Sep 25, 2021
3 mins read
In 1976 I returned to New York from a university year in Japan, and got a job in one of Manhattan’s two Japanese bookstores at the time. The Zen Japanese Bookstore (which had nothing “zen” about it) sold books, magazines, and offered magazine subscriptions, as this was back in the days of pre-internet yore when people had no choice but to get specialty magazines by snail mail (which we called “mail” back then.)
Upstairs was a tiny cafe that sold Japanese- style coffee and “Castella,” a kind of Japanese sponge cake introduced by Portuguese merchants in the 16th century before the shogunate closed the country to foreigners entirely. I would often eat my bag lunch upstairs in the cafe (more than once only a few yards from John Lennon and Yoko Ono who’d stop in — another story for another time.) There were also small gifts on sale, and art on the walls. In an age where we can buy anything in seconds from the palm of our hands, it’s perhaps hard to see how unique and special this was.
Next door was a casual Japanese restaurant. The cook and wait staff, who’d become friends of my co-workers, would come over during their afternoon break and read the magazines for free, with a “just browsing” air.
One day one of the waitresses rushed over rather breathlessly. “Mick Jagger is back!” Apparently he was an occasional customer when in Manhattan. The response? “What did he order to eat?!” Not “who’s he with?” or “what’s he wearing?” or “When was the last time he came?” Everyone wanted to know what he was eating. Apparently when it comes to celebrities and food, the whole world is Jewish. And in case you are curious, it was katsudon, breaded pork cutlet served over a big bowl of rice, which on the other hand, is very much not Jewish.
And then he popped into our store big as life, wearing (because maybe you would have asked what he was wearing instead of “what was he eating?”) a huge crazy fur coat. He went upstairs and dropped what seemed to me a lot of money at the time on the little gifts we sold, and then came down to the bookstore.
I purposely went over to the vicinity where he was perusing the shelves, in part because I actually, really, truly, had book arranging work, but ok, also because I was very curious about what he was looking for. Truth be told, I was kind of nervous. Then he turned to me and asked,
“Excuse me, do you work here?” And at that moment — I know not how or from where — a wave of utter cool came over me. Calm, confident, casual. “Yes, can I help you find something?” (WHO is this?)
Mick Jagger was shopping for Chinese cookbooks. I am quite certain he had no intention of actually using them himself, as he specifically told me he wanted books that were easy for someone with limited English. Ah, to have household staff!
I rang up his bill, and then came the moment of truth. Do I act like an utter dweeb and ask for an autograph? Or pretend I hobnob with major celebrities all the time? Screw it, I thought. He gets asked this all the time and will forget all about me in less than 30 seconds, but I’ll have a major rock star’s autograph. I grabbed a store-branded bookmark, and got my signature, along with a warm smile, a thank you, and a cheery “Merry Christmas.”
And with that, Mick Jagger was out the door, with a bag full of Japanese tchotchkes and Chinese cookbooks. I hope someone cooked him up a feast.