Located past the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Harvard Avenue, Bookistan is nondescript and unassuming in appearance. A black sign has the name printed in unevenly spaced block letters while the window beneath it has the words “B0OKS + RECORDS” printed. The window, which sits around hip-level to the average person, displays an eclectic variety of knickknacks, from Elvis memorabilia to Star Wars themed novels.
I descend into the bookstore. As always, the shattered window is propped against the wall. The mild breeze is not enough to fight off the mild sense of claustrophobia I feel while walking around the store.
After a quick glance around the place, I stop in front of the owner, El-Cid Shahroozi, seated behind his cluttered desk.
When I ask for his name, he quietly mumbles that I will not be able to spell it correctly and that it would be better off if he wrote it down for me. In precise strokes, he hands me the spelling on a Roberto Coin sticky note. Later, I find out via a quick search on Google that Coin is an Italian designer who specializes in jewelry with merchandise in high end places like Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Saks Fifth Avenue. What is this old Iranian man doing with sticky notes from an Italian designer?
I don’t find out the answer to this question. Instead, I surmise that, like the rest of his life, there was a complicated story behind the stationary.
Shahroozi is an Iranian man in his early 70’s. He is dressed very plainly in a cotton grey shirt and green cargo shorts. His glasses have a steel frame, very sensible. As we begin to talk, a young couple walks in. He immediately gets up and greets them as if they are regulars. His warmness is welcoming, and the couple stays for a few minutes while browsing the immense book collection Bookistan boasts.
He then asks me what university I attend: Boston University or Emerson College? He has definitely been interviewed before. Despite my suspicions, Shahroozi’s account of his life before and during Bookistan spares no detail.
Shahroozi spent around 50 years in Iran under many occupations – writer, publisher, librarian, and journalist, to name a few. He was a voracious reader, a trait that naturally led him to take over this obscure bookstore.
His push to move to the United States was prompted by none other than a love affair. The affair was with a woman from Middletown, N.Y. who taught at an international school in Iran. The two met through a Harvard-educated man who was also teaching in Iran. Iranian diplomats would send their children to be educated by these people, said the owner, to highlight the importance of their work.
“Our lives were intertwined with the revolution,” Shahroozi said. The friend eventually fled Iran after worries that his Jewish heritage would conflict with the wishes of the government. Shahroozi’s would-be wife waited for him for a full year in Pakistan while he worked to get a U.S. visa.
The Iranian government was closely monitoring the comings and goings of its citizens at the time. It would be a few years before Shahroozi would gain a visa to escape the political turmoil in favor of the United States.
As he describes his personal experiences and their correlation to the political events of the time, I take the time to study his desk. There is a miniature boat with the destination “Barbados” etched into the side. Behind the boat, a jewelry stand holds tarnished silver watches. Across the desk, a miniature Halloween skeleton figurine sits at the edge. Perhaps the newest item on the desk is the red rose, fittingly immersed in water in a Gatorade bottle.
We moved on to lighter topics. At the mention of books, his eyes seem to sparkle. The books, he tells me, come from all over the place. He has meticulously picked and chosen for Bookistan’s collection.
The store is new, just past the two-and-a-half-year mark. Yet the light musty odor, reminiscent of something older, could fool patrons. Like any store, Shahroozi affirms that he has his regulars. He runs the store for both them and other patrons. He tells me that this is his civic duty, to educate people to think critically.
At first I’m unsure what he means – what is there to think critically about in this place? But as I look around, I find that it is confusing. Why are there 4-H ribbons? Who would give away Elvis memorabilia? Would anyone really buy such an obscure vinyl?
On walking out, I have the distinct feeling of having walked through someone’s mind. And perhaps that is the point of Bookistan.