By Lewis Turco
From Portland Monthly, December 2015, p. 93
On occasion I’ve been asked how I came to be involved in bookselling, but I have actually been involved with books on various levels all of my life. My parents were a Baptist minister and a Methodist missionary. Though we had no money during the Depression, when I was born, our home was full of books of all sorts. My mother read to me from the cradle, and I soon learned to read for myself. Nor was writing a mysterious act, because every week for as long as I can remember I watched my father hunched over his typewriter hunting out and pecking at his weekly sermons.
I began to collect books myself as soon as I could read, and I enjoyed reading so much that I very early decided that I wanted to be a writer, to my parents’ sorrow, for they wanted me to be a preacher. I was soon myself bent over that old manual typewriter like my father, hunting and pecking out short stories. In junior high I wrote articles and poems for the school paper, and just before I entered high school, when I was fifteen in 1949, one of my short stories won a prize in a summertime high school fiction contest. It was published by the sponsor, a local newspaper in Meriden, Connecticut, where I grew up. I had been a paperboy since I was in the fifth grade, and in high school I was clippings librarian (called the “morgue clerk”) and cub reporter for The Morning Record.
My 7th-grade shop teacher of Lincoln Junior High School, John Houdlette, a native Mainer born, like his wife, in Dresden Mills, had a daughter named Jean whom I had noticed early on. Later, at Meriden High, we were classmates, and we were members of the same crowd. Some of the boys in that crowd started a science-fiction reading club called The Fantaseers which supported a one-bookcase library at my house — in 2004 I published a book titled Fantaseers, A Book of Memories; there is a photo of the Fantaseers’ library in it. By the time we graduated, of course, all those books were left behind and became part of my own collection. By the time Jean and I were married in 1956 after my Navy stint, I had books everywhere and no place to put them, so I brought a lot of them up to Jean’s family place in Dresden, Maine, adding them to the large collection that was already there. They were like snow: over the years they accumulated in drifts.
In 1960 I began teaching English literature and creative writing at Fenn College, now Cleveland State University, and over the years since then I’ve written a great many book manuscripts, fifty-six of which have appeared in print. However, it was a late colleague of mine at the State University of New York College at Oswego, where I directed the Program in Writing Arts and taught for 31 years, who got me started as a bookseller. His name was David Winslow. He had a Ph.D. in folklore, but he had had several other careers as well, including selling antiques and books. He taught me what I know about books as a commodity when he and I, on weekends mostly, became what are known as “book scouts.” We would sell the books we found upstate to downstate New York book dealers. And, of course, I also sold some of the books I had been accumulating.
One day David called me up to say that there was a big sale of stuff in Hannibal, not far from Oswego. He said that they’d advertised books, but when we got there all we found of books was a box of paperbacks under one table. Dave sneered and walked away to look at other things, but I went through the paperbacks and found one, a first edition paperback original titled My Hope for America by Lyndon Baines Johnson. I bought it for ten cents.
When we got back to the car Dave saw that I’d bought something, asked to see it, and then began to rag me about it. All I’d paid for it was a dime, but he acted as though I’d thrown away a fortune. By the time we got back to my house I was furious and had decided that I would wreak my revenge.
My mother had been good with handicrafts, and she had taught me how to bind a book. In college I had bound my paperback textbooks so that they’d last longer, and as an adult I had taken to binding paperbacks and restoring old books as a hobby, so I took the Johnson book, quarter-bound it in cloth and leather, put it in a package with an old leather-bound hymnal, and sent it with return postage to former President Lyndon Johnson. In an enclosed letter I asked him if he would be willing to sign my book in exchange for the hymnal, which I hoped he would accept as a gift.
Not a great while after that I got the book back. President Johnson had signed a Presidential bookplate for me, and he included a letter on official stationery telling me that he was delighted with the hymnal, which he was going to place in the L. B. J. Presidential Library in Texas. I pasted the bookplate onto the inside-front cover of My Hope for America, and I tipped his letter into the volume. Then I called David and asked him to come over to the house so that I could show him a book I had picked up for ten cents at a lousy sale in Hannibal. Later on, I sold the book for a lot of money on one of our downstate book trips.
On another of those trips Dave took me to a book dealer in Johnstown, New York, where I was shown an old book that had no cover page, and it was missing some other pages as well. At the time I was collecting books and doing research for a book manuscript I would soon write titled Satan’s Scourge: A History of the Age of Witchcraft in England and New England 1580-1697. I thought I knew what the book was that the dealer had shown me, despite its lack of a title page, so I bought it for $25.00. When I got it home I looked it up and sure enough, it was a first edition copy of A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits, etc., edited, with a Preface, by Meric. Casaubon, and published in London in1659.
Dr. Dee was Royal Mathematician to Queen Elizabeth I, but he was also interested in spiritual matters. The book I had found is one of the most famous occult books in the English language, a record of the conversations William Kelly, Dr. Dee’s con-man pal, had with Madimi and many other celestial beings, as he dictated them to the good Doctor who could see and hear nothing in the crystal Kelly used. Kelly came to a bad end. My wife and I saw Dr. Dee’s crystal ball — it was egg-shaped, really — in the British Museum while we were in England in 1993.
I wrote to the Cornell University Library, which has a great occult collection, and asked them to send me photocopies of the missing pages of the book. I then restored it and hand-bound it in studded, leather-covered wooden boards in 1971. Many years later, after I had finished my own book, begun the Mathom Bookshop in Dresden, and gone on-line, I sold that book to someone in Australia for $1000.00.
During our summers in Maine I would go out on book-finding trips, sometimes alone, sometimes with Jean, and sometimes her sister Nathalie would come along. One of the places we would go to find books was Frank McQuaid’s Book Barn in Edgecomb. He had been a World War II bomber pilot, and I had been a sailor during and after the Korean War. We held similar political views, so often he and I would sit around gabbing, and then he began to take me out on some of his book-buying rounds as well. Not all of them, of course, but when I went out on my own, especially to the Montsweag Flea Market, I would discover that, no matter how early I got up, Frank would always have gotten there ahead of me and scooped up all the good books. It became quite frustrating for me.
One Saturday or Sunday morning during the summer I arrived at Montsweag to find that Frank was still there, but well ahead of me. So I dragged along in his wake, looking at the stuff he’d rejected. There’s an old saying in the book trade: Not everyone can be an expert in everything. His specialties didn’t include modern first editions in particular, and I was interested in those, of course. I stopped at a stall to look at a few books and discovered a first edition of Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach that Frank had missed. It was in good condition with a dustjacket, so I bought it for a dollar or under and later sold it for a few hundred dollars. The best part of that deal, though, was knowing I had beaten Frank McQuaid at his own game that once, anyway.
Another person who roped me into the bookselling business was Charlie Davis, still a legendary character in Oswego, New York, and in the worlds of folklore and jazz as well. He turned from music to business to poetry and fiction writing and editing. He established his own publishing company, The Mathom Publishing Company, in 1977, two years before The Mathom Bookshop of Dresden, Maine, was founded.
For many years Davis had been a partner in a local business firm, Brown-Davis Furniture, and when he decided to return to college in the mid-1970s he was half-retired. Retirement for Charlie simply meant expanding his horizons — not that they had been previously very limited. One might say he now had more time to devote to his vocations. Two of these had always been music and verse composition. He began by taking a course in poetry writing with Roger Dickinson-Brown, then a member of the staff of my Program in Writing Arts at SUNY Oswego.
Davis had grown up in Indiana. His father had been a close friend of a neighbor, James Whitcomb Riley, the "Hoosier Poet," and Charlie early came under Riley's benevolent influence. Later on, Charlie graduated from Notre Dame University and, upon his graduation, organized a group of musicians during the hey-day of the Big Bands — he wrote about it in his book, published by Mathom, That Band from Indiana — and was very successful on the swing and hot jazz circuits. Those of you who watched Ken Burns’ history of jazz on PBS may have noticed a marquee at the Brooklyn Theatre that read, “Charlie Davis and His Joy Gang,” which shared the billing with a young singer named Ethel Merman. Charlie’s band singer was another young person named Dick Powell. One of his compositions of the period was "Copenhagen," a jazz classic that has been performed by nearly all the famous swing and jazz artists since it was introduced. The composer drew royalties from it twice a year until his death in his nineties.
The first course Davis took at my college was titled "The Nature of Poetry." It was a beginner's course, but stringent and technical. In it the student must write verse exercises in every prosody, schema, and genre imaginable.
Davis did well for Dickinson-Brown,* and he began to involve himself in the extensive literary scene on campus. He gave readings with other students, and his work was always popular because it was..."quaint" is the only word to describe it. The Riley influence was clear, at least to the faculty if not to the students, who had never heard of the Hoosier Poet.
When Davis asked to take the second course in the sequence of three undergraduate poetry courses in the Program he was asked whether he had ever completed a B. A. He replied that he had a Ph. B. in business administration from Notre Dame, and he was denied permission to take the course, but he was told that he could enroll in the graduate seminar titled "Conference Course in Writing Poetry," which he did. I taught it. He was told that the project of the course involved writing a long poem, something he had never done, and he was (atypically for the class) given a proscription: he was not to write a single rhymed couplet. Instead, he was going to do something difficult. Difficult for him, that is.
"But what?" he asked, baffled.
"Well, have you ever heard of William Carlos Williams?"
"No, should I have?"
"Yes, since he's a famous contemporary of yours. Your first assignment is to read Williams' Paterson."
Davis did so. No sooner had he digested the book than he began to write...And So the Irish Built a Church, a story about Oswego written, like Paterson, in prose and verse, with diary entries, newspaper clippings, songs, and what-have-you (it is impossible for the reader to identify what Davis invented and what he researched), tossed together in a seemingly random, but for all that, nevertheless, highly wrought melange of lore and character and incident. Davis got so carried away that he even composed a pseudo-nineteenth century musical piece and copied it out on aged paper suitably charred to look as though it had been saved from the conflagration that had consumed the original church.
The other members of the class were no less busy than Charlie Davis, and as the semester developed it became obvious that this was a remarkable group of students doing fine things. The Davis piece was not the first work to be published from that class, but he was without doubt writing the longest work — it turned out to be 120 pages in length — and the most popular. Everyone was interested in reading the next installment though Charlie, doing something totally new and experimental for him (except where he managed to sneak in a rhymed song against orders), could not believe his classmates were not dissembling when they applauded him.
Since its publication in book form, people who know W. C. Williams claim that ...And So the Irish... is more readable than its model. Since Paterson is a modern classic, this opinion is heretical. The main criticism of the Davis opus may be that it begins to a degree shakily. Riley is recognizable in the sentiment, and Williams in the form: the two do not mix well early on. But as the book progresses, Riley and Williams disappear and Davis rises above his sources to become one of the most engaging literary personalities of the late 20th century, just as the man himself was larger than life.
Well, when Charlie had finished, he told me he was too old to start sending his book around to publishers and wait for them to accept it. He thought he would do it himself. So he gave himself, with my kibitzing, a short course in book publishing. When The Irish appeared it soon sold out, and Charlie decided to start his final career as a publisher. He asked me for a name for the press. I suggested “Mathom.” He asked what that meant. I told him it was a word out of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings that described the sort of things that filled the burrow homes of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins: things that one had no earthly use for, but that one simply couldn’t bear to throw away. Charlie thought that accurately described the sorts of things he and I would publish (without asking, he assigned me as Editor-in-Chief of Mathom).
Two years later, in 1979, I established my summer project, the Mathom Bookshop of Dresden, Maine, which would be the major outlet for the books we published. In 1996 I retired from teaching and turned my attention full time (more or less) to the bookshop. Two of the last books Mathom published in Oswego were Charlie Davis’ The Lake Trout and Legend Society’s Cookbook, 1980, and the story of Charlie’s career as a musical director, That Band from Indiana, 1982. One of the two latest is my book of poetry The Green Maces of Autumn, Voices in an Old Maine House, which was issued in 2002. It is a series of monologues by the people who live in the 1754 house built by Sylvester Gardiner on the property where my wife’s family has lived for a century or two, and where the Mathom Bookshop was located in the barn.
However, I opened my shop in the tractor garage of the farm on Blinn Hill Road and began to sell some of the books I’d accumulated. I started out with one short shelf of books, and I put a handmade sign out on the road. Pretty soon I added a shelf, and then another and another, and then I was building permanent bookshelves. One day the Maine State D.O.T. stopped by to tell me I needed to register my business with the sales tax office, and my signs had to conform to rules and regulations. Things were beginning to get expensive.
While I was in the garage I sold my books cheaply. Customers would stop by, and when they’d bought what they wanted they’d tell my wife that I was charging too little for my collection. In 1995 I decided to salvage the barn. I put a new floor into the northwest corner where it had collapsed, then built a room on it with shelves, lighting, a phone and other amenities. The next thing I had to do was move my books from the garage into the new bookshop, and while I was doing that, I decided to clean out my junk books and re-price everything.
One of the books I ran across while I was doing this was a beat-up loose-leaf black cloth notebook bound in half red leather and holding a set of printed pamphlets, 390 pp. in all, constituting a course in Business Law taught at M.I.T. during the school year 1895-96. The pamphlets were in very good shape, but the binder was well worn and the spine was crumbling. It belonged to “C. B. Paine,” who apparently took the course during his “2nd year,” according to an ink notation on the rear pastedown. In the garage I’d had a sticker price on this item of ten cents.
There were two semesters’ worth of printed pamphlets in the binder, held in upside down by short cords. The name of the teacher was on none of the first semester pamphlets, but on those of the second semester I found the name of the instructor: Louis D. Brandeis, later to become Justice of the United States Supreme Court. His specialty was business law, and, indeed, he was teaching at M.I.T. in the pertinent years.
Obviously, I was no longer going to sell the binder and its contentsfor ten cents! But what price was I going to put on it? 1995 was the year when the Mathom Bookshop went on line, so I warmed up the computer, looked in Bookfinder.com and everywhere else I could think of, but could find no trace of another copy anywhere in the world. All I could do was shrug my shoulders and put an arbitrary price on the Brandeis item. I thought $800.00 sounded pretty good. As soon as Business Law appeared on line a Washington attorney snapped it up. I suspect I could have gotten a bit more than $800.00 for it, but at least my second price was better than my first!
It was never hard to find books to sell. In fact, they found me. People were always calling me up to ask if I bought books, and of course I bought many more books than I sold, so my stock increased exponentially. One day, after I’d moved from the garage into the renovated barn, I arrived there to discover one of my neighbors had left piles of boxes filled with her collection of cookbooks in front of the barn door. I was fortunate that it hadn’t rained. She didn’t want payment, she just wanted to get rid of her books.
Another day during the winter I received a phone call from a young man in Richmond who said he had a Jeep full of books to sell. I went over to look at them. It was a pretty ordinary lot. I said I’d buy them for two hundred dollars if he’d deliver them to the bookshop. He agreed.
It took me weeks to go through the books, decide which ones I’d donate to the Dresden Library book sale, as I did every year, and which ones I’d keep and catalog. One of the first books I looked at, a large tabletop production, annoyed me greatly. The author was someone named Slim Aarons, and it was titled A Wonderful Time: An Intimate Portrait of the Good Life, published in 1974. It was all about how great it was to be rich in those times. The volume was in very good shape with a dust jacket, but it so offended me that I threw it up on top of an old appliance standing there in the barn and left it for last.
Finally, when I had finished dealing with all the other books, I looked up the Aarons book on the web to see if it was listed and what it was worth. I found that, indeed, it was listed, and that I had by far the best copy of it in the world. My copy was perfect with a perfect dust jacket; all others had some flaw or imperfection. And each of the available copies, of which there were few, was worth hundreds of dollars. I was amazed. Why would anybody want to buy such an idiotic book? However, no sooner had I put it into my on-line catalogue than a rare books dealer in New York City bought it for what was apparently my favorite price to charge, $800.00. If a dealer was willing to pay that much for it, imagine what he was going to sell it for, because dealers usually buy a book for between a quarter and a third of its retail value, unless they can get it for less.
By the way, I have recently finished reading a book by one of my favorite authors, Umberto Eco. Titled The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, it is about an Italian rare books dealer who has had a stroke and, when he comes out of it, he remembers nothing of his actual life, only the books he has read over the years since he was a child. I recommend it to anyone at all interested in books: comic books, dime novels, collecting books, World War II … in fact, I simply recommend it to anyone who loves reading a good book.
All my life I have enjoyed collecting and reading books, and selling them, too, but I was making no real profit from my retirement business despite the occasional windfall. In fact, my rising overhead was getting to the point where I could hardly break even anymore, so the Mathom Bookshop closed its doors officially on the last day of December, 2006. I began selling off some of my stock, mostly duplicates, in small auctions, but the first auction of some of my really good remaining books took place at the Thomaston Place Auction Galleries of Thomaston, Maine, and on-line on Saturday, June 30th, 2007.
It was a beautiful early summer day. The sun was bright, Route One was beginning to fill up with traffic, but when we pulled into the parking lot of the auction house we saw very few cars. “I was afraid of this,” I told Jean. “Who’s going to attend an auction on a day like this one?”
Inside I thought I’d see some fellow members of the Maine Antiquarian Booksellers Association, but I recognized no one. That was alarming. Then I saw in the catalogue that most of the books in the auction were books on architecture, and those were the ones the people present were after. Sure enough, some of my best books went for pennies on the dollar while others weren’t bid on at all. “Not a very literary crowd, I guess, eh?” I said to one of the auctioneers on my way out to join Jean in the car where she had earlier retreated to avoid the depressing sale.
The books sat in the barn until a raccoon got in and tore the place up. Then I discovered that a bookdealer from Waterville had been knocking on the door quite often, looking for me, but we had moved up the road to another dwelling on our property. He found me one day, and I sold all the books to him before the local wildlife had another chance to do damage. Since then, I’ve had nothing much to do with books but read them, write them, and sell them. My epic, The Hero Enkidu came out this year, 2015.
*The day before a version of this essay was published in Portland Monthly one of Roger Dickinson-Brown's former students at SUNY Oswego sent me this email message:
"Dear Lew -
"Roger's youngest daughter Elizabeth recently moved to NYC so this morning I had breakfast with her. She told me the details of what she knew about Roger's death. She said that he disappeared one day in April. The previous weekend the entire family all had a fine family dinner drinking, laughing, having fun together. Roger was not found for 3 days. He had checked into a hotel, taken a lethal dose of morphine & died. The police found him & his car with the keys in the car.
"I am writing this to you in case you had never heard this. This was the first I heard of this. Elizabeth told me it was fine to tell other people, they are not hiding the truth. She said that it was a bit of a scandal in the small village they lived in but not for very long.
"We both cried throughout the entire breakfast.