Monday, February 23, 2009


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


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.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Hail Lupercus!

The other day I was restocking and generally cleaning up our selection of vintage greeting cards (the York Daily Record, in a piece a year or so ago, referred to them as “cheeky” greeting cards, and I thought that a little unfair. They’re from the 60s and 70s and some of them are a bit risqué and…well, OK, they are cheeky). Anyway, as I was looking at some of the sly Valentines I got to wondering about the holiday. I knew it was ancient, and certainly worthy of chocolate, but I wasn’t quite sure how sweet it really was.

First of all, according to the folks who keep track of such things, this is a pretty big deal for the greeting card industry. It ranks #2 for cards bought and sent (behind Christmas). I was a bit surprised to learn that women buy nearly 85% of all Valentine cards. There may be a deeper meaning here, but I am not sure I wish to pursue that line of inquiry. (I know that I have bought my share and always on time, as my sense of self-preservation is fairly well developed).

It turns out that the holiday has gone through a number of transformations over the years. The most recent is the shortening of the name, from “Saint Valentine’s Day” to just “Valentine’s Day.” We seem to have lost the connection with the saint and his feast day.

Actually, with the saints. There are (were?) three different saints with the same name and no one is really quite sure which is the one we’re celebrating. Most sources point to a priest who, about the year 270, was beaten to death upon the order of Roman Emperor Claudius II. The execution took place on February 14 (how they are able to set the exact date but not the year is a little fuzzy).

The story goes that the Emperor had banned all marriages that he hadn’t approved (and taxed). But this one, rather romantic, priest defied the edict and performed marriages in secret. True love, apparently, was more important than taxes (at least at the time). For his actions Valentine was sentenced to death. He died, therefore, in the cause of love. (Awwww……)

Well, maybe.

Frankly, it all seems a bit fishy to me. None of this was written down until the year 1493, some one thousand, two hundred and twenty three years after the fact. And those were not one thousand, two hundred twenty three years of happy enlightenment. I think the story may have gotten a bit garbled.

I also think it is no coincidence that the Romans also had a festival about this time every February in honor of the god Lupercus. Now, Lupercus was a minor diety who the Romans had co-opted from the Greeks. The Greeks called him Pan.

The Roman festival entailed an animal sacrifice after which the men who were inspired by their religion ran through the town, either naked or scantily clad, carrying whips that had been dipped in the sacrificial blood. The ladies of the city, also in a religious frame of mind, would accidentally-on-purpose get in their way. The men would sprinkle blood upon them as a way of furthering their fertility during the coming year.

(By the way, if you substitute beer for the blood and change a few other little details, it sounds like a Saturday night in York. But I digress.)

At the end of the running and sprinkling of blood (and, presumably, giggling), everyone wound up at a temple where two urns had been prepared. One held the names of the teenaged boys and the other held the names of the teenaged girls. A priest (not one of the Valentines, to be sure) would pull names at random and boys would be paired with girls. This pairing would remain in place for a year. Since teenaged boys and teenaged girls haven’t changed all that much in 2,000 years and since one had to appease the gods, the pairing would be, shall we say, total. And repeated. Often. Throughout the year.

To this day, there are those who maintain that this beats the heck out of a pot-luck supper after church.

When the Christian Church came to prominence, oh ‘long about the year 270 or so (does the date sound familiar?), a change was made. All this naked-sprinkling-while-giggling, not to mention repeated god appeasements, wouldn’t do. Hence, the appearance of a martyr to love. As an homage to the ancient ways, Cupid still seems to be hovering around. And rather than pull a name at random out of an urn, we now send cards. This is called progress.

I swear by the god Lupercus am not making any of this up.

Well, not much of it anyway.

Now…might I interest you in a vintage cheeky greeting card?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Number 2,499

Sometime during the night tonight we shall pass a milestone. Earlier today we shipped book #2,499 that had been ordered through one of the on-line services. If all goes well, we will receive an order for number two thousand, five hundred tonight.

When I stop and think about it, I come to the conclusion that it is really quite an accomplishment. We haven’t really been involved with that aspect of the business all that long; a little over two years, perhaps. And we really only got religion about it a year or so ago.

I saw “we”, but it really is my poor, long-suffering bride (hereinafter “PLSB”) who does all the work on this phase of the business, and to her go the accolades. She sifts through the inventory that comes into the shop and decides which books are to be fully catalogued and put on the Internet. Truly, she has a better feel for this than do I. And it is she who keeps the records straight, takes the orders, does the packing and makes the daily schlep to the post office.

PLSB is good at it and she enjoys it. And she has, with good reason, mandated that I pretty much stay away from it.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. In all fairness, I should say that she has actually mandated that I stay THE HELL away from it. A wise woman, my PLSB.

But I admit that I am of two minds about this business of selling books online.

On the one hand, of course, I am more than happy to cash the checks from Abe, Alibris, Biblio, Amazon, Barns & Noble, et. al. It is not quite “found” money. But it is certainly bonus money.

We maintain two distinct inventories. The larger is the one in the shop and it numbers upwards of 300,000 titles. The online inventory, now numbering around 3,000 titles, consists of the more esoteric titles and they generally are significantly more expensive. Whereas the average book in the shop will sell for between $3 and $4, the online average is in the $12 to $15 range (with more than a few listed for $75 to $100 or more).

So, yes, I am happy that my PSLB has developed this business and that she is shipping books to Australia, Russia, South America and throughout the United States (all this just within the past week, by the way).

The problem I have with online sales is really two-fold. First, I would kinda like to have some of these in the shop, even if they don’t sell. We keep some of the more rare books under lock-and-key here, and I think they’re probably safe. And they are certainly neat to look at. But that’s a lousy business decision. Still “neat” is rather high on my list of priorities. (“Eating regularly” ranks a little higher, which is why they’re online.)

The other is a more philosophic reason. Perhaps I am a bit of a Luddite in all this, but the purist in me would rather someone come into a book shop, any book shop even if it is not mine, to find reading material. There is something to be said for poking around the shelves of a used book shop in search of a treasure. There’s the aspect of working just a little bit to find what you seek…the thrill of the hunt and all that. There’s also the aspect of browsing and making the happy discovery of a title that you hadn’t known. Perhaps a little-known work by a favorite author or an obscure title on the topic of interest.

It is a romantic notion that I fear is rapidly going out of style.

Last night I committed an act that brought me square up against my misgivings by posting a direct link from our website to our online inventory:

One stop closer, I suppose, to the end of civilization as we know it.

So…here’s to Number 2,500! I hope it is something fun. And here’s to my PLSB! She is certainly something fun.

And here’s to my continuing to stay THE HELL away from the online business!

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Haunted Bookshop

Not a lot of people remember Christopher Morley anymore, and that’s a shame. He was a man of letters who gained fame during the first half of the 20th Century. Novelist, essayist, editor, journalist. He was one of the founders of the original Baker Street Irregulars (a group dedicated to examining and celebrating the minutia of Sherlock Holmes). He was also the guy who made many of the selections for the Book-of-the-Month Club.

Among the novels of the native Pennsylvanian (he was born in Bryn Mawr in 1890) are two that work in tandem: Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop. Both have as a central character Mr. Roger Mifflin, a peddler of used books. In the first novel, the peddler goes from town to town in a horse-drawn wagon. In the second, he has settled down to run a used book shop in Brooklyn, NY.

But this is not just any book shop. It is a haunted book shop. Haunted not by run-of-the-mill ghosts, but by “the ghosts of all great literature.” I don’t want to give the plot away, but I will say that these ghosts do play a part in solving a mystery.

Morley was obviously a romantic when it came to used book shops. Here’s a passage from The Haunted Bookshop that proves my point:

“The bookstore is one of humanity’s great engines, and one that we use very imperfectly. It is a queer fact that most of us still have the primitive habit of visiting bookshops chiefly to ask for some definite title. Aren’t we ever going to leave anything to destiny, or to good luck, or to the happy suggestion of some wise bookseller?

“We have ready access, in the bookshop, to one of the greatest instruments of civilization; and yet none of us—neither publishers, booksellers, nor customers—have yet learned more than an inkling of what that place can accomplish.

"In every bookstore, small or large, there are books we have not read; books which may have messages of unsuspected beauty or importance. They may be new books, they may be of yesterday, or of long ago.

"The store where you found this volume exists in the hope of knowing—and learning—about books. There is no habit more valuable than that of dropping into a bookstore occasionally to look round—to look both inward and outward.

“We have what you need, though you may not know you need it.”

Personally, I couldn't agree more with the above. (I particularly like the bit about the "wise bookseller"... as if there were any other kind). I've put this passage on a poster and have it hanging in several spots around the shop.

Morley spent most of his working life in and around New York City. His home, on Long Island, has been preserved as a park and is available for touring. I fear not many people do anymore; I confess that I have not. He died in 1957.

Anyway, I bring all this up because we happened upon a couple of copies of these two novels while we were cleaning out an old inventory closet earlier this week. I’m really hoping that these won’t be hanging around long.