An Evening with Smokin’ Joe
by Jeremy Kaplan of READ Books

This summer marks the 20th Anniversary of two gruesome events: Evander Holyfield getting half his ear gnawed off by Michael Tyson, and I getting brutally shit-canned by Book Soup. For those not in the know, Book Soup was (and for all I know may still be) the premier new bookstore in L.A.  Due somewhat to its superior inventory and more than somewhat to its prime location on The Sunset Strip (across the street from erstwhile hotspots Tower Records & Spago), it accurately fancied itself as the bookseller to the famous & infamous. I am often asked if I met many famous people there. I did. And shit-can is a euphemism for getting fired.
I have charged tax to Arthur Miller and called a taxi for Gore Vidal, two literary giants who, as they abided at the counter, proved to be quite large in stature. I once vaguely threatened to maybe come around that counter in order to inflict violence on cheeky Adam Sandler, & later observed my future wife accidentally bring fragile Drew Barrymore to tears. Both stars were small in stature. Kevin Spacey once crept around me, in the otherwise empty history section, in order to surprise his “Ref” co-star, Judy Davis. I giggled when she spoke to him, because I assumed that the silly Australian accent was her shtick. It wasn’t. She’s Australian, and that’s just how they talk. Silly.
Mick Jagger rates as my most profitable star encounter. See, upon entering the Soup, Mick was beset by about two dozen stalkers. The scariest of them, a burly young Westsider with dead eyes in and a baseball cap on his head, snagged a Mick Jagger book from the biography section and placed it (and himself) between Mick & the exit. Mick signed and ran. The stalker then approached me at my ubiquitous digs behind the front counter and asked if I could hold the book for him until he came up with some money. Oh I held it alright. I bought it and I held it and I took it home and I hid behind the fucking counter next time dead eyes came in. Some 10 years later, my wife & I opened READ Books and put that book on-line for sale. The author soon sent me an email asking how I came across a copy of his book signed by the subject, seeing that Mick had gone on record as despising said book. I told him. He said he believed my Mick story and bought the book he wrote. Before mailing his book to him, I read some it. I believed his Mick story, for it was a despicable book.
If I’m not reading a book, I’d just as soon be boxing, or watching two guys boxing better than me. The highlight of my 3-year tenure at Book Soup was when “Smokin’” Joe Frazier came to sign his book. Yeah, Joe Frazier, heavyweight champeen of the world, wrote a book. The title isn’t nearly as important as the new word, ubiquitous in its pages, which Smokin’ contributed to the English language. Ahem… SCAMBOOGA. There it is! Scambooga, a noun utilized to describe an individual displaying gross moral turpitude and such. In the Smokin’ Dictionary a drawing of Muhammad Ali would illustrate the definition. For those not in the know, Smokin’ & Ali engaged in a grueling trilogy of fights that left Smokin’ bitter about Ali’s penchant for calling him an Uncle Tom, a penchant which caused his young son, Marvis, much grief whilst socializing with his coevals on the Philly schoolyards. Sample sentence from the Smokin’ Dictionary: “Ali, having falsely labeled me a Tom, and thus having encouraged insensitive young toughs to harass my pre-teen son, is most definitely a SCAMBOOGA.
Marvis, a marginally successfully heavyweight boxer himself, accompanied his father to the signing. I was initially struck by the fact that neither Frazier was especially large; smaller that the aforementioned scribes Miller & Vidal, actually. But the mass on their compact bodies possessed bona fide quintessence, and their hands, when they enveloped mine in bearish handshakes, were massive ham hocks of destruction. The store manager had asked me if I’d stay late on my shift in order to assist in keeping the line orderly. “Sure,” I’d said, “I’ll be Joe Frazier’s bodyguard. Just tell that yellowbelly punk he best not sass me like that Sandler fella did.”
Smokin’ & Son of Smokin’ couldn’t have been nicer, but one crusty old fight fan turned my bodyguard joke into prophecy. Prior to the commencement of signing, at Smokin’s behest, I walked the length of the line announcing that Joe would not be signing memorabilia, only books, preferably the one he wrote. So this crusty old bastard (probably 5 years older than I am now, damnit), plops a pile of photos, gloves, & mouthpieces on the counter and says: “C’mon Joe. Be a good guy.” Joe blushes and nods no. “C’mon Joe.” Just signing books today, sir, reiterates Son of Smokin’. “Be a good guy. C’mon.” I watch dumbly as a customer nudges me and suggests: “He’s embarrassing Joe. Maybe you should intervene.” Yeah maybe I should.
Moving tepidly toward the awkwardness, it wasn’t so much that I was scared of getting into it with a crusty old guy, as I was scared of getting into it with Smokin’ Joe Frazier seated front row. Imagine. Crusty guy takes a poke at me; I bob & weave clumsily underneath his left hook, and come back with a sloppy left hook of my own. In front of Joe Frazier. And Joe shakes his head sadly & frowns. That ain’t no left hook, young man. You know who throws a left hook like that? A SCAMBOOGA! That’s who!
So as I stood behind Crusty, ineffectually mumbling about how Mr. Frazier would rather not sign his mouthpiece that evening, my manager, a young lass approximately a third the size of your average Gore Vidal, grabbed Crusty by the collar and dragged him off to the nearest exit. On one hand, the two Smokins would never be able to critique my technique; on the other hand, they’d probably formed a few opinions about my character. I emerged from the event with a signed copy of the book, an unsigned sign commemorating the event, & an irrational desire to punch pretty much anybody I ever saw lined up at a book signing. After opening READ Books, a decade later, I ultimately sold the signed Smokin’ography (for less, sadly, than the Jagger book), & kept the unsigned sign, which to this day hangs ceremoniously in our store. True story. You should come by and see it sometime.  C’mon. Don’t be a scambooga.

About Jeremy

I own a bookstore. I run. I fight. I family.
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