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The Shops

March, 2017
By Charles E. Gould, Jr.

In Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, Tom Pinch goes to Salisbury to meet Mr. Pecksniff’s new pupil, and with time to spare he roams the streets:

But what were even gold and silver to the bookshops, whence a pleasant smell of paper freshly pressed came issuing forth….That whiff of Russian leather, too, and rows and rows of volumes, neatly ranged within: what happiness did they suggest!  And in the window were the spic-and-span new works from London…. What a heart-breaking shop it was.

Mr. Meador in these pages has already taken up my theme with poignant elegance – nay, eloquence; but here I offer just a few nostalgic notes. When I was young and twenty – like A.E. Housman – there was a used/rare/books and china shop here in Kennebunkport – The Old Eagle Bookshop— under the hand of Copelin Day, whose vintage 1770’s house has alas been re-vintaged.  Mr. Day had a prodigious limp and was a curmudgeon of magnitude, but each day, weather notwithstanding, canvas bags in hand, he walked to and from the Post Office, measuring a mile each way, returning sometimes with the spare canvas bag full of books.  Although on speaking terms with my grandfather, who knew old glass, Copelin Day had no use for his juniors, and when in 1964 at age 20 (I was just starting without knowing on a Collection) I had the temerity to enter his shop and ask for P.G.Wodehouse, he replied – for there were apparently no secrets between us –“There’s one over there.”  It was a first U.K. edition of Cocktail Time (1958), fine in almost fine dust wrapper.  The price was $2.00, plus tax, and he took the money as if I had kicked his dog.  He didn’t have a dog, but I still have the book.

After many a summer dies the swan, as Tennyson’s ornithology has it, but all this time, Charles E. Campbell was maintaining a book shop at 602 Congress Street, Portland, Maine, partly with thanks to my grandmother, who had financed him to some extent when he opened his bookshop about 1920.  You can picture it – alas, rarely see one now: floor to ceiling shelves, a central table, a small counter with a cash-register, a type-writer, and a roll of paper and a ball of string.  At Christmas the roll of paper was holly and ivy.  Mr. Campbell – his photographic portrait when he was 93 hangs here now – had a withered right arm, I don’t know why.  He wore a full suit in all seasons and tattersall shirts and bow ties that he tied with one hand.  His letters – all of which I have retained – he typed with one finger of his left hand, and he perfectly with that hand wrapped his merchandise in paper, as mentioned above, and string.  At the lower left corner of each letter he would type, as if he had a secretary, “CEC.ib.”  That’s ibidem, CEC himself.  Later, older than I am, he moved upstairs to 602A Congress Street, whence he found as a rare book dealer one of the gems in my collection. There are, in the words of Edwin Arlington Robinson, no millers any more; but I have hope for booksellers.

The town of Wells, Maine, in the last quarter of a century, has been a bastion or Mecca of bookshops.  We note Merv and Kaye Slotnick,  Douglas N. Harding, Garry and Karen Austin, The Book Barn, and David Paulhus.  Among some of their distinguished names my name may be mud.  I have never been forgiven for offering $50.00 for a book priced at $3.00…what an insult!  Offered another book on the ungainly terms “We don’t know how to price it,” I paid $1000.00 and have it still, and so goes for another unpriced book for which I paid a dealer $600.00.  At breakfast next morning at the Maine Diner that dealer handed me back my check.  “It’s all I have at the moment,” I said.  He thought I had paid too much, but, in fact, I thought I had paid too little.   “Full many a glorious morning have I seen” says Shakespeare, and you know the rest.  One of these dealers, a professional Down-East wit, told me at breakfast at the Maine Diner that he had a signed Wodehouse back at his shop (essentially a garage with many shelves).  “What color is it?” I asked.  “Orange,” he replied.  “That’s right,” I said.  “I’ll come down and look at it.  How much is it?”  “Three dollars,” he answered.  So I went down and looked at it, a first edition of Big Money (NewYork: Doubleday Doran, 1931), in the orange cloth, signed “P.G. Wodehouse” in pencil on the front free endpaper.  “This is not Wodehouse’s signature” I pointed out.  “Never said it was” came the response.  I bought the book, right out of the shop.  It’s a $200.00 book today, long since sold.  Big money. 

Joseph Garnier, fifty years ago, had a dream of an antique shop here in Kennebunkport with a large corner dedicated to used books.  His was a real shop, with chairs and ashtrays (he taught me the secret of blending Edgeworth  pipe tobacco with Harmony).  He taught me about Elbert Hubbard and “A Message for Garcia” and sold me a cheap set of the Eastlake Edition, long since dumpstered, though for years I told my classes the story of  “A Message for Garcia”. He vastly exaggerated to me the potential value of a limited edition of a book by T.E. Lawrence (The Mint), and offered me a nice little collection of Christopher Morley…which I very much wanted but put the money ($60.00) instead toward a trip to Cleveland to be for a weekend with my now long lost and unlamented beloved, a graduate student at Case Western Reserve.  I can still recall a larger measure of Christopher Morley than I can of her: he invented the word infracaninophile (lover of the underdog) in his perfect Preface to The Complete Sherlock Holmes (New York, Doubleday & Co., nd).

When I was a lad – and for years thereafter – George Gloss was the wise proprietor of The Brattle Book Store, I believe still the oldest continuously operating bookstore in America, now in the hands of his son Kenneth.  Once on Cornhill in Boston, then on Washington Street in Boston, now on West Street, the Brattle has survived fires and sell-outs and huge give-aways and now remains as a landmark.  George perched on a three-tiered stool pricing hundreds of used books in pencil with a distinctive swirl, (“$2.50”).   At that price in 1967 I bought a Wodehouse first edition that I still have now valued at about $3000.00.  George and I never were on first-name terms – “Oh, it’s you again” was the basis of our familiarity.  He categorized Wodehouse as what he called “’Umor’” and pronounced the name to rhyme with “Roadhouse.”  But if, as I do, you define a bookshop as floor-to-ceiling shelves for two or three stories…or many tales…that’s the Brattle.  If, as in my youth I did, you dared to step in another bookshop, on South Street in Boston, you could buy a huge collection of Wodehouse in bound volumes of Punch, some significant sheet music with Wodehouse lyrics (I acquired the lot), and a “so offered” first edition of Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith with replaced front endpapers and a later edition dust wrapper.  It was sad for me to pull rank on that item on an established dealer twice my age.  He did not take it gladly.   Did he sell me the book, or did I buy it?  Yes.

Only the past is ours, said the Roman (I think it was Martial, A.D. 40-102) whom I have for the moment lost, so I reminisce at random.  Forty years ago I played hooky with my department head’s secret approval one day a month to book-hunt in New York.  I never knew anyone well  but I remember buying well from the shops on lower 4th Avenue, especially the famous Pageant, and The Strand where I never had much luck…though I recall some.  Later I moved up town, discovering with such delight as if I had discovered it, The Mysterious Bookshop, Otto Penzler’s marvelous shop just a little eastward behind Carnegie Hall, near the Russian Tea Room and across the street from Patelson’s Music store: two dazzling shops.  Otto had a spiral staircase that I would think twice about climbing today and bookshelves with ladders that daunted me then.  I had bought only a few books from him in 1972 (many since) – mainly bound volumes of the Strand with Wodehouse and, incidentally, Sherlock Holmes in them; but on a snowy March Saturday when the muffler fell out of my decrepit Dodge station wagon, Otto helped me find a guy to wire it up to get me back to Kent (with only moderate chill and fear of carbon monoxide) and incidentally treated me to a glimpse of his stupendous collection of detective fiction – perhaps the foremost in the world.  He has since moved the shop to Warren Street in New York: it’s the old shop in a trendier spot; his kindness notwithstanding, out of respect I would not drive up to it today in that Dodge.  Publisher, editor, bookseller, shop-keeper:  Otto Penzler stands alone in my memory today.

A little later I was on the upper west side at Carol Brener’s Murder Ink, another shop with books stacked from floor to ceiling, specializing in popular and collectors’ classical mysteries.  She became the editorial consultant for the Dell Murder Ink Mystery series.  I liked her a lot, for she thought I was odd.  Me?  I recall a cat or two roaming about the shop, and one day Ruth Rendell was there.  Carol introduced me as Gould, and Ruth Rendell immediately inscribed a book “For Gould.”  I asked her if she’d mind doing one more for my wife, sick at home: “For Gould and Carolyn, with best wishes” she wrote, not invoking W.S. Gilbert’s line about “Those infernal nuisances/ Who write for autographs.”  Her husband was there and he and I shared for a time a back seat in Carol Brener’s bookshop.

In 1985, Carol arranged for Dick Francis to come to her shop – as he did, appearing on horseback, at the doorstep, with a couple of NYC Mounties wondering what they were doing at his side. A few months earlier (The Armchair Detective, Fall, 1984, Ed. Otto Penzler, “The Reigning Phoenix”) I had written about Dick Francis, and he had spontaneously and graciously replied.  But we met at last on the street of a bookshop.  No one said “Hold your horses,” but we agreed about Wodehouse.  Carol helped me put together two complete collections of Dick Francis first U.S. editions – one for myself, one for my sister. To complete my sister’s collection of U.K. firsts I reluctantly bought from shops I’d never seen.

However, in England I went mad, in 1971-1981.  A little shop in Lavenham, not far from Bury St. Edmunds, had earlier bound volumes of Punch with Wodehouse in, costing the earth to ship back here; but we spent time in Sussex  looking at the white-washed sides and timbers as old and eloquent as Shakespeare. The shop itself bespoke volumes.   Rye, Sussex – home to E.F. Benson and his Lucia and Henry James – turned up glorious little shops thirty years ago – one of whose owners complained five years ago then that a London dealer had unloaded upon him shelves of Wodehouse reprints that I – an American – was sadly quick to spot as such.  No sale, I’m sorry.  Caveat emptor, I suppose.  In London, Barry Phelps, first and foremost of Wodehouse specialist dealers, in 1975 or so had a “Shop” amounting to a deeply book-laden staircase in his house in Irene Road in Fulham, from which I bought as much as I could, or carry home.  Uptown, in the West End, I naturally found Hatchard’s and Sotheran’s and Foyles and Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road – later to accommodate two store-fronts for the late Nigel Williams, for a time a Wodehousean dealer of magnitude.  At the time I didn’t know about 84 Charing Cross Road (Marks), a famous shop that had by then gone out of business.

One of the shop-keepers in Cecil Court was Robert Chris, who I believe had been there for ages.  In 1971 he must have been about my age now (68), and he seemed a bit gruff in his manner though by comparison to the Copelin Day mentioned above he was one of the Cheeryble brothers.  Over the next few years I bought several nice wrapper-less first editions from him, but when at the end of our first transaction I said “Thank you, sir,” he growled “Don’t call me ‘sir!’”  Not understanding what rule of etiquette I had broken, I asked my cosmopolite friend Jimmy Heineman to explain: Robt. Chris, in his own view, was in “trade” while I was “quality,” despite a three-decade generation gap.  As has often been the case, had I not been American I would have known better.  (I now use his line on all the young women who have started holding doors for me.)   Robt. Chris died about 30 years ago, and his death was noted in AB: Bookman’s Weekly.

Almost next door to our hotel (The Washington, which in Money for Nothing Wodehouse for some reason changes to The Lincoln) was G. Heywood Hill, where John Saumarez Smith presided, soon declaring his place my “spiritual home.”  A bookshop.  New, used, and rare books.   Wodehouse first editions on the revolving bookcase.  Invoices sent quarterly, written out in ink by hand.  A quiet place, holy and enchanted (in the phrase of Coleridge), where, since it was full of books and thus crowded, you might have been unknowingly quite near to rubbing elbows with a duke.  A shop in which you could, like Bertie Wooster in the antique shop in the Brompton Road, inadvertently swap an umbrella, as I once did there at 10 Curzon Street, where Nancy Mitford had worked from 1942 to 1945.  Mr. Saumarez Smith, with whom I have corresponded ever since, was polite and kind to his youthful untutored American cousin – unlike a few booksellers I have known here, and the shop still retains the atmosphere that Nancy Mitford must have known.

In Portland, Maine, the late Francis O’Brien in 1968 was a legendary and authoritative dealer in rare books, foremost in his time here in Maine if not nationally, especially for historical books and knowledge thereof.  His “shop” was his house on High Street: books on shelves from floor to ceiling, books on the floor from floor to ceiling, books on the stove, books in the fireplace, books on the mantle and on top of the refrigerator. Straight out of Dickens’s Mr. Krook’s.  I wondered how he and his cheery wife ate.  Out, I guess.  Over a cup of tea (brewed I know not where) he asked me if I would review a book for the Portland Press Herald…something he hadn’t time to do… a book by Sylvia Plath.  Though I had never heard of her, I thought my chance had come; but then I discovered that, as they say these days, I literally couldn’t read The Bell Jar. Or was it The Ball Jar?  Couldn’t read it.  One of my  early disgraces.  From Francis O’Brien I bought, as they turned up on the stove or fridge, some fine Wodehouse books, now virtually irreplaceable; but he often mentioned a stash of Wodehouse that he had in “the barn” in North Windham.  When I last reminded him of this stash (this was 40 years ago) he told me, with faint apology, that he had sold the whole lot to a priest from Haverhill who happened to come by at the right moment.  God moves in His mysterious ways.  A year later, that same priest was at my door in Kennebunkport, both buying and selling: Francis O’Brien had at least told him whom he’d gotten the draw on!

Rich Chasse ran the Kennebunk Book Port for ten years or more; but not enough people bought books there….   A charming shop, welcoming to my own personal dismay t-shirts and sandals and ice-cream cones, it was a landmark in Kennebunkport’s Dock Square.  There I heard about, and bought, books about which I otherwise would not have known, living here in my eerie aerie. Keeping the secret from me, Rich could go “on line” and obtain for me any recent title and some old ones that I sought, in two days.  His shop was on the second story, with a spiral staircase to the cupola, of an ancient building that once might have been a brewery.  The Book Port had class, appropriate atmosphere, unflagging accommodating diligence, pleasantries, and expertise, not to mention up-to-the minute technology startling to me; yet it could not survive. I still grieve over its shutting down.

Twenty years ago – again – there was a bookshop in Portland run by a couple of what Bob and Ray would have called “strong ladies.”  As I entered it, I heard Bellini’s Norma on the stereo.  “Who’s singing?” she asked.  “Not Joan Sutherland,” I replied.  “I’ve heard her do that on stage.  Must be Maria Callas as a beginner.”  It was.  “Whaddya want?” she inquired.  “P.G. Wodehouse” I said.  “Don’t have any.  Can’t keep him on the shelves” she said, “Sells so fast.”  “Wanna look at my list of 100 P.G.Wodehouse books for sale?” I said.  “Nope,” she said, apparently not wanting to put him on the shelves.  Ours, blessedly, is, like gathering samphire, a humorless trade. Christopher Morley (1890-1957) wrote in Parnassus on Wheels (1917): When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life.

In a manner of speaking – and if the Post Office shuts down there won’t be a manner of anything for me –I have been in the used/rare book business, albeit only Wodehouse – for  a third of a century.  I’ve dreamed of a shop, and I have awakened to loyal and steady, occasionally new, mail-order customers – in Milton’s phrase, “fit audience though few.”  To them I, also, have been loyal, and I hope that they regard my post office box and my telephone number – neither of which has changed in 30 years – as a Shop too.  Friendly old bookseller, tweed suit and bow tie, and – apart from smoking my pipe – as close to Charles E. Campbell as I can be by mail.  “Send me the book, my check will cross in the mail.” “Perfect,” said he.  Not anymore.  I loved him and shops like his, few now, and far bespoken.  I hope to be maintaining a tradition, in Cole Porter’s words, in my way, in my fashion, and opening a door for today’s 21st Century Tom Pinch…dazzled and uplifted by The Shops…even in the mail.

 Charles E. Gould, Jr. is a retired member of the English department at Kent School, an antiquarian bookseller, and P.G. Wodehouse specialist. He lives in Kennebunkport, Maine.