Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, one of the only all-poetry book shops in the nation—nay, the world!—had its triumphant grand opening a weekend ago. The day was full of cheer, liquid cheer, fellowship, books and chapbooks, and some two dozen readings. Everyone went home happy and fulfilled.
But I missed that. This is not about that.
I turned up at the sparsely appointed DUMBO book boutique, which soft-launched last month, on a Wednesday evening. Perhaps a more typical day at the shop than the day of its grand opening bacchanal, I figured. Small press Song Cave was hosting a reading, promoting new books by Eric Amling (From the Author’s Private Collection) and Nate Klug (Rude Woods), who was “the draw” for me.
Berl’s, not named for a grizzled owner called Berl, flaunts an unfussy hardware-store chic. The color palette runs from gray to grey, from white to light cream-slate. On one wall, there are un-painted, un-stained wooden shelves at eye level. Below them are hip-level Portland orange trolleys. There are chairs of a similar hue. A table or two. The only decorations are a big black-and-white print on a few tarpaulin-sized panels on the opposite wall and few more modest, but similarly monochrome, pictures at the back.
The books themselves are displayed like so much couture. The inventory is almost entirely small press or micropress, much of it in the form of chapbooks, which is practically unheard of in bookselling. Each book, often hand-sewn, hand-printed, or otherwise made manually, stands alone, cover puffed out like a chest full of medals, separated from its neighbors by several inches of precious shelf- or table-space. They are all either adorable, clever, or glorious. The little volumes bask in their freedom and their uniqueness. I’ve really not seen anything else like it. With its open appeals to the eye, Berl’s looks more like a gift shop or a bookbinders’ bordello than a serious book store (“serious” book stores are usually rammed with books, right?), but this could not be further from the truth.
The owners are married poets Farrah Field and Jared White, who recently moved their pop-up at the Brooklyn Flea to a permanent space on Front Street, as they had always hoped/intended to. They consciously see themselves as inheritors and shapers of the borough’s poetic traditions: “from Marianne Moore to George Oppen, Hart Crane, and of course Walt Whitman.” You’ve probably already read about them. (Perhaps here or here or here.) It is worth noting that everyone, readers and organizers, thanked Farrah and Jared explicitly, as if they were guests in their home, which, in a way, they were. The couple do live nearby, when they’re not living behind the register.
The crowd on Wednesday was virtually homogeneous: twenty me’s and twenty female me’s. (“Perhaps that’s just who likes poetry,” some might say.) Still, that’s forty people at a small-press poetry reading on a Wednesday. And this was only one of four events at Berl’s this week. Many people seemed to think they were going to drink a good bit, as evidenced by the abundance of six-packs on the surfaces and floors. But you know what they say about good intentions. Most of that beer, now warm, was still there when I left. In my mind, that means the punters were concentrating very hard on what they were there to see.
I doubt that it was intentional, but Eric Amling’s and Nate Klug’s readings were the two halves of a naughty-and-nice double act. Amling trafficks in our moment’s special insouciance. The semi-serious meets the ridiculous, and they decide to stay together permanently. He speculated that he and his frisking dog are in the background of countless Korean wedding videos shot at his local park. He considered the erotic possibilities of a “wind-powered hand-holder.” He proclaimed: “In the empty ashtray I haphazardly / place my semen as I minored in Art.” One of his poems, “Velvet Real Time,” he said, was composed “after [he’d] finished watching porn.” The title comes from a porn spam e-mail (and sounds like it, too). He then mentioned porn again. Enjoyable stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree, especially when read in a voice ironed completely flat.
Klug, on the other hand, was at Yale Divinity School and is now a minister in Grinnell, Iowa. One of his poems was called “Milton’s God.” His book for Song Cave is a translation of portions of Virgil’s Eclogues. The contrast between the two poets is much funnier now that I think about it than it was at the time, which is a nice thing.
This is not to say that Klug doesn’t raise some hell himself. He told the audience that two of his new poems had been written while commuting between Des Moines and Grinnell. While commuting? This was unclear to me, so I asked him afterward if he composes in his head, like Wordsworth out a-walking. No, he explained, he tries to write lines down as he drives, and he pantomimed an awkward writing motion. I had to laugh. Bad Nate. Also, he said that he regularly passes through Brooklyn, Iowa, and he gave us the town’s regards.
All this is to say that the atmosphere was genial and relaxed, and my internal poetry-reading barometer tells me that this atmosphere is typical of Berl’s. Also, business seemed to be booming. At a poetry book shop. This is headline news.
Make no mistake: in New York, Berl’s is one of a kind and amazing. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to imagine foot-traffic and sales declining once the novelty has worn off, even with several events per week in the evenings. Everyone tries the new neighborhood restaurant once and then six months later wonders what happened to it. This should not be allowed to happen with Berl’s. Of course, you, the reader, are doing your part by reading this and paying a visit. Maybe lots of readers will. They’ll go home happy and fulfilled.
P.S. There was periodic, definitely not-quiet subway rumbling that seemed to me a little “extra-poetical.” It’s obviously annoying when a bard’s hushed tones are themselves hushed by a train, but one feels one mustn’t gripe. Still, I thought I ought to mention it. Personally, I recommend that Farrah and Jared shut down the subway for at least a little while during future readings or on any planned Live at Berl’s albums.