Thursday, December 8, 2016
ROBERT A. WILSON R.I.P.
Robert Wilson owned The Phoenix Bookstore in Greenwich Village where, back in the 1960s and '70s and early '80s, I sold books to him to help pay the rent and put food on the table for first my son Miles and then for him and his sister Caitlin after she joined us in the city. Wilson was a witty, knowledgable, and sometimes acerbic, fixture in The Village, especially among the poets who went to him first with books they were trying to tell to raise some funds.
I sold off some of my letters from the more famous poets, like one from Robert Bly, and autographed books, that only Robert would either care about or pay top dollar for. His shop was focused on the kinds of "alternative" writers and poets that at the time were not necessarily getting top dollar elsewhere, or even any dollar. But Bob was prescient about the writing that would matter to future generations.
Many of us used Wilson as a source of income (along with Burt Britton, the rare book buyer in the basement of The Strand). Poet and friend Ted Berrigan would give me two signed copies of his latest book so I could sell one to Robert for grocery money. His shop was a place not only to sell books, but to buy or exchange them, since he had the best inventory of the kind of "alternative" and, at the time, contemporary literature of anyone in the city and possibly beyond.
And it was a great place to hang out at too. Robert introduced me to many poets and writers and others whose work I admired when I was there talking to him and they would stop by to chat or sell or buy books. Some I already knew and was friends with, like Berrigan or Ginsberg. Others I didn't know but would get to know after Robert introduced us. He was a pivotal figure in the downtown literary scene from The Beat era to the post-punk one.
He lived a long, full life (check out the NY Times obit here) and thus his death is less to be mourned than honored, and his contribution to a vital piece of literary history noted and appreciated. And, I have to add, that Wilson's passing makes me miss my old friend Ray DiPalma even more, because we would be talking about it right now on the phone, telling stories about Wilson, and Ray's would be bringing up all sorts of memories I cannot evoke on my own, unfortunately. Too many deaths this year.