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.

www.garrisonhouseephemera.com

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

7 comments:

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson said...

I loved this portrait of you - a life lived on paper. I'd say you give booksellers a good name, but they already have one - so I guess you give them a better and more magical name!

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson said...

I loved this portrait of you - a life lived on paper. I'd say you give booksellers a good name, but they already have one - so I guess you give them a better and more magical name!

tess said...

Well, thank you! I think many booksellers are quite magical, so to join their ranks is a high honor indeed.

Gin G said...

Tess, I think this is the best blog I have read on your page, ever. And what a story teller you are! Marvelous post. And now I can stop asking what Ephemera is. It is part of your soul.

tess said...

Wow - that was high praise, especially given that it began as an article written under a deadline. Thank you!!! the frazzled writer appreciates it.:-)

Hilda said...

What a wonderful explanation of ephemera. I have always contemplated old photos, old menus, old scraps of letters... But I never thought about today's papers being tomorrow's treasures for someone. I may not keep much of what I see, but I will never look at it in the same way.

tess said...

It's collecting it forward, Hilda. I had some people come to one of my talks and they had little discretionary money, so we started talking about saving it forward. You still get to collect, but your collecting for future collectors. They LOVED it! Me too though about never looking at paper the same way. Even my husband has taken to evaluating what should be saved.