v32#1 Oregon Trails — Booksellers Real and Fictional

by | Apr 1, 2020 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  Thomas W. Leonhardt  (Retired, Eugene, OR  97404)

On the occasion of my acquisition of the crowning jewel in my Christopher Morley Collection, a first edition of Parnassus on Wheels, I emailed Brainerd F. Phillipson, the bookseller who had furnished my new treasure.  Upon shipment, he had thoughtfully informed me when to expect the book and explicitly told me how it was wrapped to avoid damage.  I wrote to him in response, telling him that the book had arrived in perfect condition and I signed for it a day earlier than predicted.

My reply, meant to show appreciation for what for me was more than a mere business transaction — trading money for something of value — contained several references to booksellers I have known, both real and fictional, men who depend on readers for a living — courageous or foolhardy? — and who are readers themselves and also scholars in the best sense of the word.  The best of them are also what libraries used to call reader’s advisors and perhaps still do in the more enlightened sanctuaries.

Christopher Morley (1890-1957) was a writer (poetry, essays, fiction) who could slip the words “hebdomadal” and “sanhedrin” into a sentence without it seeming the least bit affected or pretentious, but still making the reader reach for an unabridged dictionary.  I don’t collect Morley because of his extensive vocabulary (possibly enriched during his years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar) but because I feel a strong connection to him — his humanity and his love of literature and of all things Books — writers, publishers, publisher’s reps, booksellers, librarians, and readers. 

The book that first endeared me to Morley is Parnassus on Wheels, published in 1917, about an itinerant bookseller, Roger Mifflin, working from a horse-drawn wagonful of books that he deemed worthy of sale.  He would frequent rural areas bereft of bookstores and libraries. He would engage his customers in conversation, recommend books to them, and on occasion refuse to sell a book before its time.  “Last time I was there [a farm] he wanted some Shakespeare, but I wouldn’t give it to him.  I didn’t think he was up to it yet.” 

Roger Mifflin’s philosophy was simple: “…when you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue — you sell him a whole new life.”

In 1919, Morley wrote a sequel called The Haunted Bookshop, that Roger Mifflin established in Brooklyn to better accommodate his marriage and increasing age. 

“The Haunted Bookshop was a delightful place, especially of an evening, when its drowsy alcoves were kindled with the brightness of lamps shining on rows of volumes.”

Farther on is a description of the Corn Cob Club, a group of booksellers who meet irregularly in back of the Haunted Bookshop to talk about books, literature, the nature of their business, and anything else that came to mind. 

This is a romantic, idealized notion of a bookshop and even quainter now than when the typical bookshop owner does not live on the premises.  The only exception that I know of is the Abbey Road Bookshop in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, England. It was closed when I peered through its front door but I espied someone in the back preparing what I took to be, given the hour, breakfast.

Equally quaint is the notion of an area adjacent to the rows of volumes for sale in which a small coterie of booksellers can gather and talk about books, the philosophy of bookselling, whether a silent film (Tarzan of the Jungle, a newly released silent film, 1919) and the book it was based on was morally and aesthetically inferior to Kipling’s The Jungle BookKipling had, of course, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 but Edgar Rice Burroughs outsold him by millions, the very crux of the issue that was debated in that cozy corner of the Haunted Bookshop fueled by chocolate cake and a barrel of cider. 

Another fictional bookseller I am fond of is Mr. Brober, a seller of books and dispenser of wisdom in William McFee’s Casuals of the Sea: The Voyage of a Soul [(1916).  In the novel, a young man, Hannibal Gooderich, wants to go to sea, an especially treacherous vocation that meant months and sometimes years away from home.  Hannibal’s mother doesn’t want to lose him and Hannibal can’t afford to buy a position, even as a cabin boy. He settles, instead, for an offer from a cousin to run her newly inherited tobacconist shop.  He settles in and discovers that he has time on his hands during morning hours and despairs of newspapers because all they contain are advertisements. His cousin suggests, “Well, why not get a book out of the libr’y?”  “Well, there’s an ol’bookshop in Aldgit I pass every morning. There’s all sorts in the tuppeny box, I’ll ’ave a look at ’em.” “You don’t want to buy books!”  “Buying a book is with them [the Brown family] a sign of an unhinged mind.”

Our hero ignores his cousin and stops by the shop and meets Mr. Grober who asks him “What sort of books do you require?”  Hannibal then replies, “Something about the sea. I s’pose you ’aven’t anything like that — cheap?” And “That was the beginning of Hannibal’s induction to literature.”

Hannibal is taken under Mr. Grober’s wing and when business is quiet, the two would sit and sip whisky and Mr. Grober would dispense not just literary advice, but advice on how to live.  Thanks to the books Hannibal has been buying and reading and this bit of advice, Hannibal is able to throw off the respectable bonds of a shop keeper and finally go to sea. Mr. Grober’s final offer of wisdom is given one evening even as his demanding wife is calling him upstairs to supper:

“Good night!” whispered the old man, peering forward with strained, ghastly features.  “I give you a crumb of wisdom — not mine, alas!

“Be master of yourself.  The world is not an oyster to be opened, but a quicksand to be passed.  If you have wings you can fly over it, if not you may — yes, yes, I am coming now my dear! — you may quite possibly be sucked in.”

There is one more fictional bookseller I would like to introduce.  We never learn his name but we do learn more about him than we do about Roger Mifflin or old Mr. Grober.  The book is The Private Papers of a Bankrupt Bookseller by Anonymous [William Young Darling], 1931. 

“I am sorry for my neighbor, the draper.  His trade is a disenchanting one. He cannot feel romantic about women.  He only sees them, at worst, as creatures seeking to adorn themselves…

“I am sorry for my friend the butcher.  His trade is a disenchanting one… He only sees mankind as a mob of perambulating bellies needing to be filled.

“I am proud of my trade of bookselling.

It is enchanting.

It is romantic.

It is as wonderful as the world and as illimitable as the universe.

It makes lovely women lovlier.

It makes the commonest victuals the very food of the gods.

It is a high calling.”

On the very next page, our anonymous bookseller recounts how a man comes in wanting a book of poetry, something for a girl.  After a brief exchange, the bookseller intuits that the father is now without a wife and the book is for his daughter. A complete edition of Masefield is suggested and the customer is asked to read “Beauty.”  After reading the poem and scanning a few others, the father buys the book and the bookseller then questions whether he sold him the right book. Why not the Oxford Book of English Verse or the Book of Victorian Verse?  “The responsibilities of bookselling are immense.”

Yes, the responsibilities of bookselling are immense and, thanks to www.abe.com, I have been introduced to thoughtful booksellers around the globe.  Most enclose some kind of business card and a German bookseller sent me several brochures about “Deutchlands Buchdörfer,” Germany’s book villages.  One even called me to tell me that the book I thought I had ordered was no longer available but we talked about Steinbeck, his specialty, and as a result, I bought other things from him and he even threw in a lagniappe with one of my orders.

Let’s hope that most booksellers we know are making enough to pay their rent, buy additional stock, and have enough disposable income to feed and clothe themselves so that they can continue  their high calling — to sell us a whole new life.  

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