By Russ and Tiña De Maris
If the desert is monochromatic, Quartzsite breaks the mold. A tiny town by most standards, but most decidedly colorful. A big share of that color was courtesy of Paul Winer, the (in)famous “Naked Bookseller.” For decades Paul has attracted attention – of bookstore customers, area citizens and, of course, the local police. But Quartzsite shifted toward monochrome, as on May 7, “Sweet Pie” Paul Winer died after 75 Technicolor years.
For the uninitiated, Paul ran Reader’s Oasis Books on Main Street for decades. For bookworms new to town, if unwarned, their first visit to Paul’s shop could have easily been one leading to a heart attack. Paul, from a young age, found that clothing was irritating to his skin. Step in Paul’s shop and be prepared to find him usually clad only in what some described as “a sock over his privates.”
Paul, by his own recount, was born to Jewish parents and spent his childhood in conservative – and cold – Vermont. As a young man, he says he never had much “hug appeal.” Perhaps life wasn’t too out of sorts until he attended a Fats Domino concert and decided then and there, that’s what he wanted to be, a piano-thumping boogie-woogie man. Described by some as “rebellious,” perhaps the music and non-clothing choices just had to go hand-in-hand.
For his first paying gig, Paul convinced a Vermont bar owner to let him drag a piano in and play for the crowd. All went well for the first part of the show, where Paul, dressed in a long tunic affair, beat on the keys. But at some point, he tossed away the tunic and played in the raw. This didn’t sit well with some in town – he says he later was shot at. Police told him they could only guarantee his safety for 24 hours. Paul moved along, assuming the stage name “Sweet Pie,” making a circuit of Vermont watering holes with his outrageous show, skipping clothing, but tossing in copious amounts of “colorful language.”
Joining Paul on the circuit – after a fashion – the state’s Liquor Control Board would promptly pull each venue’s license after Paul appeared. Paul’s history says this lead to numerous freedom of speech lawsuits, and eventually to the opening up of male stripping as a profession. Eventually Sweet Pie got a van and his travels took him farther and farther afield throughout the U.S. and Canada.
At one memorable appearance, in the audience was a woman recovering from a divorce. Joanne’s gal-pals had brought her there to try and get her to get back into the social life. After the show, Paul sat down and chatted up Joanne, and she found him to be much more than “Just another beautiful body.” Paul wrote poetry, was a college graduate, and was a man of surprising depth. They married and continued on the road together.
But Paul and Joanne’s road-tripping days were interrupted by the birth of their daughter, Celia. Paul knew that raising a child wasn’t congruous with “sleeping in a van behind motels,” and the family settled down in Quartzsite, Arizona. But making a living doing a strip act and beating piano keys just wasn’t the Quartzsite thing. Paul had a few boxes of books, so he set up at a tailgating sales venue and the books sold.
Selling books became a kind of salvation: “How can I be naked every day, in a little redneck retirement community?” Open up a bookstore on Main Street and do what minimal coverage is required. Local authorities took a dim view of Paul’s choice of attire, but after a few skirmishes, Paul was firmly established as The Naked Bookseller. Some report that “happily” he would slip into a skimpy swim suit when it came time to bicycle through town. A remarkable number of fans, many of them older women, would show up at Paul’s shop to pose in photos with him – in all his raging glory.
The Winer family spent a few years in Quartzsite, developing roots and a reputation. But in 1995 their life took a hit when Celia, at age eight, died of a viral heart condition. Today in a town park, “Celia’s Rainbow Gardens” stands as a memorial tribute to Paul and Joanne’s daughter – a little girl who spent hours with her nose in the books at her father’s shop.
Paul immersed himself in his bookstore, but eventually Sweet Pie got a revival. Paul began to appear as Sweet Pie locally at the local Quartzsite Improvement Association. His “everything on view” appearance got a bit more of a cover-up and the lyrics of his songs were toned down a bit to apply to a more “family” audience. Then, in 2017 the self-described “Baron of Bare-ass Boogie” did a two-night reprise show Wilmington, Vermont. On his return, he continued to do the tame shows in Quartzsite, but last year he announced they would be his last.
In an interview, Paul described how his last show should play out, should he have his way. Appearing as Sweet Pie, he’d be thumping his piano, then fall backwards off the stool and die in front of the audience. “The audience would gasp, and they’d never forget Sweet Pie,” Paul related. “The ultimate end!” Paul’s wish never played out. On the evening of May 7, Sweet Pie Paul died in his sleep.
Maybe, in the end, Paul’s wish will play out. For anyone whoever met him, it will be difficult to ever forget him – ultimate end, bare end, or otherwise.