I stay in Park Slope and for the longest time, I did not understand a strange pedestrian phenomenon that was observable outside my apartment.
People walking down the street from one direction mostly scowl at me and people walking from the other direction invariable wave and nod at me. I put this down to my unscientific observation, but quite quickly, after I started noticing this, I realized that it really was the case.
I was intrigued.
My first panicked reasoning was that my profile view was not symmetrical on either side. Did I really look evil when viewed from one side and gentle when seen from the other? I have always had such doubts. I decided to investigate this phenomenon a little more deeply. I started observing people from the window of my apartment on the first floor. However, from here too, I noticed the same pattern. The upstream pedestrians and tourists were being ignored by the downstream wayfarers when greeting the latter in passing.
After many failed theories, some of which included studying types of establishments on either side, traffic, and road quality, I took to taking it as the resident mystery.
When at Berkeley Place, and even now, at nights, whenever I need to clear my head, when I am alone nowadays, or even when Mira and Neha were home, or even before Mira was born, I walk to Unnameable Books on Vanderbilt Avenue.
I moved out of my apartment in Berkeley Place recently, but that short walk along Berkeley Place, through Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, and down Vanderbilt Avenue, is one of my most soothing routes, one to which I turn to time and again in times of stress.
“I am going out for a walk”, generally means I am walking to Unnameable Books.
Park Slope is picturesque and the brown stoned streets and housings exude a casual and comforting opulence. It is the kind of neighborhood that I would love to hate had I not been living right here. It is an enclave of super-rich, white, bohemian families, who can afford to be nice to each other and worry about the world. Like reformed supervillains, they have them about them an air of renounced evil.
During the daytime, when walking up the streets, the different shades of bricks that give the houses their warm, brown feeling, reflected from the sun reminds me a little of Europe. The stoops run up to elegant doors and the smaller doorways hidden under the stoops are Hobbit-like in their beauty.
As Tolkien would have put it, “In a hole in the ground there lived a Park Sloper. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a Park Sloper-hole, and that means comfort ”
It is however in the night time that the walk’s secret is revealed. As the ambient light dims, and the warm yellow lights start popping up from within the houses, the insides of the apartments are brought into sharp clarity. Inside, amidst tastefully furnished residences, lining the walls that have subtly curated artworks hung upon them, are bookcases. Every house features excellent specimens, with well-read books, stacked and overflowing. I know they are well read for a couple of reasons. Spines of library books, most probably from the nearby formidable Brooklyn Library, with their oversized zebra code, shows that there is a rotating flow of books in the house. Then there is the placement of the bookshelf that indicates that the bookshelf is built for use and not just aesthetics. Such clues generally align and I have concluded that readership is rife in the area. I consider myself well read, but I would be hardpressed to claim I am above the average in Park Slope.
It also talks to the advantage of the rich that reading and books have such a place of prominence and status, already giving the young inhabitants of these houses a leg up in a society where the facade of deep knowledge has its unquestionable social premiums.
The walk to Unnameable Books along Berkeley Place ricochets off of the Grand Army Plaza. Berkeley Place walks right up to the Grand Army Plaza circle, with the classical Arc of Triumph, the entrance to the Brooklyn Prospect Park, and the massive gold etched doorways of the Brooklyn Public Library visible in the distance.
During winters, when the fog sets in, the whole circle takes on a ghostly quality.
The silhouettes of the tall structures appear menacing and when combined with the pitter-patter of runners’ shoes through the gray swirling surroundings, I am reminded of walking through the street of Old London on damp gray evenings.
In this whole series of recording some of the walks to my favorite bookstores, I hope I shall have the opportunity to come back again to the beauty of Grand Army Plaza when I write about the Brooklyn Public Library.
Walking down Vanderbilt Avenue from Grand Army Plaza might have felt like an anticlimax, like walking away from Trafalgar Square in London down an unnamed cobblestoned alley, if not for the two small rolling carts filled with books on the pavement in the distance. They mark the entrance of my destination.
In the five odd years that I have frequented Unnameable Books, I have stepped into the bookstore only at night.
A tinkling bell above the front door announces visitors to this cozily cramped space.
There are piles of books neatly stacked on the shelves and precariously towering up from the floor.
I always have a sense of trepidation when walking towards Unnameable books. It seems too perfect a space to exist among frighteningly costly real-estate that it’s existence almost feels as fragile as that of a snowflake’s on an afternoon pavement. Whenever I walk down Vanderbilt Avenue, my brows unfurrow only when I catch sight of the warm lights and the books inside the store.
I have always wondered why I write about all these spaces in so much detail. Maybe it is my homage to a refuge, a way of immortalizing these spaces in a temporary world. I have seen many venerable bookstores closed and forgotten within weeks, new shiny and impersonal businesses replacing these erstwhile small family-owned establishments.
I’ve lingered inside Unnameable Books as much for the smooth jazz music from the local radio station playing inside the store as much for the books.
Unnameable Books is that kind of a bookstore where, if there is more than one reader inside the space, you cannot move anywhere inside without a couple of “excuse me”s. They don’t have a loyalty program, they don’t have a resident cat, they don’t attract millions of tourists, nor do they advertise how many miles of books they have. What they do have are piles of books on creaky wooden boards awash in tungsten light and a coffee shop next door.
Both the bookstore and the coffee shop are open till 11:00 pm.
I dread the day when one of them closes down leaving the other widowed.
One wintry night as I was shaking the frost off my jacket and stamping my boots on the doormat after a walk back from Unnameable Books, I realized that I had chanced upon the exceedingly simple reason why I was frowning all the way to Grand Army Plaza and smiling all the way back to Berkeley Place.
There is an ever so small gradient to the roads leading to Prospect Park that is invisible to the eye.
Hence the name Park Slope.