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Vincent McCaffrey’s Posts on Books & Bookselling

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.

Those were dark and shell-shocked days when, after years of facing an imminent end, again and again, as rents skyrocketed around us, and yet always pulling off some last-minute salvation, we were given the final notice to vacate. It was then, shortly before Christmas, that a temporary deliverance came.

We were offered space enough on the second floor of another business just half a block away. After twenty-eight years in the same location, the old building was stuffed, from basement to skylights with shelves and boxes of books—about a 150,000 of those—and maybe a quarter million more of magazines. But to pay for even that stone’s throw move, we had to have the biggest sale of our lives, and a reduction by half. Then we had to move what remained, plus the shelves—with a full-time staff of three, including Tom Owen and Cassandra Silvia and Joe Niedbala as well as a few part-timers. The impossibility of it was obvious to all.

That was when James showed up with his joke—and then again, and again, every day it seemed, soon becoming a part of the AVH crew. There were others who helped for a day or two, here and there—many others who must be thanked, most of them customers, in addition to several previous employees. My kids put aside their regular lives and pitched in with all the youth I lacked. But it was done!

Much of it was packed into used boxes donated to us by two comic book stores, The Million Year Picnic and Comicopia—where James had worked—as well as used wine boxes from our neighbor Bauer Wines—countless hundreds of boxes—maybe thousands, and when those ran out, we packed bundles of magazines and books loose onto the hand trucks wrapped in sheets of plastic to protect them from the January weather.

The banshee sound of packing tape screeched from the emptying rolls for hours. The acrid smell of magic marker filled the air. The dust of two hundred shelving units, most of them more than 8 feet tall, and all the years of detritus behind them, fumed. The shelves were dismantled when possible and carried, James or Joe at one end, someone else at the other, only to be set up again. Thousands of trips were made up that sidewalk—a continuous rag-tag parade up fashionable Newbury Street with our patchwork goods—just a few hundred feet and up a flight of stairs—just. Think Dunkirk without all those messy bullets.

And James was stalwart through all of that, telling jokes and quips and mimicking a dozen favorite actors with elan, and perfect timing for the moment of small disasters. Magazines spill. Books tumble. What had fit there, would not fit here.

And then, only months later, after all the work and angst—and fun—of setting up a new shop, the real disaster struck in the form of a fire in the paint store below us. And there was James again, helping even at the end when all seemed lost. He was not indefatigable. None of us were. But he came back, day after day, and what could be saved was saved.

What you really know of another human being is in what they do. All other judgements are put aside. More than an appreciation for old movies and a good joke, and of course an old book shop, we had too little in common to be constant companions, but we were always constant friends. The thought was always there that he might turn up unexpectedly, and now, . . . suddenly, he is gone.

James Wu was indeed a good man. May he rest in peace.

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. read more…

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…

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