He is not naked. Let’s establish that right off. He is wearing a strategically placed, multihued crocheted codpiece, thankfully well-secured and tightly cinched, tethered to his bony waist by the scantest amount of clear twine the width and consistency of dental floss.
Other than that, Paul Winer is wearing only a smile as he greets you at Reader’s Oasis Books in this two-exit town near the Arizona-California border, which, due to this 72-year-old’s unlikely Internet notoriety as “That Naked Bookstore Guy,” draws more than 10,000 camera-toting visitors a year.
Sure, there are other attractions in town, like the proliferation of RV parks for snowbirds or gem and mineral businesses that dot the roadside. But, get real, those aren’t the stones most visitors come to see.
“One day, I was headed out of his parking lot and in comes a tour bus,” said Shanana “Rain” BearCat, editor and publisher of the local weekly, the Desert Messenger. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, I gotta see this.’ I put my car in park and grabbed my camera. It was fun. Whole bus of German tourists. They all wanted a picture with him. And he goes, ‘No pictures yet. I gotta play for you.’ You should’ve seen a busload of people circling Paul in that small bookstore, all pointing their phones and cameras at him. It was just so cute.”
Cute is one way of putting it. Entertaining is another. Slightly freaky, too. For, if not for Winer’s musical chops – he’s had a four-decade career as a bare-bottomed boogie-woogie piano player – his schtick would be little more than an exercise in exhibitionism. And we get enough of that just from the Kardashian family.
No, Winer (pronounced with a long “i,” by the way) plays a mean Little Richard-style riff on the baby grand at the center of his general-interest bookstore, warbling bawdy blues lyrics and peppering pauses with reminiscences from life on the road, tinkling the ivories and fending off (with help from ACLU lawyers) communities that sought to shroud his appearances with something so constricting as clothes. And there’s no overtly political reason for his near-nudity, no deep-seated pathology or attention-seeking obsession: “My skin is just hyper-sensitive to clothes.”
Hyper-sensitive? That’s one way to describe the reaction from law enforcement officials back in the 1970s when Winer hit the road for a tour that required no costume changes.
“I had 68 court cases brought against me because male nudity confuses people,” said Winer, quick to add he won all 68 indecency suits. “The term ‘male stripper’ back when I started out (late 1960s) on stage only meant female impersonators. There was no such thing as male exotic dancers. I was a burlesque novelty in the world. I was the only male doing a full strip on stage in public venues, mind you. I played bars, nightclubs, outdoor events, colleges, beach and ski resorts. I played to over a million and half people naked as Sweet Pie, my stage name.”
A native New Englander who moved to Quartzsite in the early ’90s, Winer chafed at the puritanical mores of that part of the country, kind of like how he chafes on those occasions he must wear a shirt and pants. At the height of his renown in 1971 – quoth Rolling Stone back then: “Pie plays a mean boogie-woogie piano” – he also beat a federal court rap in his native Vermont that could’ve landed him behind bars, where an orange prison jumpsuit certainly would’ve cramped his style.
“The ACLU took up my case,” Winer said. “It took six months, but we won it. The ACLU is also why I’m able to be the way I am here (in Quartzsite). Ten years ago, (Quartzsite’s city council) tried to write a (public nudity) ordinance. The ACLU called the town and said they were ready to represent me in court. So the town tabled it. Now, they are in full support of me – maybe because I’m a tourist attraction in town.”
Tim Rider, a Quartzsite police spokesman, in a just-the-facts tone that brings to mind Jack Webb, said the town “occasionally gets some complaints from our winter visitors,” but most residents are fine with letting Winer hang out however he likes.
“The thing is, he’s not naked,” Rider said. “He just has very minimal clothing. There’s no ordinance against it. He has the appropriate parts covered, so there’s no indecent exposure.”
BearCat said locals often bring out-of-town guests to Main Street for a Winer sighting. On one hot early April Saturday afternoon, resident Lois Childs brought her friend visiting from Pennsylvania for a photo-op. Winer was happy to accommodate, draping a leathery bare arm over the woman’s shoulder and posing with legs akimbo for maximum effect.
“We love him here,” Childs said. “No one I know complains. He’s an awesome boogie-woogie player, too.”
After you get used to the initial shock of recognition – hey, this guy is, as the British say, starkers – you almost forget that the guy roaming the aisles helping customers is unclothed. Almost.
As much as you gird yourself to look straight at him, maintaining eye contact at all times, your gaze cannot help but wander down to his, well, southern border region. But Winer is accustomed to the stares, sloughs it off like he does a T-shirt. The thing is, if you’re going to be around a senior citizen who eschews garments, there are many, many worse choices than Winer.
He is fit and trim, with slender but well-defined biceps, a washboard stomach that men 40 years his junior would envy, slender, if slightly ropy, legs and a derriere that is – not to get too explicit, but it is germane to the story – quite shapely for 72, not at all the partially deflated balloons that many older men sport. He credits a lifetime of exercise (bike riding, in the buff, naturally) and his vegetarian lifestyle, though he is quick to note, “I’m no health nut. I do like sugar,” which only makes sense, given his stage name, Sweet Pie.
Then there’s his skin. First: There’s so much of it. Second: It isn’t so much tanned as burnished, the color and texture of an old Chrysler’s “rich Corinthian leather,” with bulging veins running like the L.A. freeway system up and down his legs and arms. And this, too: His torso is hairless, utterly depiliated from the neck down, save for a single tuft of black-gray hair on his breast bone, which brings to mind nothing short of a copse of cacti amidst desert dunes. These stray strands are put to use, though, as a resting place for Winer’s turquoise necklaces.
Neck up, he’s your typical self-styled desert dweller: bushy beard and mustache, sunglasses resting on a reddened aquiline nose, weather-beaten straw hat hiding a flowing salt-and-pepper mane.
Quite a sight. No wonder he’s become an object of curiosity, a one-man roadside attraction.
His wife of more than 30 years, Joanne, seems unfazed that strangers come from all over to check out her nearly-naked hubby. She, herself, is not a nudist but fully supports his lifestyle.
“He gets away with it because he’s so nice and generous,” Joanne Winer said. “And it gives people something to laugh about.”
In her role with the Quartzsite Chamber of Commerce – it is, indeed, a small town (3,677) – Joanne also sees her husband as an enduring attraction. After all, the swap meet is only once a week, the tents displaying gems and minerals come and go, and the RVers take off once the temperature hits triple digits. “That Naked Bookstore Guy” is a fixture.
“When they featured him on the front page of that travel website, Roadside America, that’s when we really noticed a lot of people coming to town just to see him,” Joanne said.
BearCat, the newspaper editor, speaks of him as Quartzsite’s ambassador to the world.
“It’s one of those things like, hey, if it works, don’t mess with it, because he really does bring in a lot of tourism,” she said. “Did you happen to see his wonderful poster at the laundromat? You know his little socky thingee he wears. He has a drawing of himself holding a whole bunch of his little socky thingees in both hands. And the caption is, ‘I do all my laundry at the Main Street Laundromat.’ Hilarious.”
For his part, Winer doesn’t mind playing the clown. His boogie-woogie act, which he takes on the road occasionally to promote himself and Quartzsite, is punctuated with comedic bits. Last year, when he returned to the popular Manhattan nightclub Joe’s Pub, which he first played in 1974, the concert was live-streamed over the Internet.
“Quartzsite is not liberal at all, but it’s quirky, so they accept me,” he said. “There’s a willingness to be a community and live and let live as long as you are not offensive.
“Let me tell you a story: The Netherlands had a series of programs, a children’s travelogue, and the TV company followed Route 40 across the country. In their research, they discovered there’s a naked guy running a bookstore. So they included me. I offered to wear a T-shirt or shorts if necessary for TV, but they said, ‘No, we want you as you are.’ Nudity means nothing there, I guess. So they came to the bookstore and brought about 20 kids from (Quartzsite) to be with their host. He asked a 5-year-old girl, ‘What do you think? Here you are in a bookstore and the man who owns it has no clothes on.’ She said, ‘Oh, that’s just Naked Paul. He’s always that way.’”
It is amazing how nonchalant bookstore customers seem in Winer’s company. Darryll Dufresne, an 87-year-old retiree from north-central Washington, just happened to be passing through town and was looking for a music book. He didn’t bat an eye as he followed Winer’s bare tush into the music-section alcove. “Not a problem” is all he said.
As the Quartzsite police acknowledged, some do feel offended. Winer acknowledges he’s outside the mainstream but seems content to let his freak flag fly. His concession to public standards is that he’ll wear a thong bathing suit when riding his bike and keeps emergency shorts and T-shirt on his bike when he patronizes one of those “no shirt, no service” local stores.
“I’m lucky that people chose to call me a nudist – they could’ve called me a f–ing nut case,” he said, laughing. “They could’ve called me an ass–.” His credo is encapsulated in his original song, “F– ‘em If They Can’t Take a Joke.”
He blushed a little when he said it – there was an older woman browsing the aisles – and when Winer blushes, that’s a lot of skin changing color.
“Most people take it in the fun I mean it,” he said. “I see myself as a performance artist. My gift is to be able to disarm people and, in a way, make a giant step for public nudity.”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis
Reader’s Oasis Books
690 E. Main St.,
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