Barnes & Noble, 1999
By Jesús I. Valles
I was a boy in a bookstore, “a bathhouse,” I’ll joke
when I am older. But then, I wasn’t. I was in a gallery
of things to be cracked open; all their spines & mine.
I tell you, I was a hungry pickpocket, plucking
what language I could from books & men who stood hard
before me. This is what it means to be astonishing;
to thieve speech and sense from the undeserving.
I tell you, I was a boy and they were men, so all
the words I know for this I made into small razors,
some tucked between my teeth, under my tongue,
and when they said what a good mouth I had,
I smiled, the silver glint of sharp things in me
singing, “I’ll outlive you. I’ll outlive all of you.”
About the Poem
“During a writing workshop, I was asked to write an ode to my younger self. I quickly became envious of that past-me, of the haphazard bravado and willfulness that allowed me to explore my queerness in the aisles and shelves (and bathrooms) of that bookstore where words broke me open, where worlds broke open. In revisiting this site and self, I also found a lasting resentment and latent pity for the adult men who were willing to usher me in this way, for their aging bodies, for that bookstore (which is now a Ross Dress-For-Less), for all our lost selves.”—Jesús I. Valles
Back in 1999, I was in college in Alabama. There wasn’t much of a gay scene, and I was still trying to understand and coming to terms with my sexuality. The only place I knew where gay men regularly congregated, besides the newspaper office at my college, was the local Barnes & Noble. I could peruse the books and the men. I bought my first gay book (Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin) at that bookstore. I never talked to any of the gay men at the bookstore; I was far too scared and shy to do anything like that. This poem really speaks to me in so many ways. The poem begins with “I was a boy in a bookstore, ‘a bathhouse,’ I’ll joke when I am older.” I’ve also always loved books, so Barnes & Noble combined my love of books with my first baby steps towards understanding my sexuality.
By the way, the other book that I clandestinely purchased at that Barnes and Noble was Finding the Boyfriend Within: A Practical Guide for Tapping into Your Own Source of Love, Happiness, and Respect by Brad Gooch. This book was billed as a guide for gay men searching for greater self-acceptance. Gooch advised his readers to live every day as if they were expecting to entertain a dream lover for tea or dinner. I learned a lot about accepting myself for who I was first. I had to learn to love myself and come out to myself before I could venture into the real world of gay men perusing bookstores.
It might not sound like much, but that local Barnes & Noble helped to change my life and to allow me to accept who I am.
About the Poet
Jesús I. Valles is a queer, Mexican immigrant writer-performer from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and El Paso, Texas. The recipient of fellowships and support from CantoMundo, Lambda Literary, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Idyllwild, Undocupoets, and Tin House, they live on stolen Pequot, Nipmuc, Niantic, Narragansett, and Wampanoag land.
October 19th, 2022 at 6:56 pm
The first gay book I bought (in 1988 at B&N of course) was “Loving Someone Gay.” I was in high school and left it out for my parents to find, thinking that would be a good way to come out to them. We’ll, let’s just say that was a mistake. But, it did get me an 8-week all expenses paid trip to the local gay conversation “therapist!” Um… the conversation didn’t take. 😉
October 19th, 2022 at 6:58 pm
I meant that the “conversion” didn’t take. D*** you, Alexa!!
October 19th, 2022 at 7:36 pm
My parent found out because my mother checked my email. We had a huge argument after that and for the most part, we’ve had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.