A home for the imagination

I’m STANDING JUST inside the doorway of what is, in my opinion, the most interesting, funky, colorful, well-run used and rare bookstore in California, Chic Goldsmid’s Claremont Books & Prints, a nine-room Old Curiosity Shop of books -- walls covered with authors’ photographs; Chic’s abundant and lengthy lists of recommended books; his recent rare book catalogs; announcements of local art shows, concerts and poetry readings; and above the door, “I am a proud member of the ACLU.”

As on so many other occasions meeting writers and readers here, I have just enjoyed spirited conversations with a local author and two fellow book hogs when another habitue, an 80-year-old ex-blacklisted screenwriter, walks in and begins to unwind wonderful stories about the old days working with directors such as Orson Welles, Raoul Walsh and Robert Rossen.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 5, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 05, 2004 Home Edition Home Part F Page 7 Features Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Intersection -- A caption in last week’s Where I Live column placed the Verbal Building at the corner of Yale and Sunset in Claremont. The building is actually at the corner of Yale Avenue and 2nd Street.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Claremont intersection -- In the Jan. 29 Home section’s Where I Live column, a caption erred in placing the Verbal Building at the corner of Yale and Sunset in Claremont. The building is at the corner of Yale Avenue and 2nd Street.

Two hours later than expected, I reluctantly leave, heading across the street to Some Crust Bakery, where with a rush from a double espresso I will position myself at the big window looking out over the heart of Claremont Village and begin roughing out a new poem. On either side of me are patrons drinking Peet’s coffee and reading books. Across the street is Everetts Shoe Repair. It is a little chilly and just beginning to rain, and it’s perfect.

Claremont is the ideal writer’s town. Having grown up in small-town, rural Kansas, where the nearest bookstore was 180 miles away, the nearest art museum or concert hall even farther than that, and the nearest poet diagonally across the state at the University of Kansas, I may be a bit impressionable in these matters, but I cannot imagine a more bookish, writerly small town than the one I live in: It is Blake’s mythical Golgonooza, a home for the imagination, now and throughout its history.

Perhaps nothing symbolizes this more than the Village itself. And at its heart is the exotic Folk Music Center, where every conceivable kind of folk instrument lines the walls, and where 10 years earlier, with the sun glancing off a row of dobros, the elderly owner, grandfather of the musician Ben Harper, told me stories about his friend Pete Seeger and other folk music legends.


Walking back to my neighborhood and pausing at the jazz bargain bin in Rhino Records or the incomparable Video Paradiso (where the videos are arranged by director -- the complete Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, et al), I will pass the house where the family in Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose” once lived, the house that “Wizard of Oz” author L. Frank Baum built, composer John Cage’s student apartment and, best of all, T.S. Eliot’s room when he was visiting that great mystery woman in his life, Emily Hale, who then was a drama professor up the street at Scripps College.

Even the alleys are interesting here. In one block, there’s J. Brown, Violin Maker; Nick’s Coffee House, with its chess players; and La Piccoletta, the best hidden Italian restaurant in town. Now, seeing David Foster Wallace out walking his dog reminds me that I’m also surrounded by writers. Novelist Lawrence Thornton is just across Indian Hill Boulevard, and poets are everywhere: The ghost of the legendary Bert Meyers greets me at 4th Street and Harvard Avenue; a few blocks west in Pilgrim Place lives poet Virginia Adair; and Robert Mezey, Pomona College’s poet-in-residence emeritus, has moved back from D.C. Only yesterday at Walter’s, the Village’s always-crowded Afghan restaurant, I saw Frances McConnell and Maurya Simon, whose book “Ghost Orchid” is coming out soon from Red Hen Press.

A few blocks to the east are the seven Claremont Colleges, with their amazing faculties, including Pitzer’s Barry Sanders, recently nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his book “Alienable Rights.” The colleges have always been the center of cultural life here; in fact, Pomona College predates the village that grew up around it.

Several weeks ago, I saw a remarkable show by a renowned local sculptor, Aldo Casanova, on the Scripps campus. Last night, I heard a superb (and free) performance of Kodaly’s “Missa Brevis” at Bridges Hall. And I am recalling the best poetry bargain ever: Frost scholar Robert Fagen’s unforgettable Czeslaw Milosz conference on the Claremont McKenna campus, featuring the Nobel Prize-winning Milosz himself, plus Seamus Heaney (also a Nobelist), poets laureate Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky and the great Adam Zagajewski -- all free admission, just a matter of walking out my door and down 10th Street.

At least two or three evenings a week, it seems, I can take in music, film or theater, or hear some lecturer, poet or novelist on one of the campuses. And on Fridays, after a morning of writing, I may walk through Memorial Park to the noon concert series at Balch Auditorium. If nothing local is happening (which is rare), on a weekend I’m only 40 minutes from downtown L.A. and 25 from Pasadena.

I’m now on College Avenue (originally Warren Avenue, Claremont’s first street), and although it’s lined with magnificent, century-old eucalyptus trees, Claremont itself looks more like New England than California, the direct result of its early residents -- New England Congregationalists (mostly professors and their families) -- and a town meeting in 1889 that formed a committee for the planting of some 250 trees, the beginning of a tradition.

Several blocks to my left, on the corner where I live, are ginkgoes north to south and liquidambars running west to Mountain Avenue, which is lined with magnolias. The jacarandas extending east and west one street up blossom like some immense purple dream in the spring. The trees and the homes they shade, built mostly in the ‘40s and ‘50s, remind me of the neighborhoods of my childhood after the war, before that great narcotic, television, pulled everyone inside.

Closer to the Village are early-1900s homes, although architecture all over town is a crazy quilt of styles and sizes. I sidestep now, dodging one of my neighbors, a retired theology professor trying to walk his unruly spaniel and read a book at the same time.

Finally I’m home, and after I’ve corralled my neighbor’s dogs, which are out again (it’s a block-party kind of town where neighbors chase each other’s dogs), I’m heading for Santa Anita, which on the new 210 extension is only 15 minutes away.

One of the waitresses at the Village Grill has given me a tip on a horse with the irresistible name of Blue Bimbo, and I haul along a copy of Auden from Chic’s bookstore in case there’s a lull in the action. Broke or lucky, I will return to a place I never want to leave.

All that I ever thought was missing from Claremont is an art-house theater. Today, though, I’m a happy man: My friend has informed me that they’re bringing a Laemmle theater to town.

B.H. Fairchild is a poet whose most recent book, “Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest,” received a National Book Critics Circle Award and a California Book Awards gold medal.