Unsolicited Advice for the End Times
(Brazenhead Press, 2021)
Always on future visits there was that pause before admittance, then a rude, rattling blare and the unclasping of the lock. We pushed our way inside where our footfalls echoed through the tiled hall, something happening between the outside and the door’s clattering shut behind us, an air of expectation, the evening’s previous encounters seeming to pale as we climbed one flight up the mid-century tenement stairs.
The aroma is what reached me first, eau de aged paper and pipe tobacco, sweetness mixed with stately decay. The narrow entranceway drew us forward, and I needed to turn sideways to ease by those gathered in front of the counter—or bar? or both?—on top of which stacks of books and clusters of trinkets haphazardly lay, a belly-high parapet. A wood-carved rainbow ran in an arc over top pocket-sized mystery paperbacks just in front of my eyes. The narrowness of the entrance made the warren of book-lined rooms beyond it feel like an outright miracle of expansion, a sense abetted and reified by the easy conversational presence behind that counter of Michael Seidenberg, proprietor of Brazenhead Books. Salt and pepper beard, a short-sleeve cream-colored shirt unbuttoned to share a preponderance of chest hair, the smoothness of his Brooklyn-inflected speech, a missing incisor, welcoming us all with a manner somehow both vigorous and gentle.
What exactly was Michael resisting? That is, what did Brazenhead Books stand in defiance of? Search for him online and there he abides, in one or another of the videos shot of him in his secret store over the years. “Defiance” might not be the first word to spring to mind with respect to the speakeasy, all-night bookshop on the Upper East Side, where salons typically ran from eight in the evening until as late as four in the morning, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Those nights spanned from the mid-aughts until spring of 2019. Yet, no doubt, the sight and scent of so many books in one place, the sheer physical abundance, was an act of resistance to what the reigning corporations of the moment market as our present tense. Behind every new edition, there are last year’s, and the prior’s, and those of a decade or several before; the space that Michael Seidenberg marshaled stood as a physical manifestation of the power of books to weather the caprices of time. Writers, editors, literary agents, and others, as often as not with a whiskey in hand, the ice cubes scooped from an ever-present silver bucket, found themselves drawn into conversation in a room where nearly every available surface was covered in books. Like Murray Burns in the film A Thousand Clowns, Michael Seidenberg was always ready to share his opinion from the blue, blue sky. As he writes in his Unsolicited Advice for the End Times: “It’s always been obvious that the more concentration you put into anything, the richer the return, but the trick to the big payoff is going deep. Be consumed as you consume.”
In the year before he passed away, Michael had recounted at probably three in the morning memories of his father’s sudden death from heart failure at the same age he was then; Michael was reading Philip Roth’s Patrimony, which concerns the passing of Roth’s father, so naturally seemed inclined to preoccupation with such matters. When his own father went to the hospital, he didn’t come back, and I imagine Michael must have feared the same fate on his journey to the operating room when it became clear his heart, too, was in a dire state. Ultimately, he and Nicky, his wife, did receive a reprieve, however brief. For me, at least, the fact that he had reappeared on social media that June felt like a signal that all was, if not well—because when were things ever so sunny as all that?—then at least acceptably off-kilter. Just as the group of writers and friends who regularly gathered under his roof began to speculate on when he would be able to receive visitors, exit stage left, only weeks shy of his sixty-fifth birthday.
In the end, Michael must have been both surprised and not. Surprised, since as Woody Allen, a favorite comedian of his, famously joked, “I am not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens,” and not, insofar as one of Michael’s frequent sayings, delivered in his old school Brooklyn Jewish accent, was, “We live in the golden age of the end times.” That is to say, the prospect of impending doom was never far from Michael’s mind, whether personal or global in scope. Like the proverbial rideshare driver, the end times are always already ‘on their way!’ We should have the good sense, at the very least, to enjoy the wait. It made me laugh then, and smile now—good humor triumphing over gloom—though of course the inflection has changed inalterably since July of 2019. Others who knew him have speculated about what he might say of our present moment: pandemic, attempted coup, meta-verse, hot Britain, young LARPing Catholics. To an extent, we don’t have to guess, thanks to the June 2021 publication of the one title in Michael’s name.
Unsolicited Advice for the End Times, put together as a book in a limited edition by Gracie Bialecki and Dan Chung, former assistants of his, with a foreword by original protégé Jonathan Lethem and several illustrations by Michael’s “old friend and spirit guide” Roy Lavitt, consists of the kind-of-kidding, kind-of-not advice columns he published online with Rachel Rosenfelt, Rob Horning, and The New Inquiry between 2012 and ’13. A proponent and believer in “a proper state of muddled thinking,” Michael shared aphoristic insights that, without appearing to try too hard, make the charm of his presence felt. There is a Part I and a Part II, followed by a final piece written several years later marking what was to have been an irregularly updated “Book of the Mouth” club: titles reclaimed from pending obscurity, a practice which, for better or worse, ended as it began with Michael’s endorsement of Norman Rush’s Mating. There was certainly enough time for a second, third, or fourth Book of the Mouth club pick; he just never got around to it, never being much of a subscriber to programmatic behaviors.
“I don’t care what Bob Dylan said,” Michael writes in Unsolicited Advice. “I say do think twice—at least twice.” He was never not one for doubling back. His sensibility informed in large part by the aforementioned Murray Burns, Mad Magazine, and the Jewish literary stars of the 1960s (Roth, yes, especially Roth, but also Jerome Charyn, Harold Brodkey, Bruce Jay Friedman, William Goldman, and Dylan himself), Michael was also an unfailing supporter of those writers who passed under his roof; he maintained a “Friends of Brazenhead” section, where you were bound to find the titles of Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City features the apartment layout of the original speakeasy on 84th Street, as well as an extended turn by Michael’s long-lived three-legged albino pitbull Ava), Charyn himself, Lucy Sante, David Goodwillie, Aryn Kyle, Porochista Khakpour, Elliott Holt, Brandon Harris, Scott Cheshire, Tara Isabella Burton, Raj Parameswaran, and David Burr Gerrard among others. (Gerrard’s second novel, the satirically speculative The Epiphany Machine, was inspired by Michael and Brazenhead.) What these writers have in common turns out to be not all that much—mainly a shared delight in the resolutely casual time-capsule that was Michael’s life’s work. Not so much a school, as an anti-school.
“Since the advent of the hands-free phone, it is no longer so easy to recognize the insane. It was once a comfort to walk the streets knowing when to veer to avoid the person screaming crazily into the air.” The physical space, as much as anything else—the books, the company, and Michael’s equanimity as host—is what mattered to those who gathered under his roof. Voices online rage in a way that is far more difficult to do when face to face with an interlocutor. In a physical space, you have to be human, you have to have a name, you are more likely inclined to show a semblance of respect to those around you—as Dylan puts it in Don’t Look Back (1967), “Be groovy or leave, man.” Or in Michael’s words: “Be sentient and you’ll be sensitive.”
Which isn’t to say there weren’t those anarchic nights when the energy of those gathered at Brazenhead became all but unmanageable. Responding, perhaps, to the vogue on social media for tossing civility out the window, Michael advises, “You might feel that with the end looming, we no longer have any need for manners. If this is what you feel, you’re wrong. I won’t tell you how wrong because that wouldn’t be very polite.” Online life may do wonders in agitating its participants to a froth (“The electronic miracle of social networking […] is not necessarily social at all,” Michael writes), but it’s only by investing yourself in actual conversation with other people that perspective is deepened, or challenged toward growth. (Such deepening is, yes, possible online too, yet the incentives of many forums—“dunking,” “trolling,” performative umbrage and the like—tend not to encourage it.) Another of his columns winds down with a characteristic dash of bawdy humor: “This might be the best time to get in touch with the flip-flop part of our personalities… Changing your mind can be a tonic for thought. A society that takes Adderall to study and Viagra to stay sturdy might be surprised this rebirth can be achieved so easily.” No reason, after all, not to seek pleasure in the muddle.
In New York City, time is money, money gentrification, gentrification (among other things) the end of bookshops that aren’t expressly corporate in nature. Beneath the paving stones of the reigning trends of the moment, something else is always struggling to peek its head up—that, ultimately, is the nature of a free society, a free country, if we can keep it. What Michael Seidenberg’s Brazenhead fostered in spades was lively conversation among unlikely compatriots; a certain Marcel Dzama-esque playful nonsensicality ruled among the books many layers deep. All the better for nurturing myriad young writers in various states of incipience.
It is not news to observe that the tech industry is ascendant in our time, a primary locus of political power and wealth. A meme-infused mentality creeps across the land, with insidious whispers suggesting maybe Life is Only a Simulation, where “users” in “meatspace” can be programmed via “content.” Michael had some thoughts there too: “In an era of total overspill of everything, we are vulnerable to building our lives on nothing.” On the all-or-nothing attention mill of internet life, sounding proudly like the old man he never became: “We live in a time that seems too aware of trending, and as a result, we can easily become victim of any societal shift coming around the corner. While I am a big fan of the remote-control television, I would have to say that most trends are not to be trusted.” And with respect to groupthink, or the attention silos that tend to concentrate online identity, “The worst filter [on thought and understanding], surely, is ‘What does everyone else just like me think about this?’”
The end times, for Michael, were both inevitability and counterintuitively a source of comfort, even joy. Things never need proceed so fast as all that, no matter that sometimes they do: “Back in the day, I was the lone voice asking Mr. Gorbachev to put back that wall. They could at least have taken it down slower.” Has it always been this way, human life and consciousness? As Jonathan Lethem quotes a favorite of his bookish mentor’s sayings, “I’m not saying it was better before. I’m saying it’s worse now.” There is, ultimately, it’s true, a certain seductive danger in staying overlong in the topsy-turvy state that Michael cultivated around him, a danger he wasn’t himself oblivious to—of being passed by, lost at the bottom of a figurative sea. Yet that danger is inherent to a life immersed in books, and also, it turns out, the main attraction: “I’ve been around the block a few times, so I know the best things in life can be double-edged swords.” Something of Brazenhead’s spirit prevails at Black Spring Books, the Henry Miller-inspired Williamsburg store run by Simona Blat, another of Michael’s former assistants. A significant portion of the Brazenhead collection went to a famous bookstore in Porto. Michael’s copious Dylan memorabilia, discs and books and bootlegs and posters, reside with a private collector in Switzerland whose son is named after the singer.
Michael used to joke that he was entrusting us to remember what he said so that he could live on, in future days, as a talking bust, there whenever needed. Just push the button. “But where would we place it?” was the laughing response among his former guests at a memorial during the summer of 2019. In that spirit, I will let the final words be his, an ars Brazenheadica, if you will:
We must blend the old and the new. Our magic bullet will be made of equal parts past and present. When the lighter was invented, people did not abandon matches, and when the ever popular vibrator popped on the scene, no one made a case for getting rid of the penis. Well, some people did, but I took it from whom it came. We need to communicate more carefully, listen, and speak with more thought. We should not be getting excited about being able to talk to our phones, televisions, and cars until we master the art of hearing and being heard by living organisms.