Pete's- officially it was Pete's Cheaper by the Dozen, but everybody just called it Pete's- was a second-hand books and records shop on Main Street in Alhambra, California. It was crammed into a small storefront about 30 feet wide and half as deep, next to the entrance of a bowling alley that spread out behind it. The proprietor was a lean, dark, mustachioed guy, probably in his mid forties, who went by the euphonious name of Pete Paradise. He presided over his small kingdom of stacked magazines, comic books and 45 RPM records, and shelves of paperback books and back issues of National Geographic magazines, from a chair next to a portable phonograph on which he played his stock of records. Most of the records were of early Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Doo-Wop, and, his favorite, Mambo.
The first time I went to Pete's was a rainy Saturday afternoon in spring, when I was about twelve or thirteen. I had passed by the place a number of times, and had glanced in the windows, but had never gone in. I knew that if I went in, I would end up spending money. But on this day, it had begun to rain, and the bowling alley, where I might have taken refuge, was closed because the lanes were being re-finished. So I went into Pete's, and I was hooked. In the years that followed, I spent many rainy afternoons rooting though the stacks of books and magazines there. I became particularly fond of the National Geographic Magazines, some of which dated back to the 1920s. They displayed a world, much of which had already vanished, of pre-war cities and traditional tribes, mountains and forests, the sea floor and coral reefs, exotic creatures of all sorts. That day, I ended up buying a 1933 issue which had an article on Rio de Janeiro. I remember looking at the pictures of sunny beaches and shady, mosaic-paved sidewalks, while the rain fell on the grey suburban street outside.
But it is not those rainy days that I remember most. It is the long afternoons of summer. Because Main Street was aligned to the ordinal points of the compass, and the store faced southeast, the morning sun would beat down on the windows where stacks of comic books were laid out on display, and even though the sign in the window gave the hours as 11:00 to 7:00 , the store would remain closed. But, shortly after noon, the shade would fall on that side of the street, and Pete, always casual about the hours, would open the shop, and open the doors to let it cool off, and settle down to play his records into the long evening, when the street would darken and the neon lights of the bowling alley and of the bars and theatres and restaurants would flicker on. Almost every Saturday I would go to the park in the northwest corner of town for a few hours, and then, in the afternoon, would head back toward downtown to go to Pete's and spend a dollar or so.
I would hear Pete's before I saw it. Rounding the bend at Atlantic Boulevard, where Main Street made its turn toward the northeast, I would hear, faintly, the sound of Pete's records. The sound would grow louder as I passed the Automobile showroom on the corner and its adjacent used car lot, the Chinese restaurant, which didn't open until evening, the pet shop with its squawking parrots and chirping parakeets and canaries, the barber shop, smelling of bay rum and cologne, the vent of the coffee shop in the bowling alley, which emitted a smell of frying hamburger and hot dishwater, the vent of the adjacent bar, which always smelled of stale smoke, and then the door of the bowling alley. By this time, the music from Pete's, right next door, would be quite loud and, if someone happened of open the door to the bowling alley as I passed, I could barely hear the rumble of balls and clatter of pins over the sound of Little Richard or Chuck Berry or Perez Prado, or whatever Pete was playing.
Pete would always nod a greeting to customers, unless he was between records, because only a shout could be heard over the music. If he was between records, he would give a cheerful hello, and ask if there was anything in particular you were looking for. Only rarely would he leave the record player off for a while. Then, he would usually stand out on the sidewalk, looking off into the distance, lost in his own thoughts. It was difficult to get his attention at those times. They were the only times he ever seemed anything other than completely delighted with his life. Most of the time, I would arrive at the store, and there would be Pete in his chair, a cup of coffee at his side, music blaring from the speakers, and, if the record playing was mambo, he would be beating on the leather arm of the chair with a pair of drum sticks he always had handy.
Although I heard mambo on the radio occasionally, and had an uncle, by marriage, who was of Spanish ancestry and who played mambo records now and then, and I lived across the street from a woman who was a mambo fan and played the music often, it was at Pete's that I first developed a taste for it. Pete was not one to pressure customers. If you wanted, you could stay for hours, reading through whatever caught your fancy, and, if you then left without buying anything, he would nod and smile and wave as you departed. If he was between records, he would cheerfully say "Come back again, sometime!" Many customers came and went during the hours I would spend in the shop. Sometimes I would read through entire magazines. And almost always, the music would play.
At first, the mambo seemed strange to me, with its shouts and squeals and guttural grunts from the band members punctuating the complex interplay of blaring trumpets, wailing saxophone, rude trombone, and the insistent rhythms of multiple percussion instruments. After a while, as I became accustomed to it, I began to enjoy its playful exuberance. I noticed how passersby would fall into step with the basic beat of the songs that flooded out across the everyday street like an exotic variety of aural sunshine. Most of them seemed to be enjoying it. Once in a while, someone would scowl as they passed, and, if Pete happened to notice them, he would smile and wave. If they stalked off with a sneer, he would look at any customers in the store and let out a laugh that could almost be heard over the music. We all shared in the joke; some people just couldn't enjoy themselves.
The first mambo I heard at Pete's which I could recognize was Perez Prado's Patricia. It had been popular in the mid 1950s, and could still be heard on the radio at times, and was a fixture of juke boxes all over town, especially in Mexican restaurants. It was slower than most mambos, and the arrangement featured an organ which let out a thunderous discord every few bars. I liked it tremendously. It was rather like Bach on a bender. Pete liked it, too, and played it often. He always kept at least one copy of it in stock, refusing to sell it if he had only the one. For me, the song became emblematic of the place.
After I had become a regular customer, Pete would sometimes send me on errands for him, usually to pick up a snack, so that he wouldn't have to close the store. Sometimes I would just go next door to the coffee shop in the bowling alley to pick up a hamburger for him. Sometimes he would send me up the street to Winchell's for donuts, or down the street a couple of blocks for a quart of ice cream from Ralph's Market. On these occasions, he would always let me pick out a couple of National Geographics for free. Over a couple of years, I amassed a considerable collection of them. But, as I grew older, I outgrew the narrow confines of Alhambra and began spending my Saturdays further afield, first in the larger suburb of Pasadena, then in downtown Los Angeles. Once in a while, I would go back to Alhambra, more out of nostalgia than anything else, and I would usually stop in at Pete's. One of those days, I walked up Main Street on a Saturday afternoon, and, as I neared the bowling alley, I had a strange feeling that something was amiss. I heard the sound of traffic, and realized that I heard nothing else. As I neared the store, I expected the music to leap out at any moment. Pete was not standing in front of his shop, so he must be between records. Then I realized that it was not only the music that was missing, but the smell of hamburgers and stale smoke from the vents of the bowling alley. I got to the door of the bowling alley, and the interior was dark. Next door, Pete's was empty. The ranks of comic books and copies of Mad Magazine were gone from the windows. The long table that had run across the middle of the shop, stacked high with magazines, and with more magazines filling the space under it, was gone. The walls were bare of the shelves of paperbacks and National Geographics. The record player was gone. There was no notice posted anywhere about where Pete's might have moved. Pete Paradise and his books and magazines and mambo records had vanished without a trace. The place looked very, very small.
I asked among the neighbors- the barber shop, the pet store- to find if anyone knew where Pete had gone, and whether he had moved the store elsewhere, or simply gone out of business, but nobody knew. All they knew was that the bowling alley had succumbed to competition from newer, larger bowling alleys in the area, and the building had been bought by the auto dealership down the street as a location for their expanding service department. I went to the showroom and asked about the fate of Pete's, but there, too, they had no information. Pete's Cheaper by the Dozen was simply gone.
At the time Pete's vanished, I was in my last year of high school, hanging out with a rather bohemian crowd, and frequenting foreign movies. It was then that I saw Fellini's La Dolce Vita for the first time, at the State Theatre in Pasadena. About halfway through the movie, there is a scene when Marcello is trying to write an article while sitting in an empty restaurant somewhere in the Italian countryside. He complains because the young waitress is playing the jukebox very loudly, and she is obliged to turn it off. The song playing on the jukebox is Perez Prado's Patricia. It was odd to hear that particular song in the middle of this captivatingly cynical movie about the modern world's loss of faith, and the poverty of those things we attempt to use as substitutes for our abandoned beliefs. Of course, I didn't see the movie that way at that time. What I saw was a fascinating world of interesting people having a great time yet, for some unfathomable reason, not happy about it. And, of course, the song reminded me of Pete's.
Shortly after this, we moved out of the hills and into a house on the valley floor. There was an old commercial district on the parallel street three blocks east. It was the tail end of a once larger district which had formed near a station of the Pacific Electric commuter railway and had then been largely demolished to make way for the freeway which later displaced the rail line. Among the handful of surviving shops was a small second-hand books shop. I went there a few times, when I had nothing else to do, and looked through the meager stock. The proprietor of this place was a bony old man, crabby and opinionated, who would watch the customers carefully. If they looked too long at one book or magazine, he would say, sharply, "This isn't a library you know. Are you going to buy that, or not?" He was as unlike Pete as he could be. There was no music in his store, either. Instead, a small, tinny-sounding portable radio played the incessant drone of a news station. Periodically, the old man (whose name I never learned,) would make some sarcastic remark about some event in the news. He had a couple of old cronies who sometimes hung out with him, and they would get into discussions about what was wrong with the world, and what was wrong with people, and what was wrong with the government. Their only pleasure in life seemed to be disapproving of everything. The few times I went there, I didn't stay long.
I did buy a few things from the old grouch, though. One of them was my first copy of Kerouac's On the Road. When I discovered that Kerouac had chosen to name his autobiographical character in that novel Sal Paradise, that fact, and the nature of the man from whom I had bought it, lent the book a touch of personal irony. The book is full of comings and goings, people meeting and vanishing, and, at the end, when Kerouac, through Sal, talks of those times when he thinks about his vanished friends, I thought of Pete Paradise, and wondered what became of him.
At this point, I must say something about Mr. Beard. I was attending Pasadena City College for the first time, and Mr. Beard (I never learned his first name, or have forgotten it,) was a returning adult student about thirty years old, who wanted to be an artist, but wasn't, and, wishing to have something to do with art, decided to open a gallery. Since I knew the city well, he enlisted me to help find a suitable location. I suggested a number of vacant spaces in the west end of town, which, at that time, was beginning to develop a raffish, bohemian quality, and where three galleries had recently opened. Mr. Beard was skeptical of an area which still bore many earmarks of a skid row, so he eventually settled on a place about a mile east of the college, on Colorado Boulevard, a few doors down from a neighborhood movie theatre. After a couple of months, he was ready for his opening. At the last minute, two of his artists dropped out, and he had next to nothing left for his show. In any case, only a handful of people showed up to see it, so it would have been a disaster even had the artists not left him.
At this time, I left school for a semester, and didn't see Mr. Beard's gallery again for quite a while. He did manage to regroup, and brought off two less than stellar shows before shutting his doors and leaving town. The last time I saw him, the manager of the movie theatre down the street came by the gallery to see what was going on, and told us that a new art house was opening in a building down the block. Mr. Beard thought he meant an art gallery was opening there. But I, as a fan of both movies and theatres, knew that art house meant a movie theatre showing art films. Since the only other theatre on the east side of Los Angeles that had featured these movies had just changed its policy and gone back to the usual Hollywood fare, I was pleased.
It was a few weeks after this, when I had returned to school, that the new theatre billed La Dolce Vita for its grand opening. I had seen the movie several times by then, but I was always willing to go see it again, especially if I could introduce it to someone who hadn't seen it before. I went to the movie with one of those people, and during the scene in the restaurant, when Patricia was playing, I thought of Pete. Afterwards, we walked up the street to a small coffee shop, and our route took us past the location of Mr. Beard's gallery. The storefront was vacant, but there was a small paper posted inside the door; a business license issued to a Mr. Pete Paradise.
I was, of course, delighted. A few days later, after finishing my classes for the day, I walked down to the location of the store, and there was Pete, putting rows of books onto the newly built wooden shelves. Near the door was a record player, playing mambo.I noticed that a bit of grey had appeared on his temples, but his moustache was still as dark as ever. More than two years had passed since I had last seen him, but Pete recognized me. After the record finished, he didn't play another one right away, but told me of the time since he had suddenly been evicted from his shop in Alhambra. He had found a location on a side street further east in Pasadena, but had recently lost his lease on that building, too. Just when he thought he would be unable to find another place, Mr. Beards gallery had shut down for the last time, and he was able to move in there. After he finished his story, he put on another record, and the sound of mambo spilled out over Colorado Boulevard as it had over Main Street for so many years.
For the rest of that year, whenever I had a long break between classes, I would often go to Pete's and rummage through the books and magazines, and listen to the music. It was almost like those earlier days, but I sensed a difference. I sensed the passage of time. The new store was considerably larger than the old one had been, and the neighbors in this somewhat tonier business district didn't like the noise of Pete's music, so he had to turn it down so that it barely escaped the door. Still, he continued to nod and smile at arriving and departing customers when the music was playing, even though it was now playing softly enough for voices to be heard. If he was between records, he would still say to departing customers, "Come back again, sometime." Old habits die hard, I suppose.
It was at the end of that year that I began another break from school, this one considerably longer. I was occupied with many things, and I didn't get back to Pete's, or, indeed, to Pasadena, for a long time. A couple of years passed, and when some friends had a load of old paperbacks they wanted to sell, and they asked me where to go, I naturally thought of Pete's. We loaded the boxes of books into their car and went off to Pasadena. But Pete's was no longer there. He had vanished a second time. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the theatre down the street was open. I saw the manager standing out front, and went to ask him what had become of the book shop. All he knew was that it had closed a few months before, and was supposed to have moved to a location on a side street a few blocks away. We went to the new location and found the building boarded up, ready for demolition. The entire block was being demolished to make way for a new shopping center. I asked at a few businesses across the street, but, again, no one knew anything about Pete's book shop. It was a dead end.
Over the next few years, I would check the Yellow Pages from time to time, to see if the shop had re-opened. Nothing. I returned to school yet again, and I would sometimes go to a donut shop which had opened in the new shopping center on the corner where Pete's was supposed to have moved the last time. I always wondered what became of him. My older brother moved to a town called Paradise, and I thought of Pete. Then I moved here myself, and thought how odd it would be if Pete turned up running his shop here. It might be called Pete Paradise's Paradise Paradise of Books. Of course, Pete would never give it such a name. He would call it Pete's Cheaper by the Dozen.
I still think about Pete once in a while. I am reminded of him when I re-read On the Road, or when I think about La Dolce Vita, or when I hear mambo. It wasn't until after he had vanished for the last time that I realized that I know almost nothing about him. I don't know what part of town he lived in, or what his life had been like, or whether he had a family, or what he was thinking on those occasions when he would stand on the sidewalk outside his shop, staring into the distance.
If he is still living, he would be pretty old by now, and probably retired from the bookselling business. If he is still selling books, I know he's probably in a shop filled with the sound of mambo. If he's retired, I picture him sitting in a lounge chair with a cup of coffee beside him, and he is beating on something with his drum sticks to the sound of Perez Prado. If I saw him again, I'd like to tell him how much I enjoyed those hours I spent in his shop, and how fondly I remember them, and how fondly I remember him. Pete, if you're out there somewhere, my good thoughts are going out to you. Come back again, sometime.