"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Bronx Banter Interview: Michael Popek

Michael Popek, better known around these parts as “unmoderated,” runs a used and rare bookstore in upstate New York. Several years ago he started a fascinating blog called Forgotten Bookmarks. Now, he is the author a book devoted to the forgotten bookmarks he finds along the way.

Michael has written pieces on this subject for the Times Unionthe Huff Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Recently, he took a few minutes out to chat about his blog and the new book. Dig:

Bronx Banter: Are all of the images that are in the book ones that also appeared on the blog?

Michael Popek: I don’t remember the exact ratio, but I believe that 60 percent of the items in the book are exclusive and haven’t appeared online. I wanted to reward the loyal readers with lots of fresh material and at the same time give new fans a look at some of the best stuff from the site.

BB: How did you choose which ones were fit for the book?

MP: It wasn’t easy deciding what to choose; when I was working on the manuscript, there were more than 600 entries on the blog and I had a collection of more than 1,000 unpublished items. I tried to pick the strangest, the funniest, the most poignant; items that might make a reader think about the time and place, the history of the bookmark. I also wanted to offer a good variety, so I tried to keep an even number of photos, letters, postcards, notes, etc. In the end, a few items had to be dropped because of copyright issues, but I don’t think any of those items take away from the entire collection.

BB: Do you save the books, along with their bookmarks? Or do you still sell the books and save the bookmarks?

MP: I save all of the bookmarks, and many of the books. As a bookseller, however, the nicer titles need to be on the shelves so I can’t afford to keep them around forever.

BB: When my dad died I went through most of his books and found random things–a voter registration card from 1977, a dry cleaning bill from the 1960s. You can let your mind wander and try to piece together a story from these fragments even though the randomness means that it can’t really tell you about someone. Have you built stories in your mind from your found bookmarks?

MP: Absolutely, I think all of us do – it’s part of the fascination with found items. It’s easiest with the old letters I find, my mind immediately creates a voice, like I would if I was reading a novel. I can instantly picture the letter writer’s face, the way they position their hand as they write, the items on their desk, the weather outside their window – I can’t help it.

BB: There is an element of voyeurism in found items. Have you ever felt uncomfortable with something you’ve found in a book?

MP: One of the most interesting things I found was just too personal to post online. It was a suicide note from the 1930s, and although there were no names or places mentioned, the emotion was too much. Being this kind of voyeur is often a lot of fun, but that’s something I wish I hadn’t seen.

BB: Wow, that’s heavy, man. On the other hand, have  you sound something so intimate that you found it to be beautiful?

MP: I can think of one in particular. It was a break-up letter, found in “While Waiting,” a pregnancy book. It started out:

Dear Aeneas,

I cannot believe what a slime you are. What I ever saw in you in beyond me. Sarah’s mind must be warped – I love her but how she managed to spend 2 years with a manipulative sadist like you is incredible (yes she told me.)

BB: How did you arrive at the format for the book, a small, handsome hardcover, as opposed to a glossy picture book?

MP: That was up to the publishers, for the most part. I had stated in my book proposal that I wanted to produce something that was vivid and in full color.

BB: I think the design of the book is ideal. I think a big, glossy book would spoil the flavor of these hidden treasures.

MP: I think producing a big coffee-table book might have been a bit risky for a first-time author like, those volumes cost a lot of money to print. In the end, I’m very happy with the way it turned out, the pages really come to life.

BB: As a bookseller I’m sure you spend most of your time looking through collections of books. How deep has the bookmark project seeped itself into that process? Do you feel disappointed when you come across books that are “clean,” and does your heart skip a beat when you initially see a bookmark?

MP: It has completely changed the way I sort through books. I cannot let one go without checking every page for lost treasures. It has certainly reduced my sorting efficiency, but I think it’s worth it. The feeling I get when I find something good and juicy is as exciting as it was when I first started this treasure hunt.

BB: It reminds me of the feeling you got as a kid opening up a pack of baseball cards. Guess it’s more like a box of Cracker Jack, waiting for the surprise, right?

MP: Nah, I like the baseball cards metaphor better. You may get a Mattingly, you may get a Dale Berra – but in the end, at least you got some gum, or in my case, a book. All the Cracker Jack prizes were awful.

BB: I like the idea of a treasure hunt. I was talking to my cousin the other night. He grew up in L.A. and now lives in New York and when we first started hanging out in the ’80s, he’d come to town and I’d take him to used bookstores. He never goes to them anymore, not that there are many left. Nowadays, I don’t go to them as much as I used to, heck, I buy my books from you. But one of the charms of your book is that it brings back the accidental pleasures of hunting. Can you talk about that and how vital your business is these days?

MP: As long as there are books still around, there’s going to be someone like me selling them. Sure, the digital revolution in publishing is underway and showing no signs of slowing down, but that’s OK. E-readers can’t replace a signed copy. There are no first edition e-books. And most importantly, you can’t buy a used digital copy – yet. I’ve done my best to adapt to the new marketplace, and the shop has done pretty well. I always like to think about the success of the good record shops still around, and they give me hope for used book shops everywhere. They are both about the hunt, the browse, the discovery. Digging through the shelves is a lot like digging through the stacks, you may have wandered in looking for some Dionne Warwick, but you walk out with some Elvis Costello.

BB: I love Baseball-Reference.com, it’s an amazing tool, but you lose something from opening up the encyclopedia and finding names by mistake. I find the same thing with reading newspapers on-line. You don’t run across a stray article in the same way. I have a friend who runs a record shop and they don’t do very much business on line–consciously–and the store is a meeting place for a community of record heads. Do you have anything like that at your store? I assume you do a majority of your business on-line now.

MP: The local paper ran a story about it, since then there have been a lot of people in asking to see some of the stuff. Before that story, I don’t think there were a lot of local readers. I’ve had a few of fans of the blog make their way into the shop, one from as far away as California, but to be fair, in was in the area for a family wedding. Most of our sales do come from online venues, but I like to think that our success there allows keeping an open brick and mortar store. I really enjoy interacting with customers, and there is the collection of usual suspects that come in every few days. I have seen a few friendships blossom from encounters here; two older guys coming in looking for Vietnam books end up discussing their service days.

Forgotten Books can be ordered here.

And when you find yourself looking for any out-of-print books, check out Michael’s store. And tell him I sent ya.


1 unmoderated   ~  Nov 16, 2011 11:05 am

Hey, it's me. Thanks for your time, Alex. It's always fun chatting about these oddballs I find.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 16, 2011 11:05 am

1) Absolutely, bro. My pleasure. The book is terrific. You done good.

3 kenarneson   ~  Nov 16, 2011 11:24 am

Wow, that was a "Pablano is Nate Silver?!?!?" moment. I knew about the Forgotten Bookmarks site, but had no idea it was run by unmoderated. I guess that's what I get for reading the comments irregularly.

Anyway, very cool, congrats on the book!

Now to decide who is getting this book for Christmas...

4 unmoderated   ~  Nov 16, 2011 11:31 am

Thanks Ken! And thanks to you for Catfish Stew, doo-be-doo.

5 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 16, 2011 11:35 am

3) I really think the compact physical nature of the book is really appealing. It's not too dense, it's not crammed, but it's like a little treasure chest of weirdness.

6 kenarneson   ~  Nov 16, 2011 12:51 pm

Now if I can only confirm my suspicions about the identity of...Oh never mind. Some secrets are just more fun as secrets.

7 Diane Firstman   ~  Nov 17, 2011 11:19 am

I have one person in mind for this book .... looks great!

I myself know the identity of "Not [insert manager name here]" on the Up and In podcast, but that's the only "secret identity" info I possess.

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