Dulcinea: An Unusual Bookshop

[This is the seventh installment of my memoir, The Long Walk Home. Click here for a complete table of contents.]

During the years 1973–1976, following my first visit to LourdesI joined the guru Gulliver and others in running an alternative antiquarian bookshop called Dulcinea, located near Gulliver’s former growth center, Lilliput. Here we planned to practice the principles of the Gurdjieff Work in the “full glare” of public light. The shop was named for a character from “Man of La Mancha,” Gulliver’s favorite musical. He fancied himself Don Quijote and sang “Dulcinea” as though he loved and honored women. I came to doubt that was true.

During my senior year in college, I volunteered at Dulcinea. After graduation in June 1974, Gulliver hired me as the first full-time employee and named me president. My promotion raised eyebrows among fellow workers, who wondered about my relationship with Gulliver and suspected nepotism. This left me in the uncomfortable position of taking part in a “spiritual community” while having few friends—just one of the dissonant realities I lived with during those years. The following excerpt describes Dulcinea as I remember it.

We purchased a run-down shop in one-stop Nowheresville for $125,000. Since 150,000 volumes came along with the property, the purchase price amounted to 83 cents per book, plus free real estate. “You’ll be lucky to pay the bloody taxes and insurance,” the outgoing owner muttered as he folded the check into his pocket. “And good luck with the book selling. Nowheresville’s days as a destination are kaput.”

What emerged over the next year, my final year in college, was one of the more outré bookshops in history. If you are unfamiliar with the French adjective, here are some synonyms. Dulcinea the Bookshop was—weird, queer, outlandish, far out, freakish, quirky, zany, eccentric, off-center, unconventional, unorthodox, funny, bizarre, fantastic, unusual, singular, extraordinary, strange, unfamiliar, peculiar, and odd.

And incredibly successful for all that.

Part of the success formula was the all-volunteer labor force, which kept down costs. On any given weekend, the three stories of Dulcinea were staffed by upwards of forty volunteers at a time. That is, there were almost always more staff on the premises than customers. Some of us were college and grad students. Others were young professionals taking time out from work and family to give Gulliver an average of ten hours per week. All of us followed him as a “teacher of the Work.”

Another key to Dulcinea’s success was the costumes. Gulliver’s idea was to turn a book shop into a floorshow. While a mariachi band plunked out tunes by the cash register, beneath a chandelier that would have wowed Liberace, each clerk dressed up like a character from the category for which they were responsible. Imagine all of the costumed float riders from a Macy’s parade diverted to lower Manhattan on Thanksgiving Day and set loose in the Strand Bookstore. That was Dulcinea.

In the beginning, Gulliver instructed us to “improvise.” He said each clerk was free to develop his or her own idiosyncratic costume and character. So—
  • Long-robed “Moses” patrolled the Religion aisle bearing two tablets made from washboards hinged together. She sang off-key renditions of “Go Down Moses” and other spirituals while strumming her washboards with a nail file. Moses wore a strap-on fake beard and authentic décolletage she didn’t have to strap on.
  • In one of the more esoteric portrayals, Tyrone Slothop, antihero of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, worked the New Fiction isle, offering banana breakfasts and spouting mathematical and chemical formulae from the postmodern text. None of Slothrop’s outbursts was more terrifying to the casual shopper than the sudden mad shout of the book’s opening line, A screaming comes across the sky
  • An Albert Einstein with a very bad Brooklyn accent worked the Science section. The glue on his mustache kept slipping, and don’t even try asking him to explain relativity. 
  • The History lead’s approach was understated in the extreme. He hung a rear-view mirror from his forehead. Nothing else. He thought it was clever, though he could only see his own face. 
  • The Women’s Studies lead was a hirsute weight-lifter with a name tag identifying him as Cynthia. 
  • My own favorite beat was the 19th century Am Lit shelf, where I rubbed shoulders with Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Whitman, and Cather while dressed as the raft from Huckleberry Finn.
Within three months, Gulliver had vetoed every costume and character and began dictating what each of us should do. Such vetoes often occurred in medias res—shouts and threats of bodily harm in the “full glare” of main street—that is, when the shop was open and customers were circulating. Humiliation became one of Gulliver’s prime leadership principles.

This was terribly disturbing but also profitable. Once Gulliver took  over costume and character design, store traffic tripled. We, the characters, felt abused, but our customers were more amused. In general, most of the male staff began appearing in as little clothing as possible, while the female volunteers were freighted with so many layers of costuming they could barely raise their arms. For example—
  • One of the younger college boys recruited by Gulliver worked the British fiction isle as Mowgli from The Jungle Book, wearing only a scarlet loin cloth. 
  • Another young man illustrated calculus for math readers by painting a new integration problem each day on his bare chest. One middle-aged man, putatively interested in gardening, began chatting up math boy every time he came in—until Gulliver accused the man of being “a fag.”
  • The history shelves were now monitored by a chorus of Marie Antoinettes, complete with wedding-cake wigs and hoop skirts so wide the women couldn’t walk the aisle. Instead, they pointed from the end with long lorgnettes, like fairy godmothers out of Disney.  
As usual with Gulliver, there were payoffs to compensate for the abuse and embarrassment. The first of these was a deeper understanding of “work on oneself.” It was a main tenet of the Gurdjieff Work that the student must practice non-identification. That is, to develop the powers of attention and objectivity needed to see oneself and one’s life clearly and to approach the desired state of self-remembering, one must separate oneself from the events occurring round about and especially from one’s mental and emotional reactions to these events inside oneself. So, no matter how unjust Gulliver’s behavior might seem to be, we were asked to remember that he provided such behavior generously as an opportunity to practice non-identification. This is what we were all here for, supposedly, and the best students thanked him silently for these opportunities, sometimes repeating to themselves, “I wish the result of this suffering to become my own for being.”

Another payoff of Gulliver’s taking total charge of our characters and costumes was that Dulcinea began edging into the black financially. A third, which followed from our financial success and the general outlandishness of the scene, was the awed admiration of our community—local, regional, and even national. In Dulcinea’s third year of operation, my last full year there as it turned out, we were invited to the White House for a national literacy day and dinner—all seventy of us in costume. This was thrilling. Gulliver prepared us for several weeks, schooling us on etiquette and just what to say to a President and First Lady.

When my chance came, I kept it short and sweet. As we passed down the receiving line, President Ford eyed me suspiciously and asked, “Jonah and the whale?”

“No, Mr. President,” I replied, “Ahab and Moby Dick.”

Also at the dinner was a representative of the “Mr. Rogers” show from PBS, who became intrigued with our group. He began talking about guest appearances on “Mr. Rogers” by some of our children’s characters, especially Stuart Little (male) and the team of Kanga and Roo (hugely padded females). But when Mr. Rogers’s rep made his due-diligence visit to Nowheresville, he learned that our company was all-white, with not a single black or Hispanic member. (Gulliver never mentioned his mother’s Spanish origins. He was an American citizen now, he said.) This disqualified us from a PBS appearance. Equally damning, I think the PBS guy also picked up on Gulliver’s misogyny.

[I would get a front-row view of Gulliver’s attitude toward women in the months ahead, when he encouraged me to date a colleague named Stephanie. That story’s told in the next excerpt.]

NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved.

To read the next excerpt, “Books That Pointed The Way,” click here

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