On the peeling placard that reads “Neverending Books,” the grain of the wood punctuates white words as if to convey a sense of understatement. Browsers in this bookstore and community space are welcomed by the bibliophile’s pheromone: the scent of decaying tomes. I am aroused by the fragrance and aghast that these books are unattended, with no shopkeeper to supervise their sale. There is, however, a weathered banjo case, whose innards are painted a vivid red varnish, and a nearby sign reads: “Case of the donation banjo, make donations here.
The banjo case stands in for a man who proves difficult to pin down, a man named Roger Uihlein. Uihlein is the unofficial coordinator and cultural liaison for Neverending Books, the center of his universe. He is best characterized by a magnetic inertia. Without force, simply by being himself, he galvanizes New Haven’s fringe community and channels its energies into his establishment at 810 State Street.
In the bookroom, Uihlein’s lax organization scheme lends insight into his character. He admits of the books shelved — books donated by the community — “we don’t really put them in aisles, just blah, blah, blah.”
In his nonchalant way, he has exaggerated the disarray: there are, in fact, handwritten headings grafted on bookshelves for subjects in the Dewey Decimal system, and the literature collection is alphabetized by authors’ surnames. Yet beyond these constraints thrives what can only be described as casual, organic disorder. 8 Real SATs is sandwiched between World Book encyclopedias. Books overflow the gnarled wooden shelves into plastic cartons from U-Haul and Fabulous Frybreads. While some have suggested that he catalogue his archive and sell the volumes on Amazon. com, Uihlein cannot imagine devoting 40 hours a week to what he nonetheless deems a “good business idea.” This endeavor, it seems, would compromise the spirit of Neverending Books as a personal forum for genuine human interaction.
Before Neverending Books was founded 17 years ago, the building housed a traditional bookstore whose proprietor, a “nice guy named Frank,” spent his days outside in a wicker chair, dejectedly unsuccessful in his enterprise and conspicuously lonely. Uihlein, who to this day lives nearby, made efforts to alleviate Frank’s taxing solitude by visiting periodically. But after a year of dwindling profits, Frank vacated the site, and Uihlein proposed a new, revolutionary bookstore that would be a community project.
When an assembly of 150 friends convened to brainstorm and determine the bookstore’s name by vote, “Neverending Books” was born, with the goal of using it as a space both for the distribution of used books, records, and magazines, and for collectively organized events. The venue for these events is the community room adjacent to the bookroom, where collages — a symbolic medium of choice — are mounted on the wall.
Early on, Uihlein espoused the utopian ideal of communal property: everyone who gave 20 dollars and 20 books to the cause had a key to the space. Privileges were naturally abused, and Uihlein ultimately assumed sole possession of the space, though he insists “there is nothing to own.” The site is available to anyone who requests it. In this way, Uihlein facilitates a kaleidoscope of events, everything from film screenings to art exhibits, puppet shows, premiere performances by the Uncertainty Music Series every second Saturday of the month, New Haven Improvisers’ Collective jam sessions every last Monday of the month, open-mic nights, book clubs, knitting sessions, and secret vegan cafes.
When Adam Horowitz ’09 first came to Neverending Books, he found himself in the midst of a circus act with acrobatic feats on a tumbling mat and trapeze bar, only to have Uihlein cajole him into playing the drums as accompaniment. Horowitz had never played a drum set before, but he would visit Neverending Books again, with enthusiasm and his own ukulele.
Those who have passed through Neverending Books have all left their artifacts: local artist Bob Cuneo’s postcards of “Caricatures of the Human Comedy,” fliers for the Bioregional Group’s next canoe trip, tchotchkes that Rainbow Recycling has salvaged from downtown dumpsters. As I leave the bookstore and the barefooted man who one friend says may now be “just this backwater bookstore owner, but [will] be a legend when he’s dead,” I am seized by the impulse to leave something of my own. I slide the 50 cents that Uihlein has assured me suffices into the slot of the donation box, paying my respect to the understated banjo case and nostalgia for what has yet to pass.