The old Borders in Central Park, Fredericksburg, VA. It is now a Barnes and Noble.
Monday, December 26, 2011

Books and Bookstores

That’s the Borders in Fredericksburg, VA.

My son gave us each Kindles this Chiristmas, and that prompted some thought about books and bookstores.

Henry Miller, author of Tropic of Cancer, and numerous other books wrote The Books in My Life. I read it back in the dim dark days BC (Before Cynthia. I don’t dare use the abbreviation for before marriage.) I don’t recall much about it now except that he was fond of Blaise Cendrars and Jean Giono, neither of whom I’ve ever read.

I started reading a lot when I saw a version of the Iliad on television. I think it was part of the old Omnibus series. I also watched You Are There, and probably thought that Walter Cronkite had a time machine so he could actually talk to Cleopatra. At any rate I remember walking to Westover branch of the Arlington Public Library and checking out repeatedly children’s editions of Homer. I think they were retellings by Padraic Colum, a friend and biographer of James Joyce. I think you can find at least one of them in a Dover reprint. As I grew older I moved up from the children’s editions to the Modern Library edition, which was a Victorian era edition by Andrew Lang and others. Unfortunately the works from the epic cycle outside of Homer are lost, so I started reading the Greek tragedies. I would check out the big two volume set of The Complete Greek Drama which had been worked on by Eugene O’Neill Jr. Euripides in the Gilbert Murray translation was a particular favorite.

I wasn’t always a complete classics nerd though. At the same time, which was early adolescence, I would walk with Elton Caton, my best friend at the time, to John Ayres’ store, also in Westover, and we’d buy the Hardy Boys, Rick Brant, and Tom Swift books. The Hardy Boys were straight detective stories, and my recollection is that Rick Brant had a science fiction element, but was primarily a detective series too, though I could, at the distance of some fifty years be mistaken. Tom Swift and Tom Corbett were the two big science fiction series, and there had been a television series with Frankie Thomas as Tom Corbett. (Both the Rick Brant and the Tom Swift books can be found in Kindle editions for about $3. Copies of Tom Swift and His Jetmarine, which cost the grand sum of $1 in the late 1950s and early 1960s now go for $100–200 in hardcover.) I later moved on to other science fiction writers, but it wasn’t until after I’d gotten married that I got into Heinlein. One of my favorite books as a teenager, which I still have, was anthology of science fiction humor. One story was A Logic Called Joe, which may have anticipated the Internet as well as Apple’s new assistant Siri. Another was The Ego Machine in which a 1950s era screenwriter was visited by a time traveling robot. In the process he invents a drink called the Helena Glinska, named after the mother of Ivan the Terrible.

"Martin said blandly into the mike. ‘I want it at once, do you hear? A Helena Glinska, yes. Perhaps you don't know it? Then listen carefully. Take the largest Napoleon you've got. If you haven't a big one, a small punch bowl will do. Fill it half full with ice-cold ale. Got that? Add three jiggers of creme de menthe—’ ‘Nick, are you mad?’ Erika demanded, revolted. ‘—and six jiggers of honey,’ Martin went on placidly. ‘Stir, don't shake. Never shake a Helena Glinska. Keep it well chilled, and—’ ‘Miss Ashby, we are very busy,’ St. Cyr broke in importantly, making shooing motions toward the door. ‘Not now. Sorry. You interrupt. Go at once.’ ‘—better add six more jiggers of honey,’ Martin was heard to add contemplatively into the mike. ‘And then send it over immediately. Drop everything else, and get it here within sixty seconds. There's a bonus for you if you do. Okay? Good. See to it’”
" Can’t say that I’ve ever tried the concoction, but it’s put to good use in the story.

When I was in high school I haunted the local Brentano’s, and the big department store, Hecht’s, also had a good book department. I remember that Hecht’s stocked Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality, and a book on the trial of Tukhachevsky. I never bought either, but you won’t find books like those in Costco nowadays. Brentano’s stocked the Modern Library, and I encountered Blake and Donne through those volumes, and a copy of Marx’s Capital.

When I was in my teens, probably around 15 or so, I read Shaw’s Man and Superman, and for a long while I was a dedicated liberal, socialist, and radical. It wasn’t until I was nearing my thirties that I gave up that idiocy. Another book that had some effect on me was Robert Lindner’s Prescription for Rebellion. Lindner died young, and was briefly mentioned in a book by John Dos Passos. He was most noted for a collection of stories from his practice, The Fifty Minute Hour, one of which was done on TV’s Playhouse 90 as The Jet Propelled Couch. He also wrote a book called Rebel Without A Cause. Oddly enough the title is all that the book and the movie have in common. In my senior year in high school I met a girl, Marcia, who was a big fan of the movie. I hadn’t seen it, but I had read the book, and I wondered how it could have been filmed since it contained explicit references to sexual practices that weren’t discussed in polite company back then. I doubt if Marcia ever read the book, but I did see the movie, several times.

J. D. Salinger led to brief flirtations with Hinduism and Buddhism, but neither ever turned into a great romance. In my senior year I became friends with a guy named Hilary. His father worked for Eugene McCarthy, and had been a professor in Minnesota. Hilary was an artistic type, and his family was very intellectual. They produced a number of lawyers, some political activists, and some artsy types. Once we went to Georgetown University to see Étienne Gilson, who was a big name in Thomistic studies, and I got his autograph on a book, which I still have. Later that evening Hilary and I were standing at a bus stop on M St., and Gilson approached us for directions. So we got to tell him where to go.

Georgetown also hosted O’Donnell’s, a paperback bookstore, and Saville, or perhaps Savile. Saville had the complete Loeb Library. For those who don’t know, this is a set of the works of classic Greek and Latin authors. There’s the original Greek or Latin text on the left page, and the English translation on the right. I once gave my wife a copy of Daphnis and Chloe, a Greek romance, and the one dirty part was in Latin. That’s no longer done in current editions of the Loeb. Saville also carried the six volume set of the plays of Shaw. Dodd, Mead, the publisher, kept the set in print long enough for me to get a complete set, though it took several Christmases. O’Donnell’s and Saville are now gone, as is Olson’s, another store that I have fond memories of.

In the early ‘90s I was prepping for the comprehensive exam in English. Part of that is historical. When I was at GW I’d prepped by reading Baugh’s History. 20 years later I bought a copy, but I was told that it was considered out of date, so I ordered David Daiches 4 volume history. Amazon wasn’t around in those days so I had to order through a bookstore, and I was using Olson’s at the time. So the rather overpriced books ($24 per volume in paperback) arrived at the Georgetown store, and had to be picked up. One time when I was browsing there I picked up a copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and for some reason got into a conversation with a young lady about Hawking and his ALS.

My favorite bookstore when I lived in DC was the Discount Books and Records in the Dupont Circle area. They had large collections of Caedmon records. Caedmon, which was taken over by Harper Collins Audio, and subsequently ruined, had recordings of authors reading their works. I collected Albert Camus, in French, e. e. cummings, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Kenneth Patchen and a few others on Caedmon and other labels. It also stocked books from New Directions, Grove Press, and other avant garde publishers.

I used to hang out at Hilary’s house, which was over a mile from mine, and one day I was walking home, and I was reading Ezra Pound’s translation of Cavalcanti’s sonnets and canzone. I had just started listening to Joan Baez, and for some reason I could hear her singing the sonnets as I walked. I don’t do this too often. It happened with Spenser some years later. I don’t think it was Baez singing, but I was struck by the musicality of his verse.

All of this is starting to sound pretentious. Don’t I ever read anything light? Well, I do read science fiction, and I like detective stories. I can’t say I’m too fond of modern stuff, but I do like Hammet and Chandler. I also like Ian Fleming, and have seen all of the movies, including all three versions of Casino Royale. (Aha! He’s wrong‼ There were only two. No, in fact there were three. There was a television adaptation for the series Climax!, the version with Peter Sellers and Woody Allen, and the Daniel Craig version.) I also like Tom Clancy, though his last two were rather weak.

One girl I dated briefly, the perennial fat chick, bought me a copy of Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man.

Back in 2002 we decided to move out of Reston, and were looking for a house. I knew that housing prices went down, and houses got bigger the further away from DC you got. I also knew that people commuted to DC along the Virginia Railway Express. I forget which it was that I read first, but I read Grant’s memoirs in which he writes about the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, and then I read John Ringo’s first couple of books in the Posleen war series, some of which takes place around Fredericksburg. I got the bright idea to check property prices around the area, and found a 10 acre property with a large house for $300,000. We got our realtor to put together some prospects, and the house we live in now was about the sixth one that we saw. We never did see the house on 10 acres though, and the 3 we have is more than enough.

When we came down here we stopped at the Borders in Central Park, Fredericksburg, the one shown above, and I bought two sci-fi/fantasy novels, and Sheridan’s memoirs. For some reason I’ve never gotten around to them. The last one I bought, as it got ready to close forever, was a book by Kurt Gödel, which looks to be utterly incomprehensible, and which I’ll probably never read, though I will pass it on to the person who gets my books.

The Borders store here became one of our favorite haunts. For a while towards the end we would go to church, then go out to Borders, have a coffee, possibly a pastry, and look around. Cynthia would look at mysteries, and I’d look at history, fiction, philosophy, sci-fi, music etc. About the only thing I passed up was children’s lit, quackology, and new age rubbish. The selection of music in the Fredericksburg store was never very good, and other stores, such as the ones on 14th St and 18th St had better selections of music. I think the store started dying when they cut back on the music selection. There came to be less and less reason to buy music there. In fact as time went on I started ordering more and more from Amazon. In 1999 I placed four orders for a total of 6 items with Amazon. In 2009 I placed 23 orders for around 80 items. 2010 saw 26 orders for 82 items, and 2011 saw 36 orders for 92 items.

I’m afraid that Borders couldn’t compete on price, so books bought there were pretty much impulse purchases. Music and movies practically vanished from the store. I bought 6 seasons of 24 from Amazon, not Borders. I bought An American Carol, Thaïs, and My Fair Lady through Amazon, not Borders.

So Borders went under, largely I think through a number of bozoish decisions. A small competing chain, Joseph-Beth moved into a mall across the street from Central Park, and it went under. Its space was taken over by a Books-A-Million. Towards the end I was buying classical music magazines for the CDs, and that was about all that I was buying. Both chains carried the music magazines. When Books-A-Million took over the Joseph-Beth space they kept the same store layout, and even to some extent the arrangement of fiction, history, etc. They managed to get in the gun mags, the cooking mags, the diet mags, the what the Hollywood types are doing mags, they even managed to get the hard core porno mags in, the ones that you normally find in seedy, rundown bus stations and railroad terminals, but they couldn’t get in the two or three classical music mags. I ultimately subscribed.

There are a couple of bookstores in Fredericksburg that we like. One is called Riverby’s, which has a nice selection of Civil War books, and a big upstairs that has a nice drama and poetry section, as well as a large fiction section. The Griffin, shown in the two pictures on the left, had a big room upstairs. The contents varied from time to time. I took the photos shown here back in 2010.
They show that upstairs room. Even though we live about a dozen miles from downtown Fredericksburg we don’t get there that often, so I was surprised to learn that the upstairs had been closed. They still have a nice cold drinks at the coffee bar, but who knows how long the independent stores will last.

As for the Kindle, I don’t think I’ll ask for Kindle books for Christmas. You sort of like to have a physical object to heft on Christmas day rather than a bunch of re-arranged electrons. I think I might put computer books on it. Those are somewhat ephemeral, and do take up a lot of room on the shelf. As for books like Shaw, Aristotle, or even Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy, I think I’ll still use the regular book.

Update March 28, 2012—I almost immediately violated my pledge and downloaded the latest Tom Clancy, which I noted here. Since then I’ve downloaded a number of Kindle books, some of them equally massive, and find that it’s actually quite a bit better than carrying monstrous tomes around.
End Update.