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




  1. Very thought-provoking story about the book store. Reading is a lost art today. People are not willing to strech their brains anymore. The dumbing down of America is that our average attention span is so short, that to actually sit down and read a book is considered boring. Television is the main reason that reading is no longer popular. I guess maybe it is a Wagler thing to visit bookstores and rummage around. On a rainy day I love to go to an old-fashioned bookstore and just plain immerse myself in older books that nobody has looked at in quite some time. Recently our local library had a 1947 set encyclopedias up for silent bid so I bid $3 and lo and behold they called me couple days later and informed me I was the lucky bidder. A few interesting tidbits in them. ’nuff rambling from me.

    Comment by Andrew — July 13, 2007 @ 10:35 pm

  2. Thank you again for such a thoughtful and lasting gift as the Great Books set. It is prominently displayed in my new study. Even though most of the bookshelfs are unfinished 1x10s fastened to the wall with brackets, the complete Great Books set on the top shelf gives my study a formal, almost austere air. They work great for reference, or just to randomly pull one off the shelf and peruse. They talked different back then. Has anyone read the complete set? I will find my camera or borrow Barb’s and send you a picture. I’m quite proud of my study. Visitors to the Jamesport area should stop by and visit.


    Comment by Reuben Wagler — July 14, 2007 @ 10:16 am

  3. “…people read other things now. Like blogs.”

    If they’re not too long, that is.

    Sorry Wilma, could hardly resist, though I admit it is poor taste to take shots at people I’ve never even met yet.

    I am serious, though. As goes the intelligentsia, so goes the culture. And I recall a quote somewhere that even in the 19th century some furriner was astounded that every farmer in the country could discuss politcal philosophy with an understanding of principles, even if it sounded colloquial.

    I wonder, Ira, if you’ve ever read “Witness” by Chambers and would care to discourse on it. The challenge to a Christianized society he saw then was prescient.

    Because of its impact in my own views–ever since I read it as a non-Christian at the behest of an English teacher at public school–I am now rereading “1984” by Orwell to my wife. Finally. She must hear it to understand a significant part of my own inner world.

    Your writing always leaves me nearly holding my breath in the seeming ease with which you communicate everyday events and root them in meaning–without needing to explicitly moralize. You can count me an advance sale on your novel. I know…but I won’t have time to give it the leisure it will deserve until I’m older anyway.

    Ira’s response: Aw shucks…t’aint nothin’. Thanks for the compliment. It’s very kind of you. I continue to be amazed that people actually check the site every week and read what I write and make some comments.

    I have not read “Witness,” although I know of it.

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — July 14, 2007 @ 4:13 pm

  4. I too will miss Walter Amos Booksellers…. Interesting, that for all our weeping and gnashing over the fate of American Intellect …. Big Box Bookstores remain among the top performing retailers so someone is doing something with the printed word … I recall an article I read in Newsweek in 1995 about this crazy bookstore that decided to open in Lancaster PA — They were not sure there were enough people (read literate country bumpkins) to make the store successful.

    Comment by Glo — July 14, 2007 @ 7:54 pm

  5. Books do “run in the blood” of the Wagler family..all who have a chance should visit Uncle Jess’ library. I have not had the chance to sit leisurely, but it is a sight to behold in and of itself.

    Comment by Dorothy — July 14, 2007 @ 10:59 pm

  6. The big white farm house I grew up in is torn down and a new one is in its place. All the tulips and daffodils are gone and the cherry tree I used to climb up excitedly and relish its fruit. The house my beloved maternal grandparents lived in is sold. I can’t even go see it or show my children anymore. My aunt said, “It’s only a house.” To me it’s not only a house – it’s memories, it’s my roots, it’s the very alive child I was then before disappointments hardened parts of me.

    Comment by Heidi Whitman — July 15, 2007 @ 3:38 pm

  7. I think this was your best post ever.

    Comment by Ellen — July 15, 2007 @ 10:41 pm

  8. Well, I guess I’ll admit I recently joined the “SuperFood” fan club. Thanks Ira, for getting Patrick started, who got me started. My first experience had me second guessing myself but Patrick convinced me it was fine. ( : And being the momma of 3 toddlers that I am – this stuff keeps me going!

    Great post! I found myself completely engrossed. When you write that book – I’d be a buyer. Mj

    Comment by Mary June Miller — July 16, 2007 @ 10:30 pm

  9. Ira, which books have had the most impact on your life?

    Something often heard at my house, “books are our friends”.

    A quote:

    “We err if we judge the value of a book by our current state. A truer measure is the difference between where we would be without the book’s influence and our current state.” -Richard Miller

    Does that ring true to you?

    Have you ever read any of Og Mandino’s books?

    Blessings to you.


    Ira’s response: I read a few books by Mandino back in the late 1980s, early 1990s. The single book that had the most influence on me and had me walking around like a zombie for months was Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again.” I read it in 1992.

    Comment by RagPicker — July 17, 2007 @ 12:38 am

  10. I shall watch closely for it.

    BTW, the last time I was in Fort Smith, AR there was a book store like you describe there. A wonderful place.


    Comment by RagPicker — July 17, 2007 @ 10:43 pm

  11. I’m well known for having books shoved everywhere in my house. Many friends will try to reason with me as I head to the counter to purchase yet another book….I simply smile at them and say, “but I need this.” No one ever knows what to respond to this statement when it is used in reference to a book!

    In Phoenix, every Feb. we have a huge booksale at the fairgrounds. People come from everywhere, they supply you with large grocery carts and the smart ones wheel in large suitcases….most books are $2.00 or under. Truly fabulous experience!

    I loved this blog, it made me smile and think of all the wonderful days I’ve spent sitting on the dusty floor of some small bookstore…well done Ira!

    Comment by janice — July 19, 2007 @ 1:09 am

  12. There is a place within 5 mi. of our house where the aroma of books, magizines & coffee intermingle, the favorite spot (store) of our whole family…where you can buy a cup of coffee & browse thru 1,000s of books/magazines/ newspapers…my only rule is you have to put the reading material back where you get it (they don’t always listen)..the parking lot is always full. With a membership card you get 10% off of everything (including the coffee); the local Barnes & Noble..who says the art of reading is dead???? bro steve

    Comment by bro steve — July 19, 2007 @ 5:41 pm

  13. Ira. I was walking down Charing Cross Road in London yesterday and thought of your blog. The road is still awash with modern and antiquarian bookshops and it would be my pleasure to spend a day browsing and buying when you have time to come and visit. I will see you in August and let me know if you want me to bring you a book from Charing Cross Road. Mark

    Comment by BigBlueFish — July 20, 2007 @ 5:34 pm

  14. Herman Kuhns recently introduced me to your blog, Ira. I love it! I am Herman’s mother’s brother. There are many things I would love to discuss with you but won’t clutter your life with trivia from a previous generation. I was startled to discover that you are friends with Ben and Emma Stoltzfus. I knew them way back when… I used to track the career of their daughter Rhoda, but have not heard of her for several years. What has become of her?
    BTW, Nicholas’ sister Nancy lives near Scottsville, KY; about 15 miles from here

    Comment by Dan Schmucker — January 5, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

  15. I am greatly saddened by the semi-new wave of electronic books. My friend gave me her Kindle because she got a new one and I never use it. I’ve had it for only a few months, but I see it as a dust collector.

    There is something about a paper book that gets me giddy. And I’m picky about the books I actually buy. I have to have already read it before I invest in a hard copy. Weird, but there it is. I’ve been burned too many times. My favorites are biographies. People interest me like nothing else. Their lives and what they’ve experienced, seen, felt. This doesn’t mean I like being around people all the time because I don’t. Which is another great benefit to books- You shut them when you’ve had enough or get rid of them altogether if they are of no interest. Tolstoy has some great short stories that reflect much of Russian history and his experiences with Christianity.

    And when you find those that you like, they take over your mind and print themselves on your heart. They dictate your mood. Even your actions, at times.

    Here’s something I recently heard, “Books allow us to live more than one life.” I never heard that before, but it struck me. May there always be paper books.

    The movie “84 Charing Cross Road” is one of my favorites.

    Comment by Francine — March 28, 2013 @ 1:53 am

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