Books (and Books) Everywhere, but Not a Drop to Think

Searching the cultural ghetto for a clean, well-lighted place for books

The woman behind the counter was chipper, eager to help, and utterly clueless when Bandwidth requested Echo and the Bunnymen at the Plantation Barnes & Noble recently. In fact, the look of confusion she shot us indicated that our request was by far the weirdest thing she'd heard all day. So we turned around and began digging in the racks ourselves, finally turning up the Crystal Days box set. So we paid our money and left.

Purchasing anything from these mega-chains feels worse than buying porn with your mom in tow; it's embarrassing, and there should be an alternative. Just breathing the air of a place advertising the new Sting album for $18.98 makes one crave more than just Napster or iTunes. It calls for armed insurrection.

Falling just short of revolt in the streets is Disassociated Books, a tiny shop tucked between an adult video store and a tattoo parlor south of Searstown on Federal Highway. Proprietor Brian Berman offers slices of sexuality and edgy coffee-table art tomes that you'd never see at Borders or Barnes & Ignoble. "I try to gear myself toward the counterculture, as far as it's concerned," Berman explains. "Not that there is much of a counterculture anymore."

With ears pierced and the holes stretched by inch-wide clear inserts, one arm banded with black ink, hair and scruffy beard about the same half-inch length, Berman looks like a savvy version of a Borders/Barnes clerk -- the type who wouldn't glaze over with ignorance when asked about Echo and the Bunnymen.

And he is a retail veteran of Broward County's booksellers. Berman has done time at the Barnes & Noble in Plantation as well as at Borders in Coral Springs. "Borders was more laid-back," he says, but the corporate environment was, uh, not exactly to his liking. "I had to quit because they wanted me to work too much one day, so I just walked out."

Smaller book and record stores including Bob's News and Uncle Sam's helped Berman develop his knowledge and accumulate stock for Disassociated. "I did learn a lot from all of them," he says, "and that's kind of brought me to where I am now."

"Now" happens to be 6 p.m. on a drizzly, darkening, weekday evening. The orange neon from the video store casts weird rainy shadows on the front door of Berman's shop, which is shaped like a boxcar, running the length of the building but only about eight feet wide.

Six years ago, explains Berman, he entertained the notion of opening a CD store in Himmarshee Village. "I thought there was money to be made," he explains, but rents topping $2,000 a month changed his mind. Now he shells out $700 for the Disassociated space, which is near enough the action for him. "It's pretty close," he observes. "Broward and U.S. 1 is like the center of downtown Fort Lauderdale."

Berman's idea is right on. Downtown Fort Lauderdale ought to have an independent bookstore. And it doesn't. The last such shop, Liberties Fine Books, Music & Café, was located on Las Olas Boulevard. It closed two years ago. The town's central business district is rapidly becoming more residential than retail, and these new inner-city dwellers should demand a book and CD retailer within walking distance.

But Las Olas Boulevard is hardly the place a self-respecting local would look for intellectual stimulation. It's already a cultural ghetto, what with O'Hara's insulting tourists with faux jazz and meaningless yuppity boutiques with names like the Gilded Turd selling overpriced trinkets. A street anchored by a Cheesecake Factory is unlikely to exhibit much interest in counterculture literature.

After spending a week checking out movies at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, Bandwidth has all but determined there is nary a part of Broward County as abhorrent as Las Olas. Except for the Floridian, which I fully expect to be a Gucci boutique by the time you read this. The enduring image I took away from evenings with the film festival crowd: an overperfumed middle-aged woman, carrying a small dog, stalking down the sidewalk, and sneering at the little people who dared block her path. That, folks, is the face of the new improved Fort Lauderdale.

Which leads us back to the inner-city's only maverick bookseller, Berman. "I wouldn't mind it being cleaned up a bit around here," he notes, glancing at a homeless man peering through the front door. "It's still kind of seedy."

Berman says his father helped launch Disassociated, which to Bandwidth seems something of a gamble. "Of course," Berman agrees, "but the way I went into it, it really wasn't. I didn't invest much. I had some cash, and I already had the stock. They're mostly my books, and my dad donated a bunch. Plus, he helped me build shelves and stuff." The landlord who owns the building was hesitant at first, but "the owners of Babylon [Tattoo, next door] were way into me getting the spot. They pushed the deal through."

Berman still has another job, serving coffee in Coral Springs. Disassociated Books has been open about three months, and Berman's there from about 2 to 10 p.m. every day but Monday. There's no telephone. There's some spillover business from the triple-X video store. People waiting for a buddy to finish up with a tattoo can stroll over and look. "A lot of my friends know I'm here," he says, "but without a business license, I can't advertise. I can't have a sign in the window, not even an 'open' sign."

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