Wednesday, January 12, 2011
The Naked Book Guy
Tuesday and Wednesday, January 11 and 12, 2011
On my day off in Quartzsite on Tuesday I did some of my usual day off things—went to the laundromat, bought a few groceries. I visited downtown Quartzsite, which is a mix of RV sales and service places and flea markets, with a few fast food joints thrown in for good measure. The people are mostly from somewhere else, and the license plates on the trucks and cars tell the tale—Montana, the Dakotas, Idaho, Utah, Alberta, Manitoba.
The coin laundry was jam packed when I got there and most of the machines were in use, more business than I’d ever seen in such a place. The big difference between this one and the many others I’ve visited is that I was a bit under age here. No harried moms with snuffling kids in tow, being pulled three different ways at once while trying to do a mountain of laundry. The folks here—couples for the most part—were well-groomed seniors carrying duffels of adult laundry and engaging in adult conversations with one another. Interesting, but a bit disconcerting.
Out on the strip I wandered through a few dozen booths of new and used merchandise, the full range of flea market stuff, in search of the naked book guy. There’s a guy here in Quartzsite who sells books while naked, or at least just wearing a little thong. My friend Michael Roberts sent me some information and a website of a photo of him and of course I had to check it out.
Not finding him right away, I went into a trailer that housed the Quartzsite Chamber of Commerce and asked where “the naked book guy” was. Readily the volunteer showed me on the map where I could find him—at his own permanent place, not one of the itinerant pole and tarp stores—called Reader’s Oasis Books. In fact, he said, the map he was using to direct me to him, a copy of which I bought for a dollar, had been drawn by none other than the naked book guy himself, whose real name is Paul Winer. He also draws cartoons for the local paper, in a style reminiscent of Robert Crumb's. The volunteer also told me that Paul will be performing his boogie woogie piano cabaret act tomorrow night, but with clothes. It seems (and I got some of these details from the man himself) that for many years he performed under the name Sweet Pie, singing his own songs, some bawdy, and accompanying himself on the piano, in the nude.
When I arrived at Reader’s Oasis, a small brown building, the man I recognized from the photo as Paul Winer was busying himself with rearranging the books on a table out in front under the overhang. It was the “everything for a dollar” table, right next to the “free books” table. He was clothed, it being a rather chilly day, so my recognition of him was based on his appearance from the neck up. Winer is 67, with shoulder length hair, still mostly dark, and a full grey beard. He’s a whippet, probably no more than 5 feet 4 and 130 pounds, and even underneath his hand-knitted sweater and sweatpants I could see the wiry contours of the body whose nakedness had at one time been his bread and butter. But it’s his physiognomy that is really memorable. Above his beard and below his sunglasses he has a major league schnozzola, which is a good thing, because without it his features might all but disappear behind the hair and beard.
For a minute I watched him as he energetically and fussily rearranged and neatened the books on the dollar table. He was into it, talking to himself with obvious passion. “This is nonfiction,” I heard him say as he plucked a book from one stack and moved it to its rightful place. I addressed him cautiously, as you might a celebrity you meet on an airplane: “So, which books move faster, the ones on the dollar table or the ones on the free table.” He dropped the sunglasses down on his considerable nose and looked at me. “The free ones.” “Oh,” I said, “I thought it might be the dollar ones. I have a theory that people will pay a low price for something before they’ll just take it for free, because they think the free things are worth nothing, whereas they’re getting a bargain with the cheap stuff.” He didn’t answer, so I went on awkwardly. “But then, I’ve never been in the book business.” I decided on a different tack.
“I hear you’re playing tomorrow night.” This made him suddenly more animated, and he began discoursing freely in a full blown Massachusetts accent, dropping Rs from their rightful places and adding them where they don’t belong. “Where are you from originally?” I asked, then added, “I mean where did you get that accent?”
“Boston,” he said. I told him I’d lived in Connecticut, and he said he used to play Shaboo in Willimantic back in the 70s. I told him that Willimantic had fallen on even harder times than when he had played there, and the only thing I could remember about it was a place in the center of town called the Hotel Hooker. He laughed.
It seems that Paul Winer was a moderately well known minor cabaret act on the Massachusetts shore and elsewhere in New England, playing the piano and singing in the nude from 1965 to 1990. He told me somewhat sadly that he wouldn’t be able to sing some of his favorite songs tomorrow night because of the language in them. He claims to have practically coined the phrase “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke,” the title of a song he wrote, which he released on his one and only album in 1971. He says Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone knew about his song and during an interview with Bette Middler pointed out to her that Winer’s song had predated her use of the term. “That was my claim to fame,” he said proudly but with a self-effacing smile. “I said, ‘Jann, if you knew about me, why didn’t you write me up in Rolling Stone?’”
“Twenty years ago I quit music completely,” he went on. “I didn’t sing, I didn’t play the piano, I didn’t even listen to music, because I wanted to devote all my energy to building this.” He said it as if he were referring to the Taj Mahal, but I could see he was talking about his bookstore. I looked over his shoulder at the place, wondering if there was something I didn’t know about the intricacies of running a small book emporium. But no question about it, he did have that dollar table looking spiffy.
After a bit I figured I’d let him get back to running the business, although it was obvious he wanted to keep talking about his musical career. “I played all across Canada,” he said. “Well,” I said, “I’ll be at your show tomorrow. Would it be okay if I took your picture now?” “Sure,” he said, striking his signature thumbs up pose. I clicked the shot and said, “My cousin’s going to be disappointed that you’re wearing clothes today.”
Enthusiastically he offered to inscribe a bookmark to her, and scampered into the store to get one. I followed him, waiting while he talked to several patrons. Everybody kept asking him, “How come you’re wearing clothes today?” I assumed it was for the same reason the rest of us were. He finally got around to signing the bookmark, then handed it back to me. On one side was a photo of him naked except for his g-string, surrounded by his books. On the other he’d written, “Suky--If books were clothes, I’d be well-dressed. Paul Winer.”
The next evening, Wednesday, I duly attended his concert. It was at the Quartzsite Improvement Association hall, the largest gathering place in town. He’d warned me to get there early, that it was going to be sold out and that over seven hundred people would attend. I admit I was skeptical, but sure enough, when I got there the place was packed, and I almost didn’t get a seat. Someone mentioned that the capacity of seven hundred fifty had been exceeded by at least two hundred.
Paul Winer plays boogie woogie piano, as I mentioned. This night he was accompanied by a guy playing a one-string washboard bass. Up on stage he’s sort of a cross between Mr. Natural and Jerry Lee Lewis, with just a touch of Victor Borge. Only, well, not all that good. His voice probably isn’t what it once was, but then neither is Bob Dylan’s. Bob, on the other hand, writes good lyrics. I longed to hear him play “Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take A Joke,” even if those were the only words to the song.
Between songs he carried on an amusing and self-deprecating patter, punctuated by little glissandos at the high end of the piano. He told of years of playing small hotels in remote parts of Canada, like Slave Lake and Yellow Bear and Moose Jaw. He met his present wife in Kitchener, Ontario. He boasted of having played in every part of that country except Labrador. After a few only slightly inspired songs and some more jokes the whole thing started to come into focus. The move from naked piano player to naked book guy had probably been for the best.
I confess I left at the intermission, so I might have missed the better half of the show. I hope I did, really, for his sake. But the oldsters, almost a thousand strong, clapped appreciatively, and Paul Winer, now Quartzsite’s own, is a true local treasure and a genuinely nice guy, clothed or naked.