Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How I Became A Paper Pusher

First it was books. All my life I've been a voracious reader. When I was a kid in Akron I took Irish dancing lessons down the street from the Kenmore Library. At the stroke of noon every Saturday afternoon  I yanked  those hornpipe shoes  off my feet  and flew out the door and down Kenmore Blvd. like a hurricane.  In those days a library card entitled you to four books, which seemed  to me grossly unfair given that the better the pickings the less likely they’d last the weekend. It's not as though we had a home library for back-up  -- we most definitely did not. Mine was not a reading family unless you count Reader's Digest and Popular Science magazines. But since that's what we had, that's what I read when the stash ran out -- and before long  a magazine junkie was born!

Next came what my mother (for some odd reason) termed "the junk." Everywhere I looked something wonderful seemed to turn up on paper -- school essays  with bright red A's, greeting cards, postcards from other people's trips, letters from penpals, programs from events, tax stamps (loved those!), snapshots of people I didn't know, catalogs, travel brochures for trips we'd never take, handwritten recipes, booklets and ...

Somehow I dug myself out of that mound of paper and grew up to become a writer -- first at newspapers, then for magazines, and finally on to bigger projects. But in 1997 my true calling came calling and I became a bookseller. Actually it was supposed to be a hobby as I was still writing for the first three years or so. But the day came when  "I'm a writer who sells books" morphed into "I'm a bookseller who writes." These days I’m  a one occupation woman who loves her job.
In the beginning  I sold only books because it never occurred to me do otherwise. I didn't even know that all that paper stuff I loved when I was a kid had a name. But once I heard the word ephemera (a word so beautiful that even if you weren't crazed for what it stood for you'd still have to work into a conversation) I became a serious paper pusher. As soon as I had a small stash of goodies from the Chicago Exposition I stumbled across an ephemera dealer online who became my mentor and taught me everything I know. And now sixteen years later here I am -- FINALLY -- with a website for books and now one for ephemera too.

When I first started selling ephemera  people would ask me what it was – and likely  be sorry they had! Immediately I’d launch into this complicated explanation of something that is really quite simple. Ephemera is everyday life on paper. It’s about where we live, places we go, work we do, pasttimes we enjoy, people we love, houses we live in, and music we hum. But of course it’s about the big stuff too – history, the political environment which serves as our backdrop, and the many milestones that take center stage in our personal dramas -- weddings, births, jobs, college,  careers, military service, illness, and death. Ephemera is the tangible history of a people at a given point in time.

What attracts me to it so strongly is its human element . Someone kept every one of these treasures for personal reasons, be they large or small. Of course not every item I buy calls out to me, but I buy  them anyway because they will matter to someone and perhaps even to the panorama of our shared past. While book collectors eschew the personal touch (bookplates, names of former owners, and personal inscriptions from authors), the personal deepens ephemera rather than detracts from it. A blank marriage certificate can certainly be beautiful, but how much more meaningful it is to see the names, the date, the place -- and  hold a scrap of history in our hands. 

Ephemera is story to me  and if there’s one thing I’ve always  loved it’s a good story. So whenever  possible I try to eke one out of each piece I buy. Very often I succeed,  but sometimes I can’t do it  no matter how hard I try. When all avenues are exhausted I finally stop and wait it out. Sooner or later the right person comes along who either knows the story, or can find it because it’s THEIR story or their family’s story. Sometimes I feel like the Dolly Levi of paper, always looking for clues that will help buyers find and recognize that which belongs to them. Which brings me to the why which  follows the who, the what, and the how of my life as a paper pusher. I sell ephemera, life’s flotsam and jetsam, because I love it. But also because it matters.

-----Original Message-----

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Call of Hawaii

 I probably shouldn’t  say  this, but I’m glad  summer’s almost over.  Not only do I feel better in the fall, but I like the clean slatiness of cold wind and endless gray bolts of flannel sky. Book sale season  begins anew and the winter clothes come out  of the dark recesses of the closet which is ever so good for listing books. I finally realized in this season of the four thousand volumes  that  listing in the summer doesn’t really  work for me. For one thing traffic’s lighter, so what’s the point?  But the real reason is that in order to  hunker down and dig into it with gusto I need  lots of very black and very HOT coffee, comfortable sweats, fuzzy socks with little bumps on the soles to keep me  from going airborne down the stairs, and less daylight. Yes, I do like a dark day in the winter for listing books. Snow too. I like snow a lot.

So that being said, I’m a bit happier than when I  Iast posted – which does NOT mean  that I’m over the theft of the A.I. Root catalog from my locked cabinet at the antiques mall. Every time I think of that and count up my losses from thievery over the last two and a half years,  I’m   buzzier than a hornet trapped in a spider web. But I don’t want to talk about that today. I want to talk about Hawaii. I know – Hawaii is the polar (ha-ha) opposite of what I just said I like, but there’s a reason I want to talk about it.  The boxes in the garage (or maybe the goddess Pele) have gifted me with several Hawaiian ephemera items.

I don’t know if I told you this, or not, but my father’s family , who were  Portuguese, sailed from the Madeira islands to Maui, Hawaii shortly before he was born. He lived there his whole life until he served in the army in Italy during WWII, married my mother, and wound up in Akron, Ohio. When I was a kid he’d tell us stories about Christmas luaus on the beach, wrapping a pig in ti leaves, pounding poi with a mortar and pestle, playing the guitar and singing  Hawaiian songs to the  back-up of a pounding surf. Every Christmas two gifts would arrive from Maui, each time the exact same thin g --– a case of Dole pineapple with my uncle’s name printed on the labels and a huge box of fresh fruit. Back then  raw coconuts, guava, papaya and  pineapples  weren’t even a gleam in Kroger’s eye, so for a week or so once a year I was the coolest girl on Kenyon Street. Sometimes the relatives came to visit too --  though we never went there – which was okay with me because at age ten I adamantly decided that I was Irish, not Portuguese.  It’s not that I had anything against being Portuguese, it’s just that I didn’t  look Portuguese and, more importantly, I didn’t FEEL Portuguese. I guess I probably  still don’t on either count, but I’m more interested  these days since my sister got her DNA done.

My father died two years after 9-11 and I was left for a lot of crazy reasons to plan his funeral by myself. The funeral home (oh, spare me please from those places!) dutifully played the Hawaiian CDs I bought for the calling hours. At the funeral the next day I gave the eulogy and talked about the deeper meaning of aloha. After the Mass the church bells pealed Aloha Oe  which was a surprise even to me. The only sour note was the fresh lei sent from Maui  to the funeral home for the calling hours from my father’s  sister. It didn’t arrive until after the burial and instead of being around his neck it  had to be left on his grave. She has since died too, but I learned of it only by chance on the internet last year. Once my father, the only connection between us, was gone we drifted away.

Yet as  I look through all these Hawaiian ephemera items from the garage I am struck by how much I have absorbed about Hawaii without realizing it. I am struck too by how much these small items please me. The thing that called to me the loudest  before I even knew anything about it was this little booklet covered in brown sueded cardstock. It’s called The Hawaii I Loved and the author is  Dorothy LaVerne Drake of Columbus, Ohio, a young woman who graduated from Miami University (Ohio) and signed up immediately to teach in the Territory of Hawaii. It was  1945 and Dorothy sailed on the first ship from the mainland since WWII. There she joined four other teachers  at the ocean’s edge in a breathtaking liitle place called Laupahoehoe .  For a while it proved idyllic but then came  the morning of April 1, 1946.  At 7 a.m. Dorothy and three other young teachers, plus nineteen children, were swept away by a tsunami and their bodies never recovered. This booklet was published in 1948 by Dorothy's family as a remembrance.  Robert Drake, then with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, edited  it from Dorothy’own words  On the title page of this copy a handwritten message reads, Presented by Ethel & Leland Drake (Dorothy's parents).  A permanent memorial to the victims of Laupahoehoe can be seen on YouTube. Dorothy’s name is near the top.

When I began writing this I wasn’t exactly sure where any of it was headed, but it’s pretty obvious  A part of me has finally  made peace with my Hawaiian/Portuguese  background. And for that I can  only say mahalo. Thank you.

It’s about time.