Mike was a familiar sight in Over-the-Rhine. He habitually wore a dark blue quilted jacket, like one of Chairman Mao's, with a black knit watch cap, patched jeans and a wild gray beard.
Together with Sonya McDonnell, Mike started Kaldi's back in the early 1990s. They limited themselves to coffee and small food items at first, and through Mike's long background as a collector they lined the walls of 1204 Main St. with used books. It was amazing in its luxuriousness -- shelves of old books, art books, books with tattered jackets, books spilling over books, Mickey Spillane paperbacks and a huge library-style dictionary on a stand on the non-smoking side.
Artists made up most of the clientele at first. Apartments up and down Main Street were going for a song, and so they moved there. What kept them was Kaldi's.
It was warm somehow and kept the existential angst at bay. The blue and white teacups in the transom sparkled. Its neon sign was cozy.
I started playing music there in the early '90s, when painters Tom Bacher and John Steele still met for a cup of coffee at 11 p.m. on the dot on the café side. At 11:30, they paid their bill and went to their studios and started their nightly painting sessions.
Through the arched doorway on the bar side, Kaldi's countertop was lined with cappuccinos and lattes, and either some lively conversation or decent music might be heard there.
Mike was a quiet entrepreneur. He kept an office in the basement. Occasionally, he'd come out and hunker down in the arched doorway and listen to the band for a few minutes.
He had been an English professor at Xavier for years and was(is?) an excellent writer and a straightforward man. He'd had a mid-life marriage to a very young woman named Ivory, but it ended when they moved to Maine, to the unendurable isolation of the woods there.
He came back to Over-the-Rhine when the union was done and decided to make a bookstore of artist Merle Rosen's old studio on Woodward Street, two blocks north of Kaldi's.
He sawed the wood for the shelves of his new vintage bookstore from second-hand lumber given to him by Kate Schmidt. Mike had declared there would be nothing new in the shop, so Alan Sauer and I painted the boards using left-over paint. Alan, wearing two weeks of stubble on his face, hunkered down like an Indian and never so much as got a brush line wrong. Nothing even splattered.
I took my small mahogany rocking chair up there, a painting, a vase. I cut roses from the bushes across the way every couple of weeks and put them on Mike's desk. He never noticed them.
For a while he got very involved with a long piece of fiction he was writing. He didn't know what it was, didn't want to talk about it at all, but some mornings the bookshop looked as if a cyclone had hit it.
His one concession to the modern era was his computer, something put together from used modems. Once he got his PayPal account back up and made the necessary connections to hook up with Abe Books and Amazon.com, he was selling books over the Internet.
He made his own mailing containers from recycled cardboard and walked every day to the post office downtown to mail them to the buyers. At first he bought ready-made boxes, but they were wasteful.
"Nobody recycles anything in this country," he would say. Besides, the ready-made book cartons weren't that handy: They had too much room at either end.
I used to drop by there regularly in the mornings, especially the summer after Kaldi's closed. Jim Wainscott, the painter, and his dog Carson might be in the shop, Jim raging against the machine alongside Billy Walker, another Over-the-Rhine original.
Billy was stick thin and wore jeans, a dashiki with giant African beads and a worn cotton cloth he tied around his smooth, brown head. Occasionally, Tina would drop in when she was delivering for Shadeau Bread. She'd owned a coffee shop herself up on Auburn Avenue, and I had heard she was leaving for Alaska soon, camping out along the way.
Mike had no trouble selling books, but he had trouble finding books to buy. He used to send out leather-bound books of livestock registration numbers to cattlemen in England and Australia. Those were the bill-payers, and though they were of no interest to me they interested Mike.
He had been what he called a "bookman" all his life, had built great collections and lost them. The endless yard sales, the estate sales, the library sales -- he walked or took the bus to all of them. And came back carrying 30 pounds of books strapped in place with bungee cords on one of those gadgets you wheel your suitcase on at the airport.
I usually kept up with his acquisitions on sale days. My dog Sister and I went by there in the morning or late in the evening, and Mike and I would drink the coffee he carried in his vacuum pot, listening to Prokofiev on his old turntable and looking at used books about far-away places with strange-sounding names.
I remember some very nice Jazz. Mike liked listening to Buffy St. Marie, too. I'd been a fan in her heyday, and we'd both sing loudly when she came to the line, "Where have the buffalo gone?"
Mike got quite a haul of Edith Wharton once, and I found myself I re-reading a lot of her early novels. He found a book of the gardens she'd made in Europe 100 years ago and another book of her days on the French Riviera.
The night before he left, he'd been to an estate sale, and I went by to get the skinny on what he'd bought. He had a nice copy of Brideshead Revisited, which he gave me. He also had a coffeetable book of full-color head shots of "Rastas," short for Rastafarians. One of them had dreads so long and thick they were shaped into an elaborate chicken standing upright on top of his head.
"Goodness," I said. Mike didn't say anything. We just sat there, he in the rocker and I on a straight chair, passing the big book back and forth, admiring the Rastas' strangeness, entirely in the moment.
Thank God for Aralee Strange and Jay Bolotin. Without them we'd have no bohemians left down here at all.
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