Friday, October 24, 2008

Note from Old Lyme

Sydney M. Williams

15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Notes from Old Lyme
October 24, 2008

The Death of My Father, Forty Years On

“Forty years on, when afar and asunder
Parted are those who are singing today,
When you look back, and forgetfully wonder
What you were like in your work and your play,
Then, it may be, there will often come o’er you,
Glimpses of notes like the catch of a song –
Visions of boyhood shall float them before you,
Echoes of dreamland shall bear them along.”
Words from the song, “Forty Years On”
Edward Ernest Brown & John Farmer, 1872

It is sitting at the dining room table that I remember him best. Dishes have been cleared. My brother, Frank, is usually there. One of us is generally sitting atop the wood stove, which provides heat to this room and the living room, the warmest spot in the house on cold winter days. In age, we are between ten and fourteen. It is our conversation that stays with me. My brother and I argue with our father, in a Socratic manner, with adolescent fervor searching for explanations and answers. Papa, pipe always at hand, responds calmly and with humor, a well-thumbed dictionary within easy reach. It is the way we learn. He supplements his arguments with stories from fiction and his childhood and we learn colorful stories from our family’s past. Once I left for school, college, marriage and then work the scene repeats, as my younger siblings submit themselves to this didactic process.

My father, who would have turned ninety eight this past August, died forty years ago this December 2 at far too young an age. He had been a smoker his entire life, giving up cigarettes only a few years before his death. The cancer in his lungs metastasized to his brain where it first manifested itself. A dropped glass on the kitchen floor was the first inkling that all was not well. He died ten months later.

Being twenty-seven when he died, I was one of the fortunate ones. My youngest sibling, George, was only thirteen and so missed much of the wisdom and comfort he offered to me as a boy and as a young father.

He grew up in circumstances very different from the life he lived, as I knew him, on a small, rocky farm in New Hampshire where he raised, with my mother, nine children and lived the life of an impecunious artist. He was brought up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in the house in which his mother had been born in 1875. Her grandfather had been a merchant banker in Paris, then returned to Boston about 1850 and became a successful investor in the newly industrialized United States. My great-great grandfather had enormous love for his expanding family and built homes, and beautiful gardens, on abutting properties for his children. It was in one of those houses, a classic Victorian, that was home to my father throughout his childhood and until he was married. His parents also owned a summer place – a farm on several hundred acres – in Peterborough, New Hampshire and it was there that my father’s love and imagination was truly captivated. During vacations friends from the Belmont Hill School and, later, Harvard would come to visit. On the New Hampshire property was a second house, about a mile, by way of a woods road, from that of my grandparents. The smaller house, known locally as the Dodge Place (named after a family who lived there around the start of the twentieth century and who manufactured mercury based thermometers) was the house that became my parents home when they married in late spring of 1938.

The Country was mired in Depression when my parents married in New Haven, Connecticut. They moved to New Hampshire, to a house on a dirt road, four miles from the village, to a house heated by wood with no insulation (other than in the two bathrooms). A barn housed a couple of horses, a few goats and several chickens. An out-building was converted to a studio, as both my parents were artists, who met while studying sculpture in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

However, that was all before my time. When I was three, and shortly before my sister, Betsy, was born, my father, in April 1944, was drafted into the army. He served with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, winning a Bronze Star for meritorious service in combat in the Italian Apennines. By November 1945 the War was over and he was home for good.

As an artist, my father’s days were spent at home. He would be up early, light the stove, put on the oatmeal, check the coal-fired hot water furnace and head to the barn. At some point toward the mid 1950s, my mother, never much for housekeeping, assumed the barn chores, but in the early post-war years that was his province. Early morning involved feeding and milking the goats, feeding the chickens, gathering any eggs and feeding and putting out to pasture the horses. The barn was built of weather-beaten, unpainted boards. It was large, with pens for the goats, a chicken coop and horse stalls; it had a hayloft above and manure pit below and exuded an odorous, but warm and comfortable feeling. My father had been a life-long Republican who had disliked President Franklin Roosevelt. I recall, once, coming home from school – a young wise-assed kid – going to the barn where my father was in the midst of milking some unfortunate goat. My teacher had read to us of Roosevelt and the packing of the Supreme Court. I suggested to my father that it sounded like a sensible move, given the problem his administration was having at that time with the courts. The goat bleated and jumped about, the innocent victim of my father’s anger, as her teats were yanked impulsively by my father.

He was a genial man. In appearance he had a slight build – about my size – standing about 5’9’’. He was lean and muscular and proud of his strength and his physical well being – not from working out, but because of constant physical work. His normal dress was blue jeans with a blue work shirt in the summer and a green and black plaid woolen shirt in colder weather. I never remember seeing him in shorts or polo-type shirts. His hands were calloused, as he rarely wore gloves, and his hair, graying at the temples, was cut short by my mother. He was quiet, shy and polite in an old fashioned way. My wife recalls his standing when she first met him. He had a good sense of humor, but never liked ethnic and off-color jokes. Other than when he was in the service, he rarely wrote letters and he was never comfortable on the telephone. Not being able to see the person to whom he was speaking made conversation difficult for him. I remember long silences, periodically interrupted, by a harrumph and a puff on his pipe.

He had little respect for convention, so had no trouble taking us out of school if a big snow storm had blown through. Of course, as an artist, it made little difference to him whether he worked on Tuesday or Sunday. We might, on a week day, jump into the car and drive to Sunapee. While morning chores would have to be done, my mother was left at home to care for the younger children and deal with the animals. He loved to ski and to ski fast. Having learned to ski in the late 1920s he stood straight – riding down the hill on captured German skis wearing captured German ski boots, both of which he had brought home from Italy. While he never wore the insignia of the 10th Mountain Division, we often ran into other veterans and he always spoke to them. I remember being embarrassed by his old fashioned dress and dated skis and boots and welcomed the time at Stowe, around 1953, when he fell on the Nose Dive and, tearing the upper boot from its sole, was forced to buy new boots. But he also gave in to us, his children, more than he should. Once, in Stowe, at about the same time, we had the opportunity to hear the Von Trapp family. He put the decision to a vote and we chose to see a movie. He should have over-riden us. He didn’t.

An annual expedition on Christmas Eve was a trip into the woods to cut down a tree. He would hitch ‘Judy’ to a sledge and off we would go – never very far, perhaps a half mile at the most – bringing home a tree, which he decorated with real candles, a bucket of water within easy reach. That evening, before the annual reading of The Night before Christmas, as we hung our stockings, he would bring ‘Mitzi’, our Shetland pony, into the house, so that she could hang her ‘shoe’ over the fireplace. During the night Santa would have left an apple tied to her shoe and, in the morning, ‘Mitzi’ would return to the living room, my father beside her, to accept the gift.

Vignettes stay in my mind – picturing him outside on a spring day chopping wood, his shirt off; mowing the grass on a summer afternoon with the quiet clicking of the hand mower; gathering leaves, in late autumn, to press against the house’s foundation as a means to provide natural (and insufficient) insulation; replacing steel edges at the end of winter’s day of skiing. Hundreds of these visions remain in my mind, available for instant recall; the passage of time having neither diminished their number nor faded their clarity.

After my maternal grandfather died in 1947 my grandmother admonished me to remember him often, for when you do, she said, he will come alive. It took me a few years to realize the wisdom of that simple advice. She was right. People do come alive when we recall them, if only in our own memories, but that is sufficient. Forty year on I still miss my father and often think of him; Robert Service’s lines from his poem, The Spell of the Yukon, come to mind, “It’s the beauty that thrills with words, / It’s the stillness that fills with peace.” I feel better.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Notes from Old Lyme

Sydney M. Williams
15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Notes from Old Lyme
June 30, 2008

A Return to Vienna

“If you start to take Vienna – take Vienna.”
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

“Love: a temporary insanity, curable by marriage.”
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)
The Devil’s Dictionary

Forty-three years and sixty-eight days after celebrating our first wedding anniversary at restaurant Griechenbeisl in Vienna, Caroline and I returned on June 18th. We were accompanied by a good friend and his parents, both of whom were Vienna born. I brought visa photos that had been taken forty-three years earlier. My friend indicated that the restaurant, as Vienna’s oldest, had not changed; Caroline, he pointed out, looks identical today to her photo of forty-three years earlier, but that I was unrecognizable from my photo. I could not deny the truth of his statement. However, whatever alteration the body may have undergone, in mind and spirit I feel the same. While cognizant of the past, and casting an eye toward the future, I live in the present.

Vienna seems to be of like mind. It has reverence for its past, as the classical music capital of the world - a city where Mozart, Beethoven, Joann Strauss (both senior and junior), Joseph Haydn and Joannes Brahms lived, wrote and practiced their music. It was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918), an aggregation that emerged from the Austrian Empire (1804-1867), which, in turn, had been founded by Emperor Francis I of the Holy Roman Empire. A hundred years ago it sat at the center of an empire consisting of sixty million people – an empire that had largely been achieved through marriage, not war. The Hapsburg women were supposedly so prolific that, as we were told by a guide, they were referred to as baby machines. Daughters married heirs to thrones in places such as Spain, Naples, Romania and Czechoslovakia; many of these rulers then chose to cast their lot with the Hapsburgs.

World War I - in many respects the most tragic of all European wars - was ignited by the assassination on June 28, 1914 of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph and heir to the Hapsburg throne. Four and a half years and twenty million deaths later Europe was devastated. Austria had lost an emperor and an empire. Vienna, which had been capital to sixty million citizens, was now capital to about six million Austrians.

The years between the wars (the First Republic) were dominated initially by Karl Renner and the Social Democrats, then increasingly by right wing parties. Hopes for peace and democracy evaporated as economic depression enveloped the globe. By 1934 Austrian Fascists essentially imposed a dictatorship; on March 12, 1938 the Germans annexed Austria in a bloodless Anschluss. Fascism and Nazism emerged in Europe to fill a leaderless vacuum, taking advantage of, and adding to, rising nationalism and economic fear that had become ubiquitous throughout much of the world. My friends’ parents were fortunate to emigrate (though ‘fortunate’ seems a gentle euphemism, as they had to leave behind everything they could not carry.) Hitler’s armies occupied this proud city, which produced, besides the musicians named above, the Spanish Riding School, with their magnificent Lipizzaner stallions, Sigmund Freud, St. Stephen’s cathedral and the Sacher Torte – a city which governed an empire whose antecedents preceded the unification of Germany in 1871 by a thousand years. By war’s end many of the city’s structures were in rubble and its Jewish population of two hundred thousand had shrunk to five thousand.

During the long years of the Cold War, Vienna served as a salient in the line demarking the East from the West. Similar to Berlin, Vienna was divided though less imperiled. It served as home to transients making their way from the suffocation of Communism to opportunities in the West, a situation depicted in the 1949 British film noir, “The Third Man” starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. Ten years after the War, the Soviets suddenly and without explanation departed and Austria’s renaissance began. The Austrian State Treaty, relieving Austria of foreign occupation, was signed on May 15, 1955 at Belvedere Palace. Dr. Leopold Figl, Foreign Minister (and former Chancellor) stepped to the balcony and proclaimed to the crowd below, “Osterreich ist frei!” (Austria is free!)

Much of Europe’s economic growth is dependent upon former Eastern Europe, with its natural resources and an ambitious population eager to raise its standard of living. Vienna’s geographic position proved to be of strategic importance as the City bridged the gap between old Europe and new. Today that location puts it near the center of the European Union. The EU comprises twenty-seven member states and five hundred million people and as the Union gradually expands south and east, Vienna’s strategic center will become even more obvious.

The City is lively, catering to tourists and business alike. It is a dynamic and optimistic place whose people enjoy life amidst its coffee shops and opera houses. And, of course, over the past couple of weeks it has been serving as host for Euro 2008, the Continent’s quadrennial soccer championship.

The Soviets had been gone for ten years by the time Caroline and I arrived in April 1965. However, a dinginess within the City betrayed the earlier Soviet occupation. Its beauty lay beneath a grimy surface. Today that is all gone. A significant portion of the inner ring has been set aside for pedestrians. High-end western retailers abide within historic buildings and alongside local stores of ancient lineage. In a city noted for its coffee houses, Starbucks has found a place. Commercialization has been done tastefully and its four opera houses continue to produce some of the world’s great music. The Lipizzaner stallions in the Spanish Riding School live as magnificently as ever.

Above all, Vienna is a city for lovers, so provided a perfect venue for Caroline and myself rejoicing in forty-four years of marriage. And, oh! There were times when even Ambrose Bierce got it wrong.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Notes from Old Lyme

Sydney M. Williams

15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

June 9, 2008
A Note from Old Lyme

A review: Nigel Lawson, An Appeal to Reason

"Mrs. Jellby merely added, with the supreme composure with which she said
everything, ‘Go along you naughty Peepy!’ and fixed her fine eyes on Africa again.”
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Bleak House, 1853

A book that supporters of the American Climate Security Act (which includes both Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama, and on which the Senate, last Friday, voted to discontinue debate) would like you not to read is An Appeal to Reason: A cool look at Global Warming. That humans are primarily responsible for global warming, through the emittance of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere, has become conventional wisdom and those who question either the magnitude of climate change over the past one hundred years or the role of natural forces in any temperature changes are said to be in denial. Yet the science that supports the consensus view is murky at best and dangerously illogical at worst.

Nigel Lawson, an Englishman who is both a former Secretary of State for Energy and a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and who is currently a member of the House of Lords and who serves on the Lords’ Select Committee on Economic Affairs, does not deny that Carbon Dioxide has been emitted into the atmosphere since the onset of the Industrial Revolution and that those emissions have played a role in global warming. What he does do is to put that fact into context. For example, using the United Nations’ (IPCC) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 Report that if CO2 emissions persist, and all other natural factors remain the same, the effect on temperatures over the hundred years ending in 2100 would be between 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit – as he suggests, a livable, though unpleasant (at the upper end of temperatures) scenario.

Lord Lawson quotes from a 2007 pamphlet published by the Royal Meteorological Society: “We know that the climate has changed abruptly of its own accord before. But the idea of a point of no return, or a ‘tipping point’, is a misleading way to think about climate and can be unnecessarily alarmist.” Both the Middle Ages and the Roman period in Britain experienced warming far in excess of all but the most dire predictions for the next hundred years. He suggests that the science of climatology is in its infancy and that there are likely other causes, such as water vapour, generally considered to be responsible for two thirds of the greenhouse effect. It is also pointed out that a change to warmer weather is certainly more desirable, in terms of survivability, than a change to cooler weather. He discusses the social and economic impact of implementing reforms. He further suggests that a small rise in global temperatures would actually be beneficial to food production. However, he reminds the reader that thus far in the twenty-first century, according to the IPCC’s own data, there has been no increase in global temperatures.

Ethically, the benefits to future generations most be weighed against the costs to current generations; this is particularly so in the developing world. As Nigel Lawson points out, in Dickens’ Bleak House, Mrs. Jellby’s concern for good works in Africa took precedence over the care of her own children. The financial costs of adhering to suggested proposals are unknown, but the IEA on Friday June 6 of this year issued a report indicating that $45 trillion (three times the size of U.S. GDP) must be spent over the next few decades to halve greenhouse emissions by 2050. To the extent there is a problem it is global in nature and therefore without the support and cooperation of countries like India and China – now going through their own industrial revolutions – the problems will persist. Up to now those countries, as they race to catch the developed world, have given no indication of support for Kyoto or any other similar plan. Additionally, any move to impose tariffs on imported goods from violators of what is deemed to be “green” by the developed world would be a serious setback for world trade and economic growth. Lawson writes, “It should not need pointing out that a lurch into protectionism, and a rolling back of globalization, would do far more damage to the world economy, and in particular to living standards in developing countries.” Finally he makes the point that mankind is extremely adaptable and in the past Cassandra’s have underestimated the creativity and ingenuity of the human race, the best examples being Thomas Malthus’ “Principle of Population” in 1798 and “The Limits to Growth” published by the Club of Rome in 1972.

Over the millennia natural forces have caused the earth to warm and to cool. No more than could Canute hold back the waves can mankind prevent such occurrences in the future. While it is important to our health and our social well-being that we live in a world as free from pollution as is socially and economically feasible, it is also critical that time, energy and resources be devoted to help man adapt as changing circumstances warrant.

As to why politicians are so quick to verbally support “Climate Change” but slow to actually enact legislation, Lawson writes, “…while fine words are cheap and probably politically attractive, the deeds to match them are anything but cheap and almost certainly politically unattractive.” In his witty, if acerbic manner, Lord Lawson compares the trading of carbon offsets to the selling of indulgences by the mediaeval church. Nigel Lawson does not expect to convert those who consider “An Inconvenient Truth” a documentary; his goal with this short (106 pages with 20 pages of notes) fact-filled book is to try to reach those whose opinions are not yet formed or who are open to alternative views. It is instructional that none of the major publishers he initially approached would take on the book (and this is his fourth book), but that when it was published by Duckworth, a U.K. subsidiary of U.S. based Overlook Press, the printings sold out very quickly. Once read it is easy to understand this book’s growing popularity.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Notes from Old Lyme

Sydney M. Williams

15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Notes from Old Lyme
May 14, 2008

Growing up in Peterborough, New Hampshire during the 1940s-1950s

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)
The Great Gatsby, 1925

"Just specimens is all New Hampshire has,
one each of everything as in a show-case
which naturally she doesn’t care to sell.”
Robert Frost (1874-1963)
“New Hampshire”
New Hampshire, 1923

Like a pack-rat, my mother saved and hoarded letters, drawings, photos and other remnants from an earlier time. Like her, I have done the same. There are a couple dozen letters and half dozen telegrams heralding my birth: “Am thrilled to hear about the little boy;” “Can’t wait to see you and your son;” “Three cheers for Sydney.” It’s pretty heady stuff, even from a distance of sixty-seven years. While there is so much promise in each new life, there must have been many times when my parents wondered at God’s purpose for mine. Nevertheless, there are myriad reminders of my early years. There is a collection of drawings I did when I was five or six years old, packed away in manila folders. I come across an Easter post card from my father from 1945 when he was serving in Italy; “Buona Pasqua” is printed on the front depicting three elves, each carrying a large egg; on the reverse is written, “Dear Sydney, I wonder if you’ll find any Easter eggs as big as these. Love, Papa.” There are thousands of photographs. One pictures me as a new born held lovingly and gently by my father. Another depicts me struggling in the arms of my great-grandmother. A third photo, a few years later, is taken in front of the kitchen door in Peterborough: “Judy,” one of the horses, is hitched to a sledge on which lies a freshly cut spruce. My father holds the reins. Around are sprinkled Mama and six of us children; Stuart, born three weeks earlier, is not in the photo. It is Christmas Eve 1950. That evening my father will light real candles that will adorn the tree – a bucket of water placed within easy reach. These photos, letters and drawings provide a vital connection to my early years. While we live in the present and prepare for the future, we are products of the past. Genetics and environment largely determine who we become.

Introduction

The farm was known as the Dodge Place, named after a family who conducted a small business making mercury-filled thermometers in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries. My paternal grandparents bought the place as part of a larger property around 1915. When my parents moved to the farm in 1938 shortly after they were married it was still known as the Dodge Place and was so known during my early years. In fact, rooting around in the dirt near the house, my brother Frank and I often came across, and played with, pieces of mercury left behind forty or more years earlier. Despite all the warnings about the devastation that mercury can cause, we never suffered any ill affects. The house sat on about 150 acres of the rocky soil so well known to New Hampshire farmers. My parents, who had become sculptors, were raised in privileged surroundings – my mother in New Haven and Madison, Connecticut, and my father in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Peterborough, New Hampshire – but this was nine years into a depression that seemed to be without end. The Dodge Place was adjacent to, and a little over a mile from, my father’s parents’ summer home. That is, it was a little over a mile via an old logging road that passed through the woods, but about six miles by car. (I do recall once, not long after World Ward II, watching my grandparents emerge from the woods in their Oldsmobile.)

The place was four miles from the village, a town of 2500. The house, the size of which must have seemed comfortable when my parents moved in as newly-weds, appeared progressively smaller as children kept appearing. With respect to his children, my father, in his twenty-fifth college reunion note in 1957, referred to his “nine ideas”.

Into this environment, in their late twenties, my parents arrived and, with the exception of eighteen months during the Second World War, it was where they would live, while raising nine children, for the next thirty years. In 1968, at the age of fifty-eight, my father died of cancer on December 2 – my brother Stuart’s birthday. On the same date, twenty-two years later, my mother died at home. Though they died on the same date, the deaths were very different. My father suffered the agonies of lung and brain cancer for almost a year, while my mother’s death was peaceful. Two days earlier she had attended a showing of her and Stuart’s art. The day before she died she was visited by all of her children. The next night she wrote a letter to her youngest son, George, spent a long time on the phone with her life-long friend, Jean Kaiser, and went to sleep.

The Town

The first white settlers came to what is now Peterborough in 1738, occupying land that had been hunted by the Penacooks, a member tribe of the Algonquins. Today it is a village of 6000 and is the commercial center to the eight towns which abut it – Harrisville, Hancock, Greenfield, Lyndeborough, Temple, Sharon, Jaffrey and Dublin. The town sits at the juncture of two highways, U. S. Routes 202 and 101, and at the point where the Nubanusit River flows into the Contoocook – a north flowing river, which then merges with the Merrimac River and thence to the Atlantic at Newburyport, Massachusetts.

.When I was growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s Peterborough still had regular rail service. There were two grocery stores, the IGA and Lloyd's; two drug stores; a hardware store; Derby's, a department store; a movie theatre, in which the films were changed three times a week; Steele's, a variety store where comics could be bought; a feed store adjacent to the depot; a couple of banks; assorted auto dealers, the largest being the Nichol's Ford Agency, tucked behind the Peterborough Tavern; and six or seven churches, one Catholic and the rest a variety of Protestant denominations, including the Unitarian Church, a beautiful and centrally located edifice. The Peterborough Tavern served as an Inn for travelers and dated back to stagecoach days. We bought our gas at O'Malley's, skied at Whit's Tow and read The Peterborough Transcript, printed every Thursday. Albert “Del” Picard was the chief of police and knew every teen ager in town. New Hampshire Ball Bearings, the largest employer in town, and The Noone Mills, just south of the village, provided factory employment. The most imposing building in town was the headquarters of the Guernsey Cattle Club, recently (and surprisingly) relocated from Iowa, on Main Street. The population was virtually all Caucasian and generally Protestant – and still is – though there was a large contingent of French Canadian Catholics, most of who lived in West Peterborough and worked for the Verney textile factory, which produced rayon parachute cloth and subsequently closed after the War. The one Jewish family in town, the Goldman's, owned one of the two drug stores in town and contributed to what little the town had in terms of ecumenicalism. It was, at that time, a strongly Republican town. The MacDowell Colony, the Peterborough Players and the Sharon Arts Center provided artistic stimulation, and were all run by friends of my family.

Geographically the town is in south-west New Hampshire, about twenty miles from the Massachusetts border and is bound to the east by Crotched Mountain and North and Pack Monadnocks’, and to the southwest by Mount Monadnock, perhaps the most climbed tree-less summit in the United States. On a clear day, from its peak, the harbor at Boston – seventy-five miles to the south and east – can be seen. To the south is the Contoocook Valley and to the north and west the land slopes gently higher. While steeper and more rugged, the Apennines, which my father saw as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, reminded him of the hills around Peterborough.

Background

During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries summer visitors were drawn to the area by its proximity to Boston, by the beauty of the rolling hills, lakes and streams and by the majesty of Monadnock. My paternal grandparents were part of that migration, arriving early in the second decade of the 20th Century. My father's mother was raised in Boston and Wellesley, Massachusetts in very comfortable surroundings. Her father, as a recent Harvard graduate, had accompanied Louis Agassiz on the Thayer expedition to the Amazon in 1865-66. She inherited his interest in the natural world and spent several years studying at M.I.T., but was refused a degree because of her sex. Her husband, my grandfather, was born in Taunton, Massachusetts to a family of educators. For two years, following his graduation from Harvard in 1894, he taught French at Milton Academy before becoming a bond broker. Several years later, with the prospect of marrying into a wealthy family, he wrote his bride-to-be, "For several years I have helped my aunt and my sister…Last year, on account of the panic (the letter is undated, but I presume he is referring to the Panic of 1907), the firm’s profits amounted to practically nothing; so living expenses took the two or three thousand that I had saved up to that time. Today, therefore, I’ve nothing but a probable income of $2500 to $3000, and an optimistic disposition." One wonders, in similar circumstances, how such a letter would be received today. While they wintered in Wellesley, in the house in which my grandmother had been born, Peterborough offered a place away from the confines of the family compound and a place my grandfather could truly call his own; it provided a wonderful venue for a growing family. My father spent every summer there and, during winter holidays, he would often bring a group of his Harvard friends for cross country skiing tours in the nearby hills.

My mother was the daughter of a banker-industrialist from an old New Haven family and my grandmother, who had grown up on a large tobacco farm in central Tennessee and in Washington, D.C. where her father served as a U.S. Congressman. My mother graduated from the Foxcroft School and then studied sculpture with William Boni in Rome before returning to Middleburg, Virginia where she taught art at her Alma Mater for two years. The fraud and subsequent collapse of Ivar Kreuger and his financial empire in early 1932, which included most famously the Swedish Match Company, caused considerable financial losses for my maternal grandfather. My grandfather considered Ivar Kreuger a friend and invested heavily in his enterprises. It is my understanding that Kreuger stayed with them at their home in East River. Following the collapse, my grandfather, along with his family, sublet Greta Garbo’s apartment in Stockholm , while he attempted to recoup losses incurred by the Irving Trust Company – of which he was a director – and himself. On the mantle of our home in Peterborough was a silver cigarette holder which, as my mother would point out, was the sole asset my grandfather recovered from that fraud . My grandfather had to give up retirement and he became President of the Cambridge Rubber Company, but the house in New Haven (now the administration center for the Yale School of Management) had to be sold and they moved full time to Madison and to their home, ‘Wyndham’.

My parents met in 1937 as students of George Demetrios, a sculptor with studios in Boston and Gloucester, Massachusetts. They were married a year later and, after a short honeymoon, moved, in their late twenties, to the Dodge Place on my grandparent’s property.

The House, Barn and Property

The house was built around 1825, probably as a cape. It had been expanded with an ell and a second floor. The east facing house was set back about a hundred feet from the road with a row of lilacs separating them. The ell extended toward the rear and housed the stairwell, a dining room, two pantries, kitchen, shed and wood shed. The front, facing the road, included the living room and what we called the “end room”, a room into which were dumped works of art (completed and in-progress), un-used wedding gifts and the like. As children, we rarely entered the place. Upstairs were four bed rooms and two bathrooms. Two of the bed rooms and both bath rooms were above the ell, all facing south and off a long, narrow hallway, while my parent’s room was above the living room. A large, screened-in sleeping porch faced north off the hallway. At the far end of the hallway, above the shed, was the fourth bedroom, a room we called the “purple room,” generally reserved, in early days, for guests, especially my maternal grandparents.

There was no central heat (insulation was added about 1950); a coal-burning furnace provided hot water for the taps and the radiators in the bathrooms. Air conditioning was achieved through opening windows. A wood stove in the kitchen served both as heat in the winter and a place to cook year round. A second wood stove in the dining room and a fireplace in the living room provided heat. Until 1953, an ice chest in the shed off the kitchen served as refrigeration and a lone hand-crank telephone was located in the stairwell. The telephone line was a party line, meaning we shared the line with a half dozen other families. Snooping on neighbors was frowned upon, but often too tempting to resist. Our ring, on this party line, was three longs and two shorts.

Memories

We lived on Middle Hancock Road. At the time my parents moved in the road was dirt; the Hurricane of 1938, a few months after they arrived, washed out the road half a mile north. So for the first few years they lived at the end of a dirt road. By the time I remember it, the road was paved and the wash-out repaired.

My earliest memories are of living with my maternal grandparents at ‘Wyndham’ in East River, CT. East River is the western most part of Madison, and it is where they had had a home since early in the second decade of the twentieth century. My father was drafted in March 1944; so my mother, pregnant with my sister Betsy, returned to her home with three children, a couple of goats, two dogs and a cat or two. I had just turned three. My memories are spotty and few: my older sister, Mary, dressing me in a jumper and Mary Jane shoes; my sister Betsy’s arrival in August; playing on the beach in front of the house; my father’s departure for overseas duty in September; Christmas that year and a red fire engine I received, and the death on the cellar stairs of Julius the gardener.

By the end of July 1945 we had returned to Peterborough. My father was expected to be home on leave for a month before being shipped to Japan for the invasion anticipated for that fall. As it turned out, he arrived on the 15th of August, V-J Day, a day etched in my memory – my father coming toward us, having exited the troop train; horns blaring and car lights flashing. We all knew the long war was over and that there would be no invasion.

What I remember best about our home in Peterborough was the activity. As I got older, and sought solitude, I would take to the woods on foot or on skis, but it was the noise – the talk, laughter, crying – that pervaded the place, both inside and out that I remember best. Likewise, the barn hummed: horses, stamping feet and neighing; leaping and bleating goats; clucking and scurrying chickens. My father enjoyed playing with names. Our first rabbit was named “Peter”. The second became “Repeat”. A tom cat he named “Henry”. Henry was joined by a female, so my father named her “Henrietta”. The third cat became “Gladiator”.

Births and deaths provided a cadence for the years between my father’s return from Italy and my departure for boarding school eleven years later. Five children were born: Charlotte in 1946, Jenny in 1948, Stuart in 1950, Willard in 1952 and George in 1955. Dogs and cats were born, died and were replaced. The first two horses my parents owned (actually, previously owned by my paternal grandparents), “Nona” and “Jill”, died during those years. While “Mitzi”, a Shetland pony had been bought by my mother in Connecticut, she was soon joined by “Judy” – half thoroughbred and half workhorse and, a couple of years later, “Winnie” – a Welsh pony, a gift from the headmistress of my mother’s school. “Winnie”, who became my pony, was bred to an Arab stallion and then foaled “Star”, a lively filly who became Frank’s. Additional horses arrived over the years. The goat herd increased (to about ten) and we always had a dozen chickens, a few ducks and a couple of rabbits. Two peacocks, a gift from my mother’s oldest brother, arrived in the early 1950s; I can still hear the eerie, almost human-like, shrillness of their calls.

Many recollections of those days come to mind. They pop in at odd moments. A person, an activity, a place triggers the mind. Once, about 1951, we were in our second hand 1941 Ford wagon headed for my grandmother Hotchkiss’ place in East River where we would be spending a few weeks. In addition to a car loaded with luggage and strewn with six or seven children and assorted dogs and cats, we hauled a trailer which housed a pony and a few goats. We pulled into a gas station near Belchertown, Massachusetts. The attendant came out, surveyed the car and the trailer, and queried, “Where are you heading?”

“To my mother’s,” replied my mother.

“Does she know you’re coming?” he asked laconically.

My parents laughed heartily.

At the age of three, I received my first pair of skis. My father was overseas and I just walked around on them in the snow. By the time I was six, I was going up the little rope tow at Whit’s in Peterborough. The engine that powered the tow was the discarded motor from a retired Ford or Chevrolet. Whit had placed it in a shed at the bottom of the hill and attached it to a rope which, once grabbed, hauled skiers upward. Once, when I was six or seven, I skied down the little slope and, unable to stop, right into the shed and broke one of my skis. In tears, I sought my father who did not punish me as I feared and, in fact, saw humor on the situation. However, by the next season, the shed had been moved to the top of the hill. In terms of sport, skiing was my father’s passion. He had been skiing since the late 1920s and his enthusiasm infested his children. During the War, as already mentioned, he served with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy. When he returned he brought with him two pairs of German skis and a pair of German ski boots, confiscated from German Mountain Division troops, the Gerbisjager. Those white skis and brown ski boots became a trademark of his and lasted several seasons. By the early 1950s, watching my father lace up his boots and put on his skis, I recall the embarrassment known so well to a pre-teen whose parent is non-conformist. How, we children wondered, could we make him get rid of those boots and skis? Events dictated a solution. One morning, skiing down the Lift Line at Stowe, Papa (as we called him) took a header. As he fell forward, his boot peeled from the sole. Once we saw that he was uninjured, we applauded the fall. New boots were purchased, followed shortly by new skis. Our embarrassment was placed in abeyance.

A wonderful annual event was the Children’s Circus, conceived and master minded by my older sister Mary and our cousin, Mary Fyffe, for the benefit of the Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield. The first circus was held in 1947 and was comprised of us children, a few cousins and a small number of friends. The audience consisted of neighbors and parents who paid a nominal fee, along with a few children from the rehabilitation center. I forget what we raised that first year, but it was probably about $20, an amount that seemed enormous to us at the time. As the years went on, the Circus became larger and more elaborate. We assembled – horses, goats, clowns, floats and tumblers, with dogs racing around, barking – and, under the two Mary’s extraordinary organizational skills, paraded into the backyard before an audience seated on rented chairs. The 1957 10th Anniversary Program lists sixteen events, beginning with ‘The Grand Parade’ and ending with ‘A Mad Brawl.’ Events included a ‘Dancer Devine’ (Polly Hotchkiss, a cousin), ‘Equestriennes with Equilibrium’ (with Betsy and Jenny and two friends), ‘Thousand Legged Worm – Terrifying’ and ‘Terrific, Tumultuous, Tumbling Tumble Weeds.’ Lemonade and cookies were sold to the guests. As the 1950s came to a close, so did the Circus; but memories persevered, as did lessons about giving. Mary continued to volunteer at the Rehabilitation Center. In the summer of 1959, newly graduated from high school, I recall visiting her there. A young boy, confined to a wheel chair, admired my new class ring and, because of lessons learned from my sister and cousin about caring and giving, I removed the ring and gave to the young boy.

After the War, with my parents persistently producing more children (my father’s older sister incessantly barraged them with information from Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which my parents blithely tossed into the woodstove), the need for additional income became imperative. Commissions for pieces of sculpture ($75.00 for a bust of a child, involving two months of work) and dividends from my father’s skimpy portfolio did not cover the rising costs of increasing populations in both house and barn. Fortuitously, the artist in my parents emerged and in 1947 they began to produce realistic toy animals made from rubber. The Gosling School, where I was a student, became the first customer. In 1950 the Educational Equipment Company – later to become Creative Playthings – headed by a man named Murray Shapiro, and run in conjunction with Bank Street Nursery School (from which my daughter, Linie, received a Master’s Degree in 1998) became the largest customer. By 1955 Red Shed Rubber Animals were sold in most every state and Alaska. They were sold in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Japan. Initially they were produced in my father’s studio and in the kitchen. Soon the back porch was converted for production and eventually operations were moved to the upstairs of the Red Shed. I have a copy of an Annual Report issued in 1955 prepared and written by my mother – the capitalist, who lay beneath the veneer of the artist, emerged! The cover shows a photo of newly-born George. At this point they were making 75 different products. In the report the owners are indicated as Mama and Papa Williams; shareholders are the nine children. My mother expresses dismay at the lack of investment made by shareholders. She is searching for investments such as dishwashing, barn cleaning and wood gathering. It is pointed out that “preferred” stock could be had through “cheerful and willing cooperation.” In conclusion she writes, “The demand continues. The future looks good. Now is the time to increase your investments in this growing business and write this year’s liabilities in next year’s asset sheet.” The business continued for a few more years, but by the time my father died in 1968 it had run its course. However, the product survives and my grandchildren today play with rubber animals created in that Red Shed so long ago.

A host of other memories come to mind:

The time my mother sliced off a piece of my ear as she was cutting my hair. I was about four and I remember looking at that bit of flesh lying forlornly on the floor. I was upset, though my mother, once realizing there was no permanent damage, found it amusing.

There was the time on one of the rare Sundays when we attended the Unitarian Church. Squashed into two pews, we each had been given a nickel for the collection basket. Dutifully, though reluctantly, we parted with our coin and deposited it into the velvet collection bag – until it came to George who must have been two at the time. George, sensing that receiving was better than giving, reached in, grabbed a handful of money and promptly dropped it on the floor. At our parent’s insistence, the rest of us scurried under the seats, retrieved the lost coins and returned them to the basket still held by the patient, though stern looking usher.

In 1948, my sister Mary and I had to walk just under a mile to catch the school bus. Once, loitering on the way (Mary had gone on ahead), I turned the corner just in time to see the rear of the bus disappear toward town. Elated, I skipped home with the prospect of a school-less day. My mother had other plans. In a pique and in silence, she drove me the four miles to school.

We grew up with horses. We rode “English.” Often, five or six of us would go out together. Trails through the woods and dirt roads allowed us to ride for miles, cantering or galloping down little traveled roads, with “Mitzi” the Shetland – and the smartest and most cunning – out in front, cutting off those of us on larger horses, as we tried to pass her. We all took great pleasure in putting a “citified” visitor on “Mitzi”, because of her habit of taking her rider into a watering hole about half a mile from the barn and rolling. We got a laugh, as the rider had to quickly dismount before being crushed, or at least getting very wet.

Summers we would swim in Norway Pond in Hancock, taking time afterward to remove the two or three bloodsuckers (leeches) that clung to our bodies.

Winters, when we weren’t skiing (or doing chores), we often skated or played pick-up hockey on Fly Pond, about three miles back toward the village.

The hayloft was a wonderful place to play. I can still see the dust, highlighted in sun rays projected before the big door and can smell the mustiness of hay, heightened by aromas from the barn below. Once Frank, my cousin Sandy Greene and I built a trap by placing loose hay over an open trap door in the floor, through which my father would toss hay for the horses and goats below. Our intent was to lure my sister Mary and Sandy’s older sister, BAnne, across the floor and over the disguised opening. Frank and I were standing as lookouts for the girls when one of us called out, “Here they come.” Sandy dashed toward us and crashed through the trap he had helped lay. I turned just in time to see the top of his head, as he, with a cry, disappeared to the floor below. Other than his pride, Sandy was unhurt, and Frank and I had a story.

Growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s was to come of age in the wake of World War II and under the cloud of the atomic bomb. Memorial Day was a meaningful day in those years. Most of the veterans who marched in the annual parade had seen service in World War II; additionally, there was a large contingent from World War I, and even a couple of men who had served in the Spanish American War. The horrors of war were very much alive, not only to those who had been in combat, but also to the families of the seventeen from Peterborough who died in the two World Wars. Frank and I would ride our bikes the four miles to the village and, joined by several others, follow the parade to Pine Hill Cemetery. On the bridge that crossed the Contoocook, in front of the library, a wreath would be tossed to the waters below. We would watch as the current carried it away. Later, at the cemetery, where my parents and paternal grandparents now lie, taps were played with echoing notes reverberating back on somber, summer breezes. We were largely spared the scare of nuclear holocaust (other than the occasional, and futile, dive under a desk in school during a drill) by a family and a village that concentrated on the present and, while neither ignorant nor unaware of the risks in international brinkmanship, placed it in context befitting young and impressionable children. There would be time enough to confront the monster of realism. This was a time to be young.

Reliving these stories, I am reminded of the lines from The Wind in the Willows; “The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.” Stories from our past are the best stories. They allow the reader to consume a slice of history. For my children and grandchildren they provide an opportunity to learn something of their heritage, along with the prospect of a better understanding of themselves.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

"The Toadstool"

Sydney M. Williams
15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Note from Old Lyme
                                                                                                                                                                                      January 8, 2008
The Toadstool

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be
swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
                                                                                                                                            Francis Bacon (1561-6126)
                                                                                                                                            The Advancement of Learning, 1605

“A man ought to read just as inclination leads him;
for what he reads as a task will do him little good.”
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
                                                                                                                                             James Boswell, Life of Johnson, 1791

“The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-point goes;
The butterfly upon the road
Preaches contentment to that toad.”
                                                                                                                                            Rudyard Kipling (1832-1898)
                                                                                                                                           “Paget, MP”, 1886

Toadstool is a fitting name for a bookstore. One envisions a secluded, earthy, enchanted place forested with toadstools under which elves recline engrossed in new books. One evening in late 1971 or early 1972 several of us siblings gathered at our mother’s house to discuss the prospect of a bookstore. Normally, family conversations resembled the incoherence of a bunch of Parliament backbenchers with everybody speaking at the same time, but this time we stayed on subject. As my brother Willard recalls, another brother, Frank, first mentioned the name ‘Toadstool’. However, as Willard points out, there was “…what I think was a subliminal understanding of the name based on the cover illustration of the Golden Book of Fairy Tales” – a book all of us had read and one that Willard owns today with a cover depicting elves, engrossed in books, sitting under toadstools. So, in one of those marvelous happenings, which are not just coincidence, the name of the bookstore was derived from a book. The store opened in our hometown of Peterborough, New Hampshire in early May 1972. Willard, nineteen at the time and having recently completed his freshman year at Prescott College in Arizona, and our sister Jenny, then twenty-three and recently graduated from Sweet Briar, were in charge.

With $25,000 in capital the business commenced. Eight hundred square feet were leased in the Centertown Building at 3 Main Street. Shelves were constructed and stocked with 10,000 titles. Prior to opening, the cash register was placed in the center of the store on the assumption, as Willard said, if you show people trust they will be honest with you. An opening-night party was held for family and close friends. The next morning an inventory was conducted. Three books were missing. The cash register was moved to the front of the store – an inexpensive lesson in retailing.

Peterborough today has a population of 6,000, but back in 1972 it was closer to 3,000, not much larger than it had been 100 years earlier. Despite its small size, the village is the commercial hub for half a dozen surrounding towns. When I was growing up it had two pharmacies, a department store, a movie theatre, two or three grocers, a feed store, a hardware store and three or four auto dealers. The town boasts the first free public library in the United States and was part of the route of the Underground Railway. Frederick Douglas spent a night at the Moses Cheney house, once a stop on the road to freedom for a number of enslaved Americans.

The town has long had an artistic population, including my parents who were sculptors. The MacDowell Colony began operations in 1907 and is very much alive today. Marian MacDowell established the Colony to honor her husband, Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), a composer and pianist, who had been seriously injured a few years earlier. Alan Seeger, Padraic Colum, Edwin Arlington Robinson, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Dubose Heyward, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein were among a host of artists, musicians, poets and writers who spent time at the MacDowell Colony. Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town at the Colony in 1937. Grover’s Corners is the name of the town in the play, but the stage manager mentions all the towns which surround Peterborough; Grover’s Corners is an amalgamation of those small villages. Peterborough has also long been a summer home to residents of Boston, including my father’s parents who bought a home in the area in 1910. As early as 1851, when rail service first reached East Wilton, NH (two towns to the east), one could leave Boston at noon, travel by train to Wilton and stage coach to Peterborough and be there by 5:00PM – about twice the time the trip takes today . The town has been home to a good share of academics and literary types. For example, Professors Elting Morison (American history), Harlow Shapley (astronomy) and Vannevar Bush (atomic energy) had summer homes in the immediate vicinity, as did scientist and inventor, Edwin H. Land (Polaroid). Authors Elizabeth Yates, Newt Tolman, Haydn Pearson and Elizabeth Thomas lived or live in the area; as did (and do) poets Allan Block, John Martin, Marianne Moore and Julia Older, along with illustrators Nora Unwin and Wallace Tripp. In the 1920s, Paul Robeson and Bette Davis performed and Martha Graham danced at the Mariarden Arts Colony. The Peterborough Players, a summer theatre, opened in the 1930s and brought many well-known plays and talented actors and actresses to the area. Growing up I recall seeing plays such as The Philadelphia Story, The Matchmaker, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Devil and Daniel Webster. This past summer James Whitmore returned to play a role he had originally played at the Peterborough Players in 1956 – Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner.

So it was not surprising that Peterborough would be a fruitful place for a bookstore. Willard, with the confidence of youth, stated in a 1992 interview, “We had no vision of failure.” During that first partial year the store generated about $25,000 in revenues and the first full year $40,000. At that early date Willard and Jenny paid themselves $10 a day and so the store was profitable from the start – perhaps a good lesson for many of today’s budding entrepreneurs, many of whom seem anxious to prematurely IPO their businesses. Willard’s original plan was to return to college, but like the Jimmy Stewart character, George Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life, he found himself inextricably enmeshed in the business. Over the next few years the Toadstool doubled its square footage. Each year’s sales exceeded the previous one and profitability persisted. Early on Willard was conscious of the rising trend toward superstores. He deliberately avoided competing with them, but, like them, kept building his inventory and looking to expand. His target town was a smaller place with characteristics similar to those of Peterborough. In 1983 he opened a second store in Keene, a community of 22,000 and the home of Keene State College. However, he decided not to open a store in West Lebanon, NH because of its proximity to Hanover and the Dartmouth College bookstore. Around 1984, Jenny, whose first love has always been horses, left to teach riding and skiing full time. Willard, today, credits her with much of their early success. About the same time Willard’s wife, Holly, began spending more time in the store. Today she does much of the buying, as her knowledge of customer wants keeps the shelves filled with appropriate titles. In 1989 a third store opened in Milford about 20 miles to the east. Eye-balling Willard’s success, Barnes and Noble, in 1990, opened a store in Manchester about fifteen miles east of Milford and Borders opened a store in Keene in 1992. In spite of this competition the Toadstool’s inventory of books and attractive layout continues to attract customers.

In 1992 Willard moved the flagship store to its current location, a 7,500 square foot former A&P supermarket – Depot Square – and increased the inventory from 30,000 books to 70,000. The building was owned by Yankee Publications and the Toadstool became the sole lessee. A few months later, amidst a recession and at his price, the Toadstool purchased the property. This location – the former railroad station - has a long and colorful history in Peterborough’s past. The Monadnock Railroad Company first provided rail service to Peterborough in 1871. While the rail tracks north of town were washed out during the hurricane of 1938, and never replaced, trains continued to come to the Peterborough station for another fifteen years. During my early years passenger and freight trains arrived once a day. My maternal grandmother used to visit by train. She would travel from New Haven to Springfield, change trains for Worcester and then change again for Peterborough. The last passenger train to leave the Peterborough station departed on March 7, 1953 at 2:05PM and I was on it. Two hundred and forty-eight people boarded the train for this historic final departure. Most, including me, got off in the next town, Jaffrey.

Today the three Toadstool stores carry a collective inventory of just under 300,000 books. Each store houses comfortable chairs. Aesop’s Tables leases space and operates a café in the Peterborough store and in Keene there is a food court in the Colony Mill Marketplace downstairs from the Toadstool. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly. The sense of enchantment originally envisioned is present in each store. While one may not see elves lurking beneath toadstools, many of the patrons appear comfortably ensconced in nooks quietly leafing through books. Despite the advent of Amazon and electronic books, customers continue to come through the doors. In 1992, Willard was interviewed by Elizabeth Yates for The Peterborough Transcript. The 87 year-old Ms. Yates was the author of over forty books including Amos Fortune, Free Man, which won the Newbery medal in 1951. During the course of the interview Willard asked her a question: “What do you think the future will bring for readers, for writers, for literature, for the art of writing?” Elizabeth Yates replied, “The book speaks to the mind in a manner that elicits response. As the speed and pressure of life increase, so will the need for books and solace, delight and inspiration.” There is little doubt in my mind that the Toadstool will continue to thrive.

With a $25,000 investment Willard created a business that over its life has generated in excess of $50,000,000 in revenues, sells close to $5,000,000 worth of books annually (or about $175.00 per square foot), employs 40 people and has a book value of $2,500,000. The Toadstool has paid out $75,000 in dividends and has retired one share (four percent of shares outstanding) for $80,000. Book value of the business has compounded at 14.2% for 35 years, almost twice that of the Dow Jones Industrial Averages. Today Willard sits on an advisory board of American Booksellers Association and was Business Leader of the Year in Peterborough in 1998. Most importantly he has provided himself and his family a good living doing what he loves. Willa Cather, another author who lived in the neighboring town of Jaffrey, once wrote, “Where there is great love there are always miracles.” The Toadstool qualifies. As Willard’s older brother, my pride knows no bounds and, as a shareholder, I am deeply satisfied.

Notes from Old Lyme

Sydney M. Williams

15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Notes from Old Lyme
January 8, 2008

The Toadstool

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be
swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
Francis Bacon (1561-6126)
The Advancement of Learning, 1605

“A man ought to read just as inclination leads him;
for what he reads as a task will do him little good.”
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
James Boswell, Life of Johnson, 1791

“The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-point goes;
The butterfly upon the road
Preaches contentment to that toad.”
Rudyard Kipling (1832-1898)
“Paget, MP”, 1886

Toadstool is a fitting name for a bookstore. One envisions a secluded, earthy, enchanted place forested with toadstools under which elves recline engrossed in new books. One evening in late 1971 or early 1972 several of us siblings gathered at our mother’s house to discuss the prospect of a bookstore. Normally, family conversations resembled the incoherence of a bunch of Parliament backbenchers with everybody speaking at the same time, but this time we stayed on subject. As my brother Willard recalls, another brother, Frank, first mentioned the name ‘Toadstool’. However, as Willard points out, there was “…what I think was a subliminal understanding of the name based on the cover illustration of the Golden Book of Fairy Tales” – a book all of us had read and one that Willard owns today with a cover depicting elves, engrossed in books, sitting under toadstools. So, in one of those marvelous happenings, which are not just coincidence, the name of the bookstore was derived from a book. The store opened in our hometown of Peterborough, New Hampshire in early May 1972. Willard, nineteen at the time and having recently completed his freshman year at Prescott College in Arizona, and our sister Jenny, then twenty-three and recently graduated from Sweet Briar, were in charge.

With $25,000 in capital the business commenced. Eight hundred square feet were leased in the Centertown Building at 3 Main Street. Shelves were constructed and stocked with 10,000 titles. Prior to opening, the cash register was placed in the center of the store on the assumption, as Willard said, if you show people trust they will be honest with you. An opening-night party was held for family and close friends. The next morning an inventory was conducted. Three books were missing. The cash register was moved to the front of the store – an inexpensive lesson in retailing.

Peterborough today has a population of 6,000, but back in 1972 it was closer to 3,000, not much larger than it had been 100 years earlier. Despite its small size, the village is the commercial hub for half a dozen surrounding towns. When I was growing up it had two pharmacies, a department store, a movie theatre, two or three grocers, a feed store, a hardware store and three or four auto dealers. The town boasts the first free public library in the United States and was part of the route of the Underground Railway. Frederick Douglas spent a night at the Moses Cheney house, once a stop on the road to freedom for a number of enslaved Americans.

The town has long had an artistic population, including my parents who were sculptors. The MacDowell Colony began operations in 1907 and is very much alive today. Marian MacDowell established the Colony to honor her husband, Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), a composer and pianist, who had been seriously injured a few years earlier. Alan Seeger, Padraic Colum, Edwin Arlington Robinson, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Dubose Heyward, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein were among a host of artists, musicians, poets and writers who spent time at the MacDowell Colony. Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town at the Colony in 1937. Grover’s Corners is the name of the town in the play, but the stage manager mentions all the towns which surround Peterborough; Grover’s Corners is an amalgamation of those small villages. Peterborough has also long been a summer home to residents of Boston, including my father’s parents who bought a home in the area in 1910. As early as 1851, when rail service first reached East Wilton, NH (two towns to the east), one could leave Boston at noon, travel by train to Wilton and stage coach to Peterborough and be there by 5:00PM – about twice the time the trip takes today . The town has been home to a good share of academics and literary types. For example, Professors Elting Morison (American history), Harlow Shapley (astronomy) and Vannevar Bush (atomic energy) had summer homes in the immediate vicinity, as did scientist and inventor, Edwin H. Land (Polaroid). Authors Elizabeth Yates, Newt Tolman, Haydn Pearson and Elizabeth Thomas lived or live in the area; as did (and do) poets Allan Block, John Martin, Marianne Moore and Julia Older, along with illustrators Nora Unwin and Wallace Tripp. In the 1920s, Paul Robeson and Bette Davis performed and Martha Graham danced at the Mariarden Arts Colony. The Peterborough Players, a summer theatre, opened in the 1930s and brought many well-known plays and talented actors and actresses to the area. Growing up I recall seeing plays such as The Philadelphia Story, The Matchmaker, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Devil and Daniel Webster. This past summer James Whitmore returned to play a role he had originally played at the Peterborough Players in 1956 – Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner.

So it was not surprising that Peterborough would be a fruitful place for a bookstore. Willard, with the confidence of youth, stated in a 1992 interview, “We had no vision of failure.” During that first partial year the store generated about $25,000 in revenues and the first full year $40,000. At that early date Willard and Jenny paid themselves $10 a day and so the store was profitable from the start – perhaps a good lesson for many of today’s budding entrepreneurs, many of whom seem anxious to prematurely IPO their businesses. Willard’s original plan was to return to college, but like the Jimmy Stewart character, George Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life, he found himself inextricably enmeshed in the business. Over the next few years the Toadstool doubled its square footage. Each year’s sales exceeded the previous one and profitability persisted. Early on Willard was conscious of the rising trend toward superstores. He deliberately avoided competing with them, but, like them, kept building his inventory and looking to expand. His target town was a smaller place with characteristics similar to those of Peterborough. In 1983 he opened a second store in Keene, a community of 22,000 and the home of Keene State College. However, he decided not to open a store in West Lebanon, NH because of its proximity to Hanover and the Dartmouth College bookstore. Around 1984, Jenny, whose first love has always been horses, left to teach riding and skiing full time. Willard, today, credits her with much of their early success. About the same time Willard’s wife, Holly, began spending more time in the store. Today she does much of the buying, as her knowledge of customer wants keeps the shelves filled with appropriate titles. In 1989 a third store opened in Milford about 20 miles to the east. Eye-balling Willard’s success, Barnes and Noble, in 1990, opened a store in Manchester about fifteen miles east of Milford and Borders opened a store in Keene in 1992. In spite of this competition the Toadstool’s inventory of books and attractive layout continues to attract customers.

In 1992 Willard moved the flagship store to its current location, a 7,500 square foot former A&P supermarket – Depot Square – and increased the inventory from 30,000 books to 70,000. The building was owned by Yankee Publications and the Toadstool became the sole lessee. A few months later, amidst a recession and at his price, the Toadstool purchased the property. This location – the former railroad station - has a long and colorful history in Peterborough’s past. The Monadnock Railroad Company first provided rail service to Peterborough in 1871. While the rail tracks north of town were washed out during the hurricane of 1938, and never replaced, trains continued to come to the Peterborough station for another fifteen years. During my early years passenger and freight trains arrived once a day. My maternal grandmother used to visit by train. She would travel from New Haven to Springfield, change trains for Worcester and then change again for Peterborough. The last passenger train to leave the Peterborough station departed on March 7, 1953 at 2:05PM and I was on it. Two hundred and forty-eight people boarded the train for this historic final departure. Most, including me, got off in the next town, Jaffrey.

Today the three Toadstool stores carry a collective inventory of just under 300,000 books. Each store houses comfortable chairs. Aesop’s Tables leases space and operates a café in the Peterborough store and in Keene there is a food court in the Colony Mill Marketplace downstairs from the Toadstool. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly. The sense of enchantment originally envisioned is present in each store. While one may not see elves lurking beneath toadstools, many of the patrons appear comfortably ensconced in nooks quietly leafing through books. Despite the advent of Amazon and electronic books, customers continue to come through the doors. In 1992, Willard was interviewed by Elizabeth Yates for The Peterborough Transcript. The 87 year-old Ms. Yates was the author of over forty books including Amos Fortune, Free Man, which won the Newbery medal in 1951. During the course of the interview Willard asked her a question: “What do you think the future will bring for readers, for writers, for literature, for the art of writing?” Elizabeth Yates replied, “The book speaks to the mind in a manner that elicits response. As the speed and pressure of life increase, so will the need for books and solace, delight and inspiration.” There is little doubt in my mind that the Toadstool will continue to thrive.

With a $25,000 investment Willard created a business that over its life has generated in excess of $50,000,000 in revenues, sells close to $5,000,000 worth of books annually (or about $175.00 per square foot), employs 40 people and has a book value of $2,500,000. The Toadstool has paid out $75,000 in dividends and has retired one share (four percent of shares outstanding) for $80,000. Book value of the business has compounded at 14.2% for 35 years, almost twice that of the Dow Jones Industrial Averages. Today Willard sits on an advisory board of American Booksellers Association and was Business Leader of the Year in Peterborough in 1998. Most importantly he has provided himself and his family a good living doing what he loves. Willa Cather, another author who lived in the neighboring town of Jaffrey, once wrote, “Where there is great love there are always miracles.” The Toadstool qualifies. As Willard’s older brother, my pride knows no bounds and, as a shareholder, I am deeply satisfied.