and proceeds en masse to a location of literary significance. The Raconteur Motorcycle Club was featured in the travel book, Novel Destinations: Jane Austen's Bath to Ernest Hemingway's Key West, published by National Geographic.
Clay McLeod Chapman bewitches an audience with a performance of his short story "The Pool Witch."
Dawson, who was the Artistic Director for the Manhattan theater company Bon Bock Productions before opening the shop in 2004 (with co-owner John W. McKelvey), admits to having a strong impresario bent. Accordingly, The Raconteur prides itself on its accomplished and eclectic programming and their calendar includes everything from rock shows and movie screenings to staged radio plays and arm wrestling tournaments. "I've never thought of the events as ancillary," says Dawson, "in fact, they were always pretty much the point." The general idea being, the books pay the bills and enable The Raconteur to operate as a sort of free cultural center or as Dawson puts it "a Floyd's Barbershop for people with esoteric interests."
CLICK HERE to see pics from The Raconteur's recent staged production of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE at MCC!
Julian, serving as both victor and opponent, precociously plays an entire game of chess in his head.
A one time Manhattan set designer, Dawson says the look of the store is inspired by his adolescent memories of a bar called Baal. The Baal, named after the famous Brecht poem, is a hundred year old student pub in Munich, Germany where Dawson, just out of college, lived for six months. "It felt like a bookshop, lots of stained wood and leathery spines, a first edition of Magic Mountain under a glass dome that looked like a cake dish, and a big bust of Homer," recalls Dawson. Doing similar double duty, The Raconteur feels like a bar, serving comp libations at all its events and using empty bottles of Laphroag, Absinthe, and Grappa Ruta to decorate its shelves. Indeed, the shop, which is only four years old, has the layered look of a store that's been around for half a century. Alongside the bottles sit illuminated glass globes, author busts made of plaster and crushed marble, and dusty Underwoods as big as payroll safes.
Feather lobed hippie chick considers kissing dead pheasant at front counter.
Wooden masks hang, pop-eyed and snaggle-toothed, next to original paintings of Bukowksi, Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson. A leather loveseat(pulled from the curb) stands across from a battered (but in tune) pub piano, complete with drink rings and cigarette burns, and the palm horns of a Maine moose fan out from the wall, big and grabby, above the gold-barred back of stuffed ring-necked pheasant. "Last fall I read an article about Hemingway," says Dawson absently fingering the long, serpentine sleeve of an authentic canvas straitjacket draped over the back of a chair , "in it his Havana home, Finca Vigia, was described as a cross between a 'strange museum and a little boy's room' and I remember thinking: well, that sort of nails it."
But in the age of Amazon and hotel sized superstores does selling books at a small town indie really cover expenses? "We hold our own," says Dawson. Along with a rigorously edited selection of new bestsellers, The Raconteur has over 25,000 "previously owned" books which include eclectic out of print titles like Jack Douglas’ Observations of Deviance, a large assortment of signed first editions like John Rechy’s City of Night, and a cabinet of antiquarian collectibles which boasts a rare 1st edition of Stevenson's Kidnapped. They also teach writing workshops, publish their own books, rent hard-to-find foreign, classic, and independent DVDs, and sell Raconteur brand merchandise (T-shirts, coffee mugs, book totes).
Jeff Maschi plays the titular character in Papa, a play about Hemingway by John DeGroot.
Previous guests include: Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries), Jenifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad), Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief), Alex Gibney (Gonzo), Patrick McDonnell (Mutts), Paul Muldoon (Horse Latitudes), Kelly Link (Pretty Monsters), Jim Shepard (Like You'd Understand, Anyway), Charles Bock (Beautiful Children), Todd Solondz (Life During Wartime), Ian MacKaye (Fugazi/Minor Threat), John Crowley (Little, Big), Daniel Pinchbeck (2012: Return of Quetzalcoatl), Stephen Geoffreys (Fright Night), Noelle Kocot (Poem for the End of Time), Rachel Hadas (The Ache of Appetite), Samantha Hunt (The Invention of Everything Else), John Wray (Lowboy), Greg Attonito (The Bouncing Souls), Gabriel Brownstein (The Man from Beyond), Jess Row (The Train to Lo Wu), Shelley Jackson (Half Life), Arthur Nersessian (The Fuck-Up), Robert Kaplow (Me & Orson Welles), Joe Bini (Bad Lieutenant, Grizzly Man), Clay McLeod Chapman (The Pumpkin Pie Show), Elizabeth Gaffney (Metropolis), John Welsey Harding (Who Was Changed & Who Was Dead), Robert Festinger (In the Bedroom), May Pang (Instamatic Karma, Loving John), Paul Watkins (The Ice Soldier), Sheila Kohler(Cracks), Keith Nelson (Bindlestiff Family Cirkus), Kurt Wenzel (Lit Life), Mark Doty (Fire to Fire), Mike Edison (I Have Fun Everywhere I Go), Arthur Phillips (The Song is You), and David Gates (Preston Falls).
Samantha wearing Raconteur Moto T.
CHECK OUT PEOPLE UNDER THE STEREO (the newly pressed vinyl and vintage clothing store under THE RACONTEUR)!