New Haven used to have a pretty tight-knit community of booksellers. Of course, as bookstores have closed, that aspect of cultural life in New Haven has all but vanished as well, to be replaced by other kinds of literary communities (like the one fostered here at the New Haven Review). But most of us still talk to people who were part of that community. We know Henry Berliner (the Foundry Bookstore) and Charlie Negaro (Atticus) and Chris Evans (Elm City Books). John Gearty, my former boss at Arethusa, is someone I run into at Romeo's from time to time, and we inevitably stand there for forty-five minutes, chatting as aimlessly as we ever did. I have no idea what Henry Schwab from Book Haven is up to these days, I admit, but probably half the people reading this know and will be happy to tell me.
Another bookman in New Haven, William Reese, is not so much a man about town as a bookseller, because he never had an open shop, but he is about as well-known as a bookman can be in this town, by virtue of his field (high-end Americana and literature). His staff are mostly mysteriously perched behind the scenes, but I've known a few of them over the years, and counted them as friends. One of them was particularly dear to me, and it always bothered me that he was not embraced by the city of New Haven, and that he left, in the end, to go back to his hometown in Texas. He was a treasure, the sort of person who should have been adored here. He was sort of person who would talk to anyone, have a good time arguing with you, and call you up three weeks later to tell you that he'd found a book for you -- something you needed that you didn't know existed. Richard Dorsett had a way of seeming to know about everything under the sun, and if he didn't know about the thing you were thinking about, he knew someone who did, and he'd tell you to get in touch with him. Richard was amazing. I want to write that he is amazing, but he died, I learned a few days ago, on October 26th, at the age of 57.
Richard lived in New Haven for only a few years, and he was never part of the "scene" in New Haven the way he obviously was in his hometown of Austin. He wasn't a pillar of any community here. He spent a huge amount of time going to clubs to see shows, and he knew every bookstore in town. But he lacked the web of friends and associates here that he deserved, perhaps because he was blustery and could be arrogant. I think he was disappointed in New Haven very quickly and, as is common to people who move here, he never quite felt at home here because the city didn't greet him with open arms, the way he was greeted everywhere, I gather, in Austin. But he was a dear friend of mine, one of my favorite people in New Haven in the years he was here. It saddens me so much that he is gone, and that I'll never get to talk to him again. I want New Haven to know: you missed out. If you never spent an evening hanging out with Richard Dorsett, you really missed out.
I met Richard when he was working for Reese and I was working at Arethusa. I have to admit, I don't remember our first meeting, but I remember enjoying chatting with him immensely. I remember going over to his apartment for the first time: it was filled with the most fascinating crap, plus about a million books, and it was hazy with cigarette smoke. Richard had a skeleton standing up in his living room, and he had barrister's cases for the books he really didn't want anyone to mess with. Shortly after we became friends, my then-beau and I decided to shack up together, and started looking for a cheap apartment. Richard suggested we rent the place upstairs from him, which had just become available. I remember emailing the beau in Boston, writing, "It's 600 a month -- I think it's a sign from God." Every place we'd looked at downtown was twice that much -- and this apartment was twice as big as anything we'd seen downtown. In May 1999 I moved to 150 Willow Street, and my other half moved in a month later. Richard was on the first floor; the upstairs neighbors, Dave and Laurie, were wonderful people too, it turned out; and for a few years, we lived in what has to've been the happiest multi-family house in New Haven.
Richard would come padding up the back stairs to our kitchen door in his slippers and bathrobe, holding a cup of coffee and a copy of some obscure magazine, and ask me if I had any interest in a box of wigs he'd just acquired. He was always going to estate sales and picking up the damndest things. I mean, he was always hunting for interesting books -- he liked the weird, the erotic, and the obscure, but he knew about the classics, the things there would always be a market for -- but he would buy all kinds of stuff. I remember him buying a huge box of old penknives. And shoes: he liked shoes. Richard had style, and he appreciated it in others.
I think his contrariness bothered a lot of people but that it was their mistake to write him off after one trivial argument. I know he argued with people who I'd've thought it was impossible to argue with, and I guess he had a hard time getting people to "get" him, if you know what I mean. New Haven can be a really unfriendly place to newcomers. If you're not part of the Yale community, or automatically plugged into some other social system (by virtue of family or friends you already have here or whathaveyou), New Haven is a difficult place to land. I know from experience and I am always being told, we don't make it easy for people to call New Haven home. It always mystified and saddened me that so few people here appreciated Richard Dorsett.
Richard had a loud laugh. He liked to sing to himself, and one of our favorite memories of living upstairs from him is of the morning he was pootling around his apartment make arrangements for a relative's memorial service. He'd spent months and months tending an ailing cousin in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in the end, Richard was the one in charge of everything, I guess. All I know is, we could hear him making coffee and singing to himself, as if he were Gene Autry, "Funeral hooooo-ommmmmmmmme...." Sort of almost yodeling to himself.
Richard Dorsett left New Haven in 2002 or 2003, I can't remember -- it was a few months after we moved out of 150 Willow Street to a house around the corner. He gave us some of his furniture -- nice stuff -- and moved back to Austin to take care of his aging father. I only heard from Richard now and then after that -- we usually talked on the phone around New Year's, and occasionally we'd chat on Facebook. I spoke to him a couple of months ago, and, in fact, was thinking just yesterday that I needed to call him again to tell him how a project I'm working on was progressing -- I knew he'd think it was cool to hear about. You cannot imagine my shock when I got the message -- from a stranger, via Facebook -- that he'd died, alone in his house. I wish it hadn't been that way. I hope it was fast for him. I hope he wasn't in pain. Richard was someone who had a lot of anger in him -- anger toward people who he felt weren't paying attention, who were ignorant, who were mean, who had no sense of humor -- but he was always a sweetheart to me. I loved Richard, and I have a hard time imagining life without him in it. Richard was a finder-outer, he was a digger-into, he was an elegant weirdo. We loved him so much. I'm so sorry he's gone. And New Haven, you should be ashamed for not having fought to keep him here so that you could have learned to love him too. But you like your assholes pedigreed, with papers to prove you're smart and know the right people. Richard was not pedigreed, but he was one of the best bookmen I've ever known and one of the best neighbors I have ever had. My husband and I will miss you, and we will miss you even on behalf of all the people here who didn't have the patience or sense to love you while you were here.