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January 18-24, 2006

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Silicon Alleys - Gary Singh

Silicon Alleys

Pages From History

By Gary Singh

ONE OF THE GREATEST archaeological digs one can possibly perform in San Jose is not even underground. It's in the second story of the Lawrence Hotel building, located at 69-81 E. San Fernando St., above Cinebar and Stratta, and where Inca Gardens, Mandrake Shoe Repair and Twice Read Books used to be. Twice Read Books closed down in 2004 after nearly an 80-year run, and those who remember the place know it was literally a labyrinth of stuff. A zillion books stocked the homemade shelves.

But guess what? The old Lawrence Hotel upstairs, which later became the Lawrence Apartments (basically a flophouse), contains to this day even more books than were actually in the bookstore when it existed. Twice Read Books' previous owner, Craig Thush, also owned the entire building, and touring the place is like a twisted step back in time while doubling as a keen insight into how he organized all the books. The building itself is a 30-room former hotel dating back to the late 19th century, and now looks like a dilapidated miniversion of the Winchester Mystery House. The entire place is a maze of doorways, aisles, leaky roofs, peeling walls, bizarre cupboards, broken plumbing, furniture and garbage. And there are boxes of books and magazines in every room, piled halfway to the ceiling. You could get lost in the place.

One enters from a locked stairway that empties out onto the sidewalk right next door to Twice Read Books. When you get to the top of the stairway, your jaw drops to the floor and you just gaze around in utter amazement. One room might contain boxes of old Playboys from the '60s, while another might house 600 copies of Popular Mechanics from the '50s. There are thousands and thousands of books—all kinds.

William Cureton, uncle of Malcolm Durham, one of the new owners, showed me around one fine afternoon—a tour that should be included in every brochure of the San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau. For example: One particular cabinet door still holds the original manager's keys to all the rooms. Tacked to the door one finds a typewritten note dated Nov. 29, 1974, warning the manager not to rent a room to one Earl Julian Moncrief who was known for passing bad checks. One particular room, mostly filled with vinyl LPs and sports magazines, overlooks San Fernando, and you can tell it was used for the manager's office because there's a small square window overlooking the stairway. "It was so they could see who's coming up the stairs," Cureton explained. Another room facing San Fernando contains boxes and boxes of books along with a few old couches and chairs. If the window actually opened, you could reach out and touch the neon Cinebar sign. Some of the rooms are so dark that you can't even see anything. Others are illuminated by skylights.

Cureton is working in the building on a purely voluntary basis to help liquidate some of the books. When I was there, he had just boxed up a set of 20 paperback porno novels from the '70s that someone had paid $170 for. There was also a box of 25 incest paperbacks from the '70s that I was going to offer him 10 bucks for, but after hearing the $170 figure, I didn't even bother.

After continued navigation through all the mysterious hallways of books, suddenly another man emerged from around the corner, scaring the hell out of me. I didn't even know he was there. "This is only half of the books that were here," he ascertained.

Twice Read Books was an institution in San Jose, but it was always hard to shop there since Thush had a ridiculous philosophy of selling items at outrageous prices solely based on how old the items were. I once went in there as a teenager to buy some Mad books. He'd pull out a cardboard price list and say that the ones from the '80s were 6 bucks, the ones from the '70s were 8 bucks, and the ones from the '60s were 10 bucks. Or something ridiculous like that. I'd tell him that was insane and I could just go right around the corner to Recycle Books and get them for 75 freakin' cents. Then he'd just throw his hands into the air and rant and rave.

On the way back down the staircase, I asked Cureton if he had any occult books and he said he didn't know. "If I see any, I'll save 'em for you."

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