Friday, December 18, 2009

Names in the Books

“About ten years ago I dropped off a box of books here and I am wondering if you still have any of them.”

I tried very hard not to roll my eyes. It was obviously going to be an interesting day.

“Well, frankly sir, I hope not. I would like to think that my inventory turns over a little more frequently than once every 10 years.”

Now I will freely admit that I was just a little grumpy yesterday morning. Maybe it was the jerk who cut me off on the drive in. Maybe it was the grounds that I spilled when I was making the coffee. Maybe it was the snowstorm that is supposed to arrive this weekend, on the Saturday before Christmas yet. Maybe it was a combination of things. But for whatever reason, I simply wasn’t in the mood for foolishness at that point.

“I cleaned out my grandfather’s house after he died, and they were his textbooks,” he said. “I just needed to get rid of them then, but I’m kind of sorry that I did, now.”

It turns out that this gentleman had grown up in York, but had moved to North Carolina twenty-some years ago. He comes back every so often to see relatives and visit the old haunts. On a whim, he stopped into the shop yesterday to see if any of those books were still here. It wasn’t unreasonable.

So I tried to appear enthusiastic as we headed back to where the books might be hiding. I pointed out the sections on medicine, on mathematics, on general science and on chemistry/physics. We do have some rather old textbooks on the shelves, so it was possible he could find something. I offered him a cuppa joe and then left him to his browsing. I went back to what I had been doing, muttering darkly to myself.

Honestly, I forget he was in the shop.

About an hour later he came up to the counter with a pile of books.

“I found one,” he said. He opened the front cover of the book and showed me his grandfather’s name. He seemed pleased.

“Great,” I said. “Looks like it’s a good day.”

He smiled. “Yeah. Yeah, it is.”

“Looks like you found some others, too” I said, pointing to his pile. It was a stack of old Child Craft books. This is a set of about 10 books full of children’s stories. We have several sets in the store and they are not the sort of thing that fly off the shelves. I was happy that he was going to take these. We have two or three other sets in the store and I wasn’t going to miss this particular set.

“I had these when I was a kid,” he said.

“Oh, good! And now you’ve got another set.”

“No, you don’t understand,” he said. “I had these.”

He opened up the front cover of one and pointed to the name, written in a child’s scrawl.

“That’s me. These were mine.”

I just stood and blinked.

“I have no idea how these got here. I haven’t lived in York in over twenty years. I didn’t bring these in., but here they are. And I need to take these with me.”

And he did.

And suddenly I didn’t feel quite as grumpy.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Dead Are Mine

Earlier this summer, we were called to help clean the books out an estate here in York. There were hundreds and hundreds of paperbacks involved; nearly 600 as I recall.

In the heat of battle, as it were, you don’t stop and examine every book in detail. There simply isn’t time. Often we’re one of the last calls, and when we get there we’re informed that everything has got to be out in just a few days, so it is either us or the dumpster. And if the book isn’t falling apart, it goes into the box to be sorted out later.

Such was the case with this estate. When I did finally get around to going through the boxes I came across a rather interesting novel, published in 1965, The Dead Are Mine by James E. Ross.

It is the story of a combat man, a sergeant of the regular army during World War II; specifically during the action at the Anzio beachhead during the early months of 1944. That was a particularly brutal period of the war, and this is a particularly brutal book about the everyday life and duties of a grave registration squad. It was their job to pick-up the bodies, German as well as American, and deliver them to the cemeteries for internment.

The Dead Are Mine is an extremely well written book. Originally published by David McKay Company, Inc. in 1963, the paperback edition from the estate (Cardinal #50075) was published in 1965. As far as I can determine, there was only one printing of each edition.

It tells a bleak and depressing story. And it has the ring of authority, with the sort of detail and color that doesn’t come from sterile research. Unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example (who never saw a plantation nor had met a slave prior to writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin), it was clear to me that Mr. Ross had seen this side of the war.

Which led me to wonder what else he had written. The answer, apparently, is nothing. Searches on various online databases only made reference to this one book. And there is virtually no biographical information available at all. There was one reference, however, to a story about him published in the December 3, 1963 edition of Life magazine.

Finding an old issue of Life isn’t that big a problem, if you happen to be in the used book business. One of the fringe benefits of the business is that I often come in contact with old issues of magazines. And this past Tuesday, while visiting yet another estate, the issue presented itself. And there was the article, buried deep (page 110) within.

It turns out that Mr. Ross wasn’t a particularly nice man. The article was written because the book was just being published. He was 43 at the time, and had spent 20 of those 43 years in prison for a variety of reasons. He was a pool hustler, a con man, a thief and a murderer. As a sideline, he was also an alcoholic and borderline drug addict. He wrote the book in his cell, on a dare.

The book really was his story.

He was in the army, as a sergeant, and he was at Anzio. As punishment for deserting the battlefield, he had been assigned to pick-up bodies and deliver them to the cemetery at the beachhead. There is no black humor here, as there is in Catch 22, or in Bill Mauldin’s Willy and Joe cartoons. There is no we’ll-get-through-this-togetherness, as there is in Audie Murphy’s To Hell And Back. But there is detail and color--the mud and the slime, the bleak occurrences, the descriptions of newly-dead bodies and mangled body parts and wounds and bloody, burned uniforms and the aftermath of sudden and violent death. And the outlook of a short and bleak future with no end, other than the very real probability of adding yet another body to the pile, in sight.

Mr. Ross’ descriptions were accurate because they were real. He had seen and experienced them all firsthand. There was little that came from his imagination; most of it just came from his memory. And the man had a talent for putting it all down on paper in vivid and horrible detail.

I don’t know what happened to Mr. Ross; I can find nothing more recent than that one article. He may be living still, perhaps in a prison cell. If he is, he would be close to 90 now.

Life said an agent was attempting to sell the book to a movie studio, but no movie was ever made. Life also said that Mr. Ross was working on a second novel, but if that was ever finished it was never published.

But I do know that, if he did nothing else, Mr. Ross delivered one truly remarkable book. Maybe that was enough.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Virginia Project

For the better part of the past two years, Pam and I have been involved in The Virginia Project. Our moonlighting efforts were wrapped up a week or two ago, and now the story can be told.

The project involves the work of novelist Robert A. Heinlein, and our small part in it is something of which we are really quite proud.

Robert A. Heinlein, of course, was one of the biggest names in science fiction during the middle years of the 20th century. If he wasn’t the biggest, he was certainly up there in the top 5, or even the top 3…his only real competition came from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

Heinlein (pronounced Hine-line) is probably best known for Stranger in a Strange Land. Originally published in 1961, the novel relates the experiences of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars who journeys back to Earth and makes some profound changes in our alleged culture. The book tackles a variety of topics including organized religion, big government, individual responsibility, money, sexual freedom and morality offering (for the time) some rather radical views. It was a certified BIG DEAL during the 60s and wildly popular among the counter-culture of the time.

Since its original publication, it has never been out of print. In 1991 an unexpunged edition was published. Putnam, who first published the book, had demanded some 60,000 words (nearly one quarter of the original manuscript) be deleted because they feared some of the references were just too far over the top. Critics are still quibbling about whether or not it was a good idea to put those 60,000 words back.

It wasn’t his only book, of course. Heinlein’s first professional publication came in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1939 with a short story, “Life Line.” He was prolific, turning out short stories, novels and screen plays through the 40s (with time off to serve during World War II), 50s, 60s, 70s and into the 80s. He died in 1988.

Upon his death, Virginia, his wife of 40 years, had the presence of mind to renew his copyrights. She supervised the posthumous publication of a number of his short stores with such works as For Us The Living, Tramp Royale, Grumbles From The Grave and Requiem. She died in 2003.

The work of the Heinlein Trust continues. Called “The Virginia Project” in honor of Mrs. Heinlein, the Trust is reissuing the complete works of Robert A. Heinlein as a set of premium quality (acid-free paper; leather bound) books. There will be 44 volumes when it is complete, and the set carries a rather hefty price tag of $1,500. The press run is limited to 2,000 copies of each volume.

Each volume is going back to the original-original, just the way Robert and God had intended…and before various editors got their hands on it. To do this, scholars are working with the Heinlein archives, sometimes pouring over the typewritten manuscripts, to ensure that everything is, indeed, original.

The heavy-lifting on the project is being undertaken by Windhaven Press of Auburn, NH. Nancy Hanger and Andrew Phillips, owners of Windhaven, are well-qualified for the task. Authors in their own right, they bring years of editing and production experience to the project. Nancy is the person we thank for allowing us to participate.

In preparing the various volumes for the printing press, 1st printings of 1st editions have been secured. The good news is that hardcopies of these books have been found (a number of them, Robert’s personal copies). The bad news is that these are hardcopies, produced long before contemporary electronic print production methods were developed. The hardcopies needed to be converted to digital files before production could proceed.

And that’s where we came in. We did the conversions.

Every couple of months a box would arrive at our doorstep (well, actually to the shop). Contained in each box were 1st-1st’s. We actually had Heinlein’s personal copies of some of his books in our hot little hands. We would clean them, scan them and do first-pass editing (spell-checking, etc.). The completed files would be compiled onto CDs and returned (along with the hardcopies, alas) so Nancy and Andrew could work their additional magic.

We did 32 titles in the series. Our names won’t appear anywhere in the credits; our roles were minor and downstream. Still, they were our roles. We did it. And there is a degree of quiet satisfaction that comes from knowing that we had a part in preserving the work of the Grand Master.

Thank you Robert, for the work you gave us. Thank you Virginia, for preserving it. And thank you Nancy and Andrew, for allowing us to participate.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Codici Segreti

A week or so ago, the more-or-less daily mail delivery brought us a happy little package from HarperCollins Publishers.

Does it sound too high-falutin’ to say that HarperCollins is our publisher? Perhaps. It is not quite accurate in any case. More properly, I should say that HarperCollins was our publisher.

Pam and I were fortunate enough to have signed a multiple book deal with HarperCollins several years ago. Under the pen names of “P.J. Huff and J.G. Lewin” we wrote four books of popular history: How To Feed An Army, Witness To The Civil War, How To Tell A Secret and Lines of Contention: Political Cartoons of the Civil War. In conjunction with The Smithsonian Institution, HarperCollins was the publisher.

The genre was “popular history”, which means the books were long on stories and short on footnotes. They were all accurate, of course. Various curators from The Smithsonian read the pre-publication drafts and made suggestions and requested changes; we needed their approval before going to press. Everything we said required documentation and we were prepared with at least two sources to backup the facts and conclusions we made. Still, the books were designed to be fun reads, and not serious, ground-breaking works of history. (Although I pride myself as having been first to make the connection in print between Watergate's "Deep Throat" and the so-called "Smoking Gun" tape.)

Writing the books was a fun exercise. And we made a few bucks. But not a lot, actually. The contracts stated that HarperCollins would pay us an advance against future royalties. But in order for us to actually get any future royalties, the books would need to sell-though their initial print runs. That makes sense. The publishing company is in it for profit, after all, and you can’t expect them to give away money if they’re not making any. Maybe if we'd had an agent we could've gotten a better deal. But that wasn't as important at the time as just getting a deal.

None of the books sold-through. One of them, Witness To The Civil War, did generate additional revenues. It was featured one month by the History Book Club and Easton Press bought the rights (from HarperCollins) to produce a beautiful leather-bound edition. We didn’t get anything extra for that, other than a copy of that edition (now on display inside the shop), and, perhaps, some bragging rights.

But it was all a pretty wild ride.

How To Feed An Army got us on national television when the Food Network did a show on military cookery. We were on for all of about 90-seconds. But…we were on.

And, when How To Tell A Secret was published, we did a national radio tour. For a period of about three weeks, we were guests on radio shows across the country. Over the phone interviews with upwards of 40 radio talk shows. One was at 5:30 on a Sunday morning (live, or as live as I could be at that hour), but most were mid-day. And they were in some pretty big markets…Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles. One interview was supposed to last 15-minutes, but went on for the better part of an hour-and-a-half (we were a pretty big deal in Cleveland that afternoon). It was all kinda fun.

The last of the books, Lines of Contention, was published in November 2007; just about two years ago now. And while all are still available on Amazon.com, chances are you won’t find many on the shelves of the national chains of book sellers. And that’s OK; they’ve run their course.

But that’s also why the package from HarperCollins was happy. For it contained authors’ copies of Codici Segreti. It seems that an Italian publisher, AVALLARDI, bought the reprint rights of How To Tell A Secret and issued it in Italian.

Yet another notch in the belt, as it were: international publishing. Again, we don’t get a nickel out of it. But that’s OK. We do get more braggin’ rights.

And I’ve just exercised those rights. Thank you for participating.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Time to 'bite the bullet'

Our cabinet of curiosities at the front of the shop (I refer to it as my little museum of historical insignificia), contains several Civil War-era bullets. Both are lead. One appears to be a .69 caliber round shot; the other is a Minie Ball. They are moderately interesting in themselves, although not particularly uncommon in this part of the world.

What makes these two particularly interesting, at least to me, is that both carry teeth marks.

These bullets have a history. Someone, sometime, chewed on them. And that begs the question: why would anyone chew on a lead bullet? Or, in other words, why would anyone, literally, bite the bullet?

In common use, “to bite the bullet” means to bear down on a project, usually an onerous one, and just get it done. No matter how unpleasant the prospect is, you’ve got to just bite the bullet and do it.

The story goes that the phrase actually originated during the Civil War. On the battlefield, if a soldier was hit in an arm or a leg by a bullet, the bone would just shatter with shards and splinters of bone spreading in all directions. There was no way to repair the damage and the wound was actually life-threatening. The only remedy was amputation.

At the same time, anesthesia was rare. So when a soldier saw the surgeon approach in blood-splattered apron, he knew he was in for a hard couple of minutes. He would be laid on what passed for an operating table and his buddies would hold him down while the surgeon would wipe off his saw and begin.

Since there were no pain killers, the soldier would have a bullet placed between his teeth so he wouldn’t bite off his tongue or scream with the pain. Hence, teeth marks on the bullets.

It is a compelling story. It makes sense. It conforms to our notions of the Civil War and of the then-state of medicine. It conjures images of battlefields and of the times.

Turns out it is also wrong.

Civil War historian Janet Bucklew was our guest for "First Friday" this past weekend. She’s just written a book about Henry Janes, a country doctor from Vermont who served during the war. Janet, a Research Historian, is a veteran ranger at the Gettysburg National Military Park, and is also on staff at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD. You'd think she knows whereof she speaks.

Janet's presentation focused on Dr. Janes as a platform for discussing Civil War medicine in general. During the Q&A following her talk, she made a comment—almost as an afterthought—that belied the myth and burst my bubble. Soldiers never chewed bullets during the procedures, she said. The danger of swallowing was too great. Besides, there was anesthesia, so there was no real need.

The teeth marks probably came from pigs. According to Janet, the human jaw simply isn’t strong enough to cause the indentations in the bullets, while a pig’s jaw is. She said that swine would root around the battlefield following action, and would dine upon the corpses there and would at times wind up with a bullet in their mouth. That’s rather grizzly, but that makes sense.

Frankly, I like my story better. It certainly conjures a more romantic mental image.

I’ve tried to verify my version, but I can’t. The sources I’ve checked do repeat my version, but there are no attributions; in fact they all seem to be quoting one another, or talk about “common knowledge”. That’s simply not good enough when it comes to historical accuracy.

At the same time, I cannot verify Janet’s version either. But it does make more sense when you stop and think about it.

The problem with history is that you’re always studying someone else’s version of the facts. Even if you go back to primary sources, you’re dealing with someone’s impression or memory or view of what was said or what happened where. And you have to judge the source: how close were they to the event? Is their story self-serving or embellished? Are they telling the entire story or just what they want their audience to know?

So which version of the story do I tell when showing off our cabinet of curiosities? Maybe both, with an emphasis on history being what you make of it.

And that’s pretty much the point anyway, isn’t it?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

So...we might have a ghost?

Last night the crack ghost hunting team from PARA (the Paranormal Activity Research Association) took up residence within the confines of the shop to see who else might be in residence. Armed with audio and video recorders and a variety of electronic gizmos, they looked and probed and questioned and were generally open to communicating with anyone on the “other side” who may have been here.

I must confess to a considerable amount of skepticism about all this. I don’t believe in ghosts. And I honestly don’t think we’ve got one. At the same time, there are people I respect who tell me that I am 100% wrong on this score. So I’ve elected to doubt my infallibility, and follow this through to the end.

(In case you’re just now coming in on our paranormal exploits, you may want to read some of my other blog posts, from January 3 and July 7, for some background.)

We turned off most of the lights, and the stereo, and sat quietly. And we asked questions; simple, direct questions. Things along the lines of, “What is your name?” And “Do you like it here?” And “Do you mind answering some questions for us?” Each question was followed by a period of silence when we waited for an answer.

We did three different recording sessions, in three different areas of the shop: one by the Westerns and comic books, once in the Whodunits and once up-front near the coffee table. Each session lasted about 30-minutes.

Three different digital audio recorders were going during each session. The theory is that although we might not hear an answer, the recorders would. The files were to be downloaded into a computer and analyzed using special software. Any responses we received (called EVPs, or Electronic Voice Phenomena) would be isolated and enhanced.

I took some pictures of all this, and posted them on our facebook page. If you'd like to take a look, click here.

Kathy Rothenberger, the team’s sensitive member, said she was receiving a number of impressions. She claimed to feel a “psychic pressure” which indicated, to her, a presence. She said that she believed that there were actually multiple entities in here.

Much of this eminated, she said, from our “Blue Monster” display of military artifacts and political buttons. But not all.

She said that she was hearing a muffled conversation between men (two or more) and a woman. It was faint, though, and she couldn’t make out what they were saying…rather like the sound you’d hear from a TV set several rooms away. It sounded, she said, animated and jovial.

She also said that she was getting the feeling of some sort of medical emergency. She had the impression of bandages and either alcohol or ether and something (someone?) being crushed.

Brett Nease was the guy with the electronic gear. After we had finished the third session, he downloaded the audio from one of the recorders to his laptop, and started running it through the analyzing software.

One minute and thirty-five seconds into our first session he detected the first EVP. He found the second about a minute later in that same session.

I heard them. They are distinct and they do sound like a male voice answering a question… but they are pretty faint, and I couldn't make out what was being said. I've got to say that it did sound like the voice way saying something. According to Brett, more work needs to be done to hear exactly what is being said.

He’s going to do the work. He anticipates that by this time next week, he will have at least the preliminary results. I am to look for a report from them then.

When I get those results, I will pass them along.

And all this is to say: we might have a ghost.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Really? We do have a ghost?

Earlier this year I was informed that we have a ghost in the shop. Two customers told me as much after they had actually interacted with it when they were shopping this past January. (If you care to check my blog post of January 3, you’ll find the story). Frankly, I hadn’t given it much thought since then. If we do have one, he’s never said anything to me and I am pretty OK with that.

But two weeks or so ago, our entity made himself known once again during our Horrible Saturday event in late June.

One of our invited guests for the day was PARA (the Paranormal Activity Research Association). These guys are a pair of York-based ghost hunters. Brett does his hunting with technology…special cameras and recorders and gizmos and such. Kathy does her hunting with impressions, since she claims to be sensitive.

Prior to them taking the stage, as it were, for their presentation, Kathy was looking around the shop. Just as she was reaching for one book, another slid/jumped/fell/flew off the shelf (you can pick the appropriate term) and hit her in the arm. It turns out, she says, that this is the one she was supposed to have. Kathy told me about the incident just a few minutes later as I happened to be walking past. At that point, I had not told her about the report I had already received on our alleged ghost.

She also told me that she believes that our entity’s name is Elmer. (That also happens to be my son-in-law’s name and, if he is reading this: Elmer, I swear that I am not making this up.)

This past weekend one of the ladies who first reported the entity’s presence came into the shop. I was bringing her up-to-date on what Kathy of PARA had told me. And she said,”Oh yeah! But I’ve forgotten…didn’t his name start with ‘E’?”

Pause.

In January she didn’t know a name. In January, she couldn’t tell me if our ghost was a he or a she.

And when she was in the shop this past weekend, I hadn’t yet said anything about the ghost being named Elmer.

I think it may be time for some spooky music.

What the heck is going on here?

We are going to attempt to find out. Tomorrow night PARA is coming to do a full-fledged investigation. They will be setting up after we close shop for the night and after all the distracting day-time noises are gone.

They’re bringing special cameras. And recorders. And gizmos. And Kathy.

And I will be there, too. I may not be excited about it, but I will be there. (If you should ever see a video, you will know it is me because I will be the guy sitting in the corner being very VERY aware of every noise and every flying book in the place.)

Stay tuned. I will keep you posted……

Friday, July 3, 2009

Mr. Adam

A week or so ago we were working our way through another estate. We had boxed literally hundreds of paperbacks to bring back to the store. During the heat of battle, we don’t really stop to look at what’s there. The mission is to get it out of there, and then back to the shop where we could go through it.

As we were going through it, some pretty interesting things started to emerge. The paperbacks were vintage; many of them pre-1960. This doesn’t necessarily make them more valuable (often it is just the opposite), but it does make them much more fun.

With all due respect to the artists and writers working today (and much respect is, indeed, due), there’s nothing quite like the sensational artwork to be found on a 25¢ paperback novel of the early 1950s.

So as I was sitting and sifting through the piles and enjoying the covers, I came across one that just made me stop and grin. It is one of the (now) lesser-known novels of a (now) lesser-known novelist, but it also happens to be one of my favorite books of all time: Mr. Adam.

Whenever we get one in here at the shop, it doesn’t last too long because I am always recommending it. “Pushing it” is probably a more accurate way of putting it.

It is very much a work of the Cold War. The idea is that one of the major powers conducts a nuclear test that goes wrong. Sub-atomic particles are unleashed and spread across the globe sterilizing every male, including the unborn in the womb.

All, that is, except one milquetoast scientist who happened to be inspecting the lower levels of a lead mine at the time of the accident. He is suddenly the only fertile male left on the planet, and he will be the father of the human race. He is Mr. Adam. And just as suddenly this guy is absolutely irresistible to every woman on the planet.

That’s how the book begins. What the book is about is what happens to him once the government gets their hands on him, tries to regulate him, and builds a huge bureaucracy around him. It is a very funny book.

It was authored by Pat Frank, who was best known for his post-apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon.

He was born Harry Hart Frank on May 5, 1908 in Chicago. He started his career as a journalist and fought World War II behind a typewriter for the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS, precursor of the CIA) and the Office of War Information.

Mr. Adam, published in 1946, was his first novel. It sold over 2-million copies. And it was followed by Hold Back the Night, An Affair of State, Forbidden Area and Alas, Babylon. He also wrote and published a non-fiction book, How To Survive The H-bomb And Why, in 1962.

He made no bones about the fact that he wrote a book whenever he needed some cash. The rest of his time was devoted to liquor and women…not necessarily in that order. Apparently he was quite a lady killer in his day. There are reports of people coming to visit him who had to make their way through jungles of bottles and ladies (plural) in various stages of decency. And that was pretty much the regular state of affairs around his writing studio.

Alas, Babylon was a whopping success when it was first published in 1959. Fifty years later it is still a staple of high school reading lists.

Frank died on October 12, 1964.

Doing a quick search of the shop, I find that we have copies of several of his books in here. Some are in our Vintage Fiction area. Others are in Science Fiction. But this particular book is going onto the paperback rack at the front, near the register. I’ll put it there not because it is a place of honor, but because it will make it much easier for me to point it out to the next customer who comes in “just looking for a good read.”

I can’t think of a better book to fit that description.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Is My Wife In There?

***RING***

I’m at the back of the shop working with a customer. Naturally. Just about as far from the phone as I can be while still being in the shop. I make my excuses and start moving toward the desk.

***RING***

I’m rounding the corner now, moving past the Science Fiction and Horror sections, and I pick up the pace. I don’t like to run in here (me running isn’t a pretty sight, and I am not in great shape), but I know that I only get four rings before the call goes into the answering machine, and most folks hang up rather than leave a message.

***RING***

Now I break into what passes for “sprinting” on my part. I fly past the vintage paperbacks (OK…”fly” is also a relative term), up past the cash register and get to the desk just as…

***RING***

“This is the York Emporium.”

“Yeah. Hi. Is this a used book store?”

“Yes, sir.”

“On West Market Street?”

“Yep.”

“Do you have romance novels in there?”

“Uh…well, yes we do.”

“Is my wife in there?”

Suddenly I know how every bartender in the world feels when they get a call from someone's wife.

“Well, uh, she may have been. Can you describe her?”

He does. And, yes, she was here. She had just left. Now what do I do?

This is a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, I don't want to be caught in a lie. On the other hand, it certainly wouldn't be stellar customer service to be the cause of a customer (a paying customer, I might add) catching the ire of a husband. As a general rule, I try to stay on the good side of husbands. So.....I vamp.

“Well, yes she was here. And I've got to say that she really felt good about herself, sir. She bought a couple of books, but they are on sale this week and she saved about 35%. She only spent about 6-bucks. She said her husband would be proud of her because that was a lot less than she had spent last time and that she was going to bring him in before the end of the sale.”

“Oh! OK. Well...good. Thank you.”

“Bye.”

Maybe I should start asking folks if they need me to supply alibis. This could be a new profit center.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Horrible Saturday, for the love of pathos


This coming weekend we’re hosting “Horrible Saturday”. It is to be a day-long celebration of the horror genre, and it will include author appearances and book signings (makes sense for a book shop), movie screenings, presentations and, of course, the Screaming Contest.

It really isn’t a convention, at least in the contemporary sense of the term. I don’t think we will have too many people in costume (although, having said that, I do know of at least one guy who is coming as the Grim Reaper) and we won’t be printing up special T-shirts of anything like that. It is simply a gathering of like-minded folks to enjoy each other’s company and, if we’re lucky, to scare the bejezus out of each other.

I am always struck, when I start putting one of these things together, by the range and depth of individual activities that we can schedule.

We have two local (Central PA) authors coming, for example. One of them, J.F. Gonzalez, is a true “up and comer” in the genre. Last year he made the decision to quit his day job and devote himself full-time to his craft. He’s already published a number of books and he’s got another coming in July (bad timing, that…we won’t have copies in time for this weekend). The other, John Maclay, is considered a true expert in the field. He’s an author himself, but he’s also been a publisher, an editor and a critic. This is fairly big-time stuff.

We’ve also got a film historian-turned-author in Fred Wiebel. Fred is the guy who tracked down a copy of a “lost” film produced by The Edison Studios. In 1910, they produced the first film based on Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Shot in glorious B&W, Fred has restored the film and put it on DVD. He’ll be telling the tale and showing the film.

Then there’s the Paranormal Activity Research Association. Ghost hunters. From York, no less. They’ve just completed a series of investigations into reported activities taking place in some of the historic sites in York County. And they’ve got photos and audio recordings.

And Kent Courtney, who is almost becoming a regular here, will become Edgar Allen Poe for the day, with readings and a discussion of the writer’s life.

Now, none of these folks will be making any money off this. Yeah, they may sell a book or two, but that would hardly be enough to fairly compensate them for their time. They’re really coming to make their presentations for the sheer joy of it. They love this stuff. They like talking about it. They like sharing it.

They’re planning to have a good time.

And so it is with every “genre” day we do here. We’ve already had our annual “Butternut and Blue” (Civil War) day. Later this summer, we’ve got “Sci-Fi Saturday” (August 15). And in the fall, our “Celtic Autumnal”.

Every day features a line-up of 6, 8 or 20 guests. Nobody makes any real money. But everyone has a good time.

We listen to presentations. We play games. We watch movies and eat popcorn. This weekend, we shall even scream a bit (a contest, with braggin’ rights to the title of “Best Screamer in York County” caps the day).

And the neat part is that I really don’t have to go seek folks to come and make presentations. It is all very Zen-like: I am merely open to them, and they come to me.

From where I sit, “Horrible Saturday” doesn’t look all that horrible to me.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, Benny

This past weekend, my Dad and I celebrated the 100th anniversary of the King of Swing.
All weekend long we played Benny Goodman in the shop and, honestly, he never sounded better.

Benjamin David Goodman was born on May 30, 1909 in Chicago. He was the 9th of 12 children born to a poor family. His parents were recent emigrants to the United States from what is now Poland.

He picked up the clarinet when he was 10, and by the time he was 16 he was playing professionally around Chicago with a number of bands, most notably the Ben Pollack Orchestra. It was with Pollack that he made his first recordings in 1926. Just as the Great Depression was getting under way, he made his way to New York and started earning a reputation as a solid session player.

He worked in Broadway orchestras (for at least one show he shared the pit with Glenn Miller), in dance bands and recording under his own name and as a sideman for other bandleaders (here’s some trivia: he was one of Red Nichols’ Five Pennies).

In 1934, NBC was putting together a regularly scheduled three-hour music program called Let’s Dance. They were looking for 3 bands to fill each slot: a “sweet” band, a “dance” band and a “hot” band. Benny put together a group, auditioned, and was selected as the “hot” band.

That was the good news. The bad news was that the program would air live, beginning at 9 PM. Benny’s “hot” band didn’t get on the air until 11; long after his target audience (high school kids) was in bed. The radio broadcast lasted just one year.

After the show was canceled, Benny took the band on the road, meeting with only modest success. Few outside the New York dance clubs had heard of him.

Until he got to the West Coast. The 11 PM slot in New York was an 8 PM slot in California and he was a hit. But he didn’t know that. When he got to his booking at The Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, his shows were booked to capacity (the ballroom could hold 4,000 dancing couples). It was a phenomenon. Unexpected. And unprecedented.

Newspapers across the country carried stories about this new craze. Hot music! Hot dancing (they called it “jitterbug”)!

Benny was an innovator. In addition to his Big Band, he had several smaller combos, including a quartet (Benny Goodman-Gene Krupa-Teddy Wilson-Lionel Hampton). To this day, in my opinion, no one was better when they played live.

His was also the first commercial band to mix white and black musicians on stage. That was a big deal in the 1930s. And long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in big league sports.

My Dad and I didn’t agree on much musically. He liked Woody Herman (I thought he was OK, maybe) and Stan Kenton (I confess that I still don't get Stan Kenton). I rather liked Glenn Miller, and my Dad allowed that Glenn was certainly better than, say, anyone who played rock 'n roll.

But we did agree on all things Benny.

When I was a kid, every Sunday morning my Dad would put his Benny Goodman records on the stereo (the stereo that I wasn't allowed to touch, and the stereo that NEVER played my Beatles or Paul Revere and the Raiders records). That was my introduction to Swing. It actually was a pretty good introduction.

The world lost a giant in 1986 when Benny Goodman passed. I lost a giant in my world last year when my Dad passed.

Still, my Dad and I had a pretty good time together this past weekend playing Benny Goodman CDs here in the shop. (And, yes, I did crank it up just a bit.) Thank you, Mr. Goodman, for all you gave to us. And thank you, Mr. Lewin, for introducing me to all things Benny.

Let’s do it again.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Ted Hake

It was a little over 25 years ago that I was in Madison, Wisconsin for a funeral. With some time on my hands on a Saturday afternoon, I was wandering around a Mall that happened to be hosting an antiques show. And there, off in a corner, sat one lonely little guy with a booth full of political campaign buttons.

I wandered over and I was hooked.

Here was a piece of history that I could afford. The buttons were fairly inexpensive. They were colorful. Each told a piece of a story. And each was a tangible link with the past.

So I bought about a dozen of the things, from various elections, and I was off the to races.

I was living in Massachusetts at the time and, wanting to know more about this facet of collecting, I visited the local bookshop. And there on the shelf I found a book that gave a little background and contained a lot of pictures, along with estimated values. It would serve as my major resource for years. I used it so much, in fact, that the pages came loose from the binding. So I gathered those pages together in a loose-leaf notebook. I still have it.

By the standards of the American Political Items Collectors, my accumulated history is fairly small—a little more than 2,700 pieces. Still, I like it and, much to the dismay of my poor, long-suffering bride (PLSB, © 2009), I still add to the collection. Picked up quite a few last fall, as you might imagine from all three major parties (Democrats, Libertarians and Republicans).

That tattered book came in handy as I poured over auction catalogs that I’d receive in the mail from this outfit in Pennsylvania. I couldn’t afford to bid on many of the items, but I could dream. And, actually, I did bid, and win, on occasion.

It turns out that the same guy who hosted the auctions wrote that tattered book. That was pretty neat. And it gave me a little extra confidence in what I was bidding on.

So now we fast-forward twenty-five years and I find myself in York running a used book and curiosity shop. And I make the happy discovery that the guy who wrote the book, and ran the auctions, is also in York.

It was probably a flimsy excuse, I admit, but I used it to make a phone call and invite myself over to his office. For the better part of 25 years I have been worshipping him from afar, as it were, and now I got a chance to shake his hand. And then I made the happier discovery that Ted Hake is really quite a nice guy.

Ted is a recognized expert in the field of political items and in popular American culture. Literally, he is he guy who wrote the book(s) on the subject. He has often appeared on public television’s Antiques Roadshow as one of the experts.

And I was really excited to learn that he had elected to bring some of his items into the shop and offer them to our customers.

Ted Hake! Right here! This is big-time stuff!

Looking at his display is almost like visiting a museum. He’s got original Mickey Mouse watches in there. Buttons celebrating “Lucky Lindy’s” solo flight across the Atlantic. Souvenirs from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Cowboy memorabilia (Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy). And political campaign buttons.

He fits right in with the “& stuff” in our “used books & stuff” sign out front.

So, yeah, I had my picture taken with him when he came to set up. Is that blatant hero worship?

Yes. Yes, it is.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Who's buried in Grant's tomb?

Yesterday we hosted “Butternut and Blue” at the shop. It was the first of our “genre days” for the year. This one focused on the Civil War. There were re-enactors and black powder musketry firing in the parking lot (complete with a skirmish between Confederate and Union regiments), a talk and book signing by historian/author Scott Mingus, Sr., a sing-along of period songs led by Kent Courtney and a Jeopardy-style game testing general knowledge of the war. A fun time was had by all.

The question for the final round in the game was “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” I’ve posted the entire game on our facebook page.

Now, the question is interesting in itself. It was first made popular by that great American philosopher Groucho Marx on his game show You Bet Your Life. Groucho would ask the question, supposedly an easy one, to make sure each contestant would win something.
No one was ever to walk away empty-handed from a meeting with Groucho.

But it is a trick question. Grant’s Tomb is a mausoleum and, as such, no one is actually BURIED there. In a mausoleum, the remains are above ground. They are entombed, not buried. So the correct answer is that no one is buried in Grant’s tomb. However, both President Grant and his beloved wife, Julia Dent Grant, are entombed there. (Groucho would accept, "no one", "Grant", "Mrs. Grant" and all varieties of the above, as correct answers to the question.)

The story of Grant’s Tomb is an interesting one, too. There is such a place, of course. It is located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and is open to the public and staffed/maintained by the National Park Service. This is fitting, since Grant signed the bill establishing the first national park (Yellowstone) in 1872.

Grant’s Tomb was constructed using private funds raised by subscription. More than 90,000 people—mostly Americans, but many from countries around the world—contributed to the fund. Pennies, nickels and dimes flowed in and some $600,000 was raised. That’s a staggering amount (it comes to more than $12,750,000 in 2009 dollars).

Quite a tribute to this man.

It is hard for us to imagine how big a hero he was. Today we have “superstars” and people who are famous for being famous. That simply wasn’t the case then. The only real form of mass communication was the newspaper, and at the time of Grant’s death in 1885 most newspapers didn’t have images; some published line drawings or etchings, but that was about it. (Photos didn’t start to appear with any regularity until the early 1900s.)

But Grant was a hero; the only one to rival his popularity was George Washington. He was certainly bigger than Lincoln in his day.

Grant, not Lincoln, was viewed as the savior of the Union. “Look at the flag. If there are more than 34 stars there, thank General Grant.”

Before the war, he wasn’t that much of a soldier (although he did distinguish himself during the War with Mexico). He was drummed out of the service because of repeated instances of intoxication. The then went on to became not-much-of-a- farmer and not-much-of-a-tanner. After the war he became not-much-of-a-President.

But he did have one talent that no one else seemed to have: he could beat Bobby Lee. And that was a hellova talent.

His funeral procession through the streets of New York City was more than seven miles long, and included 3 Presidents and virtually every member of Congress and the Supreme Court. His pall bearers included Union Generals William Tecumseh Sherman (a close personal friend from before the war) and Philip Sheridan and Confederate Generals Joseph Johnston and Simon Bolivar Buckner (another close personal pre-war friend).

All this is timely because (1) we hosted "Butternut and Blue" yesterday and (2) today is the birthday of Ulysses Simpson Grant.

Happy birthday, General. And thank you.

Friday, April 24, 2009

There's a book for everyone

One of the satisfactions of the job of book peddler is matching the right book to the right customer. Someone will wander into the shop and when I ask if there’s anything in particular that they’re looking for, I’ll often get the “I’ll know it when I see it” response.

And that’s fine with me. I have no problem with folks wandering aimlessly around. What better place to wander aimlessly than a used book shop?

Tastes vary and that’s why we have sections on history, mathematics, romance, automotive repair, physics, vintage fiction, westerns and biography. And, while today you may have a hankering to work with trigonometric tables, tomorrow you might just want to sit down with a good whodunit.

So I really try to stock as wide a variety of subjects as is possible. But even I was a bit taken aback by this one.

Last fall we were cleaning out a stock room full of books that we had inherited when we bought the shop. There was some good stuff in there, and a lot of duplicates of books we already had on the shelves. But when we came across this one at the bottom of a box, I confess that I never thought it was going to sell.

I was all for donating it somewhere. With all the inventory we have, I just didn’t think we wanted to devote shelf space to something like this. But my poor, long-suffering bride (PLSB, © 2009) obviously is much more in touch with the real world than am I.

PLSB wouldn’t hear of us casually discarding such a work. She was convinced that there was a reader out there hungry for this book. I rolled my eyes and handed it over to her. If she wanted to add it to our on-line inventory that was fine with me, as long as I didn’t need to deal with it in the shop.

She was right, of course; she usually is (I will be the second one to tell you that. I’ll leave it to you to guess who the first one will be).

Tonight we received the order, and tomorrow morning we will ship Worm Farm Management off to a happy customer in Georgia.

There is a book for everyone.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thorne Smith

There are just too many mysteries written by someone named Smith. More accurately, I should say “someones named Smith,” because there seem to be a gazillion mystery writers named Smith. Not that Smith is a bad name; it is actually quite a nice name. But you would think that some of these writers would be clever enough to come up with another name, if only to differentiate themselves from all the other Smith-es out there.

I mean, if you’re going to have a “me too” name as a mystery writer, why not adopt something like Christie or Doyle or Grafton or something? That way, at least you might get some new readers…if only by mistake.

Yes, I do tend to have profound thoughts while shelving books.

And that was my general line of thinking yesterday as I was trying to jam yet another mystery onto the Smith shelf in our Whodunits section. And it was then that I came across a happy little accident: one of the Smiths didn’t belong there. It wasn’t a mystery at all and it had been mistakenly placed among the mysteries and it belonged somewhere else.

Two good things about that: (1) by pulling off the wrong book I suddenly had room for the new Smith, and (2) I came across a Thorne Smith that I didn’t know we had!

James Thorne Smith (1892-1934) was one of those urban sophisticate authors who seemed to litter the streets of New York City in the 20s and 30s. He was of a kind with James Thurber, Alexander Woolcott and Dorothy Parker. He is just not quite as well remembered as those others.

And it is hard to find a neat category for him. I may have to start an “Urban Sophisticate” section in here.

He wrote humor, but it came from a dark and sardonic place. His books were almost science fiction/fantasy,but they contained no space ships or time travel. Rather, the characters were always transformed into something they were not. There was usually plenty of drinking involved. And lots of sex. Some of it sly; some of it fumbling. And all of it more-or-less licit. But it was actually pretty racy stuff for its day (although it is pretty tame by the standards of some of the contemporary literature that comes in here).

“Like life itself,” he wrote of his work, “my stories have no point and get absolutely nowhere. And like life they are a little mad and purposeless…They are like the man who dashes madly through traffic only to linger aimlessly on the opposite corner watching a fountain pen being demonstrated in a shop window. Quite casually I wander into my plot, poke around with my characters for a while, then amble off, leaving no moral proved and no reader improved.”

Truth be told, this is my idea of a good read. A bit of mental floss at the end of the day.

His most famous work, perhaps the only one most folks remember today, is Topper. It involves the adventures of a banker (the title character) and two ghosts (who happen to be married to one another; one of whom continually engages in some spirited* flirting with Topper). In 1937, Hal Roach made it into a movie starring Cary Grant. Later, Leo G. Carroll became Topper in the 50s TV series. His other claim to fame was The Passionate Witch, published posthumously in 1941, that was the basis for the play/movie Bell, Book and Candle and, ultimately, the Bewitched television series.

The one I happened upon yesterday was Skin and Bones (1933) wherein photographer Quintus Bland undergoes a bizarre accident in his darkroom that sends him (and his dog) bouncing back-and-forth between flesh- and-bone to X-ray (i.e., skeleton) projections of themselves. It includes the usual drinking and morally-questionable behavior and rather spicy drawings. It wasn’t at a risqué level to get it banned, but prim country club matrons probably wouldn’t quite approve. Pretty good stuff overall.

So…welcome, Mr. Smith. Into which section shall I place you? Literature? Science Fiction? Morally-questionable? Vintage fiction?

Maybe I shall take you home, and thus provide yet another opportunity for my poor, long-suffering bride (PLSB © 2009) to cock an eyebrow and shake her head. She probably won’t quite approve.

I, on the other hand, shall approve heartily.

*Get it? Spirited...ghost. Well, OK. So I'm not Thorne Smith.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Of estates and painted porcelain

I always feel just a bit ghoulish when we get a call to clean out an estate.

We get these sorts of calls with some degree of frequency…at least one or two a month. A parent or an aunt has died and the house needs to be cleaned out. Or a couple is retiring and moving to a smaller home or an assisted living facility. Whatever the reason, there is an attic or living room or basement full of books. And stuff. And something needs to be done with it all.

It is never a happy time. But it is something that needs to be done.

“Time to get rid of all this junk,” they say. “Why would anyone want to keep all this?”

It is usually a brave front. The person making the statement is often the same person who has taken responsibility for the cleaning out and is the same person who gave us a call in the first place. And this person invariably is a son or a granddaughter or close friend. It is a painful experience to sift through the relics of a life, or lifestyle, that is now past.

By the time we get involved, most of the really hard parts have been accomplished. We’re one of the last steps prior to selling the house or vacating the apartment.

The good part about this is that calluses have usually started to form over the really tender parts and a weariness has set in. They just want to be done with the whole thing. They want us to come and get it and just haul it away.

Usually, but not always.

There are occasions when we’re sucked into the process of closure. We’re told about the deceased or the one who is moving on; regaled with stories about his work, her family, their hobbies and travels, or Grandpa’s time in the army. And we can’t help but to envision this life that we’re evaluating and putting into boxes.

You can tell a lot about someone when you go through a bookshelf or a trunk or an attic. You can look at the books and tell at a glance whether that family preferred history or romance. Whether the books were well read or just acquired somewhere along the line. Whether they listened to classical music or show tunes or The Dave Clark Five.

And the certain amount of embarrassment when you come across that box of old Playboy magazines hidden away in a dark corner. (Funny how you never come across the collected works of Mark Twain in that dark corner.)

The ghoulishness comes in when you walk from room to room, asking if that old clock, or the record player, is available. How about that World War II uniform? “I’d be interested in that picture frame.”

Rummaging, and picking through the accumulated mementos of someone’s life.

“Do you want this?” we’re asked while being offered some trinket proudly displayed on a coffee table. It obviously was important to this household, but is close to meaningless to anyone else. We’ll take it, more to be polite than anything else. It helps to validate the life; maybe bring a little closure.

We’re doing one estate now. There have already been two protracted trips to the house. On the first, we pulled nearly 600 paperbacks out. Yesterday we returned for a second round and packed nearly that many hardcover books. There will be one more trip later this week to finish up. The questions were more for what we didn’t take.

“None of the records?” No, sorry. No one wants “The Many Moods of Bobby Vinton” these days. And I’m afraid I will pass on the 8-tracks, too. I just won’t be able to sell “A Boston Pops Christmas” on 8-track. But I will take the stereo. A silent nod of the head in sad, but understanding, assent. I’ve just disparaged an important element in someone’s life.

“But a lot of this is very good stuff,” I hasten to add. “We’ll find a good home for these books.”

I try to be affirming. It is the word of a professional giving an expert evaluation.

Now I’ve just got to figure out what to do with this porcelain figurine of a nondescript bird with “Miami” painted on the base.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Flames Beyond Gettysburg

Ironclad Publishing has just sent forth Flames Beyond Gettysburg, the latest in their Discovering Civil War America series. The book was researched and written by Scott Mingus, Sr. (with help in some areas by his son, Professor Scott Mingus, Jr.). It is a retelling, in detail, of the John B. Gordon expedition in late June 1863.

Just what we need: another book about the Civil War.

I am not being facetious. This is just exactly what we need. For this book details a portion of the battle of Gettysburg that we don’t often see.

Gordon, commanding an element of the Army of Northern Virginia (Confederate States of America), had been detailed to proceed through Adams, York and Lancaster Counties in advance of the rest of Robert E. Lee’s force so as to (1) scare the bejezus out of Pennsylvania in general and Philadelphia in particular and (2) turn north and possibly capture Harrisburg.

Note the date: June 1863. That was about a week before a dust-up that took place just down the road from here in a little crossroads town known as Gettysburg.

It was Gordon’s forces that first captured Gettysburg and Hanover and York and Wrightsville, simply pushing aside any organized Federal resistance that was encountered.

It was Gordon’s forces that emptied barns and larders of horses and food, paying for most with Confederate currency (much to the chagrin of the local citizenry).

And it was Gordon’s forces that entered Wrightsville just in time to see the bridge over the Susquehanna go up in flames (Mingus rightly points out that, today, most travelers heading east over the river barely note the crumbling remains of the earlier bridge's supports as they parallel the current Veterans' Memorial Bridge along Route 462).

And it is Mingus’ book that tells the tale. He brings to life the names and the faces encountered in the old photographs found in archives and libraries in South Central Pennsylvania.

He does it with enough detail to satisfy the nit-pickers. He does it with enough source notations and scholarship to satisfy the professional historian. And he does it with an engaging and flowing style to satisfy even the mildly curious reader.

Not only did I enjoy the ride that Mingus takes us upon, I learned some things about tactics and operations. I also learned some things about the people in this part of Pennsylvania.

It turns out that all the good guys didn’t wear blue. And all the bad guys didn’t wear grey.

I am probably not giving away a surprise ending by revealing here that Harrisburg did not fall to Lee’s army. But what was surprising--at least to me--was how they were stopped. For that, you’ll have to do the research yourself…or read the book.

In addition to reading about the expedition of 150 years ago, Mingus invites us to make our own expeditions by laying out six distinct driving tours. Hop in the car and take the book along and you’ll get to see where raiders roamed and battles (such as they were) took place, stopping along the way at farms, railroad junctions and town squares.

This isn’t his first tome about the Civil War, and I very much hope it is not his last.

I recommend it. And I am looking forward to hosting Mingus as he leads us in a discussion during our upcoming "Butternut and Blue" day later this month. Before that, he will be signing copies during this weekend's York Book and Paper Fair.

The book is available from The York Emporium and via online sites (Amazon, ABE, Alibris, Blblio, and others). Suggested retail: $23.95; ISBN 0-9673770-8-0

Sunday, March 29, 2009

There are details, and there are details.

Three days to go before the start of the Spring Sale. Less than a week to the York Book and Paper Fair. I’m running around the shop shelving books, pricing stuff, coordinating new dealers, printing programs, sending out news releases, trying to clean up.

There is almost too much to do. I’ve been moving around bookcases and shifting entire sections. I’ve got stock to put out ‘cause it just ain’t gonna sell if it is sitting on my desk. And the web sites need updating. And sometime during the next couple of days, I really want to sleep. Sleep would be good right about now.

I will admit to being a bit frazzled. The details are piling up and I am not a detail kinda guy. On the whole, I’d rather just sit down with a cup of joe than do just about any of this.

So yesterday afternoon I was heading toward the automotive section with an armload of books to put away when I am approached by a young lady. She's a regular customer, and I've kidded around with her before when she's been in. So, I smile by best kindly-old-bookpeddler smile, really hoping that I can just point her toward a bookcase and keep moving.

“I have a big favor to ask you,” she says to me.

Uh-oh. This isn’t going to be a 2-second conversation. I want to help, but I have other priorities, other details, at the moment. I really don't have the time for big favors right now. Still, she's a customer and looking a bit nervous. So I set the books down on a display case and give her my full attention.

“What can I do for you?”

“Well,” she said. “See that good looking guy over there?”

I nod.

“He’s asked me to marry him.”

“Congratulations!”

“Thanks." She actually blushed a little. "We were wondering if it would be OK with you…uh…”

Oh, boy. Here it comes, I think. She wants a job. Or a special discount. Or something that is going to cost me money.

“We wanted to ask you if it would be OK if we shot our engagement picture in here. We love this place and we think it would be perfect.”

Suddenly I wasn’t quite as frazzled. Suddenly the details didn’t seem all that important. Suddenly the automotive section would wait.

“Of course. We would be honored.”

We both smiled.

And we set our own date, she and I. I made a mental note to make sure we had cake available.

That’s a detail I just don’t mind.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Yesterday I Will

Every summer The York Emporium used book and curiosity shop in downtown York, Pennsylvania hosts Sci-Fi Saturday. It is a day-long event where writers, publishers, scientists, academicians and buffs get together to celebrate the genre, explore new directions, eat popcorn and generally carry-on.

It is not a convention in the contemporary sense of the term. There aren’t a lot of folks wandering around in costume, for example. There are no big name stars of television shows or movies attending and signing autographs.

But it is a lot of fun.

Various guests will speak on a wide range of topics. “The Philosophy of Science Fiction”, for example. Or “The Writer’s Life.” Or “How To Play a Vulcan Harp.” All have been the subject of presentations in recent years. A NASA scientist addressed the group during the 2008 gathering on the challenges of establishing a permanent base on the Moon.

It was during the 2008 Sci-Fi Saturday that a writing contest was announced. The idea was to give budding writers the opportunity to try their hand at weaving an original tale.

Entries weren’t limited to science fiction, or even fiction for that matter. But imaginations were encouraged to run just a little wild. The rules said short stories, one act plays and poems were all welcome. The only real restrictions were the requirements that all entries be original and all fit the common title, Yesterday I Will.

Word of the contest spread through stories in a host of newspapers, blog entries and web sites. A camera crew happened to be on-hand when the contest was announced and they recorded the initial reading of the rules. A video of this momentous event was placed on YouTube and it garnered more than 3,000 viewings.

And the entries came. The organizers of the event had initially feared that the entries would be few (“What if they gave a contest and nobody came?”), but these fears were unfounded. While the majority originated in Central Pennsylvania, by no means were all confined to this region. More than a dozen states were represented. Alas. no “off-world” entries were received (maybe next time?).

A team of judges that included professional writers, professors of literature and booksellers reviewed the submissions for (1) readability, (2) connection with the theme, (3) originality and (4) overall impression. Each submission was given a score between 1 and 10 for each of these criteria. The judges worked independently. The entries were blind (that is, no names were associated with the entries when they were reviewed). Only the Editor (i.e., me), who did not judge but who coordinated all this, knew who had written what, or who had received what score from what judge.

For what it may be worth, here is my wholly biased review: this thing is pretty good. There’s one play, a host of poems and some really good short stories.

The finished book, we learned today, is just about done. The printer reported that it has been printed and will be bound and shipped next week. And that’s just in time for the official launch during the York Book and Paper Fair next Saturday (April 4).

Damned exciting stuff.

And no one is more excited than our authors. I’ve been sending emails and making phone calls to the winning writers this week to let them know of the plans and the response I’ve been getting has been more than gratifying. These guys are really excited.

Now, I don’t know if anyone is going to make any money on this book. The writers aren’t being paid. I’ve ordered copies for sale in the shop, of course (let’s hope they sell!) and we’ll have it up on the major online sites (Amazon, Biblio, Alibris, ABE, etc., etc.). With luck, we’ll break even. Hopefully the publisher will make a buck or two so they can pay the printer.

But all of that, frankly, is beside the point.

Any and all expenses have been paid in full by the writers. Their enthusiasm has more than ample compensation for whatever efforts we put into this project.

We’re going to do it again.

When Sci-Fi Saturday comes around again this summer, we will announce our next writing contest.

Stay tuned…..

Monday, February 23, 2009

Fasnachts

In New Orleans, on the day before Lent begins, they have a party called Mardi Gras. Folks put on funny clothes and wear silly masks. Young ladies attempt to earn beads. Young men, reputedly, are fairly eager to distribute beads. From the pictures I’ve seen, it would appear that everyone has a pretty good time.

But here in Pennsylvania, we do things a little differently. We don’t go in for funny clothes or silly masks around these parts. And it is still far too cold for ladies to earn beads here (although I suspect that young men would still be willing to distribute them).

Here, Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent) we don’t do Mardi Gras. Here we do Fasnachts.

Frankly, I had never heard of these things before moving here a little over three years ago. But in this part of the world, they are a bona fide BIG DEAL. It is a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition to make these things and eat them on the day before the beginning of Lent.

(By the way, the term “Pennsylvania Dutch” is a misnomer. They aren’t Dutch. The term is a mongrelization of Deutsch, which is the German word for, well, German. But even that is misleading because there wasn’t a Germany when these folks came over. And the Pennsylvania Dutch aren’t necessarily Amish, either. Many of the Pennsylvania Dutch are Amish, but not all Amish are Pennsylvania Dutch. It all gets really complicated from here. Just take my word for it; you’ll sleep better.)

Now, Lent was a very serious time of year for these very serious people. It was a time of fasting and of self-denial. A period of preparation, in anticipation of the joys of Easter. In order to properly observe this serious period, all good things were to have been removed from the pantry for the duration. The duration being the 40 days of Lent.

But it wouldn’t have been right to waste all the good things. So, rather than throw them away, these serious people put all the good things into one big blowout. They made fasnachts.

The idea was to take all the sugar, all the molasses, all the butter, all the lard (one of the really good things!), all the honey and mix them together for one calorie-packed, artery-hardening, delicious lump of really bad cholesterol. Then, when you’ve got your lump really ready, you’d deep-fry it, and sprinkle the result with sugar.

My cardiologist would not approve.

These things are murder. They look a little like a doughnut, but they are not doughnuts. Doughnuts have holes, and there ain’t no holes here (why would anyone leave an empty space where there could be fasnacht-ness?). And traditional fasnachts are square, rather than round. This is because, I am told, it is traditional. That’s a good enough reason for me.

They weigh a bloody ton, even before they are consumed. After they are consumed, they weigh even more. Eat a couple of fasnachts, and you won’t need to eat anything else for 40 days.

Just for the record: cardiologist be damned; I do love them so.

On the off chance that I should be coming to visit and you’re at a loss as to what to serve, I offer here a traditional recipe. For a variation, add potatoes (I’m serious):


1 1/2 quarts milk
1/2-cup molasses or honey
4 quarts flour
2 tablespoons lard
2 cakes yeast
1-cup butter
4 eggs

Scald the milk, then after cooling a little stir in 2 quarts of the flour, to make a batter. Add the yeast after dissolving in lukewarm water. Beat well and let stand overnight to rise. Cream the butter; eggs, molasses or honey, and then add more flour and the lard. Knead well, adding almost all the remainder of the flour. Let rise and then roll out for doughnuts, and fry in deep fat.


After they’ve been consumed, you may do your penance.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Blacklist

Among the large group of paperbacks that came into the shop earlier in the week was a copy of The Bridge Over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle. Set during World War II, it is a fictional account of British prisoners of war working on the Burma railway. It was a best seller when published (originally in French--1952; later in English--1954).

The movie adaptation of the book won 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Alec Guinness). Best Score and Best Screenplay (Adaptation) when it was released in 1957.

Credited as the writer, Boulle accepted the award with what was the shortest acceptance speech in Oscar history when he said, simply: “Merci”. It actually made sense for Boulle to say that because he was, indeed, French. And he spoke no English.

And that inconvenient little fact would have made it very hard for him to write the screenplay to a movie filmed in English using American and British actors.

Actually, he didn’t write it. Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson did. These two guys were Hollywood heavyweights. Foreman wrote, among other things, the 1950 film version of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Jose Ferrer and the 1961 blockbuster The Guns of Navarone. Wilson’s credits included the Christmas perennial It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), along with Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Planet of the Apes (1968).

But Foreman and Wilson had to step aside for Boulle because they both had been blacklisted. Their names could not be publicly associated with the film, for this was the height of the Cold War. Sputnik had just been launched. Along with Senator Joe McCarthy, America was looking under the bed for Communists.

Wilson admitted under oath that he had been a member of the Communist Party in the late 1930s; worse, he had refused to name “fellow travelers”. Foreman had refused to testify altogether. As a result, they had been banned from working in Hollywood.

They actually had some pretty good company. Composers Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland were on the list. Bandleader Artie Shaw was there, as were folksingers Burl Ives and Pete Seeger. Actors Lee J. Cobb and Zero Mostel. Even Gypsy Rose Lee (and you had to know things were getting serious when red-blooded American boys were accused of thinking about Communism when looking at Gypsy Rose Lee).

Nearly 300 people from the entertainment industry—television, radio, recording, theatre and movies—were fired from their jobs and prevented from getting new work by the blacklist. If they did work in the American industry, it was without credit and for significantly reduced wages. Many went to Mexico or to Europe to work there; others left the entertainment world altogether.

And no one had broken any laws. Without doubt, all had a Constitutional right to free assembly and free speech. It wasn’t illegal to be a member of the Communist Party.

The really screwy thing was that many of the people weren’t even Communists, or even Communist sympathizers. They had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or knew someone who was. Or appeared to know someone who was. It was really out of control.

The blacklist lasted from, roughly, 1949 to 1960. It began to crumble when Dalton Trumbo, a truly gifted writer, was given credit for the screenplays to Exodus and Spartacus, both in 1960. The sky didn’t fall, and slowly it melted away.

But it left ruined lives and disillusioned people in its wake.

Pierre Boulle wrote other novels after Bridge Over The River Kwai, most notably Planet of the Apes. He died in 1994 at age 82.

Carl Foreman moved to England in the 1950s and continued his work there. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his accomplishments. He died in 1984.

Michael Wilson continued to work, usually without credit, in the industry. He is known to have written the screenplay (uncredited) for Planet of the Apes and received belated credit for his work on Lawrence of Arabia. He died in 1978.

Foreman and Wilson finally received their Oscars, posthumously, in 1984.

So, if you choose to watch the Oscars tomorrow night, you may want to keep in mind that what you see on the screen isn’t necessarily real.

And if you think censorship is dead...think again. It isn't dead. It can happen again.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

M*A*S*H

Here in Pennsylvania, we seem to put great stock on the predictions of Punxsutawney Phil. On February 2 every year we all tend to gather around to see if this little guy is going to see his shadow. This year he did and he said that Spring is still 6 weeks away.

I’m sorry, Phil. I beg to differ.

In a used book shop we have a much better way of telling how close we are to Spring. What we do is judge the number and size of the boxes of books that people bring to us. There is a direct relationship here, and I think it merits scientific study.

Here’s how it works: the closer we are to the beginning of Spring, the higher the level of cabin fever. The higher the level of cabin fever, the more frustrated folks get with the clutter about the house. The higher the level of folks’ frustration, the greater the desire (particularly on the part of the female versions of folks) to clear the clutter. The greater is this desire, the greater the number of folks (particularly male versions of folks) who lug boxes of books into the shop.

There’s a direct and consistent proportion here. I’ve no doubt that a mathematical formula could be discerned (although it would have to have a multiplier for the “nag” factor).

And based on what I’ve been seeing over the last week or so, I’d say that Spring is just around the corner.

That’s good news, because we’re getting some really good stuff.

This past weekend, for example, I pulled a copy of M*A*S*H out of a box of paperbacks.

An interesting book, with an interesting story.

It was written by Richard Hooker (a pen name, actually; his real name is Richard Hornberger) and was based on his experiences as a doctor with a M*A*S*H unit during the Korean Conflict. He was with the 8055th.

When he wrote the book, he had a hard time getting it published. Truth be told, a nearly impossible time; it was rejected by just about everybody. So he got some help with the original manuscript and, reworked, finally managed to get William Morrow & Co. to send it forth. And there the story would have ended, for it was somewhat less than a best-seller.

But a Hollywood producer named Ingo Preminger (brother of Otto Preminger) read it and saw its potential. He bought the film rights and hired Ring Lardner, Jr. to write a script. Robert Altman was brought in to direct such notables as Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould. And in 1970, 20th Century Fox brought it to theatres. (It had some stiff competition, up against Patton at the same time.)

The movie was a hit and was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture (it only won one, for Best Screenplay). It was such a success that two things happened: (1) the book suddenly became a best seller and (2) the studio decided that maybe it could do something with the sets and props it already had, so they sold CBS on the idea of a TV show.

By this time, Hooker had pretty much lost control of his original story and his characters. He hated the show. Coming on the air as it did in 1972, it was a thinly-veiled attack on the Vietnam War. That wasn’t Hooker’s intention at all.

The show dropped a number of the original characters, developed others out of proportion to their importance in the book (Major Frank Burns, for example, barely makes it through page 49) and created others out of the thin Korean air (there is no Corporal Max Clinger in the book). And the Captain Hawkeye Pierce of the book wouldn’t recognize the man of the same name of the TV series.

So Hooker retuned to his typewriter and produced an entire series of fairly silly and utterly forgettable sequels, starting with M*A*S*H Goes To Maine, and continuing with M*A*S*H Goes To Las Vegas among others.

The TV show, some 251 episodes, ran from 1972 through the 1983 season…or 11 years, roughly 3 times the length of the Korean Conflict itself. The final episode was watched by more than 105-million people, the largest audience in history. Commercials cost more than did Super Bowl ads that year. And it spawned even more spin-off shows.

So, I confess, I grabbed the paperback and brought it home with me Sunday night. I had read it shortly after the movie appeared (yes, I am that old), while I was still in high school. And I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, the silly sequels while I was in college.

I finished the re-reading earlier this evening, and will tell you it was like visiting an old friend. I’ll bring it back into the shop and put it on a shelf tomorrow (one of the good things about reading a used book is that when you’re done, it is still a used book and the value hasn’t been diminished).

And the really good news is, with Spring just around the corner, more new-old books will undoubtedly be arriving every day now.