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Robin Ince on the road: Salt Lake city is so friendly it’s like a horror movie

Robin Ince’s American tour takes him to Utah and his favourite bookshop so far, where the merchandise is as eccentrically entertaining as the eavesdropping

I was assured that I would find no exciting books in Salt Lake City. Though complimentary copies of the Book of Mormon would flow like mead, the bookshops would be barren, if they existed at all. This was a relief. I had picked up a lot of books on the American tour so far. Leaving each city, my luggage was weightier than on arrival, with everything from a political primer by activist Dick Gregory to ’60s pulp novels with titles like Sexy Psycho and Venus of Lesbos

In Minneapolis, I had picked up a sumptuously illustrated book from a fabulous exhibition of art influenced by the supernatural. I was leafing through it when a stranger sat next to me on the plane. Her arrival coincided with me turning to the page featuring a photograph of Carolee Schneemann removing a scroll from her vagina. Her performance (Interior Scroll) is still much lauded, but it is an awkward icebreaker with a stranger. I turned the page hastily and thought that I should swap my reading matter, but then remembered that all I had at hand was Broken Pencil, a fascinating publication about art and zines, but this issue was about how Nazis use zine culture and going from a scroll to a swastika could make matters worse. I think that passenger feigned sleep for the rest of the journey, ignoring even the complimentary Fanta, out of fear that I might attempt to engage.

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There is a magnificent, welcoming strangeness to Salt Lake City. I would not be surprised to see flamingos whacking croquet balls. It is so friendly, almost on the cusp of that friendly you see in horror movies just before you find out it has all been an elaborate trap to place the brain of an ancient man in your skull and body so he can live forever. This was peak “have a nice day” America and I did. In fact, I had two nice days. 

I took a walk up the main drag with my tour companions, Brian and Steph, and within 500 metres, tragedy struck. I discovered what would become my favourite bookshop of the tour so far – Utah Books and Magazines. It had a whiff of yellowing pages and aged book glue and there were strange dolls and other arcane ephemera peeping at you from shelves. Books were stacked high and four deep, it was run by a brother and sister who were foul-mouthed, moody and highly entertaining. 

Brian and Steph watched me in my natural habitat, kneeling on the floor, pawing through books, stacking up my yeses and maybes. An anthropological study of a bookworm. They enjoyed the novelty of my burrowing, but soon needed fresh air and continued on to the mall for juice and carrot cakes. 

Before long I had my hands on Winfred Van Atta’s Shock Treatment – “More terrifying than Psycho. More revealing than The Caretakers” (I don’t know what the caretakers revealed, but I would find out). 

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Then there was Phase IV – “a race of super ants delivers an ultimatum to mankind – ADAPT OR DIE!”; the first US publication of Peter Watkins’ The War Game, the TV play about nuclear war that was so terrifying it was banned by the BBC for 20 years; the US film tie-in for the Michael Caine classic Get Carter; and Hedy Lamarr’s Ecstasy and Me. Oh, and I bought a 1978 biography of Henry Winkler for a friend. I visited twice more, both for the pulpy paperbacks and the eavesdropping – “That man’s a goddamn hobo! Always creating trouble, she was right to kick him in the nuts”, or, “They put me on the ward and made me try and urinate upside-down, and hell, that ain’t easy”. And on the dramas went, absurdist masterpieces of behind-the-till chatter. 

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When not browsing, I made it to the Mormon Tabernacle. Pairs of young women drifted around the pews with inviting sympathetic smiles, ready to engage you in conversations about their church. Sadly, I did not have the look of a new recruit, and left with my questions unanswered, though Brian Cox took a complimentary Book of Mormon, so who knows how that will affect his next astronomy documentary. I can’t think of anyone I would rather see converting to Mormonism, a show in itself. 

Robin Ince is an author and broadcaster

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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