Monday, October 15, 2007

Note from Old Lyme

Sydney M. Williams

15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Notes from Old Lyme
                                                                                                                                                                                     October 15, 2007
Books

‘Once, when I asked him why he got
So many books, he said, “why not?”
I’ve puzzled over that a lot.'
                                                                                                                   Jane, Joseph and John; Their Book of Verses, c.1918
                                                                                                                   Ralph Bergengren (1871-1947)

Books have long been integral to my life. Growing up in Peterborough, New Hampshire my parent’s house was shelved with many wonderful titles – mostly inherited from their parents. As a young child, my mother would read all the nursery stories, along with tales from the Brothers Grimm, Beatrix Potter and Thornton W. Burgess. As I grew older, I recall reading such stories as William McCleery’s The Wolf Story, That Darned Minister’s Son by Haydn Pearson, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, the stories of Jack London and E.B. White’s Stuart Little and, later, Charlotte’s Web. At age twelve I received a copy of The House on the Cliff by Fentin W. Dixon and so was introduced to the Hardy boys and I proceeded to read the entire series. Books that have remained favorites include novels such as Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, Trygve Gulbranssen’s Beyond Sing the Woods and O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, among many others. Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Uncle Fred, Clarence, Aunt Agatha, Mr. Mulliner and a number of others all became friends when I discovered the humor and lively imagination of the Edwardian world depicted by P.G. Wodehouse. (And they have remained so through the Drones, a small group of Wodehouse devotees, who meet irregularly in New York). Among the classics I read as a teenager were David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, and Pride and Prejudice. The history of England came alive in the children’s history of that “emerald island” written simply and lovingly by H. E. Marshall in An Island Story. My copy is the one my parents had, printed in 1920 by Frederick A. Stokes in New York. It was recently reprinted, so I snapped up three copies for my children. The history of the United States was made vivid with Mason Weems description of George Washington and the cherry tree, and then, earnestly, when I picked up and read Carl Sandberg’s biography of Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. I have copies of most of these books in my library today and have re-read a number of them, in some cases more than once. The great beauty of these stories is that the characters they portray and the morals they impart are universal and so are as relevant today as they were when written.

My academic career suffered a prolonged adolescence. Other than a high school English teacher (Horace E. Thorner at Williston Academy in East Hampton, Massachusetts), whose concentration on Shakespeare was such that the two plays which we read my junior year - Macbeth and Hamlet – remain etched in my memory fifty years later, I fell victim to the many distractions of mid and late teen-age years. It was several years before I focused again on books. But then fate stepped into my path. In 1967, married for three years with a one-year old son and my wife pregnant with our daughter, we moved into a delightful 18th century house in Durham, CT, fortuitously situated close by a pleasant, retired couple, Keith and Helena Hutchison. Keith, a retired editor with The Nation, was the proprietor of the Durham Book Service, dealers in old books. In him I found a spark which reignited my dormant interest in books. In me he found a willing student and customer. My addictions, again, became literary. Keith was almost blind, British and a staunch liberal Democrat. He had attended the London School of Economics and worked for Clement Atlee in the general election of 1922, but soon left politics and, in his writing career, concentrated on economics. Among the books he wrote is Rival Powers, America and Britain in the Postwar World, a signed first printing of which sits on my shelves today. His love for books led him to start a small business selling books, particularly to libraries. His search for books of an economic nature – as such was his field – would often cause him to buy entire libraries, including a number of novels. From Keith I bought several wonderful first editions, all of which I still have - books such as Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa ($3.00); Laurence Housman’s Palace Plays ($2.75); Memoir’s of a Polyglot ($3.00) by William Gerhardi; The Peterkin Papers ($25.00) by Lucretia Hale; The Red Badge of Courage ($5.00) by Stephen Crane; Little Lord Fauntleroy ($37.50) by Frances Hodgson Barnett and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn ($150.00). When, after four years, we left Durham for Greenwich Keith gave me his copy of John Carter’s, Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors. It sits today on my shelves among a collection of books about books.

During those years in Durham I visited William Reese in New Haven, from whom I bought a few books, and I began receiving catalogues from Goodspeed’s in Boston and Brentano’s in New York. Brentano’s rare book department closed after a few years, but when it was open I took advantage of their offerings. Taking every dollar I could scrounge, I bought nicely bound sets of Dickens, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters; a beautifully bound first edition of Zulieka Dobson ($46.00) by Max Beerbohm; the trilogy of the breakfast table – all first editions - by Oliver Wendell Holmes, the first volume of which, The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table ($175.00 for the three volumes) includes a signed letter from Mr. Holmes, and a first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin ($350.00) which included a letter from the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Goodspeed’s Book Shop at the top of Beacon Hill had been around for many years. They specialized in genealogy and town histories, but they also sold well known (and lesser known) books. Town histories have always interested me, and I bought volumes dealing with all the towns in which I had lived. I also acquired a number books dealing with the genealogy of my and my wife’s families. But my greatest pleasure was in finding copies of books I had known and loved as a youngster. From Goodspeed’s I bought a copy of Joel Chandler Harris’s, Daddy Jake the Runaway for $50.00 in 1971 and six years later added Uncle Remus for $150.00. Other books I bought from them include Robert Frost’s, A Further Range ($15.00); My Man Jeeves ($50.00) by P.G. Wodehouse; Winnie the Pooh ($25.00) by A. A. Milne and the first whaling novel published in the United States, Miriam Coffin ($150.00), authored by Joseph Hart. Through my grandfather I had learned of John Kendrick Bangs, who was best known for Houseboat on the River Styx, published in 1896. He was a prolific author and I have twenty titles today, most purchased during that same period for less than $5.00 from the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan. Their store on West 47th Street used to have a sign stating, “Wise Men Fish Here” – a sign I would have paid dearly for. I rarely see Bangs for sale today, but that has less to do with their scarcity (they were printed in large numbers) than their desirability.

In 1971 we moved to Greenwich where, within a few years, I met David Block who had just left his “real” job to open a bookstore, The Book Block, on West Putnam Avenue. David was only there a short time before moving the operation to his home in Cos Cob where he came to specialize in Americana, becoming one of the foremost dealers in the Nation. His wife, Shiu-Min, is a bookbinder – the best that I know - who not only repairs books, but who also builds boxes for books. One of my favorites is a silk lined, three quarter red leather box she built to house a copy of Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai, a copy Ms. Cheng presented me in 1990. Over the years Shiu-Min has probably repaired and built boxes for a hundred of my books. However, when David first opened the store he sold anything he found of interest. Early on, soon after meeting David in the mid 1970s when lint still lined my pockets, I received a call that he had come across about twenty-five Wodehouse first editions. The asking price of $250 seemed steep, so I asked two friends, Gerry Gold and Ed LeGard, if we might form a syndicate to buy the collection. They agreed and we did. Over the years I bought some wonderful items from David, including a copy of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web ($140.00), the December 1863 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, which included the first publication of Edward Everett Hale’s, The Man Without a Country ($375.00), two copies of Webster’s Dictionary, published in 1828, a letter from Webster in which he refers to Henry Trowbridge, my great-great grandfather who married Noah Webster’s granddaughter and a copy of Through the Looking Glass, presented by Lewis Carroll to Edith Rose Blakemore in 1878. Edith was one of a number of young girls Charles Dodgson had known in Oxford when he wrote Alice in Wonderland.

I continue to buy books (admittedly at a lesser rate, as prices have soared), though at times paying prices that shock my native New England sensibilities. Books are in my family. My younger brother, Willard, opened the Toadstool in 1972, a bookstore in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I have long been proud of him, not only for his willingness to take risk, but also because of the small investment I made in the store at the time has compounded at just under 20% for thirty-five years. Nigel Williams, Adrian Harrington and John Suamarez Smith of Heywood Hill in London; Charles Gould in Maine; Peter Stern and the Boston Book Company in Boston; Robert Dagg and Thomas Goldwasser in San Francisco are among a host of dealers I find informative, fair and honorable. Catalogues continue to clog my mail box and provide pleasurable and informative reading. However, my preference is finding authors whom I like and whose books are reasonably priced – writers such as Beverly Nichols, George MacDonald Fraser, Jonathon Ames, John Mortimer, James Salter and Louis Begley. I agree with Otto Penzler, proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and author of “The Crime Scene”, a weekly column in The New York Sun, when he writes that some of the best fiction today is written by mystery writers, authors like Charles McCarry, John Dunning, Sarah Caudwell, Alan Furst and Robert Barnard. So I frequent book fairs in New York and out-of-the-way book shops in search of a prize or for the shear pleasure of being among books. My collection is a nice one, but has no extraordinary value except to me. The Wodehouse collection is reasonably large (about 400 items), but is missing a few items and I have close to 100 books relating to the American Civil War. I have never collected with the idea that my books would have great value, and I don’t presume they do, though the compounded returns (based upon catalogue prices) have been generous; however the original investments were pretty small. But the joy they have given me is real. The quote at the top of this essay I found in A Magnificent Farce, written by A. Edward Newton in 1921. (I bought my copy of the Newton book- a first edition - from Keith Hutchison in 1967 for $5.00.) In the book, Mr. Newton writes a sentiment that could serve as mine, “I early formed the habit of buying books, and, thank God, I have never lost it”.

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