Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Give me a book that will change my life."

“Give me a book,” he said, “that will change my life.”

He was a student at one of the local colleges, in his junior year (that’s a guess). I’m not sure of his major, although he did tend to gravitate to the psychology and philosophy shelves. He’d been in the shop before. Not really a regular, but I do remember seeing him once or twice.

And today he seemed to be on a bit of a mission.

“I need to get motivated. What I am doing now isn’t working, and I need to find something else that will move me into a different direction.”

“So give me a book that will change my life.”

That’s asking rather a lot from a book. But he was serious, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

Maybe I should have handed him a treatise on differing philosophic or theological world-views. Maybe I should have given him something on Einstein or Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Or The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran; that’s a big one. Or just told him to read almost anything by Shakespeare. But I didn’t.

Nor did I ask him a lot of questions; maybe I should have. Instead, a vision of another college junior looking to change directions flashed into my head.

Suddenly it was 1975 again. That was my third year in a little private college, and perhaps the most confusing year of my life. Many of the universal truths that I had simply accepted up to that point somehow had dissipated. Unfortunately, nothing had as yet appeared to take their place.

So I was looking for a change of direction at that point, too. It wasn’t a panic thing, but it was certainly a quest.

But not a quest for someone else’s answers. I was looking for my own. I didn’t want anyone to tell me what to think or what to do, and I honestly didn’t want to know what someone else had come up with. This was something I really wanted to figure it out myself.

And it all revolved around a simple, yet somehow eloquent, question: “Huh?” That pretty much fit every situation where I found myself.

So, I will admit: I was projecting my own quest upon this earnest young man. For all I know, he just wanted instructions for a better way to do his laundry. That’s not what he got.

Instead, we went to the Science Fiction section and I handed him a book that I wish someone had handed to me.

Good science fiction starts with an absurd premise (obviously, we cannot travel between the stars). But if you accept that premise, everything that happens afterward flows naturally (if we could travel between the stars…what would we find? Who would we find?).

What is important about science fiction is not the story. Rather, what is important is the very act of accepting the absurd, for this act of acceptance requires a profound suspense of disbelief.

More than that, it requires non-linear thinking. Thoughts and ideas and concepts racing between stars or bouncing off, and perhaps breaking, the boundaries of space and time. New concepts of what is, and is not, and what could be, real. New constructs; new ways of evaluating our own space and time.

And it is precisely non-linear thinking that my young customer was seeking (although he may not have realized it). I wasn’t about to give him a new direction; he probably would have rejected, wisely, anything along those lines that I had suggested. Instead, I was going to give him a new way of finding his own direction.

I handed him Time Enough For Love by Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein was probably the best who have written in this genre, and this was (in my opinion) his best work. (I won’t tell you the plot. But I will say that if you don’t know it, I envy you for what you have yet to discover.)

If all goes well, he may have just spent the best $3.50 of his life.

On the other hand, he no longer has change to do his laundry.

Either way, his life just changed. That's my job.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Did you forget the one thing I asked you to do this morning?

My poor, long-suffering bride triggered the deer-in-the-headlights response (that is a technical term) from me this morning while I was rushing around getting ready to come in and open the shop.

“Did you forget the one thing I asked you to do this morning?”

It is a perfectly legitimate question and one that my poor, long-suffering bride was well within her rights to ask.

It is also a question absolutely fraught with peril. There are undertows here, with momentous implications and deeply significant meanings into which the unwitting may blunder and there be impaled, forevermore, by a rash, unwise or otherwise innocent response.

Truly, it was a thing of beauty.

Let us stop for a moment here to examine the danger. If we parse the question we may more fully appreciate the awesome power wielded with so little effort by my poor, long-suffering bride (hereinafter, “PLSB”).

Did you forget…” Obviously, the answer is "yes", otherwise the question would never have been asked in the first place. Just as obviously, one cannot just blurt out this answer, lest the battle be lost without a shot being fired (although the experienced husband will know at this point that the battle has, indeed, already been lost). But it is a signal, and most husbands who acknowledge a PLSB will immediately rise to the balls of their feet (this is known as “assuming the position”) in anticipation of what is to come.

…the one thing…” Dear, Holy Mother of God! PLSB only asked one thing of me and I have already forgotten what it was! The wise man has already started to review every word that may have passed between him and his PLSB since the breaking of dawn. This is a natural and utterly useless attempt to reconstruct the past. Studies have shown this process to be akin to one’s life passing before one’s eyes in the moments before imminent death. It is usually accompanied by the feeling you get when you lean too far back and your chair and you almost fall over but just catch yourself at the last moment.

…that I asked…” Read: “I do so much for you and ask so little in return and you just don’t care enough to pay attention to anything I say and what I want just makes no difference to you at all and if it doesn’t fit in with what you want to do it has no meaning at all you schmuck.” There is simply no acceptable response, verbal or non-verbal, to this. You cannot run; you cannot hide.

…you to do…” See “…that I asked…”, above.

…this morning?” The day has barely begun, but you might as well give up because it is all downhill from here. Accept it: you will be lucky to get dinner tonight.

All of this, of course, goes through your mind in a matter of milliseconds: weighing options, judging outcomes and playing-though various scenarios. Hence, the deer-in-the-headlights response.

In the end, of course, there is only one acceptable avenue open to you. You must let your shoulders sag, bow your head in mute acceptance of your eternal thoughtlessness, and go do the dishes. It probably isn’t what PLSB asked you to do, but it won’t hurt.

I am reminded of an episode of You Bet Your Life:
Groucho—“Are you married, Georgette?”
Georgettte—“Yes, I’ve been married to the same man for thirty-one years.”
Groucho—“Well, if he’s been married for thirty-one years, he’s not the same man.”

Oh, by the way, absolutely the LAST thing you should do is blog about it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Our Inaugural connection

Perhaps it is a bit tenuous, but we do have a connection with the inauguration of the 44th President.

The story starts in 2004. In Illinois a heated race was taking place for an open seat for the US Senate. Republican candidate Jack Ryan was making a strong bid for the slot, and it looked like he has a pretty good shot at it. The Democrats had put a relative unknown against him and Ryan was pushing hard. He had to, after all this was Illinois and although it was the "Land of Lincoln", the GOP was far from a powerhouse there.

And, of course, Illinois had Chicago where Republicans were never strong. Big Jim Thompson, once mayor, had famously told his constituents to "vote early and vote often." And stories still circulate about the dead rising from their graves to vote for Kennedy in 1960.

But Ryan was doing alright with the voters and the polls. It wasn't going to be easy, but he had a shot. Until, that is, the news media (specifically, The Chicago Tribune) started to demand that certain sealed court records be opened for inspection.

Ryan had been through a messy divorce a few years earlier. As part of the final decree, it had been agreed by both parties that the documents relating to visiting rights be sealed. Everyone involved thought it best to keep some things private, if only for the sake of the kids. The news media didn't agree. The Tribune sued to have the documents opened.

The judge sided with the newspaper and opened the records. It seems that during custody hearings where visiting rights and alimony payments were determined (and where all parties are, of course, scrupulously honest and forthright) Ryan's wife claimed that he took her to sex clubs and pestered her to perform sex with him in public. Ryan denied the charges. He said they had gone to an avant-garde club in Paris during a romantic get-away, but neither of them felt comfortable with the proceedings so they left.

Opening the records of this acrimonious divorce led to a rather bizarre twist: a sex scandal involving a husband and wife in which nothing happened. Or, in other words, licit sex had not taken place! Scandal!

It was a big deal. So big, in fact, that Ryan was forced to withdraw from the race short weeks before the election. The Republicans were left without a candidate, and were forced to scramble. At that point, the Democrats were all but assured of winning the seat.

The Democrat candidate was Barack Obama. Yep, he won and went to the Senate.

Ryan's wife was actress Jeri Ryan. She is best known for her role in Star Trek: Voyager as Seven-of-Nine.

Where do we come in? Well, Seven-of-Nine stands greeting customers in our bathroom.

Now it could be plausibly argued, I suppose, that Barack Obama might have won the Presidency if Seven-of-Nine hadn't been standing in our bathroom. But that is far from a certainty. Do you honestly think that Mr. Obama would want to take that chance?

Live long and prosper.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What a long, strange trip...

The big topic of conversation in the news media this week has been the President-Elect's trip to Washington. He took a train from Philadelphia, stopping in Wilmington, Delaware to pick-up the Vice President-Elect so he would draw parallels to the journey taken by then President-Elect Lincoln. "Re-create the train ride," the Associated Press said. "Replicate the ride," said CNN. CBS news said he was "Tracing the route."

This didn't seem quite right to me, so I wandered over to our Civil War section. (Doing research is not a challenge in a used book shop. I don't have to go to the library or do extensive online searches. I just have to take a look at the shelves.)

It turns out that about the only similarity between Obama's trip and Lincoln's trip is that the cities of Philadelphia and Washington are in roughly the same geographic locations.

Lincoln's journey began in Springfield, IL on February 10, 1861 and lasted fourteen days. His route took him to Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, Albany, New York, Trenton, Philadelphia and Harrisburg. It wasn't the most direct route, but the purpose wasn't so much as to take him to Washington as it was to let people see him. This was an era where those running for the highest office in the land didn't campaign, thinking it was unseemly. The candidates would stay at home and utter periodic platitudes while their minions would be loud and boisterous and make all kinds of wild claims. (Today, of course, such claims are made by the candidates themselves, in addition to the minions.)

Anyway, Lincoln's train would stop repeatedly during each day--6, 8 and sometimes a dozen times--and Lincoln would speak at each stop. Sometimes he would merely step out onto the back platform; sometimes he would disembark and address crowds (as he did at Independence Hall) or the state legislatures (as he did in Harrisburg).

The trip was not without drama. On the day he set out, for example, a resolution was introduced to the House of Representatives meeting in Washington that called on Lincoln to acknowledge the existence of the Confederate States of America as a free and independent country and to receive its ambassadors as fully-credentialed diplomats from a foreign power. (The Confederacy had already met in Montgomery, AL; had adopted its Constitution and had elected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as its President. Indeed, Davis would take his oath of office while Lincoln was on this trip.) And, while in Philadelphia, Lincoln symbolically raised a new flag over Independence Hall. That ceremony went well until the flag caught on something and was ripped asunder while Lincoln was tugging on the rope.

But the most disturbing element of the trip happened out of public view in Harrisburg on the evening of February 22. Lincoln decided to forgo any public appearances south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It seemed that people wanted to kill him there.

Delaware and Maryland still allowed slavery within their borders. There had been tavern talk in Delaware, loose and ill-defined, about a plan to stop the train, pull Lincoln off and hang him. It was a threat, but probably not one that would actually be acted upon.

That was not the case in Baltimore, where there existed a dedicated and well-organized plot to kill Lincoln as he made his way through the city. The conspirators had it pretty well worked out how they would surround the President-Elect and shoot him in the Baltimore station when he was changing trains. That stage had been set and all was in readiness. Allen Pinkerton, who was working on another case, learned of it and took steps to thwart the plan.

What Pinkerton did was convince Lincoln to depart from his schedule and travel incognito on the night prior to his published schedule. The tale involves a forced shutdown of communications (telegraph wires from Harrisburg went dead early in the evening and several newspaper reporters were actually held at gunpoint in a hotel room to prevent them from broadcasting the story), a special train silently screaming through the rural Pennsylvania night, a disguised Lincoln slipping through the sleeping city and into the station in Philadelphia accompanied only by Pinkerton and a single bodyguard, and a blacked-out coach driving through the streets of Baltimore in the wee, early hours of the morning. Lincoln actually arrived in Washington with the dawn, unexpected and unannounced, on the morning of February 23. He showed up at Willard's Hotel, less than a block from the White House, a little after 6 in the morning.

The newspapers had a field day, since few believed that a plot actually existed. Fantastic and wholly-inaccurate stories of the affair were published, with glee, much to the amusement of the general populous. Cartoons, such as the one reproduced here from the March 9, 1861 edition of Vanity Fair, made Lincoln a laughing-stock.

So, the elements of similarity between the current President-Elect's trip and the then President-Elect's trip seem to be limited to the cities of Philadelphia, and of Washington, and something about a train.

When all this was pointed out to a spokesman of President-Elect Obama, his reply was that today we choose to acknowledge the positive aspects of our history.

Well, it is a new day and maybe that's the way it should be.

Still, selective reading of history....? Cui bono?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Time for a libertarian rant

We sold a hand fan out of the Blue Monster (our display case for military and historical insignifica) yesterday. It was a souvenir of the 1893 Harrisburg convention of the Women's Christian Temperance Union.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union was the group embarked on a mighty campaign against the evils of drinking alcohol. That campaign ended with the enactment of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution ushering in the grand social experiment commonly known as Prohibition. The aim of the experiment was a change in culture and behavior for the better. (The organization still exists, by the way.)

It did indeed change the culture and behavior of the population, but not necessarily for the better. New industries were spawned, not all of them strictly legal. It was one of the elements that gave rise to organized crime (Al Capone, et al, in Chicago and elsewhere). Liquor continued to be served in the White House (Warren G. Harding and Franklin Roosevelt in particular each had his own reserve; FDR in fact had a daily ritual drink late each afternoon, personally serving all who happened to be present). And on the neighborhood level, "speakeasies" (clandestine pubs) were born. (There was actually one of those in our building here in downtown York.)

I got to thinking about this last night when I saw that another well-intentioned group has embarked on yet another campaign to bring about a change in culture and behavior. The National Safety Board has formally announced an initiative to ban the use of cell phones while driving. These are the same good folks to got the ball rolling to change the laws and require that we all buckle up while driving.

Like the Women's Christian Temperance Union before them, the members of National Safety Council are well within their rights to try to get this done.

And I am well within my rights to resist.

Let's take seat belts as an example. Now, I am in the habit of buckling up. It only makes good sense for me to do so. But I strongly resent the fact that I am required by law to do so.

I worked hard to earn the money to buy my car. But I did, and I paid for it. Paid the taxes, too. And I've paid my fees to have it registered. I've paid my fees to get a license to drive. I pay for insurance on the car. I pay to have the thing inspected. And I pay the government even more taxes every time I buy gas. And I pay to park on a public road (that my taxes allegedly help to pave and maintain). I don't complain about it. I don't try to duck it. I pay. And I continue to pay.

So, where the heck does the government get off telling me that I must buckle my seat belt? It is my car. It is my front seat. The government didn't buy it for me, or help me to pay for any of the continuing costs. So what I do, or don't do, in the front seat should be my business. I have paid, dearly, for this front seat. It is mine. And I would very much like to invite the government to get out of my front seat. Actually, I'd like them to get the hell out of my front seat.

This is not a purely academic debate.

We are in an era of creeping "nanny government." There seems to be a belief among many that the government knows what is better for us than we do ourselves. We have seen in recent years legislative restrictions placed on all sorts of personal behavior: seat belt use, smoking/not smoking, gambling/not gambling. Next up will be cell phone use/non-cell phone use.

Where does this attempt at controlling behavior end? Where is the line?

I am not some ideological nut-case. I am really wondering...

Will the government decide what we can and cannot watch on TV? (Before answering, be aware that The Playboy Channel is prohibited by government regulation from a large number of cable systems around the country.) Will the government decide what we can and cannot read?

Instead of a "speakeasy", will this building one day house a clandestine "readeasy"?

These notions are not absurd. They are a logical progression of where we are heading. To quote myself: where is the line?

The answer is: there is no line. If you accept the concept that the government (federal, state or local) knows best about seat belts or gambling or cell phones, then you must accept the concept that they know best about what you should be doing...or thinking.

Maybe it is time to ban Huckleberry Finn again?

Somewhere, I suspect, the good and gentle founders of the Women's Christian Temperance Union are smiling.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Changing technologies & curiosity shops

One of the biggest companies that you've probably never heard of quietly closed most of its doors and went away at the end of last month. It was a victim not of the economy, but of changes in technologies and consumer preferences.

Qualex, Inc. was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Eastman Kodak, not that was in itself evil (nor, frankly, much of a recommendation for sanctity). The organization came into being in 1988 when Kodak merged its photofinishing operations with those of Fuqua Industries. Kodak had been buying many independent wholesale labs for several years at that point. It had already acquired such outfits as Fox Photo and American Photo Group (the #2 and #3 in national sales volume) among others and, of course, they had their own Kodak labs (#4 in sales volume). Fuqua Industries owned Colorcraft Corporation (the #1 in sales volume).

On paper it made good sense. This new organization that had been formed by the merger developed the film that folks took to their neighborhood drugstores or supermarkets. The labs operated by Qualex (93 at the high-water mark) did most of this work throughout the country. There were a few other photofinishers (York had one in fact: Simon Photo on South Pine Street), but nationally, Qualex did the lion share.

With these labs, Qualex had annual sales of somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.3-billion. That's an awful lot of snapshots.

Well, the last of the Qualex labs that were providing service to the United States and Canada--all 3 of them--have closed. There wasn't enough film being shot in North America to justify keeping even those labs open. That business; pretty much that entire industry, has gone. People are now taking pictures with digital cameras or with their phones. If prints are made at all, they are made right at home. There is no longer a demand for film or film developing. It took about 17 years to go from 93 labs to 0 labs.

Kodak actually saw it coming and tried to hold it off for a bit with its PhotoCD© products. Introduced in 1992, the product allowed consumers to place their images onto a special CD-ROM. You had to start with film, but you wound up with a digital file. And that was the beginning of the end for film because once people saw how flexible digital files were, and how inexpensive they were to produce and save, there wasn't a lot of incentive to keep buying cans of film and storing negatives and beat-up photographs in old shoe boxes.

I got to thinking about all this yesterday when a customer came in and told me about a new machine he had seen online. It would do print-on-demand books, spitting out finished product from an assembled digital file. Download a file, push a button and 15-minutes later you've got a finished book sitting there. You might have to wait a little bit for the glue to dry on the binding but that was about it.

The machine costs about $125,000. It is big and it is clunky and it is ugly so not a lot of people are going to want one in their living room.


The first PhotoCD machines cost about the same amount of money. It too was big and clunky and no one wanted one in the living room. On the other hand, a lot of one-hour photo labs wanted one in their shops in the malls. (Cue the spooky music now). Before long, you didn't need the full set-up and before long people wanted to play the home version of the game.

All of this begs the question: Will books go the way of film?

Of course, there is something to be said for holding a book in your hands. (That's the same something that Kodak used to say about holding pictures, by the way.) On the other hand, you are reading this on your computer and you are becoming accustomed to looking at your pictures on a monitor. And there is a whole generation now that has no idea of how to load film in a camera since, chances are, they've never seen it done (they're the same ones who do not know what a vinyl record is).

How long will it be before books are seen as the ugly, clunky things that need to be schlepped from place to place and then stored until/if they are ever needed again? Are we talking about 10 years? 15 years? Certainly not as long as 50 years.

Books as we know them now will most certainly go away. Publishers are already producing digital books ("ebooks"). And Google is working with libraries to digitize rare and out-of-print titles to make them available online (do a Google search right now for "ebooks" and you will find more than 58-million results!). The right device for reading this wealth of material hasn't yet caught the public's fancy. There is no iPod for books right now. But one, no doubt, is coming. And when that happens, the big specialty chains and a lot of the mom-and-pop shops will disappear, just as the record shops did; just as Qualex did. You (or your children or your grandchildren) will buy your books online and download them (sounds a bit like iTunes to me) to some special device. They will be stored for awhile; maybe deleted after a bit. A few might be printed and then discarded when no longer needed.

But the good news is that just as you can, today, find a little shop that will still have records or typewriters for sale, in another 10 or 15 years, you will find curiosity shops that still have used books.

My guess is that The York Emporium used book and curiosity shop will still be here. And you (or your children or your grandchildren) will stop by, in another 50 years or so...and I may still be behind the counter offering Tootsie-Rolls and stupid jokes and explaining the difference between a paperback and a hardcover and saying things like, "No, you don't need to plug it in."

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I get presents

Late Thursday afternoon, and I am tired. I'm sitting at my desk looking at the mess.

And it is a mess. Half of York County must have made a New Year's resolution to clean up the clutter, starting with the books. We're getting inundated. Without exaggeration I can say that I've sorted, priced and shelved at least a dozen boxes of books in the last two days. And, by actual count, 75 videos and no less than 3 dozen DVDs. And you can't tell. The front of the shop is a disaster with stacks of books on the counters and boxes of books on the floor.

So I was tired and a bit disgusted with myself for not having a nice, clean book shop and it was only about 4:30 in the afternoon. With the York Chess Club coming in tonight, I was looking at another 5 hours before I could head out.

It was then that two gentlemen walked in the door. "Burst in" would probably be a better description.


"Guilty," I said in reply. I didn't quite remember him. It seemed to me that he'd been in the shop once or twice before, but I honestly didn't remember much more than that. He'd brought his brother with him this time (apparently he was in town for a few days' visit).

He grabbed my hand and gave it a shake. "I was here right before Christmas looking for a book," he said. "You didn't have it."

That, unfortunately, happens a lot. I have learned that it is one thing to have upwards of 300,000 books; it is quite another thing altogether to have the right 300,000 books. I am convinced that I can probably get rid of half my inventory because it will never sell. All I need to do now is figure out which half.

I started to say something about being sorry that I didn't have the book he wanted, but he just waved that off.

"I found it online," he said. "A used copy."

"Oh, good," I said.

"And I got one for you, too. Here," he said as he handed me a copy of Take Over: How Euroman Changed The World, a science fiction novel written by Dr. Arthur Niehoff. Dr. Niehoff is a retired anthropologist who, during a career spanning 47 years, did original field research in addition to carrying an academic load on various college campuses. At least, that's what it says in his biography on the cover.

Before this afternoon, I'd never heard of the book. Or of Dr. Niehoff.

I stood, mouth open, with the book in my hands.

"I've got to go. See you next time!"

The two of them walked out the door and left me standing there like that. I'm not even sure I thanked him.

All of a sudden, I wasn't quite so tired. And of the 300,001 books in the shop, I know of at least one that I will never sell.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Stratemeyer Syndicate

Trick question: True or false--Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon are one and the same person.

Carolyn Keene, you may recall, is the creator/author of the Nancy Drew series. Franklin W. Dixon holds that honor for The Hardy Boys.

The answer is: it's a trick question. Both Carolyn Keen and Franklin W. Dixon are pseudonyms, and they both belong to one of the most successful book packaging operations in publishing history.

A book packager is a company that produces books more-or-less on demand for publishers. The practice continues into the 21st century. The idea is that the company creates the book to meet the specifications of a given contract. For example, a publisher wants to put out a series of guides to the great outdoors or to the great cities of Europe. It might approach an organization with some credibility in the field (the Audubon Society or the Nature Conservancy, for example). The organization will agree to lend their name to the project, but they won't necessarily have the staff to compile the book. So a packager is contracted to do the actual work. This company does the research, writes the text, secures rights to the photos, etc. and pretty much puts it together for an agreed-upon fee. Once the book is published, the packager is pretty much done. Often it doesn't receive credit or even an acknowledgement.

In many respects, it isn't all that different from a ghost writer who will produce a book that is credited to another individual ( don't think that John F. Kennedy actually wrote Profiles in Courage, do you?)

Anyway, Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon weren't real people. They were pseudonyms owned by The Stratemeyer Syndicate. It got its start in 1899 when Edward Stratemeyer launched a series of juvenile fiction called The Rover Boys. He wrote the books himself under the pseudonym of Arthur M. Winfield. (Stratemeyer was comfortable with pseudonyms; he had written a number of the Horatio Alger novels using that pseudonym.)

The first series was a hit, so he expanded into a second series called The Bobbsey Twins, written under the name of Laura Lee Hope. This, too, proved popular and Stratemeyer knew he was on to something.

He also knew that he wouldn't be able to crank them out fast enough all by his lonesome. So he got some help by hiring ghost writers. These men and women would be paid a fee to produce books in the series according to a set of rules (and names) dictated by Stratemeyer.

One of the rules was that Stratemeyer would devise the titles and the basic plot that the writers would flesh out. Another was that the writers were sworn to secrecy. No one was to know that there was no one Carolyn Keene or Franklin W. Dixon. In fact, a series of writers (usually moonlighting newspaper reporters) wrote under each name. Fan mail directed to the authors in care of the publisher was forwarded, and answering letters were sent by either "the assistant to" or "the secretary of" the particular author. And no one outside a small circle knew.

The number of series in the Stratemeyer Syndicate continued to expand. In addition to Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, there were The Radio Boys, Ted Scott Flying Stories, Tom Swift (actually, Tom Swift, Tom Swift, Jr. and Tom Swift III each had his own series), The Happy Hollisters...more than 40 series in all.

Mr. Stratemeyer died in 1930, but his Syndicate continued and was operated by his daughter, Harriet. She continued to introduce new series and, in the 1950s, she began to update the earlier books. Times were changing and teenagers listening to Elvis weren't really all that taken by reading about the exploits of air mail pilots (especially when they were written in the present tense). There was also the issue of awakening consciousness, and many of the books were no longer quite correct in their characterizations of various ethnic groups. The term "politically correct" hadn't yet been coined, but if it had it certainly would not have applied to the stereotypes and slurs that the books contained.

Harriet continued to update the series and in the 1970s, she decided to start producing the books in paperback. Well, the traditional publisher, Grosset & Dunlap was less than enthusiastic (they didn't do paperbacks) and they sued. For more than 70 years the secret had been kept (that's far longer than many of the secrets of World War II when you stop to think about it), but the law suit brought it all out into the open.

The secret was out! There was no one Carolyn Keene. There was no one Franklin W. Dixon. But there was one Stratemeyer Syndicate. And since they won the suit, there would now be modern paperbacks. They were enough like the original to please the parents (who actually bought the books) but realistic enough in contemporary references (no more roadsters, for example) to satisfy the young teens who would read them.

With Harriet's death in 1982, Simon & Schuster bought the Syndicate and continues to publish several of the series.

So, if you answered "yes" to our original question ("True or false--Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon are one and the same person."), you were correct. It is, indeed, both true and false.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming came into the shop today, in a manner of speaking. We took in a nice selection of Fleming paperbacks. They are all of mid-1960s vintage, and that makes them almost 50 years old.

This ain't great literature, but they're all fun reads. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Fleming, by the way, was one of President Kennedy's favorite authors (just as the UK's Queen Elizabeth makes it a point to read each Dick Francis novel as soon as it is published).

And I've always found it interesting to see how good some books really are before Hollywood screws them up.

Fleming was an interesting guy all by himself. During World War II, he worked in British intelligence and, so the story goes, he got the germs of many of Bond's exploits from actual events. That's the story, anyway, and it sounds good to me.

But here's another story, and this one happens to be true. I first wrote about it in one of my books, How To Tell A Secret (HarperCollins was kind enough to publish that in 2007): At the onset of World War II, the United States had no single, coordinated agency for gathering or evaluating intelligence. Independent offices were run by the Navy, the Army and the State Department. And not only did they not work together, they didn't even talk to each other or share what information they had. So President Roosevelt turned to an old friend, William Donovan, and asked him to draw up a proposal for a unified nest of spies.

Donovan retreated to his townhouse in the Georgetown section of D.C. to devise what was to be known as the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS). This was the direct precursor of the modern CIA.

"Wild Bill" Donovan as he was called (but not to his face) had some help. The British spymaster in the US, William Stevenson (who later gained fame as A Man Called Intrepid), along with his aide, a naval commander, both worked diligently on the document. Their role, however, was kept secret. It wouldn't have been good politics to let the world know how much the Brits were involved in the development of the American spy agency. So no one really knows for sure how much of the OSS actually came from Donovan or from Stevenson or from the aide for that matter.

The aide's name was Ian Fleming.

It's kinda neat that the guy who wrote all those books about 007 with the license to kill and all those gadgets and girls (did I mention the girls?) actually had a hand in creating the CIA. James Bond was, like Fleming, a Commander in the Royal Navy.

Fleming wrote things other than the Bond series. His day job was on the editorial board of The Times of London, although he left that job and devoted himself more-or-less full time to producing books after the received the Presidential boost. His most commercially successful book, other than the 14 Bond novels, was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (made into a movie starring Dick Van Dyke), juvenile fiction about a car that could sprout wings and fly or turn itself into a boat all in an attempt to catch the bad guys.

None of these books will be in the Classics section, and I don't think they made a Cliff Notes on any of them. But they are a lot of fun. And they did spark the whole spy-craze that included such characters as James Bond, Matt Helm, Maxwell Smart and the works of John le Carre and Robert Ludlum, among others.

Fleming died of a heart attack in 1964.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

We have a ghost?

Yesterday I thought that the neatest thing in the shop was an authentic "Lincoln for President" campaign button (see previous post). Today I am not so sure.

Late this afternoon two ladies were in the shop and after I had bagged their treasures, one asked if we had any books on the ghosts of York. I told her that we didn't at the moment, and then started to tell her about the imp that lives in Clark Alley (it runs right behind the shop) and a few other stories, and about how local author Leo Motter had told us all about them during last summer's "Horrible Saturday" celebration, and...

And then she said, "And of course you have one here."

She stopped me cold with that one. At first I thought she was joking, but she was absolutely serious.

"We have a ghost?"


"You're kidding me, right?"

"No, you've got one," said the other one.

I just blinked and looked from one to the other. They weren't kidding. My mouth, I am sure, was hanging open.


"He's friendly. He likes it here. He is very comfortable."

"It's a 'him'?," I asked.

"Well, I am not sure. That wasn't clear. But I know it is here because he brought me over to the section I was looking for."

These were two intelligent, well-read women, and they were telling me matter-of-factly that we have a ghost. And a ghost who knows his way around the store well enough to help customers find books, no less. But to these two ladies, this entity's presence was no more surprising than the color of our ceiling (white) or the composition of our counter (wood).

"You must be mistaken," I said. "The building isn't that old. "

"Oh that doesn't make any difference," I was assured. "It may have come in with a book or a video."


"It doesn't make any difference" the first one said. "It likes it here."

"And it will protect you," the second one said.

Protect me? Protect me from what? Now there was a question I didn't want answered.

"But I don't want a ghost," I said as they were walking out the door. "I really don't!"

I had no idea that we had a ghost. No one has ever mentioned it before...not that there's any reason why it would come up in conversation. ("How 'bout them Eagles? Nice day, isn't it? How's your ghost?")

I don't believe in ghosts. And I certainly don't believe that we have one who moonlights as a tour guide to The York Emporium.

But I will admit that when I did my final walk-thru tonight, and again right after I turned out the lights, I did take a quick look back over my shoulder.


Friday, January 2, 2009

The neatest thing in the shop

The neatest thing in the shop right now, at least in my opinion, is an original campaign button from the election of 1864: Lincoln for President.

The button is copper-colored (I have no idea what the actual metal is) and slightly bigger than a quarter. Embossed around the edges is, "FOR PRESIDENT" and "1864." In the center is a badly faded photograph of Abraham Lincoln.

Unfortunately the image has deteriorated to such a degree that it is nearly impossible to see it. But if you twist it, and the light hits it just right, you can see the image of Lincoln (head and shoulders, looking left), that Alexander Gardner shot in his studio. It is the same image that's on the $5 bill. He's there.

The button is protected, of course. It is in special packaging with a stiffener (so it stands on its own) and in an acid-free, clear envelope. It is on display at knee-level, right by the register.

It certainly does have a bit of a "WOW!" factor to it, particularly since the Inaugural is just a few weeks away.

Many historians point to that election as one of the most important in the life of this Republic. It was the first to take place during a war, for example. And the issues were clear and the candidates (10 bonus points if you can name the Democrats' candidate without looking at the answer at the bottom of this post) each held different views. Lincoln wanted to win the war; the other guy just wanted to end the war and was willing to let the South go its own way. He was that generation's peace candidate. There were other issues, too, but that was the big one. The outcome was by no means a foregone conclusion. Indeed, Lincoln himself didn't think he was going to win. But, of course, he did.

This relic is one of those fun things that I bring into the shop, and secretly hope that no one will buy. It is for sale and the price is reasonable. Still, I am not sure I want to let it go.

Maybe I'll just bump the price a bit tomorrow.

(McClellan, by the way. Yep, that one: General George Brinton McClellan, who had commanded the Federal Army of the Potomac during the opening years of the Civil War, and who had been in charge during the disasters of the Peninsula Campaign and the bloodiest day in American history, the Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg. He managed to carry New Jersey in the general election.)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Year 4

Three years ago today, in what was probably not one the most fiscally shrewd--or prudent-- decisions ever made, Pam and I took over operations of The York Emporium used book and curiosity shop in downtown York, PA.

January 1, 2006: another day that will live in infamy? Well, probably not. In the grand scheme of things, it probably doesn't make a whole lot of difference to many people who aren't looking to me to feed them. Still, it was important to us.

I first "discovered" this mammoth used book shop about 16 years ago. I had been haunting used book shops for years by that time and I can honestly say that I had never seen another quite like it. A huge warehouse of a space (19,000 sq. ft., we learned later when we signed the lease), crammed with books. Wonderful books; treasures. I absolutely fell in love. And I had been making pilgrimages, at least one every six months, for years. I was living in New Jersey at the time, and I'd make the 3-hour trek. Later, when I had moved to D.C., I'd drive the 90 minutes north. And always I was excited--coming and going.

So when the opportunity presented itself--the opportunity to live there rather than just visit--we took it. Oh, we talked about it for a bit before we made the final decision. At least, that's what we told ourselves at the time. Truth be told, we had already decided; we were just trying to convince ourselves by those discussions that we were being rational and properly businesslike about the whole thing.

But I confess to you that there isn't a whole lot that is either rational or properly businesslike about running a used book and curiosity shop.

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times have run stories in recent days about the troubled book business. They've talked about publishers cutting back, or cutting out, new titles. About traditional bookstores--chains and independents--losing money or going out of business altogether (some big names, too). About the growing trend to sell books online, or to publish books electronically.

Well, as the great philosopher said, the times they are a-changin'.

But we're not going anywhere. Frankly, we're having too much fun.

I am convinced that there is nothing quite like rummaging through the shelves of a used book shop. You can come in looking for a specific title or a favorite author, and you just might find what you're looking for. But if you don't...when you get to the shelf where your quest would normally be, and it is not there, what awaits you instead might just be magic. It could be a title that you didn't know your author had written, or a book you never knew existed. That's exciting. That's magic. And I get to see that magic registered on the faces of my customers every day.

Yes, we will sell online (Pam has nearly 3,500 volumes listed with various services and she makes daily trips to the Post Office to ship orders). But we will continue to run our mom-and-pop, old school, going-out-of-fashion, brick-and-mortar shop.

Because there's magic here. And we're really looking forward to Year 4.