Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Seeing Shelley Plain: A Bookstore Book Review
Even before Dan and I became booksellers, I enjoyed reading memoirs by bookstore owners for the vicarious thrill from their book hunting adventures. They still delight me and I just finished reading a very atmospheric bookseller memoir, Seeing Shelley Plain: Memories of New York's Legendary Phoenix Book Shop by Robert A. Wilson (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2001). Wilson also wrote the bibliophilic classic "Modern Book Collecting", but this book focuses on time he spent as proprietor of the Greenwich Village bookstore from 1962-1988.
Wilson started his bookseller career in his forties, having served as an Army soldier during World War II, a diplomat in Poland and South Africa, a Broadway actor wannabe and a cuckoo clock factory office manager. A long-time book collecting passion (he collects Gertrude Stein and various poets' works) led him to become the fifth owner of the Phoenix Book Shop in New York's Greenwich Village. Wilson developed the store's specialties in poetry and first edition fiction, and there are lots of great anecdotes about dealings with Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Alice Toklas, Alan Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, Glenway Westcott and others.
The writing is a bit old-fashioned, but that only serves to enhance the reader's immersion into a gentler time in New York City bookstore history. I loved his account of his first day at the helm of the Phoenix, when his gracious colleague, Frances Steloff, of the legendary Gotham Book Mart, came to bless his shop with his first sale. There is a wonderful photo of the snowy-haired Steloff animatedly chatting with a smiling Wilson that captures their mutual delight with each other's company.
As a bookstore owner, I relished Wilson's accounts of venturing into the homes of some exceedingly eccentric authors and collectors. He has a courtly way with words and an understated way of relating how prickly some of these dealings can be. At least twice, however, he hinted at some crazy behavior or insult that he had to endure but then did not dish out the details, so I was annoyed at that. Half-hearted dish is worse than leaving out the incident altogether, but I suppose the publisher's lawyers may have had the final say on these tidbits.
If Oak Knoll's legal department did have the final edit, however, I wish they would have addressed the distractingly large number of typos in this book. I was astonished at the multitude of misspellings, weird punctuation and uncapitalized proper nouns in a book coming from such a literary author and publisher. There were at least two or three such jolts per chapter, which will hopefully have been addressed in any later editions. I can only imagine that Wilson, a publisher himself of an impressive number of literary and poetical titles as noted in the text and in a list at the rear of the book, must have pulled out hanks of hair after seeing these errors in print.
Overall, a book highly recommended for bibliophiles, poetry lovers, fans of literary New York City history and bookstore prowlers.