He was not the kind of brother I had typically run into in a bookstore before, but he was a regular at Nimde Books, the independent black bookstore on the corner of 22nd and Chestnut, which an enterprising young woman, my late mother's next-door neighbor, struggles to keep afloat in Louisville, Kentucky's historically black West End. In these blocks are a mixture of well-cared-for brick Victorian townhouses and gardens maintained by elderly, black retired schoolteachers like my late mom, younger two-income working families and a few stalwart, young Buppie hoodsteaders. But also scattered among these are less lavishly restored houses, cut up into Section 8 apartments or rooms for rent. Here live our low-income neighbors, many of them transients.
For the young kids in the area Connie, Nimde's proprietor, had taken to stocking soda pop, candy and gum, a surer magnet even than the children's books illustrated by brown faces like theirs that she'd prefer to sell or just share with them. On a languid day, maybe a half-dozen little boys or girls would stop in with enough change for an orange soda or maybe just a piece of bubble gum, and Connie would read them a story or show them a story-video as an extra treat.
Similarly, for the brothers who were temporarily staying with Moms or renting a room across the way, she had a stock of inexpensive paperbacks by authors I'd, of course, heard of back in the 1970s, but never actually read--Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. But the transient brothers from the block knew the plotlines, characters, and dialogue in these books like the latest Jay-Z rap, because they were often the first books they had read, it turns out, while they were incarcerated. Connie would often special order titles they requested, but sometimes a brother had to tell her the whole story--which he so enjoyed doing--before she could help him remember the name of the book.
This is how I met this young man whose name I don't know. He was in his early twenties, precisely groomed though shirtless, displaying a well-toned and decoratively tatooed torso and the pristine white waistband of his cotton boxers above his low-hanging jeans. I had seen him walking a pit bull on a chain down Chestnut earlier that morning--definitely not a character I expected to see when I dropped in at Nimde later in the day. But there he was, his pit bull waiting patiently at his heels, while he animatedly recounted for Connie, me and one other male customer a...