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the Host and His Protégée 

Tyson Cornell and Erin Levy, Book Soup

Wednesday, May 16 2007

Tyson Cornell is the events organizer and publicity guy for Book Soup, and in that capacity one evening before an author reading, he found himself in the shop’s tiny upstairs office area drinking Chivas Regal with Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro. Thompson, having also ingested a quantity of cocaine and getting surlier by the minute, vomited on Cornell’s shoe while, downstairs, some 500 people were waiting in a line that snaked around the block for the gonzo journalist to sign books. Which he eventually did. But only for a couple of minutes. Thompson, to Cornell’s chagrin, signed 80 copies, got annoyed, then took off down the street and disappeared. It was his last public signing; four months later, Thompson shot himself in the head.

This is the kind of thing that Cornell says “happens all the time” to varying degrees at the store on Sunset Boulevard, the kind of thing he tells his parents about at Thanksgiving dinner when he goes home to Minnesota. They roll their eyes, usually, and tell him to shut up.

“For a while, there was a death pool going in the store,” Cornell says, looking at the whiteboard calendar detailing in dry-erase marker which writers were set to read, sign and present their books in upcoming months. Kurt Vonnegut just died, and his name is crossed out on the calendar for June 7. Someone, Cornell presumably, or perhaps his assistant, Erin Levy, has written “R.I.P.” next to it. “Most of the people who work here have a crime and death fascination. We carry the books of every single Black Dahlia author.”

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It is not always so morbid at Book Soup. The store, an L.A. landmark of sorts, has been around for 32 years and is owned by the terrifically shy Glenn Goldman. Which is weird because, mostly, Book Soup is a known haunt of people so enamored of the limelight they will sometimes resort to writing a book to keep basking in its glow. Its celebrity clientele and celebrity-author readings are renowned. Muhammad Ali, Howard Stern, Annie Leibovitz, Chuck Palahniuk, Jenna Jameson, the Duchess of York, Shaquille O’Neal, Viggo Mortensen, Dita Von Teese, Lemony Snicket and the Doors have all read at the store. Paris Hilton, who was twice mistaken for a Book Soup employee, is always forgetting her cell phone there. For her book reading, Hilton’s publicist hired 50 protesters to march across the street toting signs that said, “Read a book, don’t write one.” (“It worked,” Cornell says.)

Nearly all the clerks have been berated by Faye Dunaway for not carrying a book she is dying to own. To work at Book Soup, you must have a strong stomach for such occurrences. You must know that Elton John, who buys gobs and gobs of books, will never speak to you directly, but will address you, in the manner of royalty, through an intermediary.

“Do they have the new Hello?” says Elton John to his bodyguard.

“Do you have the new Hello?” says his bodyguard to Cornell.

“Yes, we have the new Hello,” says Cornell.

Robert Downey Jr. once applied for a job as a Book Soup clerk, as research for a role, Cornell speculates, but Goldman turned him down because the actor stipulated that he did not actually want to, you know, work.

Cornell, for his part, got the gig shortly after completing his graduate thesis in ethnography — on the culture of newsstands — at Cal State Northridge. He worked the graveyard shift at a dozen newsstands all over the city, sleeping in his car, “living off of scotch and cigarettes.” The last newsstand he worked at was Book Soup’s. The publicist at the time was taken with his demeanor and hired him as her protégé — it had something to do, I would imagine, with his relaxed Midwestern way, and his worldly resolve to be steadfast, or at least appear to be, no matter what happens in this crazy town. Cornell is 28 years old. He gives the impression that he can calmly, methodically wrangle many cats at once, all the while hosting an elaborate cocktail party.

“I feel like a conduit,” he says. “These events are meeting grounds of cultures. I love to watch it all as it goes down — Keanu Reeves talking about the Black Panther Party with a 70-year-old lady on disability. Hardcore students mingling with the regulars who come to every event regardless of what it is. Author readings are an anomaly. Like the newsstands, they are a dying form of entertainment. But that’s what I liked about the newsstands. They seemed to be such an antiquated thing, from a different century almost.”

Erin Levy, who is 22 years old, exactly the age Cornell was when he started at Book Soup, is now Cornell’s protégée. Packing stuff to take to a Bill Clinton off-site reading, she says that she wanted to work at Book Soup “to unleash [her] inner geek.”

Cornell says that he never gets tired of the constant march of author events, a phenomenon he calls the “soiree of culture.” Actually, you have to be prepared for spontaneity, if such a thing were possible. When the author of Notorious C.O.P. came to read, Book Soup received threats that there was going to be a drive-by shooting at the book signing.

“Can you believe that? A drive-by. At a book signing. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part of the job is dealing with Glenn,” Cornell says. There is affection in his voice, a touch of amusement to his deadpan. I tell him that I have only spoken with Goldman on the phone, and, for reasons having obliquely to do with the stroke he suffered a while back, he insisted that he did not want to be seen.

“I give up,” I say. “I don’t even know what he looks like.”

“He’s 8 feet tall and covered in fur,” says Levy; she herself has an inky Louise Brooks bob cut that is fetching on her. “And the claws?” she added. “Those are the worst part.”

“Oh, for God’s sakes.” Cornell gets up from his chair and strides across the room to grab a picture. In the photo, Goldman — owner of the store with the motto “Bookseller to the Great and Infamous,” where authors frequently have to book readings a year in advance because it is so great and infamous, and even then there is no guarantee that Cornell will dry-erase-marker their names into the schedule — looks like a goof. He has mouse-brown hair and glasses, and his sweatshirt says, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

“Note the puffy-yellow-print-on-turquoise fabric,” says Cornell, who then tells me about the time Goldman was invited to a formal dinner honoring Joan Didion and showed up in a too-tight white shirt tucked into brand-spanking-new black jeans. And a Snoopy tie.

“Check out my new digs,” Goldman had said proudly.

“You look great!” Cornell replied, as he surreptitiously pulled the “Size XL” sticker tag off his boss’s pants.

  • Tyson Cornell and Erin Levy, Book Soup

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