Saturday, June 30, 2007

Bibliophile Celebrity Sighting

I was delighted to have fellow blogger, bibliophilic celebrity and self-confessed bookplate junkie Lew Jaffe in our bookshop a few days ago. I have been taking note of some of the gorgeous bookplates he posts pix and information about on his blog. The latest entry showcases engraved bookplates designed by Tiffany and there is even a Book Trout to be seen there, which now graces this post. Well worth checking out this graphically interesting and entertainingly educational blog.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Austen's Powers

One of my bookseller missions is to gently press Jane Austen onto some of my rabid romance readers to wean them off of authors like Mary Wainscoting and Thelma Bodice-Hopper, but it is a tough sell. The language and manners of 18th century England and the long descriptive passages in Austen's books are deterrents for many from vaulting into her lushly romantic novels. Sometimes I try the movie hook, "Hey, did you check out that recent remake of "Sense and Sensibility"?; "How about that smoldering, hunky Colin Firth as Mr. D'Arcy in the BBC version of "Pride and Prejudice"?, as a way of introducing some of my romance ladies to a higher level of literary swooning. As of yet, I do not think I have any converts.

Now that so many romance writers are crossing over into the mystery genre, I've tried getting people hooked on Austen through Stephanie Barron's excellent mystery series featuring Jane Austen as a detective/British agent. But it is still swimming upstream for the Book Trout. All this genre hybridization makes for slower bookshelving, but the trick is to stick with cover art clues: black covers go in mystery (unless vampire on cover, when it gets shunted to horror) and pink covers go in romance. Although now there are time-traveling vampires in love, so sometimes they get flung into fantasy.

I remain an Austen missionary, however, and recently enjoyed Park Honan's exceptionally detailed biography, Jane Austen: Her Life ( NY: St. Martin's Griffin, 1987). It's a book to savor over a long period to avoid being Austen-overpowered, but for the devoted fan, 454 pages are a treat. There are illuminating references to the various persons in Austen's life who appear piecemeal as characters in her novels and good descriptions of historical events and places in the English landscape to provide further elucidation. Recommended highly for the Austen lover.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Punch Drunk on Books

The book of the day is one just sold over the phone, which I have smiled at many times while we've had it on our shelves: Intoxication Made Easy, by Elliot Paul and Luis Quintanilla (NY: Modern Age Books, Inc. 194). The title just slays me, and the subject is equally wacky. As I described it in our Internet listing:
A culinary Kama Sutra, a rowdy Rabelaisian romp, a paean to shellfish cookery, a very entertaining gastronomical read, profusely illustrated with Quintanilla's quavering quill.
Elsewhere I remember seeing this book described as the musings of two well-marinated sots. And then there are the crazy illustrations. Alas, booksellers' remorse infects me and I must release it into other hands.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Reading: An Essay, by Hugh Walpole

Reading: An Essay, by Hugh Walpole (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1927).

I was delighted to read, in the shop no less, this delightful book by the popular early 20th century American novelist. Walpole shies away from offering suggested reading lists, recommending instead that one meander along an individual trail of books because:

"...I believe, with the pleasures of Reading it can be nothing if it is not autobiographical, for the only certain thing about Reading is that it is personal first, personal second, and personal all of the time, and Milton's PARADISE LOST and Dante's DIVINA COMEDIA may be the twin dominating peaks of a glorious range, but they are nothing to you whatever if you happen to be looking the other way."

*Note to self: Read Milton and Dante before people think you are illiterate.

This extended essay has so many great quotes about books to savor. Here's another:

"On looking around you it is the books that you have loved that count, not the books that you have criticised, and by that, of course, I do not mean that you should be one of those sentimental readers to whom a book is a sort of meringue; readers who wallow in books like pigs in a trough, to obtain every sort of emotion save only the intellectual one."

Walpole revels in the books he's read, starting with the childhood standouts, "Lottie's Visit to Grandmamma" and "Alice in Wonderland", (which gave him a lifelong distrust of men with drooping moustaches like the venal Walrus), doled out parsimoniously during his Victorian childhood when reading too many books (and never ANY on Sundays) was not recommended as part of a moral upbringing. He gorged on Walter Scott's historical romances during his teen years, especially during school holidays when rabid recreational reading was considered much more acceptable and the scenes he paints of settling down in cozy, thick-curtained libraries with a good book in front of a crackling fire made me swoon.

Walpole writes with an easy grace, peppered with self-deprecating comments about his own foibles in trying to stuff his head with the classics when he was young and feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of volumes he hasn't and never will read. He gives gentle criticism to the Sophisticated Readers who look down upon Readers who Read for Enjoyment, and chides the Ordinary Educated Critics who read with pen in hand to note inconsistencies in writing and later send him copious notes about his own novel's mistakes.

Other enchanting passages concern his descriptions of various libraries: The Friendliest: Morgan Library in New York City; Most Interesting: Mr. Thomas Wise's library in Hampstead (Thomas Wise the rare book forger?, yeah, that WOULD be very interesting); The Stupidest: A certain millionaire's library in an unnamed location. He touches upon the fevers of first edition collecting, having passed through it himself ("That does not mean that I would for a moment surrender the original editions that I possess; I love them all, and I think that they have a certain affection in return for me"). He advises reading lustily and sloppily.

A recommended book for any reader touched with bibliophilia.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


On this Father's Day eve, I will comment on the burning of books. Recently, there was much media attention paid to a Midwest bookseller who charbroiled a few books outside his shop as an "artistic" protest against America's disinterest in reading. Twisted logic, yes, and a cynical, if brilliant publicity ploy. I winced at the association of this action and other book burnings throughout history by anti-intellectualist creeps of various stripes. The whiff of Fahrenheit 451 also stunk up this action. Yes, the biblio grillmeister had a great marketing scheme but I would have to agree with Michael Leiberman of the Seattle bookshop, Wessel and Lieberman, who roasted the "Book Pyro" on his thoughtfulBook Patrol blog and his actions, and noted that it wasn't good in the long run for sellers of books. We don't want to be the guys seen charring up the books. The genial bookseller and lover of literature should not be wearing the barbecue chef's hat and fireroasting books that still have a useful life. That shows disdain for books and that's a bad thing. Much better I think is the option of giving away, finding homes, or recycling them.

I am curious to know whether these victims of the Barbecue Book King's flambe party were in fact book crud or books that were in good condition. If the former, then I must divulge the dirty little secret of booksellers. We jettison books all the time. Damaged, waterstained, underlined, highlighted, common as dirt, obsolete and imcomplete encyclopedia sets, moldy books, these all get thrown out.

Book schlock (the mass-published bestsellers of yesteryear, weird vanity press publications)in good condition get donated to various libraries, thrift shops, senior centers (they snap up all my romance paperbacks like piranhas according to my informant who brings them over for me), and the laundromat across the street. But the barrel scrapings get hauled to the book and magazine dumpster at the local recycling center. Often, people will see Dan and Ichucking this stuff in and ask to look it over for first. Thankfully not very often, some poor sot will lecture us about how we could be donating this drek to the local library. Depending upon the state of my overtaxed lumbar region, I may stop and give them a short reply about how truly crappy these books are and how 99% of this stuff would just need to be hauled back to the recycling center by hardworking library sale volunteers. Usually I just offer a curt invitation to help themselves to whatever they want.

One of my colleagues called to whinge with me about the quiet sales of late and noting that he had stopped buying as many books in the shop. We commiserated about the inundation of phone calls about potential book buys and with people lugging bags of books in the shop. In our area we've all been turning away a lot of books because everyone is overstocked right now and both Internet and in-the-shop sales are light. My buddy noted that he had hauled several boxes of cruddy books to the recycling station on a Friday and on Saturday morning the same books showed up being offered for sale by some guy, who at least hauled them back out. Another bookseller colleague recently related that he had hauled away several boxes of bibliodetritus, only to have them left on his doorstep by the disgruntled "book scout" who wanted him to buy them back and then left abruptly when rebuffed. So my colleague had to schlep this mess to the recycling station a second time.

Tomorrow, as I and the girls honor their most excellent father with a barbecue feast, we will be grilling shark and vegetable kebabs, not paperbacks.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Book Inscriptions Project

I am delighted to report that the Book Inscriptions Project has featured one of our books on its interesting website. The site displays book covers and jackets and their sometimes sentimental, sometimes humorous, sometimes perplexing gift inscriptions. Each day the website displays a different example and the breadth of books and what people have written in them for the recipients is fascinating. Old Saratoga Books has the book of the day for June 13th, a copy of Lorus and Margery Milne's "The Valley" with a Lenten inscription. Take a look.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

From a Bibliophile's Library

It always interesting to see what books end up in a bibliophile's library and the following details a book on the shelves at Old Saratoga Books owned by William Lyons Phelps:

The Cure of Souls: Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale University, by Ian MacLaren, NY: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1895, first edition. Good condition.
Green cloth boards with gold-stamped lettering on front boards and spine. Top edges gilt. 301 pages.

This volume belonged to Phelps, and contains lectures given at Yale University in 1895 through the annual Lyman Beecher lectureship on Preaching, where Phelps was on the Faculty of Theology, in addition to being a literary critic, ordained minister, and bibliophile. He was also the author of many books, including "Autobiography with Letters", "The Advance of the English Novel", "Essays on Modern Novelists", "Memory", and "Browning: Now to Know Him".

My favorite Phelps quote is "A bibliophile of little means is likely to suffer often. Books don’t slip from his hands but fly past him through the air, high as birds, high as prices."

Phelps' elegant bookplate adorns the front pastedown and is an engraving by W. F. Hopson with William Shakespeare at the top crest, an open book with what appears to be the likeness of Alfred Lord Tennyson and a middle library scene replete with blazing fireplace, books aplenty and a contemplative cat. Graced with the quotation "Here are God’s Conduits". Phelps’ foot appears poking out from a wing chair to complete this paradise.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Somedays You Get the Bear

So yesterday I was feeling aglow with bookseller pride; strutting around like maybe I had learned a thing or two about things literary after a delightful customer experience. I had recently read "Buzzwords: A Scientist Muses on Sex, Bugs and Rock 'n Roll" (National Academy Press, 2000) by May R. Berenbaum, when I had a book order for an entomological tome from a person of the same name. When I sent out the book and confirmed its shipping with an email I mentioned "Buzzwords" and typed out a few lines about how I had enjoyed it. I got a lovely note back from Ms. Berenbaum saying that I had made her day with my comments and thanking me for making hard-to-find books available for people who still want to read them.

With my pufferfish pride I came in to the bookshop today pumped up and ready to sell books by the shovelful. Unfortunately, the other shoe dropped and I had to go into high-octane customer service mode. First I got an email from a customer to whom I had sent the wrong (and expensive) book while in some sort of fugue state last month. After making that right (the correct book goes out tomorrow via priority mail and he can send the original book back postpaid on me)I got three different emails wondering where people's books were. I checked my records and got back to them all, while fielding about ten phone calls from people who wanted to sell ME books and coffee and credit card processing services.

In an attempt to actually dig myself out of my economically deficient mode of bookselling I went through the litany of bookseller voodoo tricks: I went up ladders, I pulled out a sandwich at the desk, I went to the bathroom without the phone in hand, I even debated washing the front windows which would involve both a ladder and lack of phone, but that made me queasy. Still no customers with dollars in hand, just some stroller mommies and people who wanted to ask me questions about the resident store cat.

Time to go home and catalogue some more bug books.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Equine or Bovine?

The Schuylerville Chamber of Commerce has arranged for several horses to grace the sidewalks of our village and we now have a bovine equine in front of our bookstore. An apple-covered horse is in front of the local bank and another horse is stabled out at the Alcove Marina. Many more artistically-designed horses are to be seen in nearby Saratoga Springs, so if you are looking for a horsey day trip, come on over.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Outwitting History

Book Review:

Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books, by Aaron Lansky (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005).

Several years ago I read and enjoyed Nicholas Basbanes' bibliophilic opus "A Gentle Madness", which included a piece about Aaron Lansky and the National Yiddish Book Center. This interesting tidbit is fully fleshed out in Lansky's own book, "Outwitting History", which was very edifying about Jewish culture and learning and an inspirational story of book passion unleashed.

Lansky started out as a crazed graduate student in the 1970s, on a mission to convince his professors to teach him Yiddish and then rescue as many books as possible before their owners threw them out or died. Yiddish was the vernacular language of Eastern European Jews, who were themselves decimated in the Holocaust, so Lansky's efforts brought this bit of Jewish culture back from the brink of extinction. (Although Lansky reminds the reader of Isaac Bashevis Singer's quote from a earlier era in his novel "Enemies: A Love Story" in which a bookshop owner retorts that he is not afraid of burglars when he closes up at night, but of Yiddish authors breaking in and putting in more books).

Lansky and his bibliophilic buddies began spreading the word that they wanted to collect Yiddish books. Many elderly American immigrants provided the core of the collection that eventually turned into a non-profit organization, housed in a lovely sprawling library designed to evoke a Russian wooden synagogue in the middle of Amherst, Massachusetts.

The bookseller in me enjoyed the universality of the book shlep: whatever the season, whenever you are moving huge quantities of books in a short time, you can always rely on adverse weather conditions. Blistering attics in the summer, driving rain, snowy side streets to traverse with an unwieldy van, stinging insects attracted to your book sweat; the list is long and arduous. I loved the humorous retelling of Lansky's role as The Eater when he is trying to wheedle books from elderly Jewish bubbes, while his companions get the mentally-easier book hauling chores. The health-conscious, quasi-vegetarian "Lohn-sky" must gorge himself on Rabelaisian spreads of Old World knishes, blintzes, chicken liver, latkes, kugel and other dairy delights at each book stop until he feels dizzy.

Throughout the book the author's passion for his job is riveting. He travels to Cuba and Russia and other corners of the world to unearth long-unread Yiddish books and to distribute other books to revitalized Jewish communities. He dives into snowy New York City dumpsters to rescue books, endures endless telephone calls and eating visits in order to snag lifelong book "friends" from older Yiddish readers. Noshing aside, he does write about his respect for the folks who donate these often-scarce books to him and relishes his talks with people who knew various Yiddish authors or who participated in various movements and events that he has avidly researched. There is a humbling passage at the end of chapter 14 where he acknowledges that even as well-read as he is, he is of a different generation, culture, and era than the book donors:

"No matter how respectful I was, no matter how intently I listened, it was never enough. They always wanted me to stay longer, return sooner, understand better or appreciate them more. And why shouldn't they? They'd been famous long ago, they'd lived front and center on the stage of history, they wrote books, they led, they learned, they taught, they organized, and now, in their old age, all they lacked was a yarshn--someone to whom they could bequeath not only their libraries but the sum total of their lives. God only knows they deserved it. And God only knows I tried. But in the end, what history had stolen from them, no one--not I, not anyone--could restore".

A wonderful read for any bibliophile, but a special treat for booksellers. Plus, you get to learn a lot of Yiddish, which is a very expressive. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Same as it Ever Was

Today I sold an elegant little collection of poems about the author's life as a newspaperman and printer: Bulldogs and Morning Glories, by John Edward Allen (Brooklyn, NY: Linotype 1945) and almost felt like canceling the order with bookseller's remorse. The verse is doggerel but it is an interesting and well made volume that I coveted once someone else wanted it. My consolation is that it is going to an excellent home.

Here is one of the author's poems to enjoy. It seems politicians never change their stripes. They only wear them from time to time:

Psalm to Politicians

"Again a flood of hackneyed words
Comes pouring from the noisy throats
Of many office-seeking birds
Who promise, in exchange for votes,
To dedicate their massive brains
(And strictly gratis, understand!)
To ridding us of social pains
And making this the Promised Land!

They spout-and many lumber-jacks
Stride about again among the spruce
To ply the peavy and the ax
For paper mills that must produce
The newsprint that the papers need
To keep their presses on the go
That bunk-demanding saps may read
The platitudes of So-and-So!

They squawk--and mining men reduce
Vast stores of coal and copper ore
That power plants may shoot the juice
Required to make the presses roar,
The Linotypes produce their stuff
And reading-lamps illumine homes
That yearning boobs may read the guff
That emanates from brainless domes!

They rave--and many idle men
Return to plant and mine and loom
To soothe their minds to sleep again
With thoughtless motions toward the tomb
As they were wont to do in days
When war-time profiteering gents
Enveloped hem within a haze
Of adjectives devoid of sense!

But let's not chloroform the yaps
Who strut about from stage to stage
Releasing balderdash for saps
To gobble from the printed page.
For, while their blatant spiels resound
With third-rate tommy-rot and cant,
They help our dizzy world zip round,
Despite themselves. So let them rant!"

-John Edward Allen

The French have a nice phrase for this phenomenon: "Plus c'est la meme chose, plus ├ža change" (The more things change, the more they stay the same).