I first walked into Samuel Weiser’s Bookstore, south of Union Square in New York City, when I was still in high school. It was the 1960s, and my fascination with books in general and what is commonly called “esoterica” in particular was already full-blown.
I bought my first copy of Aleister Crowley’s Magick: In Theory and Practice in Weiser’s Union Square store (the first of several locations over the decades). In those days, the esoteric section was downstairs in a kind of basement that had a big couch. Everyone who was anyone in the New York City occult, New Age, Buddhist, or Wiccan scene could be found loitering in that basement, often for hours. Upstairs, on street level, was a collection of second-hand books of various kinds (a treasure trove as well) but it was the downstairs collection that was the big draw for people like me.
You learned about it from the small ad in the back of the New York Times that read “Weiser’s Books. Orientalia.” That word, Orientalia, hinted at mysteries and exotic lands and maybe the missing key to all true knowledge, and I cut out the tiny ad and made a note of the address. I splurged on subway fare from the Bronx and made my way down there one day (it took almost an hour from Westchester Square) and was hooked forever.
Other bookstores came and went. Mason’s Bookstore on the east side of Manhattan, not far from Bloomingdales, was one of them: a classic esoteric bookstore on the second floor that specialized in astrology and alchemy and which was run by the enigmatic Zoltan S. Mason. Then, of course, there was the Warlock Shop which opened in Brooklyn Heights in the early 1970s and then moved to Manhattan and became Magickal Childe a few years later. There were others, scattered like cells all through the city.
This was our history, man: bookstores as the centers for a popular movement that grew out of the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the assassinations, and the like when it became obvious that we needed another way of looking at the world, another kind of philosophy, maybe even a new religion since the churches were failing us, too. There was no social media in those days. No personal computers. No smartphones. People actually wrote letters to each other – long inspired rants on gods and goddesses and whose tradition was more ancient or valid or powerful – and then arranged to meet: and oh how the sparks would fly during conversations that lasted for hours, all through the night over endless coffee, or beer, or pot, as plans were laid and strategies considered on the Lower East Side, or the Upper West Side, or in the depths of dreaded Brooklyn. Rituals were conducted, incense burned in vast billowing clouds of hope and fear, and strange incantations in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and even Gaelic would stutter and thrum through the atmosphere forging links with unconscious dreams and giving form to shadows and nightmares. Satanists and witches and alchemists and magicians would all hobnob together in those days because it was “us” versus “them”, with “us” meaning anyone who held antinomian views on religion, spirituality and politics and “them” meaning the established order of whatever kind. There was community: fraternity and sorority and most importantly there was recognition. We were all on the same side because we all had seen the same things, read the same books, spoke the same arcane language that was a mixture of ceremonial magic and Tolkien, of Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson, of the Book of Shadows and the God of the Witches.
And that was due, in large measure, to Weiser’s Bookstore and to the man upon whose passing I reflect today. Donald Weiser has left us, slipping away peacefully last night (April 12, 2017) and with him some memories inevitably are lost but many, so many have survived.
I was privileged to have known him in the last dozen years or so of his life. We would talk of the old days and I was always astonished at the people he had known in his career. Donald could name-drop with the best of them, but it was never out of a desire to brag but to share some important nugget of information, an insight into a famous customer’s personality perhaps. He never betrayed a confidence, yet his memory was a warehouse full of bibliographic data. He knew who wrote what book (no matter how obscure a title) and when it was published, and by which house, and how it sold (or, more likely, didn’t sell). He loved reading, and there was always a stack of books next to his chair, many of them bestsellers as he kept up with the latest trends in the literary world. His sense of humor was self-deprecating in the way of truly decent individuals, his ego and his own importance to the New York literary scene never getting in the way of a good story or a fond reminiscence.
As one gets older, one starts to lose people. I know I have, too many lately to count. They say that to save one life is to save the world; but what happens when you lose one life? Shouldn’t the world come to an end in that moment? Maybe it does, and we just don’t notice it. I don’t have the answer to that, but I suspect Donald does. Donald always seemed to know more than he was telling. That wry smile and the subtle twinkle in his eye would tell you that, if nothing else.
The world has lost an icon, a man whose name was synonymous with so much that was typical of a New York City that used to be: books and bookstores, Fourth Avenue and arcana, esoterica and “Orientalia.” But his family has lost a father and a grandfather, a husband and a brother. And I have lost a friend.
God speed, Donald.