Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Survival of Used Bookstores, A Digression

Dear Readers,

Many of you have been to our store before. No doubt you are acquainted with the monk who sits serenely at the rear, and the ill-fated buffalo whose head hangs just above the beginning of American History (no coincidence, that). What, one might ask, do these two members of O'Gara and Wilson have in common with Douglas Wilson, owner of this venerable institution? What spiritual kinship inspired him to recruit such unusual allies in the bookselling battle?

Let me put your curiosity to rest. The Scriptorium monk represents care for the printed page, a connection with times long past, when an author's text required the hand of a craftsman for its completion. In the mid-1800's book-binding machines began to catch on, slowly reducing the concept of "book" to nothing more than an efficient means for distributing ideas. Mr. Wilson and Jerome, as he is fondly called, still cherish the idea of book as artifact, something the significance of which depends not merely on the meaning of the words within, but is continually shaped by all those who share in its history, from the author to the customers that frequent second hand bookshops.

And the buffalo? Both he and Mr. Wilson represent what biologists refer to as a “keystone species.” A keystone species has a disproportionately important effect on its surroundings. Though its presence may be small in terms of population, the existence of a keystone species is crucial for sustaining diversity of life in its environment. When such a species goes extinct, the ecosystem that it supports falls apart, like a bridge whose keystone has been removed. Mr. Wilson and the store he runs are a powerful if subtle force, shaping the Hyde Park community and consequently the world. Luminaries like author Saul Bellow and theologian David Tracy have found fuel for their intellectual furnaces here, at this well-stocked woodpile of ideas, whose logs are daily gathered, bundled, and delivered by the bibliotaph (one who caches or hoards books) of whom we speak. Not to mention the many others who pass through our doors, hoping to stumble upon some synchronicity that radically changes their perspective. One can only imagine what would happen to the diversity of life and thought in Hyde Park if O’Gara and Wilson were to be replaced by, say, another Borders.

And that brings me to the most important part of this blog, namely the crucial difference between Mr. Wilson and these two fixtures of his bookstore. Not only is he still alive, but Mr. Wilson plans on continuing to thrive. He will not bow to the cultural forces that escorted monastic scribes and majestic herds to their respective graves. This keystone species, at least, is fighting and winning. The used bookstore’s struggle to survive can take many forms. Mr. Wilson is unique in that he employs a three-pronged approach. In fact, he himself has suggested the metaphor of a three-legged stool. This term was supposedly coined by Oxford scholar Rev. Richard Hooker, in reference to the Anglican church (sorry, Jerome) and the three legs that support it: scripture, reason, and tradition. Our elements are humbler, but no less important to stability. They are high-end auctions (Collectible), in-store sales (Favorite), and the internet (Affordable and Interesting).

Most people don’t know it, but much of the bookstore’s revenue comes from consigning very collectible books and items to auction houses. These venues have an international audience, ranging from university libraries to enormously wealthy private collectors. Here are some examples:

While your average walk-in customer may not have the necessary liquidity to purchase Shakespeare’s hand-written first draft of Romeo and Juliet (originally entitled Romeo and Bernice, it appears), auction houses allow Mr. Wilson to distribute such items through the proper channels.

But whence these auction-worthy artifacts? Is Mr. Wilson some sort of latter-day treasure hunter, digging under every Hyde Park oak until he discovers the secret stash of an eccentric Shakespeare scholar? Do kind souls simply drop box upon box of their Loeb classics on our doorstep? Nuh-uh. Aquiring a truly magical used bookstore inventory is a simple function of customer relations and rapport with fate.

Let me explain. Quite often it is long-time bookstore patrons who provide us with our wares. We have seen books come back through that were once sold by Mr. O’Gara over thirty years ago. Without long-term customer relationships our store would be dead in the water, not only because no one would sell us any books, but also because many people wouldn’t have cool books to sell. Just as often, though, sheer chance seems to bless Mr. Wilson with extraordinary caches of books and objects, although when something chancy occurs on a regular basis it’s usually due to something. But how do you explain this –


a German hand-grenade storage box, converted by an army chaplain into a container for bibles and altar cloths. Talk about swords to plowshares – and a serious instance of the book as a historical artifact. Good luck finding another one of those, or any of the other strange confluences of events that can be found and purchased at O'Gara and Wilson…
Unfortunately, the gusts of modernity will overturn any two-legged stool. Science and technology vigorously trumpet the demise of feeble furniture: “Physically impossible!” they cry, or “I can buy a three-legged stool for less online!” until the vast majority of two-legged-stool-used-bookstore-hybrids are chopped into metaphorical kindling, to be sold somewhere else, or failing that, to be unceremoniously dumped in the dustbin of history. We have not remained in the Luddite past of unscientific bookstore cavern-people. Like some nuclear accident that results in a positive mutation, we evolved a third leg. The internet.

That links to our online inventory. You may have thought the appearance of these funny stickers around the store had a deep meaning –

-- discounts, perhaps, or a pox with a tendency to infect more expensive academic texts. Not so. These are the brands of the internet, bright marks of our submission to a new order. Orange dot: book might go online. Green dot: book is online. Some days we sell more books online than we do in the store. Much clerk time goes into putting books online, or searching the internet for prices so we can be the best deal in town (that is generally how we price our books, in line with the lowest online prices). There is a new competitive force; the open market of the internet has changed the face of bookselling. Now a beautiful art book might be worthless because so many were printed, but an expensive Russian calculus book might be salable to a client overseas. There are drawbacks to the internet, but for a store like ours there are also advantages, provided we are ready to use them. Right now, in fact, you are helping us with another aspect of the mutant technological third leg, just by reading this blog. Go on, write in! Let us know you made it this far through the blog! Let us know you’re out there! Come into the store, and say – the blog technology brought me here!

Uh-oh. Things are getting a little out of hand. I think we covered everything we set out to cover – from O’Gara and Wilson, this is cyber-Alan, wishing you a three-legged future with Jerome.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

To picture or not to picture...

Dear Readers,

The focus of our current blog is a topic close to my heart – the illustrated book. There is no question, of course, that certain types of books benefit from illustrations. One shudders at the thought of a cookbook entirely bereft of pictures, and an art-book without some reproductions of the works it treats seems, at least to me, entirely pointless. But the relative value of illustrating fiction is not so easily decided. Tolkien himself, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” complains that illustrating such tales deprives children of the opportunity to imagine things for themselves. This, of course, from an author who illustrated the Hobbit himself. While Tolkien doesn’t count the Hobbit as a fairy-story, it seems plausible to extend his argument to all illustrated fiction. Somehow, the act of reading is essentially an imaginative one, and illustrations restrict the reader’s freedom, imposing particular images onto the blank canvas of the text.

I’ve heard people make similar claims about movies – Christopher Tolkien wanted nothing to do with the film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings, saying they were peculiarly unsuited to film, and his father has been quoted as hating all things Hollywood. After watching the cinematic form decimate favorites like The Phantom Tollbooth and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, some might be inclined to agree. But the issue is more complicated than that. Certain books might be bad material for film adaptation. Others, like Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, do quite well, in my opinion. There is, I think, no standard rule to be applied in this case. Plays, needless to say, are actually meant to be performed – with Shakespeare or Beckett we should have no compunctions about restricting the reader’s imagination with a movie or performance, since the reader is actually meant to be a spectator. A book that has been singled out as impossible for adaptation (Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, for instance), is simply waiting for a talented film-maker to rebut the claim.

So when should something be illustrated, and when should things be left to the reader’s imagination? Do the same rules apply – can a good illustrator always rebut the claim that a book ought not be illustrated? Perhaps. But maybe a different place to start is the general consensus on which audience benefits most from illustrated books. The answer is easy: children. Modern novels tend not to be illustrated – children’s books almost always are. Indeed, the amount of illustration in a book is inversely proportional to the target age group. (Imagine Dr. Seuss without illustrations!!)

At first this trend might appear intuitive. Kids like pictures. They need them to supplement necessarily sparse narratives, and peak their curiosity. Or do they? “When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.” G.K. Chesterton makes a wonderful point. Children have vibrant imaginations, lacking in most adults, it seems. Not only that, but our modern attention span has dwindled to a pathetic shell of itself – just look at the length of camera shots in recent movies compared with those of a couple decades past. One could make the case that it is adults who need illustrations to help them imagine things more vividly, especially given the rather dry content and increasing length of the reading material they tend to choose.

You may, at this point, be starting to lose patience. It is my hope, in fact, that you are thinking, “All right, all right, enough already. Where are the pictures of the books? That’s why I read this blog.” Because if you are, it would make my argument that much more compelling. The interest of this blog lies in part with the inclusion of pictures, which spruce up the otherwise dreary procession of letters that currently clog your screen. So without anymore boring, intellectual, adult-oriented prose, I offer three books for your consideration. All are illustrated, and they cover a wide enough variety of target audiences for any interested blog readers to come in and settle this question for themselves.



Book: East of the Sun West of the Moon. $200. Target audience: Children (and wealthy adults). Illustrator: Kay Nielsen. One of three greats from the golden age of book design and illustration (Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac are the other two). He is my favorite of the three, due to his pronounced Asian influence and particular skill with line drawings. This book of Norse fairy tales showcases, I think, his best work. Absolutely wonderful example of the lavish gift books produced during the first half of the 20th century.



Book: The Iliad. $30.00. Target audience: Adults (and unusually precocious children). Illustrator: Leonard Baskin. Baskin was close to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, among other luminary literary figures. He sculpts and illustrates, and his influence can be seen in modern illustrators like Ralph Steadman. Particularly good at portraits, Baskin’s interpretations are often dark and disturbing. I absolutely love this guy – and I’ll be honest, I need his help to get through Homer. Among Baskin’s greatest works is an edition of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which leads nicely into the final item.

Affordable and Interesting


Book: Gulliver’s Travels. $7.50. Target audience: Adults? Children? Illustrator: Luis Quintanilla. Manifestly a book for adults, the fantastical elements of Swift’s “frank and vitriolic satire” (from the dust jacket) are now popularly targeted at children (in abridged editions, a topic for another blog…). Almost every page of this edition is profusely illustrated with Quintanilla’s hilarious black and white prints. A stunning example of graphic art, at a remarkably affordable price.

There you have them. Say whatever you like about the relative merits of book illustration, but make sure your opinion is educated, preferably through a visit to our store.

From O’Gara and Wilson, this is Alan, over and out.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Dear Readers,

Part 1: Collectible

“The history of mankind, as a history of the human spirit, may be thought of as consisting of two elements: an escape from this world to another; and a return to it. Chronologically speaking, these two movements, the rise and fall, represent the whole of human history; and the two take place microcosmically many times in peoples and nations…

The nature of haiku cannot be rightly understood until it is realized that they imply a revolution of our everyday life and ways of thinking.

…Haiku record what Wordsworth calls those ‘spots of time,’ those moments which for some quire mysterious reason have a peculiar significance. There is a unique quality about the poet’s state of feeling on these occasions; it may be very deep, it may be rather shallow, but there is a ‘something’ about the external things, a ‘something’ about the inner mind which is unmistakable. Where haiku poets excel all others is in recognizing this ‘something’ in the most unlikely places and at the most unexpected times.”

-- R.H. Blyth (selections from the prefaces)

Flying in by the bamboo-blind,

The swallow is tame

With the beautiful girl.

-- Ransetsu

The kingfisher;

In the clear water of the pond,

Fishes are deep.


In the spring breeze

The snowy heron flies white

Among the pine-trees.



Haiku, 4 volume set of first printings, $200.

Part 2: Favorite


Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.


I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.


A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.


Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.


O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?


I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.


At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.


He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once, a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For blackbirds.


The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.


It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

--Wallace Stevens


The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 1982 printing, $7.50

Part 3: Affordable and Interesting

Sections on rhythm, and rhyme, and the music of words. Each poem with a sentence to inspire thought about poetic technique.

The Poet’s Craft: Selected Verses, Daringer and Eaton 1935, $10.50