In The Neighborhood: Meet Alex Dawson

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Alex Dawson.jpegMetuchen's man in black, the force behind our new artistic hub; a writer, artist, publisher, motorcycle traveler, licensed Central Park carriage driver and a certified international tour guide: Meet Alex Dawson of The Raconteur, the man at the center of a cultural community - a local cultural phenomenon.   

 

When you visit the book store and let your eyes wander, you see eclectic collections of books, art, and artifacts - many ages and many places are within your scope. You realize you've entered a special place of wonder and energy and you also begin to get a feel for the man and his thirst for limitless discovery. Some time in his presence and you realize he, too, is filled with stories, images, ideas, and feelings from a collection of places, a spectrum of time.

Born in Cranbury, Alex moved with his mom and stepdad to a 900 acre ranch in rural Alabama when he was eight.  His stepdad, a dog and horse trainer and his mother, a writer, teacher, artist and international tour guide who also thirsted for expression through experience and discovery,  traveled with her children to exotic places like Egypt, Turkey, Switzerland, and Scotland - one destiny each year.  Alex's brother is tour guide and amateur anthropologist residing in Peru. 

 

His father, currently the city historian of New Brunswick, worked as a reporter for many years and, in 1987, Alex returned to New Jersey to attend Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers.  Beginning as a painter and performance artist he migrated to English. After graduation, he lived in Munich, Germany for a time and upon returning to New York, worked as a bartender, bouncer, carpenter, set designer, and playwright. From 1998 - 2003, he was the artistic director for award-winning Bon Bock, a theatrical company with residency in the lower East Side.  There, he wrote and produced more than a dozen plays, and produced for other writers as well.  Bon Bock was so named for his favorite neighborhood bar in Munich; it's German for "good glass of beer."  The look of his Main Street store is also inspired by memories of a bar called Baal, a hundred year old student pub in Munich. "Baal felt like a bookshop, lots of stained wood and leathery spines," recalls Dawson.  

 

"When I got into my 30's, theater began to feel fleeting.  A six-week run wasn't enough and I felt like putting down roots."  He'd been living in Metuchen for a while and learned that Pyramid Books was slated to close.  "I thought that losing a book store would be a blow to the cultural soul of the town - my town.  I'd long been concerned about the fate of Main Street and didn't think another nail salon would be too appealing to anyone."  He took a job at Pyramid to learn the business of book sales.  After about a month, he made an offer and, along with John McKelvey, became the new owner. The Raconteur was born.  

 

Spidermonkeys sideman.jpeg"My goal is to bring bold culture into town.  People who have migrated from NYC to Metuchen want the charm and safety of a small town but also want to hold onto the artistic excitement of the city."  He believes "it's all about art.  Art changes a town - people go for theater or a concert but they are not all-consuming events, they include dinner, coffee, drinks.  I've been campaigning for public art. We have approximately 75 free events a year, 2 to 3 per week, drawing people from Philly and Manhattan.  One event took place during Junebug and the city visitors were so excited - they thought the town was like that all the time"

 

About our theater, the Forum Theater, he laments "It stands at the gateway of our downtown, the marquis dented, rented but standing empty, I don't know."   Most residents seem to feel the same sadness over potential in limbo. 

 

"Towns need to be forward thinking and backward glancing.  The places I think end-up being very successful bring people from out of town. The goal is for a town to be vital but to exist for its residents. Some have really nailed that; Hudson, NY - a town with beautiful architecture that had fallen into ruin has had an amazing renaissance - old fashioned qualities now exist alongside progressive cafés.  Lenny Kravitz just built a studio there." 

 

The Raconteur prides itself on accomplished and eclectic programming and their calendar Jeff Maschi in Papa.jpeg includes everything from rock shows and movie screenings to staged radio plays and arm wrestling tournaments. "I've never thought of the events as ancillary," says Dawson, "in fact, they were always pretty much the point." The general idea being, the books pay the bills and enable The Raconteur to operate as a sort of free cultural center. Alex has also hosted small groups of patrons on literary pub crawls, Get Lit Tours, through Manhattan with stops at the favorite haunts of literary greats. 

 

"For me, it's not about just getting the most people at any event, it's about bringing quality culture and getting people to take a chance, take a risk on experiencing something new. With my events, I oscillate between high and low culture - we've had graffiti art shows and string quartets; documentaries and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. We were the first venue in Central New Jersey to host Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth slide show. But I'd like to think we're also as local as Rac the Vote, the '07 mayoral and council candidate night."

 

Travel remains important to him, although, as with many of us, life limits it now.  In extolling one of the many important reasons for leaving the comfort zone of home for a new and unfamiliar space, he says "it presses you into casual relationships with all sorts of people.  Every time I travel, I try to sustain a Knights of the Road mentality, to be adventurous."   But he's also proven you don't need to leave home to accomplish both new experience and adventure. By inviting creative and interesting writers and artists to participate in cultural events, he's building a community of creativity and intelligentsia connected to The Raconteur

 

"Once, I invited a Jeremy Mercer, author of Time Is Soft There, a memoir of time spent in Parisian literary bohemia, to participate in Word Fest, an annual literary event sponsored by The Raconteur.  Mr. Mercer was in residence at Shakespeare & Company, "a tumbleweed hotel and bookstore on the banks of the Seine where writers work in the store for board as they write" Alex explained.  He learned of and became interested in Jeremy upon reading and developing affection for his book.  "I read the book and was compelled to contact him.  I'm good at on-line sleuthing."  Also good at cultivating lasting friendships with the kindred-spirits he connects with, Alex maintains a friendship with Mercer, as he does most of the guests he's invited to the store.  In fact, Mr. Mercer wrote the introduction to Dawson's Raconteur Reader, the inaugural book of Raconteur Publications, and put Alex in touch with many of what he considered the top ten bookstores in the word, including Atlantis Books, a store cut into the volcanic rock cliffs of the Greek island Santorini.

 

"I try to be professional where it counts but find it important to be personal and treat my guests with warmth; they often become friends."  His girlfriend Kristy, an English teacher, is a valued partner to Alex in the store as well as his life.  "She's very well read, very smart, and genuine all of the time.  While I'm thoughtful about honoring my guests work, she remembers their spouses, partners, children - she imparts sincere personal care in those relationships.   

 

Alex has a young adult novel due out in a few weeks.  The Rapscallion Club, written and published by him, is the story of a band of young adventurers traveling between central New Jersey and Peru,  ancient magic, pirate ghosts, and island treasures.  Featured prominently in the story is the South American Explorers Club, of which his brother is actually a member. 

 

An excerpt from The Rapscallion Club: 

 

Percival G. Rapscallion had just turned ten. Actually, he hadn't just turned. It had been almost two months since his birthday. But it had taken him eight weeks to screw up his courage. To work his way up to the promise he had made to himself. On that morning, fifty-six days ago, at the exact moment he leaned forward in his chair to blow out ten tiny guttering flames flickering atop ten spindly wax stalks, he had promised himself--that night, the night of his birthday, was the night. The night he would creep into the basement of Rapscallion House and hide behind, well, whatever there was to hide behind. He assumed there were boxes, trunks, but he didn't really know. The basement had always been off limits. Both the inside door, wooden and white, with crimped hinge pins, and the outside door, steel and dark green, set in a sloping slice of concrete, were each hung with big black locks the size of bear traps.

 

The publishing arm of the enterprise is poised to take its next big step with the release of Rapscallion.  "There's been interest from bigger publishing houses but I wanted to release it first to cement the Raconteur as a publishing house.  And, I had ideas for illustrated maps, temporary tattoos - extra stuff that another house may have cut.  DIY publishing is very exciting and very important to the art.  It's significantly more exciting than allowing your art to be produced through a bigger entity.  I see it as more; others may see it as less.  I'm not rigid or so proud that I don't draw on opinions, but owning the creative process is important."  

 

Ian Mackaye at the First Presbyterian.jpeg"Authors graciously gave me unpublished work for our first book," The Raconteur Reader, an anthology of short fiction edited by Dawson and released in September of 2007.  "That a small used bookstore was able to collect works from such significant writers is exciting" he said.   "I want to get to the point where if I put my stamp, the Rac stamp on something, people will trust it." 

 

A Rac-style bash is scheduled for the January 9th release of Rapscallion (although the book can be pre-ordered at this time).  The party was constructed with relative entertainment:  The book will arrive on the morning of January 9th in a vintage steamer trunk, bound in chains. Each guest will receive a key and the key that opens the trunk will be awarded the first trunk edition.  The night will feature Peruvian wind flutes, Scottish bagpipers (the Rapscallions are Scottish, as is Alex), a fencing demo of Bartitsu - an Edwardian self defense martial art with walking sticks or umbrellas and Peruvian snacks.

 

My visit with Alex lasted about two hours. It was relaxed and friendly, comfortable.  He was working at the time and would break to help a customer or chat with a visitor who stopped by to say hello, or to see his lovely dog, Rosie, a German shepherd, a retired guide dog, who happily spent part of my visit at my feet.  

 

Obviously as happy to be a small town merchant as he is a far reaching visionary, I asked him to comment on the perhaps undeserved enigmatic persona casual observers assign to him. Alex understands that his age and stature don't necessarily go hand-in-hand with the image of a used book store owner.  "When you're a bookseller, it's not like being another salesman. There's often this innate misconception that I posses all of the wisdom the books can impart.  My relative youth, my size, they don't fit the mold."  He adds, "I try to do things incongruent with a dusty used book store."  A store-sponsored motorcycle club, an annual arm wrestling tournament, and beard growing contest - I'd say he's accomplished his goal. The Raconteur Motorcycle Club will be featured in an upcoming travel book called Novel Destinations: Jane Austen's Bath to Ernest Hemingway's Key West, published by National Geographic and due out later this year.

 

The Rac's holiday party, The Holiday Hootenanny - Dec 19th ant 8 pm, will feature 400 years of music, from classical and jazz to Celtic, folk, Victorian dance hall, and Led Zeppelin. A variety of nogs, punches, baked and boiled noshes, and sculptures in marzipan will all be on tap to guarantee your holiday can be one of culture and new experience.  Our own home-town Uncle Drosselmeyer?

 

Whenever I'm in the store, I can't leave without purchasing something - there is just too much to resist.  All used books, many new titles and hard covers, are ½ off cover price.  There are $1 specials, graphic novels, comic books, a huge children section, vintage LPs, DVDs to rent or buy; quirky gift items and rare and collectible books.  New books can be special ordered.  A tea bar, where you can have a spot of tea from all over the world, is currently open at events and will soon be open full time. 

A bit of Hemingway's Paris right here in Metuchen?  It's not too far a stretch.  Bringing the Brainy Boro back to its origins, when circles of writers and intelligentsia gathered in creative and friendly community, Alex Dawson and The Raconteur are indeed, to quote a few notable publications,  "a literary center of gravity", The New York Times, "a literary landmark" , Time Out New York, and a "literary sanctuary" , the London Guardian.   

 

Leather loveseat and knight helmet.jpegStop in.  Soak-up the atmosphere. Browse the over 25,000 "previously owned" books which  include eclectic out of print titles, the large assortment of signed first editions, have a cup of tea, rent a DVD, attend an event.  Get to know Metuchen's free cultural center or as Dawson puts it "Floyd's Barbershop for people with esoteric interests."  No passport required.

6 Comments

if you dont want this savant to leave, then, come on metuchenites: support him! come on out and support ($$) such a needed entity....

The Forum is leased? Interesting. Thought it had been sold. As far as the owner, I don't think Stirling Court is very hard to find.

You got that right, take the kids in and get a stack or two of books, you won't regret it.

The Raconteur is the best thing to happen to Main St in years. It's given us smart cool character. We do have way too many nail salons, professional offices and banks. The space, the events, the patrons, they're all fantastic. Too bad he doesn't own the Forum too.

Here's to Alex! PLEASE DON'T EVER LEAVE TOWN!!!!

The Forum is being leased by someone who isn't really interested in making it cultural center for town. The owner is back, supposedly, in town now but he is hard to find.

Love the store but they do need another venue for their events. The store is kind of claustrophobic even when it's not crowded.

Thought the Forum had a new owner but haven't seen much going on there. Too bad the town or the historical society can't buy it.

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  • len devo: if you dont want this savant to leave, then, come read more
  • Anonymous: The Forum is leased? Interesting. Thought it had been sold. read more
  • Anonymous: You got that right, take the kids in and get read more
  • Anonymous: The Raconteur is the best thing to happen to Main read more
  • Anonymous: The Forum is being leased by someone who isn't really read more
  • Anonymous: Love the store but they do need another venue for read more

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