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Richard Peabody is puttering around the front of Atticus Used Books & Music, dispassionately straightening the stacks and giving a sort of wild-eyed once-over to everyone who comes through the front door. He’s run the cozy used-book store on U Street NW for years (having named it after Titus Pomponius—the ancient Roman writer, publisher, teacher, and bookseller known as Atticus), brandishing his enormous knowledge of books and writers, perpetually grumbling to anyone who will listen, and generally playing the part of a semi-elitist eccentric. When serious readers come into a place like Atticus, they’re delighted to find a sourpuss like Peabody tending to the rare-books and specialty sections—a fellow bookworm prepared to kvetch about all things literary. But today, his bookstore-clerk fidgeting comes strictly out of habit. The bookseller has called it quits.
When he’s not writing or editing his own projects or dealing with bookstore travails, Peabody passes the time by airing gossip. Peabody’s tirades mix the evils of publishing-world machinery with tales of his ongoing battle against the ruffians who have taken to hanging out in the alley behind his store. He always has news of some unfathomable contract granted to yet another undeserving writer, harbors a venomous hatred of the superstores, and casts his critical eye on everything from the declining tastes of American readers to his own irregular customers. It all seems to have finally gotten to him, and now he’s handing the reins over to his Atticus partner and longtime co-editor, Lucinda Ebersole.
“The publishing world is like anything else, I suppose—whatever system you’re involved in always seems to suck,” says Ebersole, who considers herself lucky to be surrounded by books all day and is happy to take over the day-to-day affairs of the business. “Richard actually has a pretty thick skin about the things you have to deal with in this business. He used to have this album of grating, repetitious organ music that could make my teeth hurt, and if the store got really crowded and he didn’t like the people, he’d just turn it on real loud and crank it up till they’d leave,” she recalls. “Unfortunately, being your own boss is not always that great, because you also have to take responsibility for everything.”
Peabody says that when he ponders his future away from the bookstore, he isn’t exactly sure of where he’s heading.
“In some ways, it’s hard to let go of this,” he says, surveying the store. But he should be plenty busy without it. His second novel, Open Joints on a Bridge, was published last month by the Argonne Hotel Press, and he’s finishing up a novella called Sugar Mountain for release in the fall. Between teaching writing courses in the M.F.A. program at Johns Hopkins University and seminars at the Writers Center in Bethesda, Peabody has been interviewing for academic positions across the country. “Other than that, I’m gardening,” he reports. “It’s much different from slagging books all day.”
Among the burdens in his life as a man of letters, he says, running the bookstore has become the most dispensable.
“I think Richard’s at that age where he wants to get back to a real life,” says Ebersole. “The joke is, he’s never had a real life, so we’re not sure how he’ll make that transition.”
Peabody’s cranky persona belies his success of late. He and Ebersole just returned from a successful New York release party for the 42nd edition of Gargoyle, the literary magazine he co-founded in 1976 (named for the grotesque stone figures grimly observing the world from pristine perches), and, beneath the surface anyway, he seems about as ecstatic as he gets. Peabody now co-edits the magazine with Ebersole and their UK associate, Maja Prausnitz. Gargoyle’s print run has risen to 3,000 copies, and it recently won a $75,000 grant from the London Arts Board. The editors plan to use that money to begin publishing twice a year after the next issue; they also have a children’s edition and a video issue on the drawing board. With the release last month of Gargoyle 42 and Open Joints on a Bridge, and forthcoming projects piling up, Peabody is anxious to get on with his writing—and, finally, to take a little break, though he does have a way of making things easy on himself.
“Richard and I have developed kind of a good cop-bad cop dichotomy…when we deal with running Gargoyle,” says Ebersole, content to let her partner play the good guy for a while. “When he doesn’t like a manuscript, he’ll tell the person that I was the one who hated it. So now our contributors think I’m the bitch queen of Atticus Books.”
The duo has also teamed up in the past to edit the Mondo series, a collection of four anthologies of paeans to Barbie, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean, as well as another anthology called Coming to Terms: A Literary Response to Abortion.
Ebersole, whose novel, Death in Equality, was published in 1997, says she takes satisfaction mainly in working with so many writers and getting to see both the wonders and the drivel that get churned out each year.
“For the last fiction issue before he took a break from Gargoyle, Richard read thousands of manuscripts that were all Raymond Carver rip-offs—you know, ‘Bob and Susan are bored. They live in Long Island.’ Literature is just like everything else: It takes a fashion, and everybody wants to publish that which is in fashion,” says Ebersole. “It’s why Maggie Estep gets huge advances and Jewel is the best-paid poet in America even though she spelled the names of her ‘idols’ Bukowski and Tom Waits wrong in her book. But I think in the end, good writing always wins out over fashion,” she says, reaching for a hint of optimism, as if to prove that Peabody hasn’t rubbed off too much on her.
It was Ebersole who convinced Peabody in 1997 to resurrect Gargoyle from its seven-year hiatus in approximate time for its 20th anniversary, and both agree that a lot has changed in the writing world since 1990. Ebersole says that both the quality of writing they’re seeing and the general climate for small-press literary magazines has improved immensely.
“Now we’re finally seeing much better stuff coming in,” says Ebersole. “Out of necessity, a lot of the vibrant work truly is coming from the small press, because, beyond business, there really is no rhyme or reason to the big publishing houses. If you look at the history of American writing, small press is where everything interesting started: Alice B. Toklas forked over the money herself to finally get Gertrude Stein published. Lawrence Ferlinghetti stapled together copies of [Allen Ginsberg’s] Howl and started City Lights because nobody wanted to publish any of that Beat crap.”
Peabody remains curmudgeonly in character even as he talks about the success of Gargoyle, confessing to a touch of the New York envy that he says runs rampant in the local literary scene. But it’s the London scene that really has him intrigued, and what he’s most looking forward to right now is the magazine’s British launch party on June 22 at the Islington International Festival.
“It’s going to be a really big deal, because Gargoyle has been doing so much better over there than it’s ever done here,” says Peabody. “We joke and say it’s because they only have a couple TV channels to occupy themselves. But whatever it is, people do read over there.”
For all his harsh lamentations about the sad state of the local literary scene, Peabody & Co. have stood loyally by Washington writers. While Gargoyle 42 features a broad span of international writers, the D.C. locals weigh in strongly—the issue includes nonfiction by local language poet Mark Wallace; poetry by Buck Downs, Cathy Eisenhower, Stephen Gibson, Lisa Kosow, E. Ethelbert Miller, Mel Nichols, DJ Renegade, and Alan Spears; and fiction by L.A. Lantz, Joe Martin, Andrea Tetrick, and Jim Williamson.
“I was always interested in publishing sort of unknown and forgotten writers, as well as local writers and new writers,” says Peabody. “That’s the way it started in 1976, and we’ve always kept at that. I don’t know what we have to do to get people here in Washington to really notice what we’re doing, but it’s working in London.”
He’s not sure how to account for the discrepancy—and despite a history of past comments to the contrary, he says he’s not willing to totally denounce the American readership just yet.
“I think you have very different audiences in this country now, and there’s very little crossover between the slam and open-mike audience, the academic audience, the print audience, and, now, the Web audience,” says Peabody. “That’s not a bad thing, because it means each has discovered its own audience. I mean, if they can get 800 people in to see a bunch of high school poets slam against Nikki Giovanni at Borders downtown, that’s a big deal and that’s great. But will all these same people be writing 10 years from now? For a lot of these people, it’s trendy—it’s a fad. They want to get on a video, and they want to get a CD out. But it’s my life, and I know a lot of great writers who have burned out and quit.”
While he’s giving up on the bookstore for now, he says he’ll never quit the literary life to which he is doomed. “I’m pissed off, but I’m pissed off about a lot of things, and I’m always rambling—which is good for a writer,” says Peabody, with a wry smile. “Life is tragic.” CP