July 13, 2007

84 Charing Cross Road: My Version

Category: News — Ira @ 5:07 pm

“Play us a tune on an unbroken spinet, and let the bells ring, let the bells ring! Play music now……Do not make echoes of forgotten time, do not strike music from old broken keys, do not make ghosts with faded tinklings on the yellowed board; but play us a tune on an unbroken spinet……let us see Mozart playing in the parlor, and let us hear the sound of the ladies’ voices. But more than that; waken the turmoil of forgotten streets, let us hear their sounds again unmuted, and unchanged by time, throw the light of Wednesday morning on the Third Crusade, and let us see Athens on an average day. Let us hear the sound of the voices of the Greeks, and observe closely if they were all wise and beautiful…..”
—Thomas Wolfe


Last Saturday, while passing through Morgantown, I decided on a whim to visit an old favorite haunt, the Walter Amos Bookstore. It’s located in a bedraggled old strip mall with a deteriorating parking lot. The day was hot and muggy and the pavement’s heat shimmered up in palpable waves as I got out of my truck. As I walked up to the store, I was greeted by large signs posted all over the front: Going Out of Business. All Books 75% Off. My mind briefly rejoiced at this unexpected chance to peruse for bargains. But I also almost immediately felt a deep stirring of nostalgia and sadness, knowing I would not come this way again.

The bookstore and I go way back. In the early 1990s, during the summers when I was back from college, I boarded with Ben and Emma Stoltzfus on their farm along Rt. 10 just outside Honey Brook. The bookstore was a weekly haunt. My normal Saturday started at the greasy spoon, Polly’s Restaurant, where I shoveled down vast quantities of wheat toast, over-medium eggs, home fries well done and great crisp slabs of fried scrapple covered with ketchup, despite the server’s efforts to get me to use syrup instead. (Why anyone would pour syrup on scrapple remains a mystery to me.) Lean, and solid everywhere, I packed it away with no thought of calories, fat or other unhealthy after effects. After savoring the last drops of coffee and finishing the morning newspaper, I always ambled unhurriedly across the parking lot in the rising heat to my real destination, the bookstore. The place was fairly large, and dimly lit; there were no windows to interupt the shelving along the walls. It was like an enchanted cave with a forest of bookshelves. And all the shelves sagged with books. Every type, every subject. Most of my time was spent in the literature section, savoring the atmosphere for hours, usually ending up with one or two more books. Sometimes I forgot I had a copy of a particular novel and bought it again. It didn’t matter; it was a book.

The Old Testament somewhere describes a city that had walls so wide that two chariots could be driven side by side on its surface at the top. At Walter Amos, the aisles between the shelves were so narrow that two people could not pass each other without saying “excuse me.” Those with ill manners could not have survived long in the labyrinth. Old Walter Amos himself managed the store back then. A spry elderly man with close-cropped white hair, his body erect and thin, wire-rimmed glasses perched on his nose, he was a fixture behind his desk, just to the right when you walked through the front door. His desk was always surrounded by piles and stacks and boxes of fresh arrivals as he pored through the thick price indices, laboriously marking his price inside the front cover of each book with a pencil. One summer, when I returned, he was gone. I didn’t ask at the shop, but a friend told me he had died. His long-haired, pony tailed, tattooed biker son sat in his stead. The son was actually friendlier than the old man, but it seemed to me that he did not know his craft as well or love his books as deeply as his father had.

I walk in. Complete disarray. Half the bookshelves are gone. Workmen putter and stomp about, tugging on other half-tilting shelves. More shelves are being uprooted. A few still remain where they have always been, half loaded with books. An angular-faced middle-aged lady sits sternly behind the counter at Walter’s desk. She wears glasses. His daughter. Has to be. She smiles and greets me. I wonder what happened to the tattooed biker son. Maybe he died too. Most likely got killed on his bike. I don’t know. I turn left around the corner to the literature section. What had always been a proud display of fifty feet of floor-to-ceiling shelving loaded with books is now a partial section on which huddles a forlorn little group of lonely books. I walk to them as I would approach a wounded friend.

Wolfe is gone. So are Wodehouse, Hugo, Faulkner, Joyce, Sinclair Lewis and Ayn Rand. Tolstoy and most of the other Russians. And a host of others. A few tattered Dickens titles still loiter hopefully. And Maugham. Shakespeare too. Haven’t read him much since college. I scan the titles, taking my time. Now is the time to buy at this price.

On those Saturdays, I invaded the place and time was of no consequence and the world was mine. I was young, in school, broke (respectfully so, since I was a student), and in the prime of my passion and strength and hope and discovery of all things new that the University can offer. Sometimes I bought volumes just to own them because they felt good. Sometimes I bought them just so I could say I owned this or that title. I bought a beautiful five-volume set of leather bound, ribbed-spined books, a hundred years old, written by some obscure and now completely forgotten author. I never read them; I don’t think anyone else ever had either. They were in mint condtion. Twenty bucks for the set. I still own them. I bought a complete set of the Great Books, nicely packaged in a two-shelf case. It set me back $120.00, a fortune in those days. (Years later I acquired an almost new set of Great Books and gave my old set, sans shelf, to a nephew. Reuben Wagler, are you there? I trust you’ve read them all.) My treasures were carefully lugged home and up to my little attic loft at the peak of the farm house. Where I devoured them, or to be more accurate, parts of them. I tore through great chunks of words, absorbing some, skimming some, feeding on a section of one book here, setting it aside and seizing another. My bedside stand was often littered with a half a dozen books stacked about, opened face down. (Ben and Emma can tell you. I suspect that Emma often secretly despaired at my book-cluttered loft.) A lot of chaff flowed through my hungry mind. A lot of good stuff, too.

I sift through the remnants of the wreckage slowly, scanning all the books, making sure I don’t miss a treasure. A paperback of short stories by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. I hadn’t known they collaborated in their writing. I set it aside, starting my stack. Another book, a biography of Proust, catches my eye. A hefty paperback. Proust. I’ve always gathered from the horsey, blue blood set, at least the few that deigned to acknowledge my existence, that one wasn’t well read until one had read Proust. And could discuss him with the appropriate opinions. With a spot of tea, perhaps. And a biscuit. Or a crumpet. Would a bio count? I place it on the stack. Years ago I bought Proust’s “Cities of the Plain” in two volumes and “Swann’s Way.” I did read about a dozen chunks throughout, but could not discipline myself to actually read carefully through the whole thing. The Frenchman flits about like a butterfly, following great flights of fancy and remembrance, triggered by something as simple as a single sip of tea and crumbs, the taste of which transports him in his mind to vast store-houses of memory and imagination.

The store always had several tables outside, loaded with cheap paperbacks. I don’t think the owners would have cared had someone just walked away with the lot, and maybe the tables too. One sunny and cloud-tossed Saturday, as I stood there, sifting aimlessly through boxes of outdated titles, I heard the abrupt, gutteral rasp of a strange and frenzied grunt. It took a few seconds for my startled eyes to register to my brain that a stout elderly heavy-set gentleman with a cane had stumbled and fallen on the sidewalk. He was poorly clad in Goodwill-type kakis and wore a cheap little fedora and stared up at me helplessly through thick plastic-framed glasses. He lay there on his side like a log. He couldn’t move or get up. “Help me,” he said matter-of-factly. His stubby hand reached out, rotating in small circles as he strained to reach me. Seconds passed. Then my frozen muscles emerged from paralysis. I moved toward him and in one swift motion grasped his hand and heaved him to his feet. He thanked me briefly and very simply. I could not look him in the eyes; so deeply did I feel his shattered dignity. He hobbled away, his cane thumping quietly and solidly on the sidewalk. I never forgot that incident. It seared into my brain the horrors of daily life for one old man I never saw before or since.

I browse some more. A very good quality, hard cover copy of Virginia Woolf’s shorter fiction. I’ve never had much exposure to her. I page through it, glance at the story titles. I add it to the stack. I wonder why the store is closing up, but then again, I know. It can’t survive. Not in the age of the Internet. People just don’t go book shopping like they used to. Oh, well. Market forces and all that. Ayn Rand taught me. I know how it works. If you can’t survive, you shouldn’t exist. Not in business. Besides, people read other things now. Like blogs. Others write them. But still, it’s sad. Not kind of sad, but sad.

I must go. I quickly tour the remains of the shop. In the humor section, I discover a practically brand new copy of “The Bachelor Home Companion,” by P.J. O’Rourke. It should fit my home décor about now. I glance through it. Add it to the stack. And one more humor book by O’Rourke. I pass through the literature section one last time and linger there for a moment. My stack now totals five. Three paperbacks. Two hard-covers. I approach and pay the angular-faced lady six dollars and twenty-three cents. There is a groaning screech of protest, the sound of wood and nails parting, as the workmen uproot another bookshelf with their pry bars. “Do you want a bag?” she asks politely. “Please,” I reply.

In 1990, during my second full year as a student at Vincennes University, I developed a close friendship with a girl, a fiery liberal with fiery red hair. We had little in common, but respected each other and hung out a lot and discussed many things. Sometimes we both had to bite our tongues and just shut up. She appreciated books and was fascinated by my somewhat uncontrolled and exuberant enthusiasm for all things written. That year I read “War and Peace” and it was not a class requirement. She was amused and snapped a picture of me reading the book. I had not yet discovered Wolfe.

One evening she invited me to her dorm room (I lived off campus.). She had a movie, she said, that I really needed to see. I trusted her judgment enough to go, with some reservations. It was a movie about books, and the twenty-year correspondence and deepening friendship of an American lady who loved old books and a stodgy English bookseller in London who shipped them to her. Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins play the lead roles. The movie ranks right up there as one of the ten best I’ve ever seen. The title: “84 Charing Cross Road.”


The summer heat has finally been unleashed. Only two weeks ago, during a short heat spell, I installed my two window air conditioners. One in the bedroom and one in the kitchen. Since then they have had sporadic use. But the last few days they have been humming. And so will my electic bill.

Last Sunday, I dined at Steves again. Seems like I am a very frequent presence at their Sunday table. Jason and Julie Yutzy from MN were there as well. Jason teaches school in his community in MN and they are at Faith Builders in Meadeville, PA for some teaching courses. So they made the 5 hour trip down to visit relatives and headed back to Meadeville on Sunday afternoon. To do penance for my slam at his VW, I took a photo of them and it. Sharp little car; I had envisioned one of those little 1980s Rabbits for some reason. This time, this one got them here and back.

Jason and Julie and the little VW that could

On Monday evening, my mechanically proficient friend Paul Zook stopped by to check out my clothes dryer, which has developed a loud, obnoxious squeal. Just back from the gym, I was eating when he arrived. “No problem,” he said and went to work with the tools he’d brought with him. In less than ten minutes, the dryer lay in pieces, completely dismantled on my laundry room floor. Paul discovered the problem; a plastic bushing had deteriorated and metal was now rubbing metal where it wasn’t supposed to. Of course, we had no way to fix or replace the bushing, so Paul oiled and cleaned everything and deftly assembled the whole thing again in less time than it takes me to write three paragraphs. I offered him a cold cherry soda, and we sat around and shot the bull for half an hour. He then bustled off, carrying a can of Superfood that I forced on him for his efforts.

Mother and daughter. Dorothy and Kali


July 6, 2007

Celebration and Civility

Category: News — Ira @ 7:16 pm

Ira looking wise and thoughtful. I like this picture so much that
I’m considering it as a permenant heading for each blog.
As a child growing up in southern Ontario, I remember watching fireworks every year on Victoria Day, which is on a Monday, prior to May 25th. Of course, “watching fireworks” is a relative term. We watched from our house roof as the celebration unfolded in the town of Aylmer, 6 miles directly to the west. Usually right after the sun had set, while the horizon of the sky was still dull with its glow, the first little orange ball would pop up and explode. Followed by the spectrum of greens, reds and every imaginable shade in between.

It was a memorable, not like Christmas or your birthday, but memorable, event. A day or two before, one of us boys would happen to see on the calendar that Victoria Day was coming up. Oh, yeah, fire works. As the day ended, we would drag blankets out an upstairs window onto the east porch roof, then hop up to the low-pitched roof of the new section of the house that my father built after the family arrived in Canada in 1953. We’d lie there with our heads propped on our elbows in anticipation. From our vantage point, the little fireballs we cheered and “awwwed” at were about the size of a man’s fist. But it was all we had and it was fun.

Years later, in the late 80s, I saw my first real fire works up close. My brother Nate and I were traveling, through Missouri somewhere, as I recall. I was in one of my last “Amish” stages, so Nate, poor guy, was doing all the driving. We were passing some small town around sunset, when we heard thunder. Which was strange, because the skies were clear. The highway curved around and suddenly before us erupted a massive explosion of fiery splendor. Fireworks. We gasped. Nate stopped and parked the car beside the highway. Other drivers did the same. And we sat on the car hood and watched the show. I was awestruck. These things were massive and LOUD. In a Eureka moment, it clicked in my mind for the first time that the tiny fireworks we had always watched in Aylmer so many years ago were actually similar in size to those exploding before us.

Since then, I have watched fireworks up close a number of times, but don’t usually go to such events because of the crowds. It’s always a mess getting out. But for those of you who did, I hope you enjoyed them this year.

For the first time ever this Independence Day, I watched the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest in New York City. It was a midday ESPN event. (Yeah, yeah, I was bored and the weather wasn’t very nice, so save it.) Japanese champion Takeru Kobayoshi, who had won the contest for the last six years straight, was defeated by American Joey Chestnut. Mr. Chestnut ate a new world record 66 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes and brought the championship belt home to the cheers of the roaring crowd. Mr. Kobayoshi ate only 63. Why those guys didn’t explode on the spot is beyond me. The whole thing was surreal and simply unfathomable. And pretty silly, actually.

And now, as Paul Harvey says, Page Two. A few words about this site. First, I apologize to all readers for the deterioration of civility and respect in some comments posted during the last two weeks. In the heat of the moment, things were said that should not have been. Including some comments from me. They remain posted. To date, I have been very hesitant to interfere with a blog’s natural flow. However, as the editor, it is my responsibility to lay out some clear ground rules. I have not done that, so the blame for any confusion is mine.

The (new) rules are as follows: Anyone is welcome to comment. Anyone can disagree (and is encouraged to do so, if legit. But don’t disagree just to be contrary.) with anything I write or with anything anyone else posts. But one rule will be stringently enforced in the future. You MUST remain courteous. Write what you want, but write it like you have debated before. Be a gentleman. Or a lady. You can attack IDEAS and trash them all you want. Or a sports team. Or the kind of truck I drive (Personally, I think Fords suck). And so forth. Of course, all politicians, past and present, are fair game for your best shots.

But if you trash the one you are addressing, what kind of response are you realistically expecting? Consider that for a moment. (Oh, yes. Sorry. I am dumb, stupid, and can’t think through or process anything for myself. Thanks for pointing that out to me on this public forum. I now see it your way.) Come on. We’re all intelligent adults here. If you are serious about getting your point across, act like it. Personal, demeaning attacks (as defined by me) will be deleted from now on. And if anyone persists in such behavior, that person will be asked to cease participating in the conversation (On this site, consider me a Benevolent Dictator). Finally, the person you are addressing or challenging has no obligation whatsoever to respond.

The issue of race triggered the decline of civility. About that I have a few words as well. I know what prejudice is. I grew up in an Amish family during the 60s and 70s (before the Amish became media darlings). Because we dressed so differently, we were stared at in almost every public place we went. Some of those stares were hostile. At the local sale barn one night, when I was about 12, a young townie tough guy kicked me right in my you-know-whats for no reason, other than I was a little Amish kid. Right in front of his giggling girlfriend. I never told a soul. As a teenager and later as an adult, I was cursed publicly because my people don’t fight in wars. And more than once, while driving my horse and buggy along the highway after dark, redneck thugs hollered and cursed as they roared by in their pickups. Once, they threw a glass beer bottle, which shattered right under my horse’s hooves (fortunately, he was not injured). There were many other instances; these are only some that quickly come to mind. Granted, it was cultural, not racial prejudice/intimidation. But it was real enough, and I accepted it as just a part of life. And life is not fair. (As a side note, years ago I did try to use my status as a minority of one to get into Harvard and Yale. They didn’t bite. Their loss.)

In the current atmosphere surrounding racial dialogue, I particularly despise “shibboleth” tests of any kind. I will not engage in such. Because it is never enough. Not for those demanding proof. And certainly not for those who desperately try to prove they are not racist. You can’t disprove a negative (When did you stop beating your wife?). So I just won’t go there. If that’s a problem, that’s too bad. I also believe that anyone who claims to be totally prejudice-free is either sadly misguided or a blatant liar. We all have it somewhere, deep down or not so deep, against something, somebody or some group, because that is the natural condition of the human heart.

In my opinion (and it’s just my opinion, so restrain yourselves before attacking), Christians and Rednecks bear the brunt of more prejudice than any other two groups in America right now. Once the suicide bombs start in this country (and they will), it will be Muslims, and naturally so. In some circles, the fact that I am white makes me de facto prejudiced. And racist. That’s where we are, and that’s the way it is, as I see it. Of course, I would give up my viewpoint for a better one convincingly presented (as the Amish preachers always said when closing their sermons, but didn’t mean).

I try to respect every person until or unless that person shows he doesn’t deserve it. That’s pretty basic, but it works for me. True respect takes care of every other issue, including the current much-hyped sensitivity we are all supposed to have. For the more detailed debates, I defer to Fred the Curmudgeon. He has a lot of columns archived on his site. Some of them address race and racial issues. I haven’t read a single one that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

This has been a strange week. Melancholy is the best word to describe it. Not overly depressing, not deeply sad, just melancholy.

“All changes……have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”
—Anatole France

And how was your week?