Only the most riveting and surprising books at least one eyebrow-popping surprise per page rate a place of honor on our bathroom bookshelf. Such books should be diverting and preferably brilliant; no long fiction, please, and frankly, I'm tired of trivia tomes and porcelain poetry. How about a book that explains the mystery of all these deodorants, unguents, balms, perfumes, safety razors, disposable diapers, and the evolution of drugstores from prehistory to their current sorry state? Imagine my delight to find Vince Staten's newest book, subtitled "A Trip Inside the Corner Drugstore." A trip? It's more like a safari into a forgotten world. If you're old enough to remember phosphates and egg creams at the soda fountain, the blood-building iron/sugar/alcohol magic of Geritol tonic and that weird old crone staring at you from the label of Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, you'll immediately recall the great smell of the old corner drugstore. That's what you miss in the sterile breathing atmosphere of a modern chain pharmacy.
In the hands of a less risible writer, a book about America's corner drugstores could be literary Sominex, fit only for the bedroom shelf; or worse, one long arch bathroom joke. But fans of Staten's previous books will understand why I actually cracked a rib laughing at his method of scientific inquiry, as directed toward product packaging. (Two words: Fuji audiotapes.) He relates unbelievably wild but true anecdotes about the origins of some name-brand products. A thousand incredible factoids are sprinkled throughout the book. (Fingernails grow faster in warm weather; body odor may be a natural defense against being eaten by predators; the disposable-diaper boom began with one disgusted grandfather.)Staten's style is not just comfortably conversational, but also perfectly funny in the oddest spots. For instance, he personally tests Rogaine over a four-month period, to hilarious effect. The historical record is probed with deftness and taste, revealing a thousand years of cultural embarrassment over our own bodies. Its pinnacle, the toxic shock of Victorian morality, made certain hygiene and health products invisible. Prudes literally died before discussing parts or functions of the body that were verbally taboo. (Even today, Preparation H is one of the most shoplifted items.) No one could conquer their shyness enough to purchase sanitary pads, so an advertising genius hid it at the back of the drugstore, next to a money-box; Kotex, a giant in the multi-billion-dollar feminine-hygiene market, began as an open sack of product on a bench, self-serve, sold on the honor system.
What makes this a great bathroom book is not only that it can be read with real enjoyment, and to tatters, over a 50-year period by the same person. No, after reading it, you'll want six more books by Staten for all the other rooms in your house. And he's already written them.
Reviewed by Jeff Taylor.