Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Some Thoughts About Books as Objects

In this day of eBooks and iBooks and digital publishing; in this day when electronic displays are so sophisticated that one can actually turn pages on the screen and highlight passages and leave yellow sticky notes on the electronic page; in this day when one can carry an entire library of books in a convenient electronic case weighing no more than a pound or two; one is left to wonder about the future of books as physical, printed objects.

I sell books.  Not eBooks, but real books with pages made of paper.  Books rare and old.   My books smell of paper and ink.  The pages are browned by age, and sometimes smudged with use. 

Some are inscribed to a friend, with an explanation of why the book was chosen and given; some are inscribed by the author to an admirer, or colleague.  Some are signed by an owner in childish lettering or in adult script.  Some have the signatures of notable figures.  (These “association” copies are among my favorites.)  Each of these adds to the pleasure of the book, to the understanding of it.  And you are linked to the people who’d owned it before you.

Some are “extra illustrated,” with original sketches or paintings by an artist; or with pertinent extras bound into the book.

I once had an “extra illustrated” copy of Morley’s LIFE OF GLADSTONE which was a 3 volume set that had been stretched into 10 volumes as a result of the inclusion of so many pertinent extras:  engraved portraits of Gladstone and members of his political English circle, hand-written letters from John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Disraeli and many others.  In the hands of its owner, this modest book had become a treasure-trove of information, a document and history of the period.

Some of my books have traveled to me from across continents and generations.  How did a lovely illustrated book on palmistry (with beautiful endpapers made from old velum scrolls) make its way from 16th century Italy to 21st century Massachusetts?  How many people touched it, carried it, cared for it?  How did they protect it as it crossed oceans and time?

For me, there is a kind of magic to this; there’s tremendous intimacy shared with those who came before you; and there are innumerable tactile pleasures as well – all of which imbue the words with meanings that cannot be conveyed by the words alone. 

You must hold a real book in your hand, smell the pages, examine the type face, the spacing between letters; must note the shape and size of the book, the weight of it.  Only then can you experience the book’s full import.  And its magic.

A book as an object is a piece of history.

If you care to learn it, you can know a book’s age and place of publication just by recognizing the font used; or by how much spacing (leading) there is between lines of text; or by the amount of linen or acid in the paper; or whether the page edges were individually “cut” for reading as one went along, or machine cut as is common for newer books; or by the garish and graphic covers of pulp paperbacks from the ‘40’s and ‘50’s; or by seeing whether the engravings are copper or steel; or by noting the use of the letter “f” for the letter “s” and the like.  You can gage the tastes of the period through the bindings most common to it.

You can spot a smuggled copy of the banned James Joyce book, ULYSSES, even though it has no title on it – or has a fake title, all the better for smuggling! – because the book’s shape is that of an almost perfect square.

I have friends who have a set of Homer that belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Imagine!

Rusty Mott, a bookseller in Sheffield Massachusetts, once had Melville’s copy of William Davenant’s WORKS, London: 1673.  He catalogued it [in part] as follows:
“Signed by Melville on the flyleaf:  ‘Herman Melville / London, December, 1849 / New Year’s Day, at sea).’

With pencil notations by Melville…comprising check marks, x’s, sidelines, question marks, underlining, plus comments…all illustrating passages Melville felt important, such as whales, religion, monarchs and subjects, nature, knowledge, punishment of sin, etc.  In one place he has written ‘Cogent;’ in another, ‘This is admirable,’ and in a third, he compliments Davenant....

The existence of this example of Melville’s reading has been known for some time but has been ‘lost’ since 1952.”

What a remarkable book!  There’s so much to learn about both authors as a result of Melville’s notations.  How wonderful it was to have held that book in my hands:  Melville’s own book!  And now, some other lucky person can hold and study it.  And care for it.

I once had the prayer book belonging to Carlota, wife of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico.  Placed on the throne by Napoleon III, Maximilian was eventually captured and executed by Mexican Republican forces.  At the time, Carlota was in Europe trying to get support for her husband.  After learning of his death, she had an emotional collapse and lived in seclusion for the rest of her life. 

What were those light round spots and ripples on some of the pages of her prayer book?  Were they tears?  And which passages of the book brought about those tears?  Of course, I’ll never know the answers to any of those questions, but I’m free to imagine and relate to the scene in a way that is not possible without having the book – the object and not just the words – in my hands. As I held the book, Carlota and I were linked across space and time.  This is magic.

Shakespeare folios also feel quite magical.  All but a few of them are in libraries, but many years ago, we managed to buy a 2nd and 4th folio for a client; and we had them at home for a while.  Bound in  well-cared-for contemporary (of the period) leather, they sat on a table in our living room.  Whenever our 4 children were near the table, they became hushed, almost tip-toeing as they walked by:  the books were so beautiful, so old, so...expensive!

Adam, the youngest, was only 4 at the time.  He and his older siblings would sometimes stand and look at the folios from a respectful distance.  Adam would put his hands behind his back and lean forward so far that he was in danger of falling. 

One day he asked, “Can we touch them?”  This broke the “spell,” and the big girls were quick to say, “Of course we can; they’re books; they’re meant to be touched and read!  They’ve been touched and read for centuries!”  And then they touched them.  Carefully.  Very carefully.

First they caressed the bindings, stroking the leather.  Then the two “big” girls – Sarah,12 and Johanna,14 – opened the books and slowly turned the pages, allowing Abigail and Adam, the two little ones, to see and carefully touch the pages.  The paper was rippled, and the pages crackled when turned.

Except for that crackle, there was silence, almost a holy silence….  They treated the books with reverence and awe.  Even at their young ages, they knew that they were in the presence of something important and wondrous. They felt the magic, and remember it still....

 Of course, new books are not quite the same, but you can be a book's “first” owner, the first to hold, read and study it.  You can learn from its binding and paper and weight and lettering and smell.  You can hold a new book in trust for its future owners.  You can become part of its history.

Give your eReader a rest, grab a real, printed book:  and feel the magic.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Season's End: Photos of My Store

This year, the Berkshire Mountain Region of Western Massachusetts (along with its New York State and Connecticut neighbors) is bringing in the autumn by finally and at long last having a bout of wonderful summer weather.

All season long we suffered through rain rain rain; hurricanes (Irene) and even a tornado or two! Or three…. And it was COLD! Now, suddenly, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, the breeze is gentle and caressing. Now, the tourists are gone, but the birds have come back! And the bees. (And the mosquitoes and wasps, too!) Where were they hiding all summer?

But still, there’s no mistaking that fall is here. Not just because the tourists are gone, but because there’s the mess of leaves falling everywhere; and there’re the sight and sounds of crops being harvested; and there are the county fairs and sheep-shearing contests and the apple picking. And, of course, we have the beautiful, beautiful trees fairly bursting with bright and vibrant color. 
Land and stream behind Farshaw's, my store.

And this beauty is mine to enjoy; I see it out of every window; I see it wherever I go.

Behind Farshaw's
(I once knew someone who actually immigrated to the United States because he’d seen a Hitchcock film – THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY -- which featured a New England village much like ours, with the trees all decked out in breathtaking color.)

Yet this beautiful season which marks the end of tourists also marks the end of my summer selling season at Farshaw’s Too, the rare book and antique store I own. Columbus Day weekend, whether it comes early or late, is the season’s official end.

For me, that means a bit of vacation time with family and friends; it means shopping around for new inventory for my store; it means unpacking and carefully placing my new purchases for optimal viewing when I reopen for the winter holiday season.
Remember, everything's for sale!

So now that I’m “officially” closed, I want to tantalize you with photos of some fabulous new finds that you’ll want to purchase come December.  Hold off on your holiday shopping until I reopen on Friday, December 16th. It will be worth it!

Be warned: though I'm an enthusiastic photographer, I am not a good one. These photos are simply meant to give you an idea of some of the new things I have for sale. The descriptions here are very general; I expect to have a a more detailed catalog by December.

And remember: everything you see in these photographs is for sale. And I mean EVERYTHING!

These few photos are of two of the three rooms that make up my store.  In the back room you can see a huge 1881 framed map of Newark, New Jersey.  Huge and heavy!  

The photo below shows some of my favorite new finds.  The old North Egremont sign hanging from the shelves was a real coup; unfortunately, I live in South Egremont...! 

The sculptural looking creature at the side of the sofa is actually an African headdress.  It sits on top of a paint can on the floor of the store, but men actually walked for miles wearing that huge and swaying thing on their heads!  It has red eyes made of wool, and the bottom of it is ringed with shells.  It's quite wonderful.
And speaking of Africa:  The amazing statue in the photo below is a Congolese Nail Fetish, about 150 - 200 years old.  It's about 6 feet tall, and looks a bit pained. 

These fetishes can be dated so precisely because the ones that were used for ceremonial purposes over the centuries were small ones which could easily be carried from place to place.  But as with the Native Americans in the United States and the Aborigines in Australia, once the natives met the white man, they began doing their art for trade rather than for ceremony.  And the white man wanted BIG ones!  

He is quite grand, I think.  Even modern:  Picasso would certainly think so.

But more conventionally modern is the huge Curtis Jere sculpture in the photo below.  Signed and dated (1983), it hangs above my desk and is a happy presence.

As modern as it is, it makes me think of older and more innocent times.  And it makes me smile.

(Actually, 1983 was quite a while ago...and it feels like over a hundred years ago to me!  So much has happened since then.  Blogs, for instance, to name just one small thing.)

Curtis Jere Sculpture

Poster promoting sale of 'Modern Transportation,' 1890's Style
Huge 1853 Linen Mounted Map of Berkshire County w/original wooden poles
Prang Album of Collectible Chromolithography Samples.  Scarce.
Autographed Edition of the Works of John Burroughs
Signed 1st Edition Steinbeck w/Letter
1st Edition
Signed 1st Edition w/Scarce Dustjacket


Pen & Pen Holder with it's own Inkwell
Original Drawing by Kate Greenaway

Scarce 1933 Pencil Sketch from the Disney Studios.
 And here's the very best:

Wonderful Inscription from George Bernard Shaw to Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
I have lots of bags and and boxes of books like the one in this photo to sort, catalog, and shelve before reopening day, but before I do that and before I end this post, I want to mention that Pamela Grath of Books in Northport, last week's guest blogger, told me that visits to her blog spiked dramatically after her guest post on this blog.  Of course, we have all of you to thank for that.

So:  Thank you!   And enjoy the new season.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Guest Post: Bookshop Movies

This is a “guest” post by my friend and fellow bookstore owner, Pamela Grath.  Her store is in Michigan, but her blog, Books in Northport, is linked from my Books Blog under “Blogs I Follow.”
Back in 1996, Pamela came to our site, and I had the pleasure of helping her join and learn the ropes.  She and I have never met, but obviously, we enjoy many of the same things – including our April Fools' Day birthdays! – and we have remained in contact over the years.

You will see when you go to her blog that Pamela is an enthusiast – about books, about animals, about nature, and about her part of the world – and her photographs are often so stunning that you want to get on a plane and go there immediately! For now, though, we’ll have to content ourselves with her blog.

But the best description of Pamela is the one she uses to describe herself on her blog:
Blogger, bookseller, philosopher, photographer, writer. Negligent but devoted gardener.  Good cook when inspired. No kind of housekeeper at all.
Here, without further ado, is Pamela’s post.  Enjoy!

Bookshop Movies
Harold groaned when she told him to read everything again. He thought he’d be bored out of his mind, going back and reading the same books he’d already finished. He was stunned to find that the second time through they were different books. He noticed entirely different points and arguments. Sentences he had highlighted seemed utterly pointless now, whereas sentences he had earlier ignored seemed crucial. The marginalia he had written to himself now seemed embarrassingly simpleminded. Either he or the books had changed. 
– David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement
I maintain that the same is true of movies, that you can never watch the "same" movie twice, an assertion that shocked the Philosophy and Film instructor whose teaching assistant I was one semester. In our house, David and I are re-watchers as well as re-readers. The other evening we re-watched a wonderfully witty Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts movie, “Notting Hill.” The number of great almost-throwaway lines in the script had us hooting aloud. 

The bookstore [someone's big chance: the real bookstore is now for sale] doesn’t play a huge role in “Notting Hill,” but naturally it’s part of the attraction of the movie for a bookseller, and that got me to thinking about other films with bookstore settings. The one that leaps to mind first is the obvious, the popular “You’ve Got Mail.” With Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, who can resist? And the movie has a happy ending, too, with the out-of-business bookstore owner turning children’s book author--probably not the fate of many bookstore proprietors who have gone out of business. Please note that “The Shop Around the Corner,” starring Jimmy Stewart, the film that inspired “You’ve Got Mail,” was set in a leather goods store, not a bookstore. Whole different kettle of fish, from a bookseller’s perspective. How's the market for leather goods these days?

The movie version of “84 Charing Cross,” definitely a bookshop story, was nowhere near as good as the book, but I’m sure it’s hard to make a movie out of years of mail correspondence, with no face-to-face encounters and no action, nothing but the requesting and receiving of books mailed across the Atlantic. Perhaps it ought not to have been attempted. 

The Amy Irving character in “Crossing Delancy” works in a bookstore, and, as the organizer of author events, she enjoys the touch of literary glamour on the fringes of her job. The focus of the movie, however, is her search for Mr. Right; as in “Notting Hill,” the bookstore in “Crossing Delancy” is not the main setting of the movie. On the other hand, it’s more than just a brief scene.... Scene? Seen? (Synapses fire, and the mind leaps.) Have you seen “The Answer Man” with Jeff Daniels? Now there’s a film that covers all the bases, from a writer’s life and secrets and his agent’s agonies through the vicissitudes of publishing to the struggles of retail bookselling. I found it riveting and hilarious. 

Poking around, I have come up with a couple of movies I never heard of before featuring bookstore themes. Anyone know anything about “The Bookstore” or “Heaven’s Bookstore”? Both are foreign films, the latter Japanese, neither listed on Netflix. I’ve added “The Love Letter” and “Read You Like a Book” to my queue. Will I be disappointed? 

Here’s what’s really on my mind: What I'm dying to see are film versions of Christopher Morley’s two classic novels about the bookselling life, Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop. “Could they be updated to a modern setting?” David asked. No, no, a thousand times no! They are period pieces! They are, as I said, classics, iconic works for American booksellers, especially those of us who sell used books and grew up on the Morley dreams. Roger Mifflin must drive the countryside from farm to farm in his horse-drawn gypsy-style wagon in the first story, and the second absolutely must be set in the World War I era. Anything else would be heresy. Please, someone make these movies--but for God’s sake don’t screw them up! 

The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, which ran from 1948 to 1955, apparently presented "Parnassus on Wheels" in 1951. I wonder if it was any good. Why has no one since produced film versions of these stories of the eccentric bookseller from Brooklyn? As printed books become objects of nostalgia, surely the time is ripe, and America is ready, for a movie that would dwell lovingly on this important part of our cultural heritage? 

Postscript: If you don't know Christopher Morley, introduce him to yourself with this short essay on the thrill of visiting bookshops with an explorer's attitude of discovery, and you'll see why we booksellers with open shops continue to adore this writer as the world whirls by our doors.