Saturday, April 19, 2008

Selling books

In the early 70s, my best friend Andrew and I were stuck in California's armpit, Modesto. We were both obsessed with books: me with science fiction, primarily, and Andrew with anything related to art, drawing and cartoons. This isn't an obsession well-served in Modesto, especially in those days and we made regular pilgrimages to Berkeley, where Telegraph Avenue was a book-lover's Eden. The core of the apple, as it were, was Moe's with other lesser bookstores in orbit around it. Although I live in a city that can boast the largest bookstore in the universe, Powell's, nothing can ever supplant Moe's as the greatest bookstore. Moe's had everything (although compared to Powell's it was pitifully small) and an incredible turnover of used books; one could safely visit on a daily basis (except if one was stuck in Modesto) and find new treasures every time. And, wonder of wonders, Moe's was always open. Always. Which meant (at least in memory) dropping in at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning. Andrew's books were upstairs somewhere, mine scattered throughout the funky old building.

The ritual of the pilgrimage required preparation for days in advance, painfully picking over the existing collection to determine what might be sacrificed to the cruelty of the book buyers, in the expectation of finding something even greater and more astonishing on the shelves at Moe's (and to a lesser extent, Shakespeare & Co. and other little nooks and crannies around town). For the book-obsessed, letting go of a book is painful, but knowing in advance that it could never be a simple trade, but rather an inevitably humilating experience made the sorting process even worse. Ah, yeah that one's kind of a stinker, but that just means no one will want it. And this one is great, but it's too esoteric and no one will want it. Maybe better to keep it . . . Andrew always had a worse time of it than I did, because it was easier for me to let go of a novel once it had been read, but his books were resources, reference material and there was always something in each that needed to be preserved.

The first stop was always Moe's, even though their bookbuyers were the cruelest and most particular of all, because the goal was always the same: credit at Moe's. Credit at other stores was a pale imitation, with their inferior stock (although in any other town they would have been treasures beyond compare). The buyers didn't speak much, just flipped through the pile of books unloaded before them, rapidly assembling two piles. Even after years of this, the sting of rejection and disappointment never softened: the Out stack was always taller than the In stack. Always. And the offer was always presented without argument, take it or leave it. X dollars cash, X+Y dollars for credit and it was never what we knew the books were really worth. And the offer was always accepted, with eagerness, because it was something, and that was always something much more than either of us had in our pockets when we walked in.

Next stage required putting all the Out books back in the box, pocketing the credit slip, and heading off to the next store, where the buyers were a little more open, a little less cruel and somehow a lot more human. And, usually, there was necessarily a third store and on the really bad days, a few books to stick back in the trunk of the Rambler to drag back to Modesto. Then off to Moe's, to prowl and dig for treasure, to always use all the credit acquired and whatever cash wasn't absolutely necessary to eat on for the next few weeks. And we always drove home happy because there always were treasures at Moe's that hadn't been there the last trip.

I faced a Powell's bookbuyer this weekend, with a big paper bag filled with books I knew were worth selling: good novels and interesting nonfiction. And there were two stacks. And the Out stack was bigger than the In stack, and it stung. Buyers are no longer supernatural, though, with the uncanny ability not only to judge the value of the book but whether it could find a place on the shelf unoccupied by another copy of the same book. Books all have barcodes now, and barcodes can be scanned and software can determine whether the book will sell, whether there's room in inventory and how much to pay for it. Powell's, it turns out, has separate inventory at all of its stores, so my books were not just being weighed for inventory-worthiness but inventory-worthiness at that store, chosen because it was close to home. The In stack was really short. I can haul the Out stack to a Powell's warehouse and maybe the barcodes and the scanning and the software will shrink it. Or not. The cruelty of the bookbuyer is immutable.

And afterward I really missed Andrew, who has been dead now for 24 years. He's missed a lot of books, and cartoons, and drawings by checking out early. And I've missed my best friend.

Full Sail Nut Brown Ale

I tend to shy away from brown ales brewed in the US because so often it seems as if the brewer missed the whole point. So-called "brown ales" are often bland, too sweet, or ruined by a burnt character from too much roasted malt. I took a chance, though, with Full Sail's Nut Brown Ale because they're such good brewers and the Brewmasters Reserve releases are always worth tasting.

While I can't be positive who brewed this, it has John Harris written all over it. There aren't too many other craft brewers I know who can so consistently hit a beer style and the Nut Brown is perfect: creamy, rich, with an intriguing blend of malt and hop flavor and just the right toasty edge without the unwanted roasty or burnt quality. At 6% abv, it's maybe a bitter stronger than one would expect from a brown ale, but the alcohol is thoroughly disguised by the malt. The beer makes a nice change from all the hop killers churned out here in the PNW.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Mixology Monday

Beginning some point last fall, under the pernicious influence of my friend Ryan and Eugene's (Oregon's?) best bartender, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, I picked up the cocktail bug. I was particularly struck by Morgenthaler's enthusiasm for creative interpretations of classics, for innovation, and for an insistence on using only the best ingredients. The pursuit of that last component had even driven him to producing some of his own ingredients. What eventually became obvious was that Morgenthaler, while terrific, isn't unique: there is an entire movement of cocktail enthusiasts, both professional and amateur, on the same path. Unsurprisingly, they're linked together by the Internet, as a glance at Morgenthaler's blog roll will reveal.

Oregon, not so oddly, seems particularly active. The bartenders themselves have formed The Oregon Bartenders Guild, which recently launched an online forum open to professionals and amateurs. And, like the microbrewery movement of the 1980s, Oregon is also bubbling with craft distillers producing distinctive and characterful gin, vodka, whiskey and rum.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to Mixology Monday, a monthly event hosted by a round robin of bloggers, each time with a new "theme" for cocktail submissions. I've been following the event with some amazement, fully convinced I'd never actually participate. But Anna Australia's selection of fruit liqueurs happened to coincidence with some of my own tinkering, so here I am. The April Mixology Monday is here.

Part of my cocktail experimenting has involved getting outside my comfort zone. For some reason (probably due to a bad hangover, as these decisions always seem to derive from), I've been avoiding brandy for years. Much to my astonishment, I fell in love with the Sidecar, which has become (with the Manhattan) pretty much my go-to cocktail. When I ended up with two different bottles of Calvados (hmm, sounds like they were found on the stoop rather than purchased), I wondered if it was feasible to substitute apple brandy for grape brandy and still end up with a Sidecar. Turns out the answer is a resounding "maybe." The results can be good, but (as pointed out by someone in the OBG Forum) it's not a Sidecar. And, in my own opinion, lemon juice doesn't sit as well with Calvados as it does with brandy.

Along with one of those Calvados, I picked up a bottle of Mathilde Orange X.O., a really delightful (and inexpensive) French liqueur with a Cognac base. I tried several variations combining the X.O. with Calvados and ended up substituting freshly-squeezed Valencia orange juice for the lemon juice in the original recipe. Subsequent experiments involved a 50/50 blend of lemon and orange juice or cutting the X.O. in half with Pedro Ximenez. The lemon was all wrong, and my independent panel of tasters (my kids, but they're old enough to drink!) decided the Pedro Ximenez was murky and too "molasses". The final recipe was essentially identical to where I started out. Research after the fact turned up some very similar recipes, including Regan's recipe for a Calvados Cocktail in which he used the lemon juice I threw out.

Normandy Bates Cocktail

2 oz. Calvados
1 oz. Mathilde Orange X.O. liqueur
1 oz. freshly squeezed Valencia orange
2 dashes Fee's orange bitters

Rub the chilled cocktail glass with orange peel. Stir the ingredients with ice, strain into cocktail glass and garnish with orange peel.

I like simple, if only because it's easier to remember.