Sunday, January 13, 2008

Form and Function

It’s official! The new library is finished and back up on the town square instead of operating out of an old DIY store as it has for the past two years. Today is Opening Day, but lucky me, I’ve already had a good look, thanks to a red and black invitation which summoned Eric and me to a special, guests only, sneak peak Thursday night. I was insanely excited to go and had been for weeks, but by the time the witching hour rolled around I felt as much relief as I did anticipation. A week ago today disaster struck the library.

We were blissfully unaware of it until Monday morning when Eric brought in the local paper. I was down the basement, as I am every morning from five a.m. to seven-thirty, wrapping books and listening to the radio. I love this time of day -- there’s just me, the orders, the credit card machine, the bubble wrap and the radio. I wrap, think, sing, dance a little and generally enjoy the solitude. It’s rare to have it interrupted, so when Eric hollered for me to come up I took the stairs at breakneck speed

Silently he held up the paper. The headline screamed “Sprinkler Floods Library.” One look and the wail of anguish was proportional to the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria. Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo! Say it isn't true!

But it WAS true. A frozen sprinkler in the attic thawed and spontaneously let loose in the adult fiction section drenching the floor with four inches of standing water. Dedicated staffers showed up Saturday night and worked into the wee hours of Sunday morning to save what books they could. A trailer was quickly dispatched from a moving company and the books piled onto it to be taken away and freeze dried. Of course some were lost, but the vast majority may well be saved. And best of all, the Grand Opening would still take place. It was okay, it would be okay. But the potential loss still unnerved me.

The night of the sneak preview it poured rain, but I dressed up as the occasion warranted in understated black topped off with the drop-dead vintage Hattie Carnegie gold choker I got for Christmas. Inside it was a gathering of the tribal leaders -- a party with books. But I barely noticed even the people I knew. I am not even going to try to describe the building. Just think contemporary chic without the hard edges. Just think dazzling.

I couldn’t help but compare it to my first visit there back in the early 70’s. Newly married and fresh from the big city, I was totally underwhelmed. But over the years it got better and better -- so much better that the ALA deemed it best in the nation a few years back. And now it is housed in an architectural wonder that far surpasses the new replacement library in my home town. (Think cell block. Think ugly.) As I stood there ruminating on that I recalled a conversation I had not long ago with an educated woman who actually said to me, “I think libraries are an anachronism. Who needs them? You can get on and order anything you want.”

Yes, you can. Those of us who are fortunate enough to indulge can indeed do that. But not everyone has the discretionary income to order up books like Happy Meals. Libraries are a democracy, the one true equalizer sharing their wonders with everyone for the price of a small card. We need libraries. We need to see before our own eyes the depth and breadth of our culture. No, of course not everything humankind has produced is there -- there’s a decided shortage of papyri and incunabula -- but what is there is not chosen by vast corporations who have reduced what we read to the mechanics of “turning product.” At the library the small gems still glitter quietly and those who mine them are instant millionaires.

I need the library. I need to be in the presence of books that are not for sale. I need to see the old men reading magazines, the children scampering about with such unbridled glee they sometimes forget to use their inside voices. I need to see the retired teachers loading up on mystery novels, the teenagers gathered around library tables doing homework (well, a little homework) and the business people tapping away on computers. I need to return again and again to the place that nurtured my spirit when I was a small, unhappy child. I need the library to remind me who I was and who I have become because of it.

An anachronism? Hardly. In fact, I’ll be going back today. The sneak peak was all about form. Today is about function.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

"My Darling Ellie ..."

One of the most magical things about being in the book trade is how frequently a special book or piece of ephemera will gravitate to its perfect home. Perhaps none has done that so spectacularly as something I got last year -- some would say “by accident.” However, I think it was meant to come to me, so I could be the conduit to its new and perfect home. If I hadn’t already known this, I would soon have learned it, as tangible proof arrived in the mail at Christmas -- a gift so amazing I had to share it, as well as its bittersweet story.

It all began last winter when I bought a box of turn-of-the-century Delineator magazines at an auction. I knew there were five or six in the box, but what I did not know was that underneath lay a small trove of ephemera consisting of a few letters, a utility bill receipt, a membership card for the Rosicrucians, a packet of old negatives from a pharmacy out west and a beautiful luggage label from a hotel in India. Delighted at my unexpected good fortune, I immediately set the magazines aside and sat on the floor to savor it all, beginning with the letters. As most booksellers who deal in ephemera will attest, most found letters are not keepers. While I personally enjoy reading about getting in the crops and the improvement of Grandma’s influenza, most people aren’t nearly so charmed.

But these letters were special -- I could feel it. They were addressed to a woman aboard a Japanese liner in the Pacific Ocean. The writer was from a college in India and the date was 1933. Carefully, I opened the first envelope and extracted a single sheet of thin paper written on both sides in flowing, if hard to read, script.

“My darling Ellie …”

Words as melodic as a waterfall tumbled from the pen of a poet. By the time I finished the last one, my spirit was in Ghandi’s India, overcome with sadness for these two star crossed lovers who could not possibly have remained together. The writer was Indian, the object of his affection an American. Sadly, the stub from the utility bill confirmed what I already knew. Thirty years later the woman was still Miss Ellie -----. Held up to the light, the negatives showed a woman in western clothing of the 30’s surrounded by the architecture and saris of India. There was no sign of an Indian lover, but how could there be? Such a thing was unthinkable then. An interracial love affair must be secret, a treasure in one’s pocket.

For several weeks I vacillated on what to do with the letters and the rest of the items, but finally decided to list them for sale. Almost immediately they sold to a long time customer from New Mexico, a geneaologist, who saw them initially as an interesting project. Right away she began digging into Ellie’s past and every so often would report back to me with her findings. Ellie was a Midwesterner, a teacher. She lived out of state all of her adult life, but was buried in the Midwest. A little tidbit here, a scrap there, but it wasn’t until April that Cindy called with the big news.

“Tess, the letters are not from a man. They’re from a woman. This was a lesbian affair. I’m positive of it.”

At first I was surprised, but almost immediately I knew she was right. “Yeah, makes sense. “ I said. “Remember that part about 'I wish I could have cooked for you?' No Indian guy in the 30’s is going to say something like THAT!” We laughed and quickly adjusted to this new dynamic.

What an intrepid woman Ellie must have to have been to ventured on such a journey alone and then to have formed such a dangerous liaison. Not only was it against the rules of the day to cross racial and religious lines, but to cross the gender line as well was potentially explosive. After this discovery, however, Cindy seemed to hit a dead end as nothing more was reported, though we did from time to time ruminate on "our girls" and wonder how it had ended and whether hearts had been broken. We hoped they hadn't, but felt sure they had.

Then in December a manila envelope arrived in the mail from New Mexico. I opened it and extracted a clear plastic sleeve. On the top was a photo of a temple, clearly in India. My heart raced. Immediately I knew what this was. Cindy had had the packet of negatives developed and sent me a few copies for Christmas! There were three pictures in all. The second showed a tall, strangely compelling woman in a sari. I knew at once it was her, the poet with the astonishing command of language. For a moment I studied her face. She was not pretty in the traditional sense, but a quiet strength, an inner light, so radiated from her that my first response was to whisper, “Oh, look at you! You’re beautiful!” I could certainly see why Ellie had been drawn to her. What I was not prepared for, however, was Ellie herself.

Ellie proved to be a short, dumpy woman in a polka dot dress wearing a straw hat from which dangled a clump of artificial cherries. She was seated on the ground next to the extraordinary woman in the sari enjoying a picnic for two. There was no question about the relationship. Had we not known before, we’d have known then by the way the woman in the sari regarded her, her hand laid so lovingly on Ellie’s arm and Ellie’s obvious discomfort. In one of the letters mention had been made of Ellie’s fear of discovery and here it was --captured by the camera in black and white. How different these two were, I thought, and yet who is to say what draws two people together? The woman in the sari would not be one to be taken in by surface beauty - that much is clear --so Ellie, too, must have been a woman of substance.

Of course we still don’t know how it ended and probably never will. All we know is that a few scraps from the past revealed a seventy-five year old secret which Cindy and I both feel morally bound to keep. For this reason I have changed Ellie's name and obscured the face in the photo. It was our privilege to share it, but the secret belongs to Ellie and her lover. It is, and will always be, their treasure in the pocket.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Cooking Up A Coincidence?

Anyone who has read this blog with even a passing interest (though I suppose thanks to my long absences nobody qualifies), I am enchanted by serendipity. Today was one of those delightful days when paths cross, stars line up, and thoughts are given a strange nudge from an Unseen Elbow.

On December 27th I listed a very nice copy of a limited edition, self-published book that struck me as rather unique -- Bake Slow and Sure; Heirloom Recipes from the National Road Era. Though there was neither a commercial, nor an academic, publisher to lend credence, a quick perusal proved that it was mercifully not one of those embarrassingly awful books that only the author’s friends will buy (and then only under duress), but a credible piece of workmanship. Actually it’s sort of two books in one -- a biography/history of Jane Skiles Byers and her husband, John White Byers, the author's great-great grandparents, who handed down the generations a very old cookbook, and also a cookbook itself filled with recipes from the National Road Era of 1818-1851. It was in new condition and signed by the author at the Fort Pitt Museum in 2003.

Late this morning the phone rang and who was on the other end of the line but the author himself, Frank La Cava. All 2000 copies have been sold, he told me, and though he may get around to reprinting it, right now he’s too busy writing a second book. We chatted for awhile and I found him a most learned historian and altogether guileless and charming in his delight in authorship and its resultant benefit of “being fussed over.” I wasn’t entirely sure why he called, but it didn’t matter -- it was a lovely interlude.

We hung up and I went back to the task of listing books. Almost immediately the bell on the computer dinged and I checked my email to find an order on my own website for Bake Slow and Sure. At first I thought Frank had ordered a copy himself, as I regularly sell authors their own first editions. But no. This copy was ordered by a woman in Pennsylvania to be shipped to a man in Albequerque. How weird is THAT, I thought to myself as I wrote her a note asking if it was a gift and if she would like me to gift wrap it and enclose a card with her message. Almost immediately she phoned. Yes, please, she would like it wrapped for her twin brother’s birthday.

“Both my brother and I love to cook,” she confided. “I hadn’t a clue what to buy him and so I was just fooling around on Google and it led me to you and this book. We were talking at Thanksgiving and I told him that I have our mother’s cookbook and he was anxious to make some of the recipes we ate when we were kids. There’s something about food from the past, the way it looks and smells and tastes that makes you remember. It brings up so many stories.”

This was getting downright eerie. Back in the late 90’s I wrote a book about storytelling that Reader’s Digest actually excerpted. A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a local newspaper about storytelling and the elderly. I didn’t want to do it, but the reporter was an old friend, and I couldn’t say no. To my amazement it was as if no time had passed at all since I wrote the book. I found myself talking with such passion and interest I felt like I'd been plugged into the wall socket. Later I thought maybe it was one topic I could actually revisit. As the days went by the idea kept popping back up. First I thought I’d try to resell an updated version of the original manuscript. It is, after all, the sole book with my name on it that I don’t despise -- too much. But the more I thought about it the more I wanted to explore the relationship between cooking and storytelling, as well as the idea of food as story.

And now here was this woman stating my theme to me! Amazing. Absolutely amazing how a book I never heard of led a guy in Pennsylvania to call up to chat with me about history and cooking and a woman in Pennsylvania to order the same obscure book she’d never heard of just moments later to send to a man in Albequerque, which led me to ask if was a gift, which then prompted her to expound on cooking and storytelling! Coincidence? Nope. Not a chance. The Unseen Elbow strikes again!

Thanks for the Memories

New Year’s makes me nervous. I know rationally that time is a continuum and any effort on our part to slice and dice it is essentially meaningless in the grand scheme of the cosmos. But there is something about ushering out the “old year” and welcoming in the new that always seems risky to me. It’s like sticking our thumbs in our ears, wagging our fingers and chanting “Nah, nah-nah, nah, nah!” as we dance around the Fates. Much better I think to lay low and make a nice pork roast.

Yet I am surprisingly content this New Year’s Day, 2008. Even my husband commented on it. “Wow, ” he said watching as I ran the vacuum cleaner across the family room rug with a flourish. “You love everything today.”

Yes, I do love everything today. Well, maybe not everything. I can name any number of goings-on in Washington and the Middle East that fill me with despair. I also don’t love that I forgot to turn the oven on to cook the nice pork roast, so the latter is moldering in the trash as we speak. But at least at this moment of this day, in this office, in this house, there is contentment and even a sense of opti …
STOP! Scratch the optimism. My essentially melancholy Irish nature struggles mightily with optimism. Let’s just say there’s hope and leave it at that.
It occurs to me that perhaps what matters more than optimism anyway is gratitude. By tomorrow I’ll be bitching about lowball offers on e-bay, bad TV and the fact that the library hasn’t reopened from the move to it’s new and improved digs uptown. But right now I’m here. We are here. And we have -- I have -- much to be thankful for. Not only am I blessed with a patient husband, great kids, amusing and faithful friends, and a little boy who calls me Gran, but sales at Garrison House Books were up considerably last year. And even after ten years in this wacky, constantly evolving business I still wake up happy and excited to be a bookseller.
I just hope the darn pork roast doesn’t jinx it.