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