Friday, March 30, 2007

Author, Author: a Bookstore Story

One day at our small second-hand bookshop, a quiet day per usual, the phone rang, unusual in itself, and it was one of my bookclub members, an owner of one of the independent retail bookshops in town. A customer of his was looking for a certain title which seemed to be out of print. It was a pleasant feeling to know that I did in fact have a copy, a very nice trade paper reprint. He said that was wonderful, he would send his customer over. 

Just before my anticipation began to wane and just before my mind returned to its maunderings, a woman quietly slipped into the shop. The effect of her silent arrival, startling me just at the point of my falling into dreamy bookish preoccupations, must have shown on my expression, and in my voice as I greeted her in a rather hesitant and stilted fashion, the blood rushing to my face. For the woman who had entered was a rather famous Canadian author. Should I rise from my desk and become exceedingly gracious? No, that would just scare her. Somehow I managed to remain calm, but I think it was shock. She approached the desk and very kindly inquired about the book being held for her. I duly handed it to her and she said it was excellent, she would buy it, but she would browse the shelves for a bit as well. 

At this point, I hadn't broached the subject of her identity, not knowing quite how to do so. I didn't possess the charm of my brother-in-law, an actor, and on top of it all, I was having a bad hair day and I was feeling much like Dylan Moran's Bernard Black. Well, she started to look at the fiction and I saw her work her way down to where her books would be. My eyes followed her hand which reached out to gently pull a volume off the shelf before saying "I see you have one of my books."

Now, at this point I may have been seen as daft for not knowing a famous Canadian author, so I tried to salvage my self-respect by saying how nice it was to have Alice Munro in our little bookshop, and would she like to sign the book for me. She brightened up at this request and sat down on the chair in front of my desk and I handed her my pen and she very kindly signed her name on the title page. I asked her if she was in town for the theatre, but she said she dropped into town from time to time. Then she told me that she used to run a small bookshop. I was quite ignorant of this fact. Yes, she and her first husband started a little bookshop in Victoria, B. C. and it specialized in paperbacks. This was the early 1960s. She said she did all the jobs from running it to cleaning it too. Of course, it dawned on me, Munro's Books in Victoria. It has evolved. And so has she. I can't remember the rest of the conversation, but I do recall how pleasant and kind she was. A very nice person. 

On another occasion, my wife was at the shop when Alice Munro was looking for an older classic, but together they couldn't find a copy. When I arrived she had just left. I said I could have sworn we had a copy of that title. I scanned the shelf, then the shelves around and yes there it was, hidden behind other books on the wrong shelf altogether. My wife, a librarian, is the Queen of finding mis-shelved books but somehow this one had eluded her keen eye.

I ran to the window. No one to be seen. To the door but no, she had vanished. I descended the stairs and looked up and down the street and I saw her walking at a jaunty stride with her husband, and off I went clutching the inexpensive paperback in my hand like it was forgotten medicine. Shuffling before the sprint I realised I would actually have to run and not jog. 

I discovered not only was I out of shape, but how difficult it was,  for an untrained voice facing a head wind, to call out to someone far ahead. But somehow I managed to reach them at the corner and she thanked me for the effort. My ability to respond adequately was of course countered by the fact that I could hardly breathe, but somehow this too I managed. And off they went, and off I went with the price of the paperback in my hand.

As I walked back to the shop, I did try to regain some poise.

Only later, in the calm of the empty shop, did it occur to me, that a strange young man running after them waving a paperback in the air must have been a startling sight, certainly to her husband who'd never laid eyes on me before.  Some raving fan with a book for her to sign? A talker perhaps? A follower even. Someone to avoid. Excuses forming. Late for a play, must dash . . . .

Such was the day's excitement.



Wednesday, March 28, 2007

It is a Maxim of the Book Business

Stephen Leacock (1869-1941), pictured here in a youthful pose, wrote a very good book on Mark Twain (1932), and he begins this biography with two forceful truths of the time: "The name of Mark Twain stands for American humour. More than that of any other writer, more than all names together, his name conveys the idea of American humour." These statements of fact could equally be used for Stephen Leacock in relation to Canadian humour of the period. But like Twain, Leacock's seasoned wit can still make us laugh; can still make us see the bubbles he is trying to pop, and the human frailty and weakness too. One of my favourite stories is perhaps less known and perhaps on the silly side, but it deals with the book world: The Reading Public: a Book Store Study, found in his Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy (1915). Here he lightly sends up the booksellers and readers of the day. When I read this piece I hear the voice of John Gielgud as the bookseller strangely enough. Such is the effect of his extraordinary performance as Charles Ryder's father in the BBC adaptation of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited which has stayed with me for so many years. It just seems to fit the character.

Not wanting to ruin it for anyone I shall hold my tongue, but early in this Leacock story his character, a professor, reflects that: "it is a maxim of the book business that a professor standing up in a corner buried in a book looks well in a store. The real customers like it." This story feels very much drawn from personal experience and I wonder, even though the story seems to be set in New York, which bookstore managers in Montreal during the early part of the last century may have seen themselves, or others, as the original of Mr. Sellyer the "sales manager"? The bookshops in Montreal during this period included The Montreal Book Room, A. T. Chapman, F. E. Phelan, the book department of Henry Morgan & Co. Ltd. and W. H. Scroggie Ltd. among many others. Perhaps there are descendants of these booksellers who still bring out the old story at family get-togethers of how their relative was the real Mr. Sellyer.
Stephen Leacock was born in Swanmore, Hamshire, England on December 30, 1869. In May of 1970, a commemorative plaque was placed on the house in Swanmore where he was born.

Stephen Leacock died on this date, March 28, 1941.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Bookmark of the Week: No. 7

It was about five years ago that the venerable Scottish bookstore chain, James Thin, Booksellers was sold to Blackwells. James Thin (1824-1915) began in the book business as an apprentice (1836-1841) before taking over another bookstore's lease and stock in 1848, and developing it into one of the most important bookshops in Scotland. James Thin was interested in hymnology and his collection of 2,500 hymn books went to the University of Edinburgh at his death.

Terence Hearsay; or, the Benefits of a Friend's Discerning Eye

When at St. John's College, Oxford, in the 1870s, A. E. Housman became friends with Alfred W. Pollard and eventually, in their fourth year, shared five rooms with another student in an old house near the College. Their friendship continued though they both went their separate and successful ways. Pollard went on to become a well-known bibliographer and scholar, employee of the British Museum, and editor of the journal The Library for many years. While Housman eventually found his place with a slim volume of verse and a position as a scholar. That slim volume of verse that A. E. Housman had prepared for publication was initially entitled The Poems of Terence Hearsay. Alfred W. Pollard modestly recalled the event for a publication of reminiscences of Housman published in 1937:

Housman knew that books of mine had been published by Messrs. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., who had gained rather a special reputation for bringing out prettily printed volumes of verse, and asked me to arrange with them for its publication at his expense. Of course there was no difficulty as to this (I think Housman put down 30 pounds and got it back with a small profit), but my being entrusted with the manuscript led me to suggest that Terence was not an attractive title, and that in the phrase "A Shropshire Lad," which he had used in the poem, he had much a better one. He agreed at once, and I think the change helped.
Pollard was correct in seeing Terence as a tentative title, a pretense on the part of the poet, and thankfully provided that necessary discerning viewpoint for for his friend when it was most needed. The Shropshire Lad was indeed published in 1896, the same year as the photograph of Housman (above) was taken in London. The print run was 500 copies, of which 150 were shipped to the United States. Only 381 copies were sold by the end of the first year. A. E. Housman's brother, Laurence, author and playwright, recalled how he purchased the remaining 6 copies of the first edition two and a half years after publication, and then thirty years later, when he started Housmans Bookshop, he began to sell them at 12, 20, 30 and then 70 pounds for a signed copy. Checking values in today's market, it seems a signed copy of A Shropshire Lad is somewhere in the $25,000.00 + range.
The Housman brothers were on occasion mistaken for each other; The Dean of Westminister mistook A. E. for Laurence, and once the Headmaster of Westminister mistook Laurence for A. E. In the year before A. E. Housman's death, his brother told him of another occasion:
I had been giving a lecture--not on poetry; at the end a man came up to me and asked if I was the author of A Shropshire Lad. I said, "No." "Any relation?" "Yes, I am his brother." "Ah, well," was the kind reply, "that's something to be proud of. I, too, have a brother who is the better man."
A. E. Housman was born on this date, March 26, 1859.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Bookmark of the Week: No. 6

Since my wife has a bad cold, I thought this would cheer her up, and anyone else who needs a smile.
This bookmark was issued in 1918 by Houghton Mifflin to advertise and promote their recent titles.
Just what the doctor ordered. Read a novel and call me in the morning.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Postman's Horn, or, Foreword into the Past.

Having recently finished rereading Arthur Machen's autobiographical work, Far Off Things (1922), I was once again left with that evocative image with which he begins, and rounds off his narrative, an image that rather lingers in the shadows of my day beckoning me to slow down and think upon a period when the perception of time and space was different, and the very accessibility of the written word was dramatically so. He was recalling a time when he was a young man of 21 living in his native Gwent, translating The Heptameron of Marguerite of Navarre into English, and he would walk a mile each day to a place where the postman would pass:

Here a footpath over the fields crossed the road, and by the stile I would wait for the postman. I would hear him coming from far away, for he blew a horn as he walked, so that people in the scattered farms might come out with their letters if they had any. I lounged on the stile and waited, and when the postman came I would give him my packet-the day's portion of "copy" of that Heptarmeron translation that I was then making and sending to the publisher in York Street, Covent Garden. The postman would put the parcel in his bag, cross the road, and go striding off into the dim country beyond, finding his way on a track that no townsman could see...

It was also his habit, three or four times a week, to walk four miles to the Pontypool Road Station in order to purchase the London newspapers:
Here, then, of a "celestial" agent of W. H. Smith I bought my papers; usually the "Standard" and the "Daily Telegraph" . . . I would make my way out of the station and along the high road till I came to the stile and the lonely path across the fields, and alone under a tree or in the shelter of a friendly hedge I would open my paper, cut their pages, and plunge into their garden of delights.
The accessibility to the printed word in the 1880s in the fairly remote prospect of Gwent, contrasts so greatly even with the 1920s, when he finally published his memoir, but today, the contrast is indeed great. I can start my day reading newspapers and magazines without ever having glimpsed the day outside. The internet has brought the world to that window of darkness, my computer screen. The short walk from the kitchen to the study with a cup of tea is less exhausting than a four mile hike, but certainly not as memorable. In gaining something, we lose something else. It is as if there is a balance sheet with a celestial accountant.
A recent letter to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement in response to an article (James Fergusson, "Collected Editions", Febuary 23, 2007)about the second-hand book trade, also made me think of the changing times. The revolution in bookselling has been swift. The author of the letter stated that "What has emerged is soulless but wonderfully efficient, a golden age for book buyers", and concludes: "One hopes Fergusson's world of musty shops, personal relationships, catalogues and bookfairs will manage to hang on in a few civilized outposts, but personally I wouldn't bet on it." The balance sheet of time once again. I found it interesting that the author of this letter lives in Llandrindod Wells, Wales, seemingly more remote than Usk and Pontypool, but really just a hop over the Brecon Beacons National Park with my Google Maps tool, and if there was data, I could perhaps zero in on a visual using Google's Satellite images, and then fire off an e-mail to the bookseller there to see if he had a copy of Far Off Things by Arthur Machen.
I think I shall leave off with Arthur Machen's meditations on his past, an image that will stay with me as if it were a memory of mine own:
And I, with time to spare, walk slowly, meditatively down the hill, holding my manuscript, hoping that the day's portion has been well done. As I come to the stile there sounds faint through the rising of the melancholy night wind the note of the postman's horn. He has climbed the steep road that leads from Llandegveth village and is now two or three fields away.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Bookmark of the Week: No. 5

Edna O'Brien was born in Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland in 1930. This bookmarker was issued for the release of her book, Casualties of Peace (1965) published as a Penguin paperback in 1968. Her previous books were The Country Girls, Girl with Green Eyes, Girls in Their Married Bliss, and August is a Wicked Month. These books were often banned in Ireland during the 1960s for they dealt openly with the sexuality of the characters.

Her most recent book was published in 2006, The Light of Evening. For an interesting interview with the author originally published in the Spectator, May, 2002, look here.

For more on Irish Literature see the following Luminarium site.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Bookmarker: Special: International Women's Day

Today being International Women's Day, these websites are great sources of information: at IWD's website, and at PEN.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Bookmark of the Week: No. 4

When in New York a few years back, we popped into the Coliseum Bookstore after exploring the nearby New York Public Library, and I picked up this very large bookmark. The scanned image above is but a section. Although we could fit the bookmark in our bag, we couldn't fit the international literary evening into our schedule. We had missed it. It took place on Monday, March 22nd, 2004, at 7 p.m. at the Alliance Francaise, Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street, (tickets were $10, free for students), the same evening our train, behind schedule, sallied into Penn Station with many a tired and rumply passenger. To listen to and see Walter Mosley, Alfre Woodard, Salman Rushdie and Chris Albani would have been a delight for us. Now, it is but a remnant memory of what might have been attached to this very large bookmarker.

However, there is another memory attached to this bookmark. One evening as we walked towards Lincoln Centre, we made way for a group of people coming our way on the sidewalk, and I looked up to see a very attractive woman with beautiful eyes and visage, and we shared eye contact as we passed. The beautiful woman was Alfre Woodard. It remains one of those special memories of New York. It was only later that I saw she was starring in Drowning Crow, a play by Regina Taylor which ran at the Biltmore Theatre from February to April of that year.

Salman Rushdie had recently been elected to the position of President of the PEN American Center, March 9, 2004, and over the years he has brought much to the table. Check out the PEN American Center and their audio archive.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Bookmarker: Special: Henri Troyat

A life force in French Literature died in Paris on Friday March 2nd, 2007. Elected to the Academie Francaise in 1959, Henri Troyat (1911-2007), Russian born author of Armenian descent (born Levon Aslan Torossian), saw his first books in print in 1935, with Le Vivier and Faux Jour, and wrote to the end, his last publications in 2006 being a novel, La Traque, and a monograph on Boris Pasternak.

This book mark was issued in 1971 to promote his biography of Gogol published by Flammarion.

Such energy, tenacity of life and productivity is always impressive. He was the author of over 100 books.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Bookmark of the Week: No. 3

This is the reverse side of a bookmarker promoting a book by French author Daniel Pennac, Comme un Roman, originally published by Gallimard in 1992. It is a book about books and reading. When I showed this bookmarker to my wife, she went to her bookshelves and handed me her copy of the english translation by David Homel published in 1994 by Coach House. Figures. As her Indextrious Reader blog shows, she is a certified book lover.

The english translation was entitled, Better Than Life. We both used to see the translator, David Homel when we worked together at a Montreal Library, for he taught evening writing courses in the office of the Quebec Writer's Federation which rented space at our old library. My wife said he was the most polite and interesting of all the teachers there. She also said that he is married to the Quebecois children's author Marie-Louise Gay . The bookish connections continue.

The editor of Coach House at the time of this translation was Alberto Manguel. That figured too. He is also a certified book lover. He probably read the book in french and sought out David Homel to do a translation for Coach House. All conjecture on my part, but it all seems to weave together.

The translation of number 6 does not have the weight of the french original, but the term 'bovarysme' has such psychological and philosophical resonance in the French language that there really is no equivalent.

The Reader's Bill of Rights

1. The right to not read.

2. The right to skip pages.

3. The right not to finish a book.

4. The right to reread.

5. The right to read anything.

6. The right to escapism.

7. The right to read anywhere.

8. The right to browse.

9. The right to read out loud.

10. The right to not defend your tastes.