July 13, 2016

Photo Essay: A Desert Oasis for Readers, and One Naked Guy (Updated for 2022—R.I.P. Sweet Pie)

[Update 2/21/22 7:53 PM PT—I was telling friends who were planning to revisit Quartzite about Readers Oasis Books, so I looked up to see how it was doing and found out that Paul Winer a.k.a. Sweet Pie had died after a battle with cancer in 2019. R.I.P.]

I would've never thought that going to a bookstore would've been one of the highlights of our Arizona adventure on the Rental Car Rally.

But then again, I didn't know I would get to meet a man who goes by the name "Sweet Pie," owns the store, and also happens to be a nudist.

When we first arrived at Reader's Oasis Books in Quartzsite, Arizona, it was too early for it to be open. We turned around and started to head to the next checkpoint, writing this one off as yet another failed attempt.

But as Robert headed down the 10 Freeway towards our next stop in Casa Grande, he asked if one of us could look up the hours that Reader's Oasis would be open. And as soon as we realized that we'd only have to wait an hour, we unanimously decided to turn around. We were ahead of schedule, anyway.

So we returned shortly after 10 a.m., while Sweet Pie— née Paul Winer—was still setting up shop. And we weren't the first to arrive for the day, because he already knew we were on some scavenger hunt. But it wasn't the time to be shy about asking him to take a picture with us, because this was one photo opportunity we did not want to miss.

Outside the bookstore, there were plenty of warnings of what we were about to see. To be honest, I didn't really take our instructions literally, when they said to go meet the "naked old guy." I thought maybe he'd be a statue, or a mannequin, or possibly an older fella wearing a nude bodysuit.

But when we encountered Paul in all his glory—his lithe, tan body disrobed except for a teeny, tidy thong—it became all too real. We got our group shot with him, but then I had to go back and get my own photo with him. He was so welcoming and generous with his time. And yet, I wasn't sure if it was OK for me to put my arm around him. There's a much greater line to cross when the person you're touching is naked—especially if you're not.

Some of the other patrons actually disrobed for their photos with Paul—something that never occurred to me. I was too busy convincing the rest of my group to buy thongs and T-shirts as souvenirs.

I browsed for my own souvenir, and the longer I stayed inside the Reader's Oasis Bookstore, the more I fell in love with it. You could conduct an entire scavenger hunt in that one store alone—and only Paul would know where everything is, even when their placement defies categorization.

The front area of the store acts as a kind of museum for Paul's career as "Sweet Pie," the naked boogie-woogie bluesman who once opened for the Chippendale's and who considers himself our country's first male stripper. He used to perform onstage without the thong.

You can still buy his CDs, as well as a number of books on the nudist lifestyle, though Paul says he doesn't really consider himself a "nudist," per se. He just doesn't like wearing clothes. And fortunately, since he owns his own store, he doesn't have to wear a shirt or shoes—or pants, for that matter.

If you're lucky, and Paul decides to get on the piano, you'll get an impromptu Sweet Pie concert in the store. But if not, he still plays shows locally—though sometimes he's got to dress for those. Quartzsite is basically a desert retirement community, whose population of a few thousand people swells to more like a million during the winter when the snowbirds and gem collectors descend upon the town.

He's risen to the status of cult figure... roadside oddity... desert eccentric... so much so that he attracted our car rally but also busloads of European tourists. He'd probably fit in better in a place like Joshua Tree, but he probably gets more attention in Quartzsite.

I found myself lingering inside the Reader's Oasis—not because I wanted to read anything or even buy a book, but just because I wanted to absorb the energy of the place. There's something to be said for someone who "lets it all hang out"—despite castigation, exclusion, confusion, and alienation.

But while his own family could never quite understand why he had to be naked all the time, it's the same thing that's made him beloved by everyone who comes to visit.

On second thought, it's not the nudity that people love. It's who Paul is as a person—and what he's unafraid to show, even to strangers.

It's disarming. And while that may make some people uncomfortable—those who'd prefer to go through life completely covered by a burlap sack—it's the very thing that should be embraced.

Because although he needs to be naked, he doesn't need everyone else to be naked, too.

So while you may keep your pants on when you visit the Reader's Oasis Bookstore, it would be nice if you could expose just a bit of yourself—of who you really are—while you're there.

There's a fantastic short documentary on Sweet Pie, but I chose not to embed it because of all the nudity and body parts which might offend some of my less "comfortable" readers. You can watch it by clicking here.

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