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Books About Bookselling: A Backward Look

Shawn Purcell
A Backward Look: 50 Years of Maine Books and Bookmen, by Francis M. O’Brien. Portland, ME: Anthoensen Press, 1986.

A Backward Look: 50 Years of Maine Books and Bookmen My first impression of this book is that it’s only 49 pages long, which is good because the deadline is only a week away. And the author spends half the time on non-book topics. His family history. A rather idyllic childhood in the “Forest City.” Many early jobs, including sitting in a tent on a hill near a bridge and recording all the incoming state license plates for the Maine Publicity Bureau. Almost getting fired as an usher. (“Ma’am, we say please in Portland, Maine.”) Going to sea for a few years. Living in New York City; the Left Bank (where he bought a copy of Ulysses from Sylvia Beach and saw James Joyce); Ireland (to write); New Mexico; etc., and then back to Portland. I began to wonder why this was as much about Portland as it was about books, and why it was so slim (Maine brevity?), and then found the publisher’s note I ignored the first time through.

“This book is based on a transcription of the fourth annual lecture in the Anthoensen Press Lecture Series, as presented by Francis M. O’Brien at the Portland Public Library, a co-sponsor of the event. The date was Saturday, May 10, 1986, at 1:30 P.M. The Rines Meeting Room was filled with over a hundred interested people with a diversity of literary interests. Mr. O’Brien himself was the unifying point of interest, so much interest that there were many requests to have the lecture published for posterity. It is a pleasure for the Anthoensen Press to accommodate that wish.”

And so they did, with a print run of 500 copies. Mine is borrowed from a library whose commercial binder saw fit to remove the original front wrap. There are only a few real copies online, all priced at $100, and one ABAA member was kind enough to let me use his digital image of the cover. I suggested that this late review of the work may stimulate interest in his signed copy. Once I finished reading it, however, I was so stimulated—because it was half about all the little experiences, kindnesses, and bookish influences that went into the creation of such a bookseller—but another of the copies is not only signed but includes the author’s corrections “so noted on last page.” From the description though it appears it’s hardcover, probably the author’s personal bound copy, probably missing the original front wrap, so I’m up in the air, but will decide before this comes out. I could buy all three copies, keep the one I like, and price the other two at $150, which will look pretty good compared to the ridiculous Anybook phantom copy ridiculously priced at $499.88, but that doesn’t always work out, and besides, I’ve blown my cover. At any rate, Mr. O’Brien must have been gratified to produce such an interesting and collectible Maine book. Excerpts follow.

“Books were precious in our neighborhood, and there was a great deal of swapping and borrowing, and we thought nothing of walking a mile or two to get them, no matter what the weather. I attended the Cummings School on Ocean Avenue, which was built in the 1890s. It had a small library, which had been closed up for some years, for what reason, I don't know. Another boy, Leslie Hassell, and I got permission from Ma'am Elwell, our principal, to open it up, dust off the books, and act as librarians. Leslie was severely handicapped and on crutches, so I did most of the physical work. (I might add that Leslie became an outstanding horologist and in World War II was commissioned a navy commander and was in charge of some very important navy clockwork.)”

“We, and I mean a number of girls and boys, developed a great thirst for reading, and somehow or other, we managed to find most of the books that the bibliographer, Jacob Blank, forty years later, listed in his excellent checklist of American juvenile classics called From Peter Parley to Penrod, except that we didn't know they were classics, just good reading. They were the books by the prolific Maine writer, Jacob Abbott; Hawthorne's A Wonder Book; Goulding's The Young Marooners, laid in Georgia; the books by Oliver Optic; Horatio Alger; Harry Castleman; Cudjo's Cave by J. T. Trowbridge, who later attracted other writers to summer at Kennebunkport; Norway, Maine's Charles Asbury Stephens, who wrote wonderful stories about life on the old farm; glorious Mark Twain; Dan Beard, one of the founders of the Boy Scout movement; Kirk Monroe; Howard Pyle; Kate Douglas Wiggin; W. O. Stoddard; Ernest Seton Thompson; Frank Baum; Henry Shute; Jack London; Owen Johnson; Lewis Carroll; Booth Tarkington; Grimm's fairy tales; Arthur Rackham; Robert Louis Stevenson; Lang’s color fairy tale books; and so forth and so on. We boys even read girls' books, like the ‘Flaxie Frizzle’ stories that were written by Rebecca Clark, another Maine writer who lived here in Portland at one time, in Park Place, just below Danforth Street.”

“For the first time I had a chance to explore Portland, and I ranged it from Cleaves Monument at the top of Munjoy Hill to the streets and alleys between, all the way out to Libbytown and beyond. I discovered the public library and its children’s room, then under the charge of Miss Linda Hackett. We became friends, and remained so for the rest of our lives. The First World War was in progress, we had just entered it the previous year, and even at ten years old, I suppose that I was caught up in the mutual intoxication of war fever, and it was to take me a long time in the future before I began to wonder why the decent people of the world allowed their leaders to work out their designs for murder, a question that is still not answered.

“We boys dug trenches in my aunt's back garden next to the mews behind the Park Street row houses and played with homemade arms. At that time, there was a charming little park, with benches and a fountain that was used in warm weather for the benefit of the owners of the houses on Park Street. Three of the houses, then called the Baltimore Flats, were occupied by men whose libraries I bought many years in the future. There were Isaac Watson Dyer, a bibliographer of Carlyle, whose great Carlyle collection is at Bowdoin College; Alfred Brinkler, noted organist and teacher; and Thomas Eddington Calvert, a former editor, and to me my ideal of what a man of letters should look like.”

“Huston’s was a treasure house. He was a steady buyer of old collections, and some very important books went through his hands. It was a grey, battered, dusty establishment, with unpainted floors. The general categories were on the first floor, and above were two rooms filled with Americana. In the basement, which was off-limits, were piles of remainders of various Maine books (many printed on Exchange Street itself) which A. J. had bought cheaply when the sales had slowed down. Brown Thurston Company, about opposite where the Anthoensen Press is now, the leading printers of the time, had published many Maine town histories and genealogies as well as Williamson’s bibliography of Maine.

“I became a customer of Huston’s in a very small way. He would fill his window with five- and ten-cent books, and I used to buy them consistently. A. J. commented on this once, and predicted that some day I would be buying books for a dollar or more.”

“At last, there was a break. Under the new Roosevelt administration, there was organized what was called the Civil Works Administration, the predecessor of the WPA, a make-work program. An advertisement appeared calling for ten people to catalogue books, manuscripts, and other items at the Boston Public Library, that had been donated to them over a period of fifty years, but they had never had the funds to take care of. Many applied and I was one of the lucky ones. We were ensconced in the Treasure Room, the rare book division of one of the great libraries of the world, with access to a superb reference collection. Miss Swift, the director, and Zoltan Haraszty, a droll and eccentric Hungarian scholar, showed great patience with us. For me, it was really the first important learning experience that I had with books as tools.

“Our group consisted of nine men and one woman. Most of us were typically angry young people of the times, disgusted with the system, rather leftish in our views. Merle Colby, who had written two best sellers and taken his family to Europe, had come home broke. He and Oliver LeFarge had been the literary white hopes of the Harvard Class of 1926. Merle had managed the old Alfred Bartlett Bookshop in Boston out of college and always wished to return to the book business. He later became administrator of the Federal Writers Project for New England; still later he went with Ernest Gruening when he became governor of Hawaii, and then later of Alaska. Colby edited the Federal Writers' guidebooks for both emerging states. He wrote another novel dealing with Washington intrigue called The Big Street, but died in the 1960s.

“Mike Aronsberg was an excellent photographer and later fought in the Spanish Civil War. He had had a bookshop at one time. Charles Flato, not much more than three feet in height, with a hunchback and crippled legs, was a colorful man with a beard, who wore a broad-brimmed black fedora and a black cloak and got around with the aid of a walking stick, with which he would whack people who got in his way. He had great wit, had written for the Hound and Horn, a leading quarterly of the time, and was an authority on Brady photographs. Frank Leveroni had managed Goodspeed's Park Street Bookshop.

“John Cheever had had one or two things published up to then, but was destined to become the finest short-story writer of our generation. I corresponded with John a few times over the years, and wrote him a letter just before he died a couple of years ago, and got back a sad reply, one line, ‘Francis—carry on.’ He died about a week later.

“We all got along well, and a constant topic was the joy of being able to open an old bookshop as the way to an independent life.”

“The very first day I opened a man came up from the waterfront and said there was a barrel of books in an old building that he would deliver for a dollar. A dollar was a magic figure in those days. He brought them along, and I looked them over and found three or four books of interest, but one intrigued me because it had been printed in Portsmouth in 1802. The title was Julia, or The Illuminated Baron, by ‘A Lady of Massachusetts.’ This is one of the rarest books in American literature, and was in wonderful condition in the original leather binding, but of course a neophyte like myself would not have known of it. It was one of the first Gothic novels published in this country and the author was really a lady of Maine, Sally Barrell Keating Wood, our first novelist, who later wrote other books in the same vein. I'm glad to say that Dorothy Healy has a copy of it in the Maine Women Writers Collection at Westbrook College.

“One of my first callers was Garland Patch who worked at the navy yard, but was also the custodian of the Thomas Bailey Aldrich House and Museum nearby, and a budding antiquarian. He said he was interested in early Portsmouth printing and I sold him the book for thirty-five cents. That was the standard price for old fiction in those days and I hadn't learned to differentiate. The book would bring about a thousand dollars today.”

“The depression was still on, and a lot of people were moving elsewhere. One man from a wealthy local family who lived in one of the finest houses on the Cape shore called me one day to look at his books. They filled a fine library room, mostly fiction and more or less current things. And when I asked him if he wanted to put a price on them, he said: ‘Look, I’m going to fulfill the dream of a lifetime. I’m selling the house, my wife and daughter are going to have an apartment in New York, and I’m going to paint and live on one of the smaller islands in the Caribbean, and I’m going to restrict myself to a very limited budget. I’ve got most of the fare down there, but I’m lacking’—and here he named a relatively small amount. I’m ashamed to say how little it was—‘If you want to give me that, you can have these books, and those on the third floor.’ Well, I don’t know whether this is reprehensible or not, but I’d never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth. The books on the third floor turned out to be some wonderful art books that he had bought as an art student in Paris before the First World War. I often wondered if he had ever fulfilled his dream. Fairly recently, a relative told me that he stayed on the island only a few months and then joined his family in New York, dying a few years later.

“The shop promised to be very successful. I got serious about bibliographies, and started buying and reading them. I acquired my original copy of Williamson’s Bibliography of Maine, published in 1896, which lists and describes over eleven thousand books of Maine interest, published up to that date. I got my copy from A. J. Huston who had a small remainder, for the price of seven dollars. This work is indispensable to a bookseller, or a librarian, and is regarded as the finest state bibliography in the country. Many states do not have one, including, surprisingly, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Vermont has a pretty good one, Rhode Island an attempt at one. People desiring a copy of Williamson in recent years, have paid as much as two hundred fifty dollars for one, but the state library, with a special grant, has recently had the work reprinted in excellent style on good paper, in a limited edition of two hundred fifty copies, at sixty-two dollars postpaid, no discounts to anybody. This is a real bargain. About half the copies are sold, and I would rather invest in this book than any stock on the New York Stock Exchange, for they will rise in value when the edition is gone.”

“Another spring rolled around and in April of 1940 I opened up once more at 668 Congress Street, at Longfellow Square, which was Erskine Caldwell's old place, the Longfellow Bookshop of the late twenties. There were a lot of changes in Portland. With the coming of World War II, two great shipyards were built in South Portland, where they were to build hundreds of ships; they employed thirty thousand workers from all over, who were making good wages and had some extra money to spend, on books among other things.

“There were dislocations in many other ways. Some of the big old houses of Portland were being converted into war housing, and several times a week I would show up at the shop to unload a few hundred books.

“The largest library I ever bought was at the Deering Street house of Dr. William Fenn, the old pastor of the High Street Congregational Church, who had died in 1914. The house had been closed up since, but was maintained by heirs who lived in Delaware, connected with DuPont. There were ten thousand books there, bound periodicals and pamphlets, including what I now realize was a remarkable collection of books dealing with the Darwinian controversy, which had changed the face of revealed religion forever. It should have been kept as a collection but I was too distracted at the time to do so. I think it was probably the most scholarly collection of books I ever had.

“Some of the finest books in town began to appear during these years. Hubbard Winslow Bryant, of Boston, had come to Portland to open an antiquarian bookshop and curio business about 1860, but was taken on by John Bundy Brown (then our richest citizen) as a confidential clerk, and remained so for the next thirty years. Sometime in the 1860s, a series of articles appeared in the old Portland Press, entitled ‘The Private Libraries of Portland,’ under the initial ‘B,’ which I have good reason to believe was Bryant. With some self-interest among his opening paragraphs, he stated, ‘It is to be hoped that in the course of time we shall be blessed with all the concomitance of modern civilization, including the old book business and the horse railroad.’ He was not to have his own bookshop until around the turn of the century, when among his occasional visitors was Winslow Homer, who may possibly have been related. Hubbard Winslow was the name of a popular clergyman in Boston, and it was common to name children after clergymen, but there may have been a connection. A. J. Huston said that Bryant pestered—he used the word ‘pestered’—Homer into designing a bookplate, the only one known to have been done by him. I happen to own one of Bryant's reference books with the bookplate, an exceedingly rare article, and I had another copy which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the articles, ‘B’ deals with some of the outstanding book collections of the town, listing a great many titles. James Olcott Brown, son of J. B. Brown, had a gentleman's library, with some first editions of the New England writers. Bishop William Stevens Perry had two thousand volumes and five thousand pamphlets, including a great many items relating to the early history of the Episcopal Church in America, as well as a collection of the letters of the Reverend Jacob Bailey, the frontier missionary and Tory of Pownalborough. The Perry collection was a fairly large collection with some very early quartos and folios, including the great Bayle's Dictionary, the English edition of 1724 in five volumes; and Leigh Hunt's copy of Sir Philip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, one of the great classics of English literature. It is hard to imagine how that ever got to Portland, yet we recall the phrase about ‘the curious mobility of books.’ Dana's books were later sold at auction.

“John Neal, an outstanding Portland literary figure, who was called ‘that wild fellow’ by Hawthorne, had about three thousand volumes, later mostly destroyed in the Great Fire, although some important works presented to him have come down through descendants who are still living here.

“Oliver Gerrish’s books were strong on Swedenborgianism and Freemasonry, but he had some good old books, including much natural history. He also had a number of books bound in Russian leather by the excellent Portland bookbinder, George Coleman, of the 1830s.

“William Willis, the historian of Portland, had formed a library ‘to delight the historian, the antiquarian, and the general student.’ In 1834, he had printed a catalogue of his library consisting of almost fifty pages. He had since acquired many additions, and some of the books are listed. He owned the first six volumes of the Falmouth Gazette, the first newspaper in Maine, beginning in 1795.

“The first separately printed item in Maine is probably a copy of the ‘Lumber Act,’ which was printed in an early issue of the Gazette and advertised as available at their office. It is likely that it was a broadside, but no copy is known.

“For Mainers, a copy of this incunabulum turning up would be almost as thrilling as finding a copy of the Cambridge 1639 ‘Freeman’s Oath,’ the first item to be printed in North America, but of which there is no known copy. A fraudulent copy of this has recently been exposed.

“Willis also had many items relating to Maine history as well as to general history and literature, about three thousand volumes in all, with a number of early manuscripts. He also had a book that was taken from Father Râle, the French missionary to the Indians, when he was killed by the English at Norridgewock. I believe most of Willis’s books are now here in the Portland Public Library.

“Philip Henry Brown, another son of J. B. Brown, had three thousand volumes, which contained the rarest and most valuable items of all, very strong in fine bindings and illustrated books, and early books of travel, foreign and American. He also owned a copy of Gillray’s caricatures in elephant folio, with the extra volume of suppressed plates (containing scatological humor); also an elephant folio volume of early states of Hogarth’s engravings, which is now in my possession; besides an unusual collection of facetiae (an old-fashioned bookseller’s term for erotica). Brown’s books descended to his daughter, Mrs. Frank True, and were sold at auction in the 1950s, and I was fortunate in purchasing some of them.”

“Out of some of the foregoing collections, and many others, such as the great library at the Deering Mansion (the site of what is now the University of Southern Maine); I acquired over the years many fine books for my stock. During this period, I began to send out lists of books to libraries and individuals. In 1945 I had my first printed catalogue. About that time, our two children were born. The books were piling up, both in my shop basement and in my High Street home. In 1949 we acquired an old farm on the Saco River in Hiram. We did a lot of fixing up, and have been using it for storage ever since.

“In 1952 my wife and I decided to give up the Congress Street shop and do business from home, where we have since catered to old and new customers and have done a fairly active appraisal business of books and old manuscript material.

“I have occupied but a small niche in our book world. What of the others? Locally we had several new bookshops until recently. Now the business is dominated by a single chain, relentlessly efficient and successful, but lacking the warmth that one enjoyed with Charles Campbell, Edith Riley, Janet Palmer, and Leo Boyle, and with the doyens of the wholesale trade, Dan and Ruth McDonough.

“The antiquarian trade has risen in twenty years from single numbers to a fraternity of eighty members today, the Maine Antiquarian Booksellers Association.

“The circle of book collectors is sizable, and some have made their own contributions to literature and historical research. So far as the devoted quest of books is concerned, I must mention several who should be honored: James B. Vickery, historian of Bangor and Unity, indefatigable book-hunter; William B. Jordan, historian of Cape Elizabeth and mordant critic of Portland’s past; Dorothy Healey, co-founder of Westbrook College’s Maine Women Writers Collection; lastly, a lay scholar who, through stress and storm, has succeeded in building probably the finest collection of works of history in Maine, Bradford Hale. Then there is that mysterious angel of local bookshops, the Bear.

“Before I conclude, I must pay tribute to one of the glories of Portland: the Anthoensen Press, which unfortunately is more renowned in the world of bookmen and scholars than it is in its own hometown. That was the fate of Thomas Bird Mosher, who also occupied the present home of the Press, at 45 Exchange Street. I wonder if that great craftsman, Fred Anthoensen, had ever read Lamb’s advice to a printer: ‘A little flowery border, neat not gaudy,’ or Ruskin’s rejoinder that admiration of ‘neat but not gaudy’ is commonly reported to have influenced the devil when he painted his tail green. I don’t think the Anthoensen Press will ever paint its tail green.

“Well, I have rambled on long enough, and I thank you for your company and your patience for what undoubtedly is a dull tale.

“I don’t know whether you want to take any more time, but if anybody wants to ask questions, I’m ready. But keep in mind the rules of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, the Vatican Library, probably the first public library in the world: that any reader who asks more than three senseless questions of the attendant is to be removed.”

Shawn Purcell operates Balopticon Books & Ephemera and can be contacted at http://www.balopticon.com.

IOBA Standard, Fall Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 4.