Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Another trip account
I had plans to visit a few bookshops in the Burlington area, but never made it, between marathon busyness and visiting with my aunt and uncle, both of whom I adore. My aunt's favorite bookshop in town is The Crow Bookshop. It sure looks good, and she says the prices are reasonable. Next time, perhaps.
The marathon report: Ryan ran around 3:41, due to the extreme heat and humidity. He took it easy after mile sixteen when he knew he wasn't going to be able to sustain his race pace much longer - he's a smart runner who didn't want to join the many folks who ended up in the hospital that day due to heat exhaustion and dehydration, and was proud to finish his first warm-weather marathon. We were cheering him on - between miles two and three the marathon route goes right by my aunt and uncle's house, so we all stood on the front steps with tea, coffee, and warm croissants (for us - he was eating Gu carbohydrate gel - blech!) to cheer him on and take pictures. Then we met him at the finish, on the waterfront. It was mobbed, seven thousand runners overall and thousands more family members and friends milling around. Free Ben and Jerry's for the runners, a Vermont tradition apparently. We scooped Ryan up and took him home to recover. He ran an easy four miles last night, and feels pretty good.
More Vermont news: it was my uncle's birthday on Monday, so we got up early and took him to breakfast out at the Seward-Vanderbilt-Webb estate and inn, Shelburne Farms. The food was mostly organic and local, and more importantly, very tasty, and afterwards I spent some time in the library examining the family book collection. The leatherbound sets! Shelf after gleaming shelf of them, it was intoxicating... I spotted a few wonderful early travel books too, and it was good to see old standards mixed in, of literature, reference, history, all obviously much-read. We lounged around for a while, drove around the 1700-acre grounds to see the barns, which are truly out of this world. Barn seems too short and small a word for these buildings - there should be some other word, really. Some French word indicating a certain chateau-ness. Next we took a tour of my uncle's lab (he's an astrophysicist who runs his own small company - he makes holograms, and his workplace is the ultimate Rube Goldberg set-up: cement blocks and duct tape, lasers, five-foot pieces of film, you name it). Very cool. Then home to Maine later that day.
I'm back in the shop getting caught up, and yesterday I received an email from an antiquarian bookseller in The Netherlands who is interested in trading a few booksellers' tickets with me, if I have any duplicates (and I do have a few, common to New England). He told me a bit about his collection, which contains roughly - are you ready for this - 17,500 tickets. He's been collecting for twenty years. I am paralyzed with jealousy. I will recover at some point, possibly not today. But soon, especially since things like this keep turning up with happy regularity:
A huge ticket/label from a bookseller, binder, and stationery store in Portland, Maine, it measures a whopping 4 x 6 inches and has lots of bookish detail, including a bookpress in the lower left corner, atop a huge ledger, etc., and a few muses and swags of fruit and flowers for good measure. I like seeing the storefront in the center, too. On my next trip to Portland I'm going to take a look at 53 Exchange street and see how much it's changed since Victorian times. Not much, I'm guessing - that area of Portland is now called The Old Port, largely renovated, chi-chi shops and such, but most of the original buildings remain intact. But back to the label: it was a gift from a bookseller pal who knows I watch for such items, and is affixed in a small leatherbound journal, blank except for a few quotations from Milton and Macaulay, and a short digression on the difference between Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian columns, all handwritten out in beautiful copperplate. Old stuff is endlessly fascinating, isn't it?
More soon, I've read a few good books this week.
Friday, May 26, 2006
I'm headed out...
"His investment in Brentano's, Griffis said, had brought him fun rather than cash. 'I would spend sleepless nights of horror if I heard that any customer of Brentano's felt that we had made a profit on his purchase,' he wrote. 'We are in trade only for dignity, atmosphere and service.' And to make this point even more emphatic, he added, 'I am happy to have had the experience of high hopes and failure in the retail bookselling business.'"
Are most bookshops noble failures? I don't know for sure, but I suspect so, especially in the wake of recent news stories about Cody's closing. Anyway, noble failure or not, I advised Mark to go for it - to open his own bookshop. Damn the torpedoes! Sometimes you just have to jump in and do what you want, even though it may not pay in the traditional (capitalist) sense of the word. In a roundabout way this idea is related to something I just read in George Howe Colt's book The Big House (Scribner 2004). The book is the biography of his family's summer home on Cape Cod, and contains his own struggle to come to terms with the necessity of selling the house because no one in the family can afford the upkeep and taxes. I particularly enjoyed the chapter entitled "Money" in which the author examines his WASPy programming around money issues and says this about working: "I was terrified of being penniless, and yet I felt there was something shameful about having money. For many years I found ways to avoid it." (p.138) The whole book is a long meditation on loving something despite the fact that it is a white elephant. It might be a stretch to compare this to a behemoth bookshop, or even my small one, but coming as I do from a family with various WASP antecedents I can identify with many of the issues he raises. I don't think I'm being noble by being if not poor at least not well-off, in my profession of choice. I love buying and selling, the give and take of it, the exchange of cash for books and vice versa. If I ever feel guilty about taking people's money, I tell them, "Don't worry, I'm just going to go buy more books." Anyway. To those of you who want your own bookshops (I know you're out there, because you keep emailing me for advice, which I dearly love to give), do it, it's so very satisfying.
As is the George Howe Colt book, by the way. He's Anne Fadiman's husband (for fans of her book Ex Libris), and she makes cameo appearances throughout The Big House. About two-thirds of the way through there's a wonderful long description of the family's books left in the house, and it's both an elegy and a paean, just wonderful. On that note, I've got to run, have a great weekend, everyone.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
The way of the world
Happier and perhaps more interesting news: yesterday afternoon a personable gentleman came in and announced he was the son of Bernard DeVoto and did I have any of his books. I didn't, although he did find reference to his father in a great little Wallace Stegner book I had on writing and writers, so he didn't leave empty-handed. He was personable and charming - we chatted as I wrote up a sales slip for him and I asked if his father had gotten along with historian and literary critic Van Wyck Brooks, an author I quite like (my Reader's Encyclopedia only tells me tantalizingly that DeVoto opposed Brooks's views, which could have meant anthing, but then, why would Benet have bothered to mention it at all if it didn't mean something). Well. His son gave me the link to his own site, on which he has a telling letter posted from his father to Brooks, which is well worth reading, if anyone is so inclined. It contains a remarkable combination of tact, offense, defense, intellect, kindliness, and rebuff. It makes me want to read his books. And I still like Brooks. And books, I've had some good customers today... This is also the way of the world, fortunately.
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Besides being busy at the shop, I've been galavanting about doing other things. Last night I went to the Willie Nelson concert here in town at our local auditorium. Over thirty songs in about two and a half hours - the best, what really moved me, were Night Life, a very bluesy Me and Bobby McGee, a trio of Hank Williams songs: Jambalaya, Hey Good Lookin', and Move It On Over (one of my favorite Hank songs ever), a Merle Haggard tribute, Townes Van Zandt's Pancho and Lefty, and the Cindy Walker song You Don't Know Me. He had a gigantic Texas flag unfurled at the back of the stage, and flung various cowboy hats and bandanas out to the crowd periodically, and was generally looking pretty happy. I read somewhere recently that people ask Willie when he's going to retire, and he says all he does is play music and play golf, and which do they want him to give up? Ryan and I talked to a pal of ours from the Bangor Daily News who told us that Willie had given over $13,000 worth of tickets to the troop greeters (a group of local folks who meet incoming military flights at Bangor International Airport, which is a common first landing site for soldiers coming back to the U.S. after tours of duty). The concert was great for people-watching - the crowd was made up of everyone from sweet little old couples holding hands to young hippie-dippie kids with dreadlocks to middle-aged bikers with their country-attired girlfriends with cowboy hats and long fringe flying. Everybody had a good time, me included, and I'm glad I got to see a real American patriot and legend.
In other news, the opening for the group art show I am part of (see post below) happened last weekend. The place was packed, and amidst the copious pouring of wine and eating of lobster-based finger foods one of my paintings sold, to a collector of Maine art. My first sale ever in a gallery... it was both exciting and encouraging. I was happy to even be in the show, which is made up of work from a group of artists I met last summer at an art retreat, the first I'd ever been to. The show felt like an extension of that experience, and I got to visit with some of the people I hadn't seen since last summer, so all in all, a great time.
Meanwhile, the week careens on - Ryan and my brother-in-law are running the Vermont City Marathon this weekend in Burlington, so I'm getting ready for our trip, and of course thinking about possible bookshops to visit en route. Never forget: it's all about the books.
Saturday, May 20, 2006
A bit of overheard book gossip
So books do indeed keep me awake! Another bit of book gossip I forgot to mention from last weekend - as we were waiting for the library sale to open, we were lounging around on the massive granite front steps, and saw a bit of good graffiti scraped into the base of the antique-style light fixture: "Reading is f***ed up" (with a little heavenward-pointing arrow instead of the word "up") and right next to it someone else had scratched something along the lines of "Educate yourself," with another arrow pointing to the first graffito. Gave me a chuckle.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
"My ambition was evangelical. I wanted to share with the world the literary euphoria I had enjoyed at Columbia College. In those days I thought of myself as a missionary. In fact, I was only a book publisher; however, the vocations differed only in the contents of their respective scriptures." (p.67)
He points to, most hopefully, a future involving actual bookstores, no matter what else comes down the pike:
"...a civilization without retail booksellers is unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature. The feel of a book taken from the shelf and held in the hand is a magical experience, linking writer to reader. But to compete with the World Wide Web, bookstores of the future will be different from the mass-oriented superstores that now dominate the retail marketplace. Tomorrow's stores will have to be what the Web cannot be: tangible, intimate, and local..." (p.38)
I think there will always be, in each upcoming generation, certain people who want to spend (most of!) the days of their lives surrounded by books, and who are willing to trade (most of!) the shiny trappings of an affluent soctiety for what really brings them happiness. Here's one now: a recent commenter on this blog, who has started her own, and who obviously has the book-zeal we're talking about here. I'll be watching with interest and best wishes!
Monday, May 15, 2006
Booksale etiquette revisited
Another good library booksale comes and goes
I spent much of the weekend dealing with the new raft of books, but managed to spend a good chunk of time basking in the spring sun. Ryan and I took a picnic and our Scrabble board outside yesterday afternoon (after calling our mothers, of course). I bingoed with oration and Ry bingoed with loiterer. Good game, and a much-needed afternoon doing nothing. Today, back to the stacks!
Friday, May 12, 2006
What booksellers do on their days off
Besides feeling a bit bereft after leaving the gallery, I just have to mention how crushed I was feeling yesterday, for another reason, namely that my man, Chris, got booted from American Idol the night before. I've been addicted to American Idol this spring, it's the only tv show I regularly watch, actually - I swear that I really am reading, other nights of the week, and usually reading on Idol nights too. Ryan has to yell to me from two rooms away that the show is on and I'm going to miss the beginning. Anyway. I watch American Idol, I'll say it again. There it is. And the amazingly talented and intense Chris - Chris! - got the axe. Shocking and disappointing! He was my pick to win the whole shebang! I was just sick about it, so I didn't feel I could not mention it here. The thing I hate most about reality shows (even as I watch): they lift people temporarily out of obscurity and (often) poverty, and show them the luxe life, then they are dropped back into their old lives, most of them. After having had a brief a taste of the other. I can't even imagine the level of disappointment they must feel. So, I hope some record companies step up and offer Chris some fat recording contracts. I don't want him to have to go back to his old life. And I want to hear his voice on the radio soon.
That's the news from here - it's a quiet, almost customerless day, but I sold a lot of good books early in the week, so it's good to have a quiet day today. I've got a few chores to do, balancing checkbooks and such, then I'm going to play a little Scrabble against my computer. And the local library has its Friends of the Library sale tonight and tomorrow, so I'm in a happy state of anticipation about that. It's a rough life, I know.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Particular editions of particular books
A bit of shop news: a man was in yesterday looking for a graduation gift for a once-homeless boy that he and his wife sponsored through college. He told me that this boy didn't go to high school, and yet here he is about to graduate from college. He was looking for something timeless, and went with a large hardcover copy of The Odyssey, Pope's translation, with illustrations by Flaxman. It's hard to beat Homer. I hope this turns into one of his particuar favorite editions.
Monday, May 08, 2006
Books for children (and grownups)
I spent time with my gloriously pregnant younger sister over the weekend, part of which was devoted to a large baby shower for her and her husband and friends and extended family. Of course (while I couldn't resist getting a few pieces of clothing that rated off the chart on The Scale of Ridiculously Cute Things), I gave books. I'm starting them out with a stack of board books by Sandra Boynton - I figure if she and her husband are going to have to read something several thousand times over the next two or three years, it may as well be funny, short, and have a good rhyme scheme. I will ease them into the classics and our family favorites a bit later.
Then this morning before work I walked over to the post office to buy some stamps, and ended up with the children's book animal stamps, one of which features Garth Williams's Wilbur from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. So all this has me thinking about what children's books really stuck with me from my own childhood. My older sister has a daughter, and I've loved being the book auntie - she is ten and we have long phone conversations about what she's been reading. I made sure she encountered Laura Ingalls Wilder, Robert McCloskey, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Herge's Tintin, etc., and it seems to have worked, she is a total book nut. It helps that both of my sisters are readers, of course.
My own favorites I still have on a shelf at home, and they include The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, with Heath Robinson's illustrations, The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, He Went With Marco Polo by Louise Andrews Kent, Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey, and one of my very favorites, Howard Pyle's The Wonder Clock. His beautiful illustrations haunt me to this day. My other absolute favorite (I can't pick just one, obviously) is Beatrix Potter's The Tailor of Gloucester (see image above), with its tiny mouse-note, No more twist. My least favorite children's book is also by Beatrix Potter, oddly enough. I was discussing it with a few new friends in the shop last week, who were widely read in children's literature, and they said I was not alone in my choice of The Tale of Samuel Whiskers. The image it contains of Tom Kitten being rolled up in dough by the rats in has horrified me my whole life. It’s one of the few children’s books I regret reading. But I digress. Back to book-love: I also read and re-read books by Lois Lenski, Rumer Godden, Holling Clancy Holling, C.S. Lewis, and Lucy Maud Montgomery.
A great reference for learning more about children's authors and illustrators is editor Anita Silvey's fat doorstop of a book Children's Books and Their Creators (Houghton, Mifflin 1995). It contains alphabetical entries on writers and artists, as well as general information on broad themes in children's literature, and copious quotes from the authors and artists themselves. Now that you know some of mine, dear readers, what were your favorites?
Friday, May 05, 2006
Bookish notes via email
"Books, you know, Charles, are like lobster-shells. We surround ourselves with 'em and then we grow out of 'em and leave 'em behind, as evidences of our earlier stages of development..."
And my friend Sue sent this, from a gardening magazine she's reading (no author noted):
It feels like summer outside today, and there's a little vacant lot next door that the city owns and has turned into a small garden, so I've been wandering out there on and off all morning, watching the tulips open (no hyacinths), and thinking about what to read next. It's not like I don't have, shall we say, multiple options.
Thursday, May 04, 2006
It's got many pretty pictures, too, but you'll just have to go find your own copies, dear readers, to find out what they are. My worn desk copy of The Reader's Encyclopedia tells me that Orcutt was a book designer as well as an author. He designed the Humanistic and Laurentian typefaces. I had to cut open the back pages to get at the colophon, which says that he supervised all aspects of the book's production. A hands-on author, nice.
Another slow week
If there is a heaven on earth, this is close to it. I could set up a little tent in the shadow of these spruce trees and live there for the rest of my life. The only practical problem: Where to put my books? I love painting outside and do it when I can - the photo shows a little two-panel painting, oil on canvas, that I'd worked on for two hours or so.
I've been painting on and off for the past few days (hence no blogging) - when no one, really, no one, comes in at all I often work on paintings at the shop, during business hours. I work from photos and sketches, if I can't get outside myself. I'm taking a few new paintings to a gallery on the coast next week, for inclusion in a group show which opens in late May and runs through the end of June. I hope some of my local friends can make it! The painting of mine on the gallery site is one of the two or three canvases I'll have in the show (I am trying to overlook the spelling of my name under the image - trying, I tell you - with my last name, I've seen much worse). This will be my first time showing work in a commercial gallery - after college I had a few shows here and there, at restaurants and such, but I hated the marketing aspect of it all, so I got into selling books for a business instead, and continued to make art for pleasure (love, not money - the story of my life, thus far). Now that time has passed and I've had an especially prolific painting year, I'm thinking of trying it out again. I've got to fund my book habit somehow.
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
I'm reading a lot of poetry...
"When I step onto a stage to read poems, the anticipation and even the hope of the audience is palpable. The people sitting quietly in the chairs - they have not come to rest, but to be awakened. They have come for some worthwhile news."
That's what good poetry, her poetry, is, worthwhile news. The goods. She is like Robert Frost and Wendell Berry and Thoreau rolled into one, yet is still entirely herself. Listening to the cd has led me back to the poetry shelf at home, where I have a Mary Oliver section. She sits next to Pablo Neruda, Kathleen Raine, Jimmy Schuyler, Carl Sandburg, Whitman, Keats. I've also been re-reading Raymond Carver's book Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (Vintage 1986). I get something newsworthy from him every time I read him, too, something that makes my skin prickle. This is from the poem "Elk Camp" (p.88, about how to shoot an elk, among many other things):
I turn to poetry for a direct spiritual infusion, when prose is just too much of a muchness. And I'm glad there is a national poetry month, although I read it all year.
Monday, May 01, 2006
Customers and life mottoes
"I never truckled; I never took off the hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth." From author Frank Norris. This is also the customer who said he'd propose marriage to me if I could find the books he wants (they are scarce, I gather).
The second said this, more quietly, but just as intensely:
"The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures." From the The Globe and Mail newspaper of Toronto, motto of the editorial page, originally from Junius. This same customer, whom I love dearly, also said, later in our conversation, "Women and booze come and go, but BOOKS ARE FOREVER!" He's been married four times, and his second wife made him sell his library. He has since accumulated a second library. I told him I'd be writing this down and putting it on my blog.
I have a life motto. A few, actually. The first is printed on my business cards and shop receipts, and it comes from the French actress Sarah Bernhardt's stationery: "Quand Même," roughly translated as "Despite All." I was named after the Divine Sarah, and her initials are SB like Sarah's Books, so it all fits nicely. The motto has an inherent bravery that I love; I think its essence includes triumph and living well and being happy no matter who you are or where you started from. My second life motto came to me via a Salada teabag fortune in college: "Most people don't recognize opportunity because it comes disguised as hard work." I still have this tucked into the edge of the bulletin board in my painting studio. Customers ask all the time how I managed to wind up with my own bookshop and, among other things, I tell them I worked for it. Hard. But look at the rewards!