More Books by the Roadside
IN the Atlantic Monthly for January 1934, under the title ‘Books by the Roadside,’ there was chronicled an experiment of mine wherein for three months, during the summer of 1933, I played the role of wayside bouquiniste in a small Cape Cod resort town. The recounting of these bookish adventures of mine brought me a heart-warming number of letters, and several of my correspondents wanted to know whether I planned to repeat the experiment the following season. Just recently I have heard from friends in that Cape Cod village who tell me that a considerable number of people appeared there during the 1934 summer for the sole purpose of seeking out that bookstall of which they had read in the Atlantic Monthly, and these people expressed regret that I had retired from my role as book purveyor.
Well, I have not retired. I suspect, in fact, that there is no such thing as a retired bookseller. He may abandon his shop, yes; he may be compelled by the infirmities of superannuation to spend all his hours in a wheel chair; or the shoves and pushes of inexorable fate may manoeuvre him to the remote hinterlands of Mombasa. But that is not to say that he has retired. Let him hear some little wisp of conversation, let him overhear such a stray word as ‘foxing’ or ‘mint’ or ‘morocco,’ and there wells up inside him such an excitement as that which traditionally animates the retired fire horse when he hears the gong. He quivers with the urge to buy and to sell, to run his finger along a tattered shelfback or to inhale the heavenly smell of mildewed leather. In a twinkling he has made a purchase, and, even as he makes it, some special little corner of the brain which never, never atrophies is formulating vague plans as to how to sell it again. Retired, fiddlesticks!
When I left Cape Cod, after having disposed of my last copy of The Memoirs of U. S. Grant, I was not overwhelmed by superannuation nor did I disappear into Mombasa. I purchased a farmhouse and acreage in upstate New York. This has to a remarkable degree that incredible un-get-atablcness which seems to be uniquely the property of farms in upstate New York. The nearest village is five miles away, and the nearest Big Town twenty. From the village a little dirt road creeps cautiously out into the countryside, where it twists and turns and flounders in hopeless confusion for some ten or fifteen miles until, at long last, it connects with a ‘highway’ that really goes somewhere. It is on this little dirt road, at the point where it is most confused and forlorn, that our house stands.
I feel certain that, had it been suggested to the late Bernard Quaritch that such a place might be suitable for a professional bookman, he would have cast his eye about the countryside, tenantless but for a handful of scattered farmers and silent but for the small voices of birds and crickets, and would have been moved to hearty derisive laughter. I suspect that our own Dr. Rosenbach, hearing that during last March the sole travelers past our door were two little boys on snowshoes, and that the most copious traffic ever recorded on this road during a single day was nine vehicles, would have been quick to tut-tut the possibilities of the site for a bookshop. And certainly I, having removed myself a hundred and fifty miles from the metropolis and having shaken off even the small sophistications of Cape Cod, was prepared to become a bookless rustic and never again to think in terms of quarto or folio. Three months have now elapsed since that spring day when I received by our Rural Free Delivery a book catalogue and, in an unguarded moment, permitted myself to glance through it. During these three months I have not had my hand upon the plough, nor yet upon the apple sprayer or the scythe. I have been bookselling.
But that, perhaps, is too magniloquent a term, implying a financial gain which has been strikingly absent from my summer labors. It is more accurate, and more suited to the spirit of the procedure, to say simply that I have been bookstalling. I have been conducting, that is, a wayside bookstall, but a bookstall compared to which my little side-of-the-road emporium on Cape Cod must seem Big Business indeed. My clientele this year has been composed of chicken raisers and hog butchers and other local folk,—if ‘composed’ is not too vast a word for such restricted custom, — with the occasional addition of some summer wayfarer in the region. In the course of ministering to the literary needs of these people I have had reenforced my conviction of last year that for sheer unexpectedness there is no life to match that of a bouquiniste.
Fifty yards from our house there stands — perhaps ‘teeters’ would be the nicer word — our barn. It is very close to the road, is eighty-seven years of age, and has chinks in it through which a Brontosaurus could comfortably make its way. It is, all in all, an arresting edifice, and the passer-by along our road could no more ignore it than he could ignore the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey or a towering segment of ruined Roman Wall. It has both bulk and a look of immeasurable antiquity. It cried aloud to me for the affixing of a sign, in keeping with its musty grandeur, which should read, OLD BOOKS 25. And ultimately, of course, I contrived such a sign. Because of my notable inefficiency as a letterer — enhanced, no doubt, by the fact that my tool was a paste brush and my medium a very stale and gummy tractor paint — this sign turned out most unexpectedly and delightfully. It looked, in fact, not so much like a sign as like a tablet bearing ancient runes. It was in perfect harmony with the venerable mouldiness of the barn and with the antique tomes which I purposed to offer for sale. I nailed it firmly to the barn, at a point a little higher than my head, and walked backward down the lane to survey the effect. It was good.
This old barn of ours, probably in common with other barns of similarly great age, has become in its senescence a storehouse of inexhaustible treasure. I have got hay from it and old nails, lengths of chicken wire and horn salve for cows, old bottles and an 1897 issue of the Delineator. And accordingly on that May day, when I had unfurled my bookish banner, I prowled in the barn for some kind of counter which might serve as a stall in which to exhibit my wares. There was, of course, the very thing: an aged but by no means decrepit kitchen table, the top of which I discovered with great glee to be formed of a very old sign, reading, BARBERING.
Toward the middle of the last century one of the members of that old Dutch family to whom this farm was homestead for so long deserted the plough and the pruning shears for a life of seafaring. He came back, when he was an old man and had voyaged in every quarter of the globe, and contrived to make a modest living in his retirement by cutting the formidable beards of his farmer neighbors. And evidently, when he had become too old for even this occupation, he had thriftily refrained from destroying his professional shingle and had converted it, instead, into this sturdy table top. It seemed eminently fitting that I, the second of the only two professional men to occupy this house in ninety years, should make new use of this ancient symbol of my tonsorial predecessor. So I hammered in a needed nail or two and strengthened a few of the joints, and there was my bookstand.
After long deliberation, I placed in my wayside stall a splendid copy of Diseases of the Horse. I was willing to lose money on this item, for its real purpose would be to imbue the farmers with respect for my sound judgment. Next came Chester A. Reed’s Land Birds East of the Rockies, for obviously country people must be interested in their native birds, and Gray’s Elements of Botany in the woodcut edition of
1887. To these I added a number of other works on various branches of natural history, and also a few loose plates from Studer’s splendid Birds of North America, the sumptuous folio of
1888, which I thought would be eminently suitable for framing and for display in country parlors. Bearing in mind the religious tendencies of my clients, I leavened with Methodist Hymns (with vignette frontispiece of cherubim), Prayers for Every Day, and several kindred works, including one called Memoir of Mrs. A. F. Tukesbury & Her Husband Deacon Tukesbury. I did not know very much about this last (not even how it came to be in my library), but as it was published in the year 1850, and bore upon its title-page the words ‘The Righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance,’ I felt certain it must be a suitable work of piety. And then, because all the naturalhistory books and religious works at my command still did not make a very imposing array in my stall, I was forced to add a number of other books at random.
My season got off to a discouraging start. The first two days it rained, and during the next three, which were clear, no vehicle passed along our road but a truck belonging to the Highway Department. And then, on the morning of the sixth day, I perceived approaching — with tremendous rattlings and clankings, but barely perceptible progress — an ancient buggy. It seemed to take hours to arrive. I flew to my stall and with my handkerchief flicked the dust from Diseases of the Horse and brightened up the shelfback of the Memoir of Deacon Tukesbury. Then, with such excitement as Dr. Rosenbach may possibly feel when the bidding on a coveted item has gone to eighty thousand dollars and the outcome is uncertain, I popped into concealment behind a lilac bush. With unbelievable slowness the buggy drew near, and, peeping through the leaves, I could see that its driver and only occupant was a very aged man with a long white moustache and steel-rimmed spectacles. He had, I thought, a distinctly bibliophilic look.
Had he seen my sign? Yes, he was reining in. The clop-clop grew slower and slower and finally stopped. The old man was peering with screwed-up eyes at my sign. He was descending from his buggy and approaching the stall. For only a moment more did I remain behind my bush, watching him bend over the stall and adjust his spectacles. Then, with what must have been a singularly unconvincing imitation of nonchalance, I strolled over to him. Even as I did so — even as I was clearing my throat for speech — he turned away from the stall and began clambering back into his buggy.
‘Good morning, sir,’ I sang out, still hopeful that his custom was not lost irretrievably.
He turned on the wagon step and peered down at me.
‘Humph!’ he said. ‘I thought thatthere was a mess of vegetables fer sale.’
The buggy rattled along the road and around the bend and out of sight. I contemplated my shiny calf-bound Memoir of Tukesbury and sighed. It was a great disappointment.
Actual customers did of course ultimately appear, and some of them were memorable. One, at least, I think I shall never forget. He was perhaps eighteen years old, and his face had a frankness and boyish charm that were delightful. He came striding along the road at a great rate, swinging a crude stick and whistling like an oriole. The moment he spied my sign his gait quickened, and when he reached the stall he beamed upon its contents with shining eyes. Obviously a nature lover, I thought to myself; perhaps he will buy the bird guide. I came out from behind my lilac bush and smiled at him. He smiled back very charmingly. I saw that he had already selected a volume and was holding it out to me. I took it from him; it was that breathtakingly gruesome compilation called The First World War in Pictures.
‘Are you quite certain this is the one you want?’ I asked, looking into his happy boyish face.
‘ Sure,’ he answered quickly. ‘Them’s the best kind of books in the world — books about dead people.’
I pocketed his quarter and he trudged away, whistling and beaming and taking little happy peeks at the pictures of mutilation, suffering, and death. I have never seen him again, and perhaps that is why, although his quarter was real enough, I occasionally suspect that he had stepped into actuality for but a moment, and has now gone back to his proper dwelling place in the pages of T. F. Powys.
There was no question of reality about the lady who on a sunny day in June approached my stall on horseback. She was the kind of young lady who used to be called buxom, and she had a buxom manner, all laughing and chortling and booming. She was gay indeed over so staid a title as Bunyan’s Holy War (the American Sunday School Union’s edition of 1841), and of course poor Tukesbury induced the wildest and most whoopsome hilarity. She was still gay and airy when finally she selected my two-volume edition of Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes.
‘Oh,’ I said, as she clambered back on her mount and tucked Montesquieu inside the already straining waistband of her riding breeches, ‘so you read French?’
‘No,’ she replied, with a rippling laugh, and at that went clattering away down the road in an enormous cloud of dust.
Probably the most piquant feature of bookselling — certainly of that kind of informal bookselling which I especially cherish — is, as hinted earlier, its unexpectedness. The manufacturer of floor mops or mouse traps can make a fairly dependable survey of his market; he can make sound guesses, based upon past experience, in the matters of supply and demand. But the bookseller, or at any rate the wayside bookstaller, cannot do these things. The unknowable in his bewildered life is public literary taste, and this is as uncertain and erratic and unpredictable as thunderstorms. I could not foresee that now, with my season coming to a close, the wretched work called Diseases of the Horse would still be, as Thomas Hood puts it, ‘requiescing in melancholy brooding ’ in a comer of my stall. It could not be predicted, at the beginning of the summer, that these country people in whose lives birds play so large a part would display an apathy approaching outright hostility toward the works of Chester A. Reed. And not Roger Babson himself, I fancy, could have whispered to me that I should stock in large numbers the fictional works of Harold Bell Wright. But more of this later.
While presiding over my roadside book dispensary on Cape Cod I came to learn that all my guesses as to the marketability of particular volumes and all my shrewd analyses of customer character were almost invariably wrong. This uncanny knack of mine for error has again been demonstrated to me this summer. I had thought, at the beginning of the season, that there would be small call among the chicken fanciers and cattle breeders for the unearthy productions of Oscar Wilde. I find, instead, that among these people Wilde has a vogue which might please him as much as it would certainly startle him. In this connection, I have heard a verdict on The Picture of Dorian Gray which I think is possibly unique in the history of the criticisms of that gaudy tale. It was delivered to me by the old lady who does our mending, and to whom, with some dismal foreboding, I lent a copy at her request. ‘I think,’ she said, when she returned it, ‘I think it sure is a right sweet story.’
It puzzled me for a long while to account for the lack of briskness in my traffic in religious works. But now I think I know the reason. I think I have discerned it in the faithfulness with which my country clients attend church every Sunday, and I believe I descry a hint of it in the fact that there is no parlor table in the entire region on which there does not repose a mammoth Bible. My farmer friends, in short, are already loaded to the limit of endurance with the processes and the symbols of religion. I doubt if there lives any urbanite, save among the clergy or similar groups, whose life is filled with any such opulence of sacred texts, uplifting samplers, holy mottoes, and bulging hymnals as are to be found — a heritage from grandfathers and great-grandfathers — in any one of these country homes. And thus our neighbor the pig farmer who lives two miles to the south of us gazes with lacklustre eye upon the Prayers for Every Day that I proffer, and a perfect pall of unacquisitiveness falls upon him when he contemplates a memoir of that Deacon Tukesbury whose remembrance is everlasting.
Unfortunately my professional activity as Book Purveyor to R.F.D. No. 2 proved a great deal more piquant than profitable. This, however, was scarcely a surprise. What did irk me was the fact that my profound curiosity concerning the literary tastes of the region had not been appreciably appeased. It was entertaining to know that there was no market among the horse owners for even the finest work on equine ailings, and to discover that in a countryside infested with feathered friends there were no takers for texts on ornithology. I had wanted, however, to know rather more than this. I had wanted a clue to the nature of the books that my farmer friends read around the kerosene lamp during the long winter evenings; I had hoped for a kind of vicarious peek into the texture of their libraries. This, quite plainly, was not to be had by bookstalling. And so, while the buckwheat fields still glinted white in the sun, and long before the last of our astrachan apples had been converted into jelly, I hauled down my bookman’s banner and tucked away the stall in the barn and set forth on a round of calls. Ostensibly these were casual calls, for the discussion of egg prices and hoof rot and the like, but actually I was playing that role which Stephen Leacock calls ‘snoopopathic.’
The first discovery to result from my shameless spying was that in every home in this countryside there are two Basic Books, two volumes which form the nucleus of every library (and of quite a few libraries represent the whole). The first of these is, of course, the Holy Bible. The second is Ben Hur. Mr. Edward Weeks, in his survey of best-sellers, has listed Ben Hur among those volumes that have sold more than a million copies, and it is apparent to me that several hundred of that million can be accounted for in this immediate region of five square miles. To our farmer friends here Ben Hur represents romance just as the Bible represents philosophy, and it is quoted, I discovered, no less frequently. Such and such a thing happened ‘just like it done in Ben Hur’ and moral lessons are emphasized by the parallel, ‘the same like it says in Ben Hur.‘ I was particularly impressed by one old lady who told me with pride that never in her seventy-six years had she been outside the county, and who, when I contrived to bring Lew’ Wallace’s volume into the conversation, referred to it simply as ‘the book.’ It developed that Ben Hur was the only book she had ever read since her school days, and it manifestly had assumed a sacred aspect comparable to that of the Bible itself. Ben Hur, if my recollection is accurate, was published in 1880, and most of the copies which I found in these homes could not have been printed much more recently.
I had expected, in view of my Cape Cod experience, to discover in vast numbers the works of Charles Dickens. I came across only two copies, and neither of these, it turned out, had been read by its present owner. Substituted for Dickens in these libraries is Sir Walter Scott. Within a radius of twenty miles there must be, I think, literally thousands of volumes of the Waverley Novels. Nor are they present merely as shelf fillers. They are read and criticized and praised and discussed as though they had issued from the presses yesterday. Most popular of all is Kenilworth. I believe that it, with the exception of sacred texts such as Ben Hur, is hereabouts the most prized volume ever printed.
It was of great interest to me to discover which ones among the modern authors are most widely read. I wanted to learn what my friends thought of Ernest Hemingway, and how they liked Dashiell Hammett, and whether they judged Branch Cabell good or bad.
I found my answer, and it took my breath away. Not one person with whom I talked had even heard of any of these writers. Not a soul could I discover who knew the name of Robert Frost, and nary a Benet nor a Van Doren aroused the smallest flutter of recognition. It must be made clear here, if I have not already done so sufficiently, that these people into whose literary tastes I was making inquiry were not uneducated hayseeds or rural dolts. The explanation is far subtler than that. It resides, I discovered, in their notion that Literature is something which belongs to the past, that it is a form of activity which was all over and done with years ago. They are aware, of course, that there are ‘writers’ nowadays, but they think of writers, in this present-day application, as connected with the production of newspapers and magazines.
It required a deal of probing to get to the root of this crotchet, but I think I have found it. The only newspapers which these farmer friends of ours see are the local papers printed in the surrounding villages. These newspapers publish neither book reviews nor general literary news. They convey no hint whatever that literature is still actively in the making. Publishers’ advertisements, book criticisms, columns of literary gossip, and tons of publicity all serve to keep the city dweller perpetually ’book conscious.’ There are none of these forces to operate upon our friends here. They are left to the notion that Literature emitted its last gasp in the year 1880.
This is not to say that they do not read modern books at all. They do. I found an imposing number of copies of Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar and a most extensive selection of the novels of Harold Bell Wright. Present almost as copiously as Walter Scott are the works of Gene Stratton-Porter (Girl of the Limberlost leading the field) and of James Oliver Curwood. The presence of these volumes, rubbing elbows incongruously with Ben Hur and Holy Writ, is again attributable to the local newspapers. Lacking book critics and book advertising to apprise them of current literary trends, our friends here turn for their literary information — even as for their information about gingham dresses or wagon paint — to the fat catalogues of the great mailorder houses. However splendid these firms may be as retailers of other commodities, they are apt to be something less than satisfactory as literary mentors. They sell, of course, only such cheaply produced books or publishers’ remainders as can be vended at cutrate prices. Their ballyhoo about James Oliver Curwood is immense, and their Harold Bell Wright titles run into the dozens. Our friends buy these books in much the same spirit, and for about the same price, as they buy magazines. And then, having read them and having deemed them (with, I think, some justice) inferior to Walter Scott and Lew Wallace, they return once again to hugging their conviction that real Literature came to an end in the nineteenth century. As one man put it, when I asked him about his library and when I indicated the shelves of Spirit of the Border and Two-Gun Harney and the like, ’Oh, sure, I’ ve got a lot of this-here sort of stuff, but I ain’t got any what you might call reg’lar books.’ A book to be ’regular’ must have an imprimatur not much later than the Civil War.
My bookstalling and book-snooping season has concluded on a note of wonder. My wonder about the failure to sell Diseases of the Horse, and even my wonder about the lamentable coldness toward feathered friends, have been overshadowed. When, I wonder, will some hardy publisher undertake to tap — by the insertion of inexpensive advertising in little local papers — the huge resources represented by our friends here and their million counterparts? It will, I think, be a very happy day.