Vincent McCaffrey’s Posts on Books & Bookselling

Been fishing for a long while. Time to come in out of the weather.

Bookselling is not what it used to be. Never was, really. For me, it was always what I was willing to make of it. It’s probably that way with most independent booksellers. I’ve known a few and the motivations are as diverse as the individuals themselves.

Maybe an explanation for that is in order. The world is full of unpleasant jobs that have to be done. Bookselling is not one of them—unless it’s made to be that way. Selling books as rectangular objects to be marketed with phony advertising or artificial words such as ‘magisterial,’ or ‘brilliant,’ or even the lowly ‘provocative,’ without regard to the real matters that the authors have spent years of their lives (or too few weeks perhaps) working on, is not a better occupation than selling cars or soap.

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What I have learned as a bookseller

(Too little, for sure. And all of it arguable.)

I have learned that Harper Torchbooks, a non-fiction softcover imprint of Harper & Row from 1956 to 1979, are of such generally excellent quality that they should always be looked for when buying used books, especially if browsing library and yard sales, and given a specific personal interest, they can be purchased in preference to other imprints with one exception, Pelican Books, an imprint of Penguin from 1937 to 1984, and the best the British had to offer despite the prejudices of both imprints for the pervasive left-wing political interests of the mid-twentieth century.

It is the consistent quality of the writing in the many titles of both imprints that makes all the difference, whether it is Jacob Bronowski or Robert Graves, George Gamow or Karl Popper. I am currently reading something in a Pelican edition that I stupidly resisted for many years, Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals. At the risk of my own credibility with purists, I now wonder if the sister was the better writer. But that was in some part the mission of the editor Collette Clark as she created a continuous text of extracts, Home at Grasmere, in the context of the brother’s poems. And at the very least I wish I might have trodden those paths of Westmoreland before the tourists came.

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James Wu

A friend has passed away. Given my own age, this in itself is not surprising, but James Wu was a considerably younger man and remembered that way even more so because we had not seen him in a bunch of years and when last we did, at a gathering of the old crew, his sense of life was younger still, and as full of fun as always.

In 2003, he had been a regular customer of the old Newbury Street shop in Boston, and well noted for a sense of humor that ran from dry ironic to burlesque, so when he simply volunteered to help with our move, I thought he was joking.

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Resolution 451

So, it begins.

This is the first draft of a declaration of independence—of a sort. Much like the novel that spawned it, an odd sort of novel, this declaration is not of the usual kind. It is intended to be made not to a public, but to yourself. How well you keep to its aims is your own concern. No one else need know how you failed or succeeded. But if you are sympathetic to the cause, please make suggestions for improvements to help make such a project work. And don’t hesitate to spread the word.

It’s up to you, as it always is and was. This is not to say that you have no alternative. I know many book lovers who would not be interested in anything of the sort. They are fine with the fungible texts of tablets, and cheap paperbacks, and don’t think there is any worry over being told not to read one thing or another, or, worse, they believe they actually need such guidance. If the library no longer stocks To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s for the best. They’ve heard it was a problematic story and might not have even been written by the supposed author. There’s plenty left to read without getting all hot and bothered over Henry Miller or even Mark Twain. Mark Twain had his flaws too. And Margaret Mitchell—bah! I have seen many a used copy of Gone with the Wind come in the shop that was only read part way. It’s only right that the literature changes with the times, is it not? Beowulf and Chaucer and Shakespeare are artifacts. What do they know about our modern world? What do they know about a digital universe? And besides, maybe we can correct those texts now and rid them of their bigotry, sexism and prejudice. They are not perfect either, you know? Too many words.

But for those happy few willing to give it a go, I hereby propose a new resolution. Resolution 451. read more…

Neglected Books: In Praise of Those We’ve Lost to the Literary Wilderness

My favorite new website is most extraordinary in so many ways that a biblio-besotted Robert Browning would have to do it justice. But this is just me. I’ll do what I can. . . . In truth, it’s what I have been doing for my entire life: making note and taking care of the wonderful books that are forgotten in this age of hype. I’ll even credit a few of the authors who were once hyped but since forgotten and deserve to be remembered yet. By ‘deserve’ I mean, they earned it, not that I have bestowed upon them some special status of my own.

As examples of the latter, take the fine work of Maine author, Robert P. Tristram Coffin. He won the Pulitzer prize–twice–and is not read today for either his prose or poetry. But his Yankee Coast is a wonder in a treasure chest of such work. Or, take Kenneth Roberts, another Down East author I discovered by the good services of a librarian when I was 12. His novels were hugely successful, an excellent selection of historical fact worked into a fabric of fiction but my favorite of his then and now was his autobiography I Wanted to Write, which is a hard find even with all the copies of his bestsellers still to be found in every church sale.

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The Best of Books

People ask me for book recommendations quite frequently and I have half a dozen ways of putting them off to avoid the matter, usually resorting to some commonly accepted classic but occasionally offering something that I like myself. This last thing is a problem for a small bookseller. Typically I don’t have a copy of a book I would recommend because I’ve already done that too recently and haven’t had time to restock the shelf. But worse. too often my taste in letters does not match that of the customer. When I later ask, ‘How did you like it?’ and they answer, ‘It was okay.’ it’s a dagger in my bookseller’s heart.

These are unusual times and I have taken the chance here to recommend some books. They are all easily available at biblio.com or abebooks.com and if you research a title for just a few minutes at goodreads.com you will likely eliminate any clunkers. read more…

The Bookseller’s Dilemma

Booksellers are a lot like actors. It is a cliche that actors will too often assume they are capable of the accomplishments of the characters they portray and come to believe that they know what a character actually felt. Booksellers often see themselves as possessing the wisdom that is in the books they sell, whereas they only possess the books. The playacting of children is in many ways a rehearsal for the actions of adults. The empathy felt by the reader will often extend into everyday life. That is the power of books, just as it is the wonder felt by an audience in suspended disbelief watching a portrayal in a movie or on the stage.

Should an actor hold back then, in their enactment of evil? Will the psychopath they impersonate possibly inspire someone in the audience to act out something similar? Should a bookseller sell a book that they deem to be wrong? There is obviously much nuance here to consider before judgment. Answering the question based on a simplistic presentation of the question, before considering the parts, is as shallow an understanding as the bookseller presuming they own the wisdom that is on their shelves. read more…

On opening a bookshop

Opening a bookshop is akin, in some minds (my own, for instance), to opening a show—a sheerly theatrical event. There is no chance in hell that you will make much in the way of profit. There is a very slim chance of it succeeding longer than the requisite three year term limit for most new businesses. It is done out of hubris. Because you can. And you must.

I have just done this again for the fourth time and can’t help recalling the first attempt in 1975. That one took twenty-eight years to fail, but not for lack of trying. (We did almost everything the wrong way and to a fault.) The second, opened while the first was still wrangling with reality, lasted ten years but only five of those under my own tutelage. The third opened shortly after the first was forced to close and lasted less than a year before we were burned out by the angry gods who had thought, I suppose, that they were rid of us. Now the fourth. . . . Perhaps that should be four and a half. I am still proud enough of my pushcart bookshop—an open air proto-bookshop—and the roughly three years spent on the streets of Boston selling odd books and magazines. That was truly fine. But I certainly don’t count the on-line thing that I still pursue to this day—a sort of robot bookshop—a pretend bookshop—a pretense of a bookshop—a mere pretext for making a little needed income out of our time and sweat and the books we have, that is like a plane with one wing and only capable of flight in the unreal ether of the internet. We do sell books there but no one actually browses. That place is found by a sorting and accumulation of zeros and ones in an instant gratification of desire. Hardly a browse. With the rise of the robot sex partner I feel a bit queasy with the sense that I am in a related business. read more…

Second Saturday

Our second Saturday was more like what I imagine and hope most will be. Before, after, and between sales I had time to do a bit of cataloguing, some straightening of shelves, and a little cleaning. It is important to me that this be the way it works. No need to rush. I had enough of that on Newbury Street when, even on slow says, all the customers we did have would come in waves. It’s actually possible to have a conversation in our little barn in Lee. And to have a second thought. When asked for an author I don’t know, I can use the plastic and digital marvels of the twenty-first century while sitting in this eighteenth century post and beam, and learn something new.

One customer asked about a novel he remembered fondly from his youth that might be called ‘Come Spring.’ He told me it concerned early settlers on the coast of Maine. I looked that up on the magic screen and discovered there were many novels with those words in the title but only one that fit, written by the fine but sadly neglected author, Ben Ames Williams. Williams I knew. He was a favorite in my own youth, but I had never read Come Spring. read more…

About the Authors

This portion of the website is devoted to the authors I love. There are hundreds in all (some are brief affairs and others life long romances), and the project will take some time to finish. Writers will be added and then annotated as I can find the time and in some measure of the degree of my passion. They’ll be kept in alphabetical order to avoid decisions about whom I love the most–but you must understand that Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Victor Hugo are sufficient proof to me that the human heart is big enough to love more than one. Making lists is easy. The annotation will take the most effort over time because I will want to say just what it is that makes these authors so special to me. So, please be patient. I am compiling a separate list elsewhere on this site for my favorite books under the heading ‘Good Books’. That will also be the venue for the many singularly fine books by authors who wrote little else.

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