Bill and Ali at Café No Sé: Tales of Knoxville, By Way of Guatemala

After a few months in charge of the best bookstore in Guatemala, Bill McGowan’s back in town, and wanted to catch up. He suggested we meet at Marie’s.

A skinny guy in a tweed Irish cap and a stubbly white beard, McGowan is originally from Chicago, and says Marie’s Olde Towne Tavern reminds him of the warm neighborhood bars of his youth. It’s the working-man’s bar on Magnolia, near the Greyhound station. Most nights, the ladies who staff the bar constitute most of the women in the room. Some downtown bars are trendier, with more expensive beer, but Marie’s has cleaner bathrooms than most, and more attentive staffers. No bar has more framed pictures of Elvis, and the fresh popcorn, served in no-tip plastic bowls, is free.

A retired Social Security manager, Bill lives in a lovely old Victorian in Old North. “I’ve always lived places where I knew lots of people,” he says, adding he didn’t find that in Knoxville until, downtown finalizing his divorce, he had a seat in the brewpub on Gay Street. After several years lonesome in the Knoxville-Morristown area, suddenly he knew everybody. “To fall into that crowd downtown, I cannot tell you what a godsend that was for me,” he says. He’s made many friends since. One of them launched his unlikely second career.

Bill spends months of the year selling used books in Antiqua, a small town nestled amongst volcanoes in southwestern Guatemala.

Just lately, McGowan has taken up a third career, writing for publication. He writes vignettes about the people he meets in the bookstore, and about his own memories. Last month, he was invited to read some of them at the adjacent bar. The ones he read were about Ali Akbar, the nonconformist artist well known in Fort Sanders and the more complicated parts of Bearden until his sudden death just over three years ago.

Bill’s new careers came about by accident. Our friend Charlie Thomas, sometime Knoxville lawyer, got into the habit of selling books down there almost a decade ago. An enterprising American named John Rexer had started a mezcal bar in Antigua, a fascinating and popular place called Café No Sé—that is, Café I Don’t Know—a candlelit bar with intuitive art on the walls and bars of old planks that look like scavenged sailing-ship decking. An old-fashioned refrigerator door leads into the inner sanctum, the mezcal bar.

With extra space he didn’t know what to do with, Rexer opened a bookstore and called it Dyslexia Libros. “I think he wants his customers to be readers,” Bill says. Rexer befriended Charlie, who’d been vagabonding and working on some philanthropic projects in Guatemala, and later Bill. “It’s small, like this,” he says, gesturing around Marie’s, “but more intimate because it’s narrower.” They get to know their customers quickly. “Where can you walk into a bookstore where someone will talk to you about the books?” Rexer started a sort of literary magazine for distribution in the bookstore, called La Cuadra, or “the block.” Bill says Rexer puts out the magazine just because it’s hard to find much to read in English in Guatemala.

Now a successful mezcal exporter, Rexer doesn’t spend as much time around the place as he used to. So it’s up to Knoxvillians Charlie and Bill run the best English-language bookstore in Guatemala.

Most of their customers are on the move. Offbeat tourists and longer-term ex-pats, most of them are Americans, but many are Europeans of various nationalities. If pirates read books, they’d go to Dyslexia Libros. About 80 percent of the books they sell are in English. Right now they have a surplus of German books.

Now that he’s retired and his son is grown, McGowan is fond of traveling, and about two years ago, was down there visiting Charlie. “Charlie’s always scrambling to see who he can get to work there while he’s gone,” Bill recalls. He’d never sold books before, but was happy to give it a try.

“By the way, something has come up,” Charlie told Bill. Back in Knoxville for a holiday visit, Charlie found himself appointed to fill a vacancy on Knoxville City Council. Bill, the mild-mannered retired bureaucrat, found himself in charge of a bookstore on the edge of the jungle. For eight months that year, he was the acting manager of Dyslexia Libros. It got into his blood like a tropical parasite. Now he’s loath to give it up.

A few weeks ago, Bill was happy to sell a Dutch copy of Catcher in the Rye to a Dutch woman who’d never read it. “Books are characters,” Bill says. “Not characters in the book, I mean the book itself is a character. It interacts with me, it interacts with you.”

Peter Kilbryde, an eccentric Irishman who sometimes helps out in the bookstore, was getting his first book of poetry published, and gave a reading at the café. He invited Bill to join, and Bill told Ali stories, most of them set in Knoxville. Ali, who called Bill “Chicago,” loved to tell stories, many about his frequent confrontations with local authorities. Bill had the time and inclination to listen, and remembers them well. Once, a cop stopped Ali on Sutherland Avenue, interrogating him as a suspect who’d caused a disturbance at the nearby Goodwill. Ali, offended, responded, “If I were Donald Trump walking down the street, would you ask me if I frequented Goodwill?” Then, having thrown the officer off his trail, Ali walked to Goodwill, where he was a regular.

Bill and some of Ali’s old friends, like R.B. Morris and Eric Sublett, are trying to put together an exhibit of Ali’s art.

“It was a wary friendship,” Bill admits. “But I wished I could be like him. That guy was so f--kin’ free. I’ve never met anybody that was so at ease in his own skin. He was who he was.”

Expatriates in Guatemala crowd the bar to hear Bill’s stories about Ali Akbar. They don’t encounter anyone just like him. Ali didn’t travel much in life, but he travels well now.

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Comments » 1

cynthia#210344 writes:

beautifully written, no surprise in that jack!!! a wonderful story about two of knoxville's exceptional characters- i have known bill for years and he is ever charming and interesting to the bone~ i knew ali in those days before he was ali- the full-bodied artist spirit- love this piece!!!

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