Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Birkerts revisited

I was rummaging (gently) in the books-about-books section this morning, hunting for a few things to send a new customer (Jodi, your books are on the way!) and I came across Sven Birkerts. Or the book that made him known, more precisely: The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. I pulled it off the shelf, wondering how it had fared since publication, if if had become dated. I was working behind the help desk of a new bookstore when it was published in 1994 and I remember the flap it caused, one could say the debate it started. Are books finished, OVER? Is this the END? Isn't an elegy written for something that's DEAD? Well, probably. But there's a lot of life in them yet! My favorite essay in the book is of course "The Paper Chase" about, in part, his time working in a used bookshop. Though I didn't even read this book until very recently. Extremely recently. Okay, okay, this morning. I think I had so many people recommend it to me over the years, and I sold so many copies back then, that I formed an unwarranted antagonism toward the book and determined NOT to read it. This happens to me often, particularly with best-sellers (I have yet to read a single Harry Potter book - I must be the last person in the world to be able to say this). Totally unreasonable cantankerous stubborn contrariness - I'm sure I miss all kinds of great books this way. But, all these years later, I picked up the Birkerts book this morning, idly opened it, and was hooked instantly when I read the following:

"Working in a bookstore affords a matchless sense of the big picture. Through stocking and sorting titles I started to see recurrences, interrelations, and, in time, arcs of connection. ... I wanted to know everything - I thought I could see how all fields were connected. And here was the chance of a lifetime to build up a library. I carted home histories, books of philososphy, editions of the classics, not to mention all of the novels and books of poetry that struck my fancy. I felt the old book sickness beginning to grip me." (pp.60-61)

The book sickness indeed. Like Birkerts, I'm beginning to wonder if my obsession with books will consume so much of my life energy that I will be unable to complete my own life projects - painting, writing my own books. You see, I want it all. Is that possible? Can that be arranged? These are rhetorical questions, of course, which I'm going to have to answer for myself.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Signs of spring?

It's coming, really. I know it is. Despite the snowstorm predicted for later this week. I took a two-hour walk on Sunday in the warm sun, up the hill to the highest point in Bangor (a park with a historic shingled wooden/metal watertower, the Standpipe - to get the scale of this thing, look at the arched entry door at the bottom left) then through various neighborhoods out to our local golf course (great view out to the horizon in several directions). I staggered out through the deep snow to sit on the dry top of a picnic bench and listen to the crazy-happy songbirds in the trees nearby. I couldn't see them so I don't know what they were, but they were happily heralding something, that's for sure. Besides getting outdoors now that the temperature is above twenty degrees, I've been busy painting - three good paintings in the last three days, after not getting much done at all for a month (besides stretching canvases and feeling grumpy that I wasn't painting), so hope is running high. If I had a digital camera right now, I'd share the images, but I don't, so I can't. More good news: I seem to be selling books again at the shop. It had gotten to the point where I felt shocked if someone came up with a generous pile of books to buy, shocked. Every winter I've always had a few new patrons who discovered my shop and came in over and over to buy a lot of books, often buying enough to pay my shop rent, all at one time - they helped me get through the winter - but not this year, for some reason. Well, now I find I can get by anyway, with a squeak.

Last night I read a goofy little novel, A Nest of Ninnies, by John Ashbery and Jimmy Schuyler (Ecco hardcover reprint). I'd classify it as almost meaningless, and nearly undreadable. But entertaining, nonetheless. At one point, Fabia, one of the characters, is reading a book called Six Characters in Search of a Novel. (p.60) Which could be an apt description of this very book. I get the feeling that the entire book is one long in-joke, bits of which I can pick up on, and the rest zooms by and I say Wait a sec, what was that? but it's long gone. Now the only book left on my bedside table is the Odyssey. With a bookmark in it reminding me that I read the first hundred pages in January then covered the book up with many other books. I am also tempting fate by having several books out of the library (I know I've chronicled my troubles with library fines for overdue books here before), but those are in a pile on the kitchen table, for breakfast reading. Big difference.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


More from Burton

Burton's The Book-Hunter is too delicious. I'm reading the section about librarians, and he mentions Magliabecchi, librarian to the Grand Duke of Tuscany (as did The Reader's Encyclopedia last month; see the Ms). Apparently Magliabecchi "...could direct you to any book in any part of the world, with the precision with which the metropolitan policeman directs you to St. Paul's or Piccadilly. It is of him that the stories are told of answers to inquiries after books, in these terms: 'There is but one copy of that book in the world. It is in the Grand Seignior's library at Constantinople, and is the seventh book in the second shelf on the right hand as you go in.'" (p.144)

Magliabecchi was a self-taught bibliophile, and Burton's writing style gleams like dull gold when describing him: "He devoured books, and the printed leaves became as necessary to his existence as the cabbage-leaves to the caterpillars which at times made their not welcome appearance in the abjured greengrocery. Like these verdant reptiles, too, he became assimilated to the food he fed on, insomuch that he was in a manner hot-pressed, bound, marble-topped, lettered, and shelved. He could bear nothing but books around him, and would allow no space for aught else; his furniture, according to repute, being limited to two chairs, the second of which was admitted in order that the two together might serve as a bed." (pp.144-145). Abjured greengrocery! Verdant reptiles! I don't know whether to be deeply gladdened or wildly disheartened that no one writes like this anymore.

Friday, February 23, 2007


A bit of YouTube nonsense

A friend emailed this video to me because the narrator mentions Sarah's Books in passing. In the video, the park he's filming in is the one in which I sit (during good weather) before I open up the shop. The Friars' Bakehouse and the comics shop he talks about are directly across the street from my shop. And Java Joe's is attached to BookMarc's, the independent bookstore at the end of our block (mostly new books, some used). That's Bangor (BAN-GORE not Banger).


Grubbers among bookstalls

It's still cold here today, but yesterday and the day before the first little intimations of spring were in the air - an actual warmth to the sun, a softening of the general atmosphere - and all of a sudden I find myself feeling absurdly hopeful about everything. Even though the fundamentals remain the same.

I started reading a most interesting and amusing little book this morning, The Book-Hunter by John Hill Burton, edited by J. Herbert Slater, author of How to Collect Books, et al (Routledge, London, no date, circa 1890). I think I remember picking this up in Boston last spring at Brattle, but I can't quite remember (I'm sure it's in this blog somewhere, though). Well, I'm finally reading it. Aside from the usual female-exclusionary language, which the lady booklover must cope with, albeit testily, if she wants to read books such as these, the book is generally delightful, though a bit florid in style: "Ere we have done I shall endeavour to show that the grubber among bookstalls has, with other grubs or grubbers, his useful place in the general dispensation of the world." (p.33) The book is split into four sections: His Nature, His Functions, His Club, and Book-Club Literature. Chapters within these sections include: A Vision of Mighty Book-Hunters, The Prowler and the Auction-House, The Desultory Reader or Bohemian of Literature, The Gleaner and His Harvest, Pretenders, The Roxburghe Club.

I knew nothing about John Hill Burton when I started reading, and by the time I'd finished the introduction I found myself with a burning desire to know something - so I turned to the invaluable reference book in the bookcase behind my desk, the book that never lets me down where books about books are concerned. It is in fact called Books About Books: A Bio-Bibliography for Collectors, by Winslow L. Webber (Hale, Cushman & Flint, Boston 1937), and every book about books I've ever needed to know something of has, so far, been listed in it. It is essentially my personal want-list. Webber tells us that Burton (1809-1881) was among other things Royal Historiographer of Scotland, this book was originally published in Edinburgh in 1863, and that "From early manhood, Burton was a book-collector. His library, which he catalogued and sold in 1880, comprised some ten thousand volumes." (p.43) Also - the first edition of The Book-Hunter was limited to just 25 copies. Cushman lists it as scarce, and says we can expect to pay $35 if we are lucky enough to find a copy. I'm sure prices have changed since 1937, but I'm too indolent to check the book sites right now. And I'm busy reading.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


The winter blues

There's nothing happening here. The sun is shining but it's dark in my heart (I've been listening to country music - well, alt-country music). I could make up a few stories, I suppose, but I've always been a nonfiction girl, myself. One scrap of recent fun: Ryan and I went to one of our favorite spots in these parts to pick for books on Sunday afternoon, and I found a signed Maya Angelou first edition for four dollars (The Heart of a Woman, 1981), one of the Christopher Morley-edited Bartlett's Quotations in very nice condition also for four dollars, another copy of one of my perennial favorites to have in stock at the shop, The Practical Cogitator (first edition), yes four dollars too, and a fine first edition in fine jacket of Laurie Colwin's first book (Passion and Affect, 1974; I read most of it last night; I'm only missing one other first edition of hers now - her first novel, Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object), for nine dollars. We picked up a few other items for stock, among them a British anagram dictionary, it's seriously cool - I've been browsing in it this morning: madras, drama; pedantries, pedestrian; Saturnalia, Australian; unrobed, bounder(!). On second thought, this book may land on my reference shelf. Meanwhile, in other news, I'm trying to use my time productively by stretching and gessoing canvases, making mix cds, watering the plants, and wondering what I'll do if I discover I didn't make a profit this year at the bookshop. In the twelve or thirteen years I've been selling used books (nearly six here at this shop), the business almost always grew by ten to twenty percent every year, until 2005 - the first year I showed a loss. In 2006, it looks like I will break even. I am naturally wondering how long I can reasonably sustain this. It's a gloomy, bluesy thought, for a sunny day such as this.

Monday, February 19, 2007


For that special someone

Thanks to my friend-in-books, Vicky, for sending me a note about the perfect gift for any book lover. Sure would have made a good Valentine, but really, it could be appropriate for any time of year.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Maintenance Day in The Land of Me

Between customers (and it's a nice day out and people have come in and I've actually sold books, imagine!) I'm rooting out my studio, an all-day project, in search of paintings in need of labelling. After I finish working on something, I gently add it to the giant pile in the back room to let it dry. Then it sits there for months. I add more, and more. Until something absolutely must be done. So today, I'm matching up pages in my journals (I make little thumbnail sketches as I paint) with the actual paintings, and writing dates and titles on the backs of the stretchers. It's a trip back in time, sort of, through The Land of Me. Going through my old journals is always - what - funny, at least. I see in September I was reading The Diary of James Schuyler, and I copied this out:

"Three lists - the books I brought to Maine - the books I got in Maine - the books I wish I had brought to Maine." (p.52)

I was also reading the new little volume of James Schuyler's letters to Frank O'Hara, because I noted down this, which I love:

"I never like to write letters after 6 in the evening (it's just 6) - I'm so afraid I may describe the sunset, or mention my aspirations - ..." (p.17)

Next, I find that I read Ron Padgett's terrific book Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard, and copied out, among other things, this - one of Joe's word portraits of his friends:

"Jimmy Schuyler Trees. Baby blue. Plaid. Pajamas. Leather. Wrist watch. Pocket knife. Books. Silver. Autumn. Coffee. Scissors. Yellow. Lima Beans. Belt." (p.199)

Reading the quotes means I'm discovering the books all over again. Which makes me want to go home and re-read them. Tonight. The paintings - well, some are better than I remembered, some not so. But honest efforts, at least. The journals - I've always kept them, but a few years ago I got hooked on those ubiquitous moleskines (they were Bruce Chatwin's notebooks! that's what did it for me, finally). Back to it - I've got an hour to finish up.

Friday, February 16, 2007


Banff Mountain Film Festival

We caught Banff when it stopped in Bangor a few nights ago. Every year it sells out. If it comes to your town (and it should - it tours all over the world), get out of the house and GO! Here's the promotional trailer, courtesy of YouTube of course, with scenes from some of the short films. Really a must-see for anyone interested in outdoor sports, extreme sports, mountain cultures, environmental issues... Many of the films are only a few minutes long, most are twenty minutes or a half hour, all are made by people out there doing their thing, whatever that is, with all their hearts. Always inspirational. And very cool.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


The Blizzard of Love

That's what the local weather forecasters called yesterday's wild snowstorm. I stayed home and read books all day. Hard to say what we got here, finally - probably twelve or fourteen inches of the white stuff. The snowplow piles are much bigger than that. It was still snowing when I woke up this morning, but now it's sunny and fierce outside, gusty and very cold, and when I walked outside to come to the shop, I laughed out loud as I stepped out the door - I hadn't set foot outside since Tuesday and a large amount of snow is always so improbable and strange and beautiful. One day, nothing, next day, gigantic white piles everywhere, changing the landscape, buildings, trees. It makes me happy - because I don't have to travel far in it. If I did, different story, I'm sure. I hope others got to snuggle in with their sweethearts yesterday.

I'm here at the shop for a while today - I doubt I'll see any customers until tomorrow or Saturday, everyone's digging out, so I'm stretching and preparing new canvases until my hands are too tired to hold the staple gun anymore. I think I can hold out until three or four o'clock. Then on the way home I'll take a few photos of the dark blue shadows on the snow in the park. That's the news from here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


A few questions

Just for fun. This blog has been way too serious lately. First, what's your superhero name? Any special powers of note? And second, if you were a cartoon character, who would you be?

My answers: superhero - of course it's Miss Know-It-All to the rescue! My synapses fire on all cylinders! And cartoon character - I used to be the young punk Maggie from early issues of Love and Rockets, but I'm afraid that now I'm Lisa Simpson. I'd like to be Gary from SpongeBob. But Lisa it is. No getting around it.

Monday, February 12, 2007


The sublime and the ridiculous...

...are usually one and the same, all wrapped up together. I'm back at the shop this morning and the heat was mysteriously off. My fabulous landlady was already on the case, so to do some double duty of warming myself up and getting back into being here, I gave the place a good once-over with the vacuum and mop. I meant to do it last week before I left, to give myself a clean place to come back to (not to mention any stray customers who might come in), but it didn't happen. So, by the time I finished I was toasty and the shop was warm again, too. These blonde hardwood floors are great, but they show up the melting mud of winter very easily. Oh wow, how great to have a bookshop! Oh dear, I need to mop the floors and clean the bathroom. Next came dealing with the mail: back-to-back envelopes telling me I missed paying my insurance bill and thank you for paying your insurance bill. No, thank you. The company's grace period must be an hour long, maybe two. I sent the bill five days early. I swear.

Busy last few days. Highlights:

The Tibetan sand mandala was amazing and I'm going to visit the museum again this week (the builder of it, Losang Samten, finishes and dismantles it at the end of the week) to see it complete, barring the possible blizzard currently forming to the westward and heading this way. I watched Samten for a few hours. The sand used to construct the mandala is tinted with watercolors and is very vivid both in its little bowls and on the platform the mandala sits on, and seeing it made my hands itch to paint. I did do a few quick sketches in my journal. It was very interesting to watch the mandala coming together and think about the act of creating art - the iconography in the mandala is fixed and has been for 2600 years, so there are no individual artistic choices or unique flourishes being made, and there is no permanancy. Totally foreign to what we westerners think of as making art, or artists as creators making unique objects that will outlive the artists themselves. One bystander asked Samten why it was swept up afterwards, when it was so beautiful, and what did this mean? He answered, "Impermanence. Beauty come, beauty go." Ain't that the truth. He said it with such finality.

When the impermanance got to be too much for me, I turned the corner and looked at a few terrific paintings in the permanent collection at the museum, including Fairfield Porter's portrait of Larry Rivers, Lois Dodd's large close-up Cow Parsnip (I wish I'd painted that...), a small juicy masterpiece by George Bellows of a cliff on Monhegan island, two rooms full of John Marin's prints and paintings, a bold Spanish dancer by Robert Henri. I go back to visit these works over and over. It occurred to me, on the way to the museum that day, that really the only things I'm interested in learning about right now are landscapes. In nature, and Maine is a spectacular place to do this, but more importantly perhaps, inner landscapes. I go to see art in museums and at friends' houses, to absorb their inner landscapes. I read books to do the same thing.

Speaking of which, I just finished Dorothea Tanning's memoir, Between Lives (Norton 2001). Some of it was rambly and wordy in a surrealist/convoluted way, but the meat of the book was straightforward and brave. A few parts I particularly responded to: first, her descriptions of her hometown library in Galesburg, Illinois, and the head librarian there who "... instituted an ingenious method of marking with a small red cross under the catalogue number any book that she considered immoral, unfit for minors. Thus I had no difficulty in finding the best books." (p.27) Next, her descriptions of her life with Max Ernst and her lifelong commitment to her own work. She said as a child in Illinois she knew she wanted to be an artist and live in Paris. And by god she did, on her own terms. Now I'm reading Michael Kimmelman's book of essays about art, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (Penguin 2005). I'm halfway through and I get the feeling that the book aspires to be like Alain de Botton's books - wide-ranging, philosophical, warm - but he sometimes misses the mark. Overall, though, pleasing and intelligent writing about some terrific artists and how they do what they do.

Over the weekend I also bought a trunkful of art supplies (stretcher bars, canvas, gesso - enough to last at least until summer), had brunch with my mother, visited a dear friend and looked at her studio filled with paintings and drawings and dogs (five lovely dogs, either swirling around our legs or sleeping). All in all, a good getaway. Back to it, now.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


What I missed in January... spending all my time reading books: the owners of the venerable Black Oak Books in Berkeley and San Francisco are looking to sell the business; this article sums up the situation there. Also, Micawber Books in Princeton, New Jersey, is going out of business next month. Princeton University bought their building and will apparently install another bookstore there. I read these articles and wonder what will happen to my own bookshop, down the road. I feel lucky to be able to remain in business - purely due to a combination of low overhead, because I'm in Bangor, Maine on a second floor, willingness to live simply so my scant resources can fold back into more inventory and upkeep, and of course my affinity for the business of books, part of which is a deep vein of stubbornness that makes me continue doing what I love to do, in spite of the bottom line. I mean, I'm essentially a microbusiness. I'm practically a non-profit. Can anyone tell I've been doing my taxes? Anyway, the thought of going back to work for someone else gives me a most unpleasant and bitter taste in my mouth. Not that I haven't considered it, during those weeks like this one when the shop brings in very little.

The state of retail has been on my mind, partly because of doing taxes and partly because I watched the documentary Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price over the weekend. If anyone reading this shops there, or at Sam's Club, you've got to watch the film and think about what your money is supporting. It's ugly, UGLY. Other than that, no rants, for now. I'm off on a mini-vacation until Monday. First, to attend a series of free workshops tomorrow, hosted by the Maine Arts Commission, about survival strategies for artists (marketing, grants, fellowships, the works). Next, to the Museum of Art at Colby College, to watch a Tibetan Buddhist construct a sand mandala. Then finally, to the southern half of the state to go visiting for the weekend. Back on Monday. Stay warm, everyone. Or stay cool. Whichever you prefer.

Monday, February 05, 2007


February, the Short Month

Wow, it's blustery and freezing out. Is it spring yet? No. Though the daylight is longer now, which helps my state of mind. Warmer on Saturday so I had a busy day in the shop and then I closed early, so no time to post. I spent most of the weekend at my sister Kate's house, eating good pre-stupor-bowl (no Patriots this year...sigh) food and generally being enchanted by her lovely baby boy, who is over six months old now and very interested in chewing on board books as I read them aloud to him. He is already a genius - he knows sign language for milk and is beginning to recognize the hand signs for mother, father, and diaper. Genius! The next Great American Novel is imminent! I came home this morning with new baby pictures for the kitchen table for the random moment when I need to smile.

What's next on the reading list? I don't know yet. Homer is still on the bedside table. Late last week I finished artist Anne Truitt's final memoir, Prospect. She's got an intellectually lofty tone from time to time, but then certain bits shine like gold:

" all ardent readers, I have friends whom I have never met, friends who keep me grand company." (p.182)

"...the spaces of an artist's imagination can spark comparable secret, sacred memories in a viewer. People who can receive the presence of a work of art may find themselves restored to selves they have half-forgotten." (p.189)

"The market for art is artificial. Art is not. The urge to differentiate what is personal from what is universal, and to express it, is a human imperative." (p.213)

Statements like those keep the painter in me feeling well-fed and content. I managed to complete six paintings in January, and now I'm hunting for more artists' memoirs to read. I don't think I'll worry much about finding more books, though, because they seem to find me. Funny how that works.

Friday, February 02, 2007



Wake up, slugabeds! Today's the day! The last letter in the alphabet, and the last pages in William Rose Benét's invaluable and often entertaining reference book, The Reader's Encyclopedia (Crowell 1948 edition). I've gotten tired of typing that over and over. The book is going back to its regular home on the bookshelf behind me, after sitting front and center on my desk for a month. A few final entries from the Zs - all proper names today:

Zenger, John Peter (1697-1746). German-born printer who came to America in 1710. In his trial for seditious libel (1734-1735) he was defended by Andrew Hamilton, and was acquitted. The decision in this case is believed to have established freedom of the press in America. (p.1239)

Zenobia. A beautiful and intellectually brilliant woman in Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance who drowns herself for love of Hollingsworth. She is said to have been drawn, in part at least, from Margaret Fuller.

There is also a historical Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, who is sometimes included in a list of "the nine worthy women" of the world. (p.1239) (Only nine of us?)

Zeuxis. A Grecian painter who is said to have painted some grapes so well that the birds came and pecked at them. The story goes on to relate that Zeuxis' rival Parrhasius placed a canvas of his next to the grapes, and when the spectators demanded that he remove the curtain concealing his work, it developed that the curtain was a painted one. (p.1240)

The longer entry for the zodiac is interesting, and there are a few familiar terms it was good to see clear definitions for, like Zeitgeist. I'm scanning the "Errata and Addenda" section at the very end, too, and the only item I notice that I should addend myself on this blog is "sweetness and light: Last line, omit. See also Ancients and Moderns." Well, there we go. That's how you read a reference book from cover to cover (humbly takes a bow).

Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


Today's Forecast: light snow falling, with a chance of customers

February. Here it is. Yippee. Ah, the romance and glamour of running your own business! I need to vacuum tracked-in road salt off the hardwood floors, I've been putting it off all week and it's looking decidedly grungy in here. I've had an unexpected rush of customers this morning. Perhaps they came by with a flush of hopeful enthusiasm for the beginning of the month when the zero temperatures depart for good around here. And they all bought books, it was quite wonderful. I hope they come again, and bring their friends. A few items from The Reader's Encyclopedia, today:

Yorick. The King of Denmark's deceased jester, "a fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy," whose skull is apostrophized by Hamlet (Act v. I). In Tristram Shandy, Sterne introduces a clergyman of that name, said to be meant for himself. (p.1234)

Youwarkee. In Patlock's romance Peter Wilkins (1750), the name of the gawrey, or flying woman, that Peter Wilkins marries. She introduces the seaman to Nosmnbdsgrsutt, the land of flying men and women. (p.1236) (Who? Where? What???)

Yum-Yum. The heroine of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Mikado. (p.1236) (I have The Mikdado on vinyl. "For he's going to marry Yum-Yum, yum-yum...")

A couple of longer entries of note: Yankee, yellow (The Yellow Book, Yellow Jack, etc.), and many interesting Youngs. Nothing much going on today, I'm shuffling papers this afternoon. Exciting stuff, so I'll get back to it. Thanks for reading, those who are.

But before I go, one quick note about those who are reading - I put an invisible stat counter on my blog back in early January, and it's showing around thirty or forty regular visitors every day (Hi! You know who you are!), around a hundred casual visitors (or regulars with no cookies enabled) a day, and overall for the month a few thousand page loads. I can also take a look at return paths for visitors, and it's cool to see how people end up here - their Google key-word searches, boomarks, other bookish blogs' sidebars, and the like. The coolest thing, though, is the world map I can pull up, with little flags all over it representing readers. I do like the visuals. Anyway, however you all ended up here, my thanks, again.

One more thing - jeez, I've got to get to work - a new article by Mark Helprin. About books and authors, without naming names (well, a few). His flag is always flying, and this one is snapping in a strong gale. Read to the end of the article, do not abandon it midstream, please - it gets a bit rough, but he comes back around to hope, as he usually does.

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