On a street built by bookmaking, one business is building a name by bookselling. The Reading Room is the only bookstore on the Las Vegas Strip not preceded by the word adult.
And why not? A hell of a lot of things in Las Vegas exist where they don't belong: slot machines at 7-Elevens, drive-through lanes at sports books and wedding chapels, the Beatles at the Mirage.
"People just don't expect us to be here," says Reading Room manager Debra Belcoff. "We are so strange and atypical. It's the surprise factor."
Hell, Vegas itself has no business being where it is—in the middle of a bone-dry convection oven.
"That's why we sell so many books about the history of it," Belcoff says.
The Reading Room is a New York apartment of a store, cramming approximately eighteen thousand books into twelve hundred precious square feet in Mandalay Place, the high-end shopping mall at Mandalay Bay. Inside, teakwood imparts an English flavor. Outside, wrought-iron gates and electric gaslight lanterns . . .
Wait a minute. There is no outside. The whole thing is inside a casino.
Placing a bookstore here was the idea of former Mandalay Resort Group CFO Glenn Schaeffer, who attended the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1976, alongside the budding T. C. Boyle, Rita Dove, and Allan Gurganus. "He thought there was a market here," Belcoff says. "He didn't think everyone in America was as dumb as everyone says."
And he was apparently right. Even strippers, it turns out, enjoy cracking a book on their nights off from booking their cracks. En route to work at Ivan Kane's Forty Deuce, directly across the mall, they frequently peruse the shelves here. Of course, they're not dressed to undress yet, so no one can prove they're strippers. But a Reading Room bookseller can tell.
"They're . . . um . . . enhanced by science?" he says. "I guess that's the best way to put it." Also, they pay for their purchases entirely in dollar bills.
Strangely, there is no reading room inside the Reading Room. Its seven chairs and three tables are all on the (fake) outside, awaiting those who want to check out what they've already bought. "There's no camping out and reading here, so we get a lot of browsing," Belcoff says. "But everything in Vegas is short attention span. They'll take out a half hour from a Broadway show to make it fit."
Belcoff arranges the books into displays targeting whichever big convention is in town. When it's National Finals Rodeo, she says, "We've got the whole thing done in cowboy." She adds, "We've got an awesome cowboy-shirt book."
Gus Russo piddles around the bookstore, jotting down what he intends to say. He's the author scheduled, in a few minutes, to read from and sign his fourth book, Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers.
"The guys from Chicago had a lot of foresight," Russo tells Belcoff. "They knew what the public wanted and brought it here—the booze and the gambling. They pioneered everything. Bookmaking became off-track betting. Now it's all here and legal."
I haven't bothered to read Supermob, even though I knew I was writing an article that would mention it. Actually, I don't read much of anything except my own articles. That's because, unlike strippers, I am as dumb as people say. When Mrs. Keppel taught us literature in eighth grade, I hid my collected works of Mad magazine in the book spines and relied on Gwen Frank to answer all questions.
I don't even know who T. C. Boyle, Rita Dove, and Allan Gurganus are. I saw their names in an Internet bio about Schaeffer and cut-and-pasted them above. See? And you didn't even notice. I constantly fake being literate without shame. And this is why—unlike the sharks and the tigers and the lions—I do belong in Vegas. This is a city that constantly fakes being cultural without shame.
The true culture of Vegas can be found on a table outside the Reading Room, on a Lucite stand holding book-recommendation fliers. Somebody's placed a card on top, of the same sort handed out by the thousands to passersby on the real outside.
"Fun and frisky blondes, brunettes, Asians, African-Americans, Latinas," it reads. "Girls of your choice!"
There isn't enough room in this article to detail the many other ways in which this bookstore differs from the Waldenbooks in Lansing, Michigan, where one employee worked before answering the Reading Room's help-wanted ad on Craigslist.
For instance, you try naming another bookery with eyes in the sky—seventeen of them.
"They're looking at whatever casinos look at," Belcoff says. "I can't comment about that."
Then there are the customers who try paying with casino chips (which is against Nevada Gaming Commission rules), who walk in with lit cigarettes or cigars, and who walk in just plain lit. The lack of return customers is sometimes a blessing.
Outside the entrance, Russo sits behind a table piled high with his own signed books. The green light on his Shure wireless transmitter indicates its readiness to amplify. But not one person has checked in, even though his appearance was heavily advertised in the local print media and flashes regularly across the hotel's giant video screens, one of which faces the store. It comes right after the "Earth, Wind and Fire Tickets On Sale Now" announcement.
"One of the problems may be the location—being out here at the escalators, it's not where people are browsing," Russo says. "It's where people are trying to get up or down."
Russo is the kid in high school who throws the party attended by only one other guy. Only it's much worse than that, because this time, that guy is writing a national story mentioning that no one else is in attendance.
Russo's right about the location's weirdness. But people do find the Reading Room when they want to. According to Belcoff, seventy-five fans attended a reading by
E. Lynn Harris.
For Harris, whose work I also haven't bothered to read, Belcoff arranged folding chairs in a rectangle underneath the escalators. This minimized the blare from a nearby bank of video-poker machines. "There aren't too many things in Vegas that aren't distracting," she says. "But we love that sound, because that sound means that we can be here." (The hotel owns the bookstore.)
According to Belcoff, the Reading Room draws about two hundred customers a day. Most are tourists, not strippers. "And just about everybody buys something," Belcoff says, although that's just what a retail manager would say. (The Mandalay Bay does not release sales figures on its subdivisions.)
Today, four of five customers I accost on their way out of the store—asking to see what's in their bag like David Letterman in 1983—are Brits. "It's not a bad idea having a bookstore here," says John Colson. "Everybody reads a book by the pool." Colson is in town vacationing with Alexandra, whom he married at Vegas's Candlelight Chapel in 2002. They're Brits from Birmingham.
"That's in the middle," she says, because I'm an American and wouldn't know. (I do, but only because I'm an Ozzy Osbourne fan.) Having spotted the Reading Room during a trip last year, the Colsons returned to purchase a copy of Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark (who spoke at the Reading Room last year, attracting many more fans than Russo is). I ask Belcoff why her customers are so heavily British.
"This is a big time of year for them because it's when their holidays are, and they stay for a long time—whereas our American visitors stay for a short amount of time," she says.
The real reason, obviously, is that most Americans are as dumb as everyone says. The British, on the other hand, read books.
"Well, there are magazines in there for you," says Alexandra Colson.
Wait, someone has stopped by Russo's table. Let's eavesdrop.
"It's about the influence of the Chicago Mob, how they brought all their money to Vegas," Russo tells a heavyset man in a yellow Lacoste shirt. "It's a new way of looking at it," Russo says.
The man walks away.
"I'll be signing them, if you want to come back," Russo calls out to the man's receding back.
Alas, Russo has discovered that he, very much like the sharks and the tigers and the lions, does not belong in Las Vegas either. Oh, well, at least he's getting something out of the experience.
"I'll go get my digital camera and wait for my image to come up again," Russo says as he stares at the giant video screen.
Corey Levitan is a humor columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Even though he doesn't read books, he has written one, The Napoleon Code: A Short Guy's Guide to Life. His parents love it, but his agent has yet to find a publisher.