Monday, July 31, 2006


Another day in paradise?

Mondays always seem to be Mondays, no matter what else is happening. I am indoors, paying bills and doing other end-of-month paperwork. But I had a glorious day off yesterday - after hordes (well, small hordes) of tourists last week, I was craving some deep isolation and solitude, so I headed off east to my old hometown, population six hundred, if you count people's family pets. One of my favorite places on earth is a little beach very close to one of the houses painter John Marin lived and worked in for many years. I can go there at the height of the tourist season and there's almost no one around. Nothing's happening - just the way I like it. I got there around ten yesterday morning, and didn't see anyone else until the afternoon, except a woman walking her two dogs on the edge of the surf. Best things I noticed yesterday: the tide was coming in, and as I waded near some ledges I watched the barnacles open and close as each wave came up over them (I thought I was alone, but there were actually hundreds of creatures right next to me); and as I walked back to my car, I saw an osprey fly over, clutching a huge fish in both its talons - it headed out to sea to one of the small islands just offshore, and it was making a ruckus because some people were on the island near its nest, I could see them walking on the shore out there. The osprey circled for a while before landing. I took a Laurie Colwin book (The Lone Pilgrim, fitting for a day by myself) with me, and my journal, and watercolors, but besides doing a few sketches, I took the opportunity to do a whole lot of nothing. After five years of running a shop, and ten more years of retail, I find solitude more and more necessary to my well-being. Thank god I can get it, in this great state.

Meanwhile, back at the bookshop, I have an end-of-month dilemma. A few weeks ago a good (though not long-time) customer called and asked me for a book. I had a copy, but he needed it for a gift the next day, and I was going to be closed, so I left it for him to pick up at the bookshop a few doors down. He said he'd come in and pay me for it later in the week, and I said sure, because he usually comes in at least once a week, and seems honest. So as I'm sorting my sales slips out, I find that he hasn't paid for his book yet, and in fact I haven't seen him or heard from him in three weeks. I hate that. The book was $45.00. Do I have to do something? What? Assume there is a dire family emergency and he hasn't been able to drop in (I am notorious for making allowances past the point of what is the usual leeway...)? Let another week go by and call him? See how long it takes for him to actually come in? Write it off? To be fair, he did say he'd come in, but then I was immdiately closed for several days because of my nephew being born. Who is a plum blossom, by the way. My sister and her husband are already reading books to him, and he's actually interested. We'd better start saving for his Harvard tuition now. But back to my dilemma - I think I will do nothing and ride it out, but I am open to suggestions.

Friday, July 28, 2006


A bit of Montaigne

Thunderstorms are tearing through my neck of the woods, so I am taking a few moments to blog before shutting down my computer for the evening. My street lost power for a half hour or so earlier today - I had four people browsing in the shop at the time, and thank goodness I have a large picture window in the front of the shop, and emergency lights in the hallway leading downstairs. The intrepid browsers still bought their books, which was good!

Anyway - I'm wondering why every book I pick up this week contains paeans to Michel de Montaigne and his Essays. I read most of the Essays years ago when I took a Renaissance literature seminar at the local university - we read incredible books I might never have picked up otherwise: Petrarch's poetry, the Decameron, parts of the Heptameron, Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, Erasmus's Praise of Folly, Utopia by Thomas More, and selections from Montaigne. I finally started reading Dreamthorp this morning, by Alexander Smith (my edition is Page & Co, Boston 1907), and he quotes Montaigne at length. One bit of descriptive praise I particularly like:

"...his page is alive and restless, like the constant flicker of light and shadow in a mass of foliage which the wind is stirring." (p.43)

And in describing Montaigne's chateau tower-library room:

"...over the central rafter he inscribed in large letters the device - 'I DO NOT UNDERSTAND; I PAUSE; I EXAMINE.'" (p.40)

A noble motto. Perhaps I should carve it over the door lintel at my bookshop. I see I must revisit the Essays soon. When I come across multiple references to an author all at once I pay attention, and I wonder if my reading muses are trying to tell me something.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


Be kind to customers

Even when customers aren't buying anything. I tend to believe the best of people, I would call myself a romantic optimist rather than a sarcastic pessimist, and my customers usually reinforce my natural tendencies. Two recent examples:

Last week, the phone rang and the voice on the other end belonged to a man in southern Maine who had been in my shop the week before. He didn't buy anything when he was here, but he'd been thinking about a book he'd seen and wanted me to ship it to him. We exchanged vital statistics and I mailed it out the next morning. A few days later he called again - he'd received the book and was calling simply to tell me what a fine job I'd done describing the condition of the book and packaging it. He elaborated, telling me that he himself is famous in his family for being a stickler for preciseness, particularly re his mail, and that according to his wife and children he has now been supplanted, by ME. Henceforth, he said, you will be at the pinnacle, and I will be directly below you. I bubble-wrapped the book (which had a Brodart dust jacket protector on it), then encased it in a plastic bag (in case of water damage) with the words "THANK YOU" emblazoned on it, then cut a large piece of cardboard down to wrap around the parcel, and addressed it in precise block letters in indelible marker, after sealing all the edges with triple-strips of packing tape. An indestructable brick: that is my goal and my thrown-down gauntlet to the U.S. post office media rate delivery folks. So the point of all this - the customer was calling back (long distance!) simply to tell me what a good job I'd done. Sheer good will. I thanked him and glowed a little brighter for the rest of the day.

The second such experience involved another call from southern Maine, a few days ago. This fellow visited my booth at the antiquarian bookfair in June, and he didn't purchase anything then, but he was calling to ask if I still had a pricey four-volume set he had seen in my booth. He's been thinking about the set since then, and wanted me to ship it to him if I still had it. Well, I did, and I did. Again, packed with care. This is one long-term benefit of offering your wares at a bookfair - you reap rewards, financial and otherwise, long after the fair itself ends. This fellow has never been to my shop but is now planning a visit.

Moral of the story: be kind to customers. Not just because someone might buy something later, but because it's the decent thing to do. Of course, that said, I do get my share of freaks at the shop. What can I say. Not much, because I am something of a freak myself. But luckily, most truly bookish people are a pleasure to deal with.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


The consolations of Alain de Botton

I've been watching the series Status Anxiety on PBS, hosted (and based on the book of the same name) by contemporary philosopher and author Alain de Botton. I started buying his books back in the early 1990s when both he and his publisher were classifying what he wrote as "fiction" although he seems to have actually been writing about his own life and times - his early books On Love, The Romantic Movement, etc. Well, I find the new series as intelligent and delightful as his written work, and after seeing the episode last Saturday night, I of course turned back to what I had on the shelf to prolong the experience. And in his book The Consolations of Philosophy (Pantheon 2000), in the chapter about reading Michel de Montaigne as an antidote to inadequacy, I came across this:

"(Montaigne's) Authorship was prompted by disappointment with those in the vicinity, and yet it was infused with the hope that someone elsewhere would understand; his book (the Essays) an address to everyone and no one in particular. He was aware of the paradox of expressing his deepest self to strangers in bookshops:

'Many things that I would not care to tell any individual man I tell to the public, and for knowledge of my most secret thoughts, I refer my most loyal friends to a bookseller's stall.'

And yet we should be grateful for the paradox. Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the numbers of books that were written because authors couldn't find anyone to talk to." (p.148)

He also includes a small photograph of solitary browsers in a bookshop, so we can further recognize ourselves in this passage. A lovely and engrossing book on applying the thought and ideas of various philosphers to the problems in our own lives today. Similar in this respect to his book How Proust Can Change Your Life (Pantheon 1997), which some academics pooh-poohed because it was, god forbid, extremely funny and charming at the same time that it was a serious academic work on that holiest of holy novels Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time. At this point I will read anything de Botton writes, and I can't say that about many contemporary authors.

Monday, July 24, 2006


Mondays are good days... do catch-up work. I always balance checkbooks and scan bank statements and return all emails and phone messages on Mondays. This makes me feel virtuous, hard-working, and more importantly, free for another week from these minor business-maintenance obligations. And I'm always ridiculously pleased that I manage to stay in business week after week, particularly after sending in my sales tax and paying the second half of the year's shop insurances.

Selections from the past week's sales slips: Easy Malay Vocabulary (an oxymoron? can it really be easy?), Mongolian Grammar (same customer), a nice collection of the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, a book on early American cookery, Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, Krakauer's Into Thin Air, Betty Edwards's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (one of the best basic art books I know of, one I always try to keep in stock), an early history of the Boston Braves baseball team, a fat hardcover of Plato's Dialogues, a biography of Wordsworth, The Art of the Printed Book (one I can let go because I already have a copy at home), a few true antiquarian books that shall remain nameless to protect the man who spent too much, many other odds and ends. I love providing good books, sitting back, and then observing what people actually purchase. I think browsing in used bookshops is one way of learning to trust your instincts and listen to the call of your soul - what do I need to know at this point in my life, what is essential? - the browser sorts, rejects, and chooses, and comes away with something he or she has always been interested in and never had the opportunity to follow up on. Malay vocabulary, the Boston Braves. I'm a big believer in self-education by reading, that over time reading leads us organically from one interest to the next in a natural and cumulative evolution of intelligence. A personal curriculum for one, determined by that one. I will continue to provide books on learning Malay, if I can, and I hope people will keep buying them.

On an unrelated (and less high-falutin') note, the local vandals and huns must have had a busy weekend, because I saw lots of new graffiti around town this morning. Most of it is not suitable for mixed company, but... sometimes I sit in the park and read or write in my journal before opening the shop, and written on the particular park bench I favor was this : "BUSH IS A PUPPY KICKER." Need I say more.

Friday, July 21, 2006


Beach days

Yesterday was one of those perfect-weather days around here - they used to be called State O'Maine Days - when high pressure builds in from Canada and the air is dry and clear, with a deep blue sky and lots of sunshine. I haven't had enough beach days this year, so I closed up the shop and took off to the coast, to a favorite little town beach I like, one with a view of Mount Desert Island and the open ocean beyond. Very quiet - the road stops when it goes into the sea, and there's a tiny parking lot - when I got there there was only one other car. The beach is mostly rocks and just enough sand to put a towel on, and after dipping my feet in the ice-water I got my watercolors out and sketched the shapes of the seaweed-covered rocks as the tide fell:

I took the John La Farge book I've been working on all week, and made a little progress with it, but I mostly lazed, painted, ate my lunch, and watched the fog. When I arrived at the beach it was far offshore, and four hours later when I left it had just hit the land, filling Frenchman's Bay like it was pouring from a funnel, it was very beautiful and the temperature dropped twenty degrees in about half an hour, so I bundled up and drove to the local take-out (best crab rolls in town) before heading home.

Re beach reading selections: I remember the Sylvia cartoon in which one of her superhero characters, Book Cop, confronts people reading trashy novels at the beach. "Quick honey, it's Book Cop! Hide the Judith Krantz... get out the Flaubert!" Now, I've never read a Judith Krantz novel, but I have read a Danielle Steele novel - just one - because I was desperate for some trash and it was free. It was about - wait for it - the love affairs of a glamorous food photographer-slash-ranch owner. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about it, from that scanty bit of information. Usually when choosing a beach book I'll reach for something I've read a hundred times, one of the books I read and re-read as a teenager, my mother's Mary Stewart novels, or my grandmother's Georgette Heyer romances. Something I can read a chapter of and then snooze in the sun, because I know exactly what's going to happen and can stand to lay the book down for a while. What are people's thoughts on this? Anyone have any perennial favorites for beach reading?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Never too old for Tintin

The Guardian reviews a new book this week: Tintin and the Secret of Literature by Tom McCarthy (Granta). As kids my sisters and I read and re-read The Adventures of Tintin series so often that they literally fell to pieces, and as an adult I remain interested in all things Tintin, so the largely positive review pleases me: "The pleasure of reading it derives precisely from its author's obsessive approach, his breathtaking grasp of the oeuvre and the sheer exuberance with which he tackles his subject, showing us just how rich with detail and complexity Hergé painted his world." Nice. Hergé's attention to detail is legendary, and the fine artwork in his comics is what draws me back to them over and over. I have a collection of hardcover and softcover Tintins, including some early U.S. hardcovers, a few foreign-language versions, and a coffee table book about Hergé and the making of the series. I got my ten-year-old niece hooked on them last year - I started her out with The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure and there was no looking back. My favorite Tintin adventure: Tintin in Tibet, hands down. My niece and I decided that our favorite scenes in the book involve Tintin's dog Snowy and the angels and devils perched over his shoulders who try to influence his decisions. The devil wins out, usually.

Unfortunately I missed the recent documentary about Tintin and his creator, Hergé (born Georges Rémi) on PBS. Did anyone catch it? I'm hoping for a rebroadcast but I'm not holding my breath.

Another place on The Must Visit Someday list: The Tintin Shop in Covent Garden, London, if I need a duvet cover or some dishes, or a few posters for the walls of the bookshop.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


Contentment as a way of life

Random Saturday notes:

My friend Vicky sent good wishes for my new nephew's birth, and reminded me that not only is the 11th her own son's birthday, and hence a very fine day to have a baby boy, but also that it is E.B. White's birthday. A fine literary antecedent! We can of course begin with shreddable and eatable paperbacks and board books, but I will also be on the lookout for first editions to start this baby's fine library.

My pal Ian is blogging again after a rather long hiatus (I didn't want to mention anything was amiss but - ahem - discreet cough-cough - it's been a while since his last post). Good to see you back in the blogosphere, Ian, we missed you!

What a great time I had yesterday getting caught up - what with visitors, many paying customers, and phone calls and emails from around the globe, it was an ideal day, and concluded with two personable used book dealers from Ohio dropping in and spending a few hundred bucks on some fine books. Hallelujah. Today, I skipped the local library sales (Camden, Tenant's Harbor) because I just didn't feel like going out, plus Ryan is running a road race in the next town over, the Old Town Canoe Hullaballoo. Plus it's shaping up to be a ninety-degree day, so I am back at the easel, conveniently located behind my desk, with the air conditioner pointing my way, and two customers are quietly browsing in the back room. And the Volebeats latest cd is playing. Some days life is a deep well of contentment. I have enough of the other kind of day to recognize and appreciate the contented days, when they happen along.

Friday, July 14, 2006



There's nothing like it, is there. Where did this little person come from? And why? Meeting a new baby sure makes one ask all the ultimate questions. Mother and son (and father!) are all doing fine, my beautiful nephew arrived at six a.m. on Tuesday the 11th, which is indeed, as I mentioned earlier, my other sister's birthday, so all in all a nice confluence of events! I house-sat and kitty-sat and grocery-shopped and generally helped get things ready for their homecoming yesterday (including filling their house with flowers, and finding a fresh cherry pie at a local farmer's market, two of the most celebratory things I could think of to do), so I've been away from the shop since Monday. Came back in this morning and had many kind messages via email and phone, and many mildly disgruntled customers wondering where I've been all this time. The note on the door said "It's a boy! I have a new nephew!! Be back on Friday!" but some people drive by and see my closed sign and don't stop to read the fine print. Apologies, grumpy people! Life waits for no one!

Thanks for comments about my painting, those of you who did, and here is another, from two weeks ago:

Another structure - this is the south side and main door of my childhood home in downeast Maine. Again, color is a little washed out - there is a rosy red in the lower window reflections that gradates downward, which is all kind of lost in this picture, and the blue is more blue, but oh well. My sisters and I spent much of our school years in this house, and it still is what I think of when I think of home, though my parents live elsewhere now.

And back to books, which are never far from my mind - nothing much to report at the moment, so here is a cobbled paragraph of bookish scraps: No sales slips because I haven't been open. I haven't read any book-blog news all week and have no idea what's been happening, and every time I've picked up a book to read, I end up reading the same paragraph several times in a row without comprehending it in the least (baby-gazing makes time stop and derails many standard thought processes). So I'm in the middle of trying to read the memoir of artist John La Farge, about his trip to the south seas around 1890. He went with Henry Adams, whose wife had suddenly died and who was so distraught the only thing he could think to do was leave the country for the next year and a half. The book is wonderful so far - great descriptions of moonrises over the Hawaiian islands, and the colors La Farge notices because he's a painter - but it's also huge and I've been unable to sit still for a few days now, so I ended up lugging it from place to place but not making any forward progress. More soon, when I get back in the loop. Such as it is. It's a small loop, to be sure...

Monday, July 10, 2006


And now for something completely different

Lately I've been painting more than booking, so here is a recent painting of an old barn on an island in Penobscot Bay (Maine) that I visited last year. I've been painting a lot of structures recently, structures that have some special significance to me - the houses I grew up in, places that mean home in some way. And although I've only seen this particular building a few times, it records a place and time for me that means a great deal. I took some photographs of the barn one day last year, after I'd been walking alone all day on the trails that circumnavigate this island. I emerged out of the dark woods onto this dirt road at the end of the afternoon, and the shadows of the trees were moving on the side of the huge old white barn, and the beauty those shadows struck me like a ton of books. I hesitated to try to paint it, but had to give it a shot:

The painting measures around 22 x 24", and I may attempt a larger version sometime. Apologia: the color in this photo isn't the best, the original is much more vibrant (I use a film camera, not digital, and am not a photographer by any stretch of the imagination), but this gives the idea at least. I may post a few more paintings soon. Meantime, I am going nuts because my sister is finally having her baby as we speak and I'm sitting here waiting for the phone to ring! The funny thing is tomorrow is my other sister's birthday, so of course we are all wondering, when, if...

Saturday, July 08, 2006


Heaven surely must be... enormous library sale in which almost all the books are fifty cents each. Or free, if it truly was heaven, but we can't have everything, can we. Well, the friends of the library sale in Rockport, Maine, this morning was just fine. Fifty cents each, a few things at one and two dollars, and a few things at a bit more, but I came away with ten cartons of books for around $120. Rockport is over an hour away, so we scooted home and opened up the shop a bit late, and I've been repaid for that moral lapse by having no sales today, save a lonely softcover copy of Maugham's Of Human Bondage. Serves me right for saying in my last post that I was busy busy busy. That's the nature of retail, I tell myself, as I try to remain sanguine about it. Highlights of the sale: around thirty poetry books, including books by Mary Oliver, one of my very favorite living poets, Margaret Atwood, Seamus Heaney, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Bishop, Gabriela Mistral, and various others. As the sale opened I found myself at the poetry/classic lit table, and I had the field to myself, so I took my time and combed it thoroughly.

I am halfway through the Frank O'Hara biography, speaking of poetry. I knew once but had forgotten that he was Edward Gorey's roommate at Harvard for a while. O'Hara would never have gone there but for the G.I. bill...

I'm headed home shortly, but I promise to post more soon about what I've been reading - I have a new stack of books from the sale that are calling to me, Read me, no me, read me next. Back, I say, BACK!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Must blog... must blog...

I've got a few minutes between customers - holy cats it's been busy - and I wanted to post a few little bookplates I've recently come across, both on the theme of lending and borrowing books. I don't normally collect bookplates (ex libris), but I am of course interested in people who do, and I like the small size of these two:

The first, from W.D. Daskam, in his copy of a book on the memorials of Westminster Abbey: "Albeit, I never lend nor borrow. Yet to supply the ripe wants of my friend, I'll break a custom."

And the second, from D.O. Campbell, in a generic Scottish history book: "And please return it. You may think this is a strange request, but I find that although many of my friends are poor arithmeticians, they are nearly all of them good book-keepers."

That second one made me chuckle. I know I've posted here before about my inability to lend or borrow books - it never ends well. I prefer to give them away. And just write down titles of books that people tell me I must read, rather than borrow. I know I'll come across a copy eventually. To wit: I just bought some books from a friend who is culling his library, and among them is Brad Gooch's biography of Frank O'Hara, City Poet. I've had this book several times in my shop, and sold every copy, then I decided I wanted to read it and one walked in the door and fell in my lap. I love the opening quote from O'Hara, printed just after the dedication page:

"I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know
there's a subway handy, or a record store or some
other sign that people do not totally regret life."

This is from his great poem "Meditations in an Emergency" - and it could apply to used bookshops too. Or one single good book, for that matter: a sign of life.

I don't put bookplates in my own books, or write my name in them, but I'm still thinking about it. I've seen a few bookplates I loved, most were small and simple. Someday, perhaps. I'd like some nameless person decades from now to know that a book came from my library, to know that I loved my books enough to have my name on them. Likewise for the books in my shop - I'm designing a bookseller's ticket for my hardcovers. I wonder if I'll be able to find someone who can manufacture a ticket that looks sufficiently old-fashioned enough to please me...

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