My friend and longtime customer Tony died unexpectedly over the weekend. It is fairly unfathomable that he will no longer walk in the door on his way to tend bar across the street, sit down and chat for a while, gather up the Times Book Reviews and New Yorkers I save for him, and ask me, “Whaddaya got for me today?”
A dozen years ago at the beginning of the Lucy’s experiment, Tony Sales walked in. He brought with him the trace of tobacco smell that unavoidably came second hand (back then anyway) when you were Tony of Tony’s Tavern, and spent most of every day and night in a bar. Tony was one of the many, many people that have taught me to leave my assumptions at the door. He was one of the most literate, well-read people I have ever known.
The minute he spoke, I knew he was from some northeastern city or another, and clearly one rife with Italians. Sure enough, and oddly, it turned out he was from my own hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. Here in Astoria, 3000 miles from there, I had a friend who remembered Snyder’s Market, my grandfather’s grocery on Sumner Avenue. How weird is that? I felt a connection to Tony because though he didn’t personally know my parents and grandparents (I don’t think the Jews and the Italians ran around together much in Springfield), he knew where I came from. He knew who I am, and who my people are, in a way difficult to quantify, but which felt familiar in a faraway place.
Of course, I also felt connected to Tony through books. Simply put, he was a true Reader. Now, with his unexpected passing, I feel pretty sad that I have yet to read “Zorba the Greek.” I figured I’d get around to it eventually, and would talk with him about it later. The mere thought of “Zorba” brought a quick smile to his face. He loved “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Don Quixote,” Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” If you were game for arguing, you could try telling Tony that a novel that is not “Blood Meridian” is the greatest 20th century American novel. Recently I felt triumphant, having convinced Tony to read David James Duncan’s “The Brothers K,” (my Great American Novel) and getting grudging approval of its worth. The last book he read may have been Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken,” which he loved. It’s a story of triumphantly overcoming the absolute worst adversity, dealt out by the worst humanity had to offer. We really had to finish our conversation about it.
Tony sort of disappeared for a few years along the way. When he walked in the door after that long hiatus, I found out he’d gone back home to care for his mom, up until she died. All became right in bookstore-land with Tony back around, bantering and arguing with me about the usual stuff: writing, writers, novels. He convinced a lot of people that reading a certain book was a great idea, and if he told you to read something, generally you listened. I know – many locals showed up here for one book or another that Tony had decreed that they needed to come here, acquire, read, and (of course, the fun part), report back.
Rest in peace, Tony. You will be missed.