Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Shop Tour: Library

I used to travel a lot more when I was young and gas was several gallons to the dollar instead of several dollars to the gallon. I had a nice Ford pick up truck with two extra 20 gallon gas tanks and a fully furnished cab over camper. I was self contained: I could eat (beans), sleep (on a hard futon), wash (with a cloth and hot water in a pan), and even use the toilet (plastic porta potty ((just as much fun as it sounds))).

I spent two decades just driving wherever I wanted to East of the Mississippi, looking for "old stuff" and talking with like minded collectors. Gee, I guess I lived the life of those two guys on TV now who use a Sprinter to find bicycles in barns! Only, no producer thought my life was worth recording at the time.

I met some interesting people. There was a guy in Natchez who made fakes for a well known New York antique dealer. He showed me his private collection in his house, and the entire house was furnished with newly made "period 18th century Americana". I met a character straight out of the pages of Dickens, who owned a large town house on Pine Street in Philadelphia. He had filled several floors with beat up real antiques that were stacked one on top of the other, until they nearly reached the ceiling. When you walked down the narrow isles of mahogany, the floor moved and these large stacks of bureaus and tables threatened to come crashing down. I met a gas station worker in New Hampshire who was so amazed at me getting out of the truck with bare feet that he couldn't even give me directions.

Of all the memories I have from those trips, it is the used bookstore experience that stands out most. Every town and city I visited had used bookstores, usually situated in the run down, older parts of town. Brick buildings, that used to contain banks or restaurants, were full of book shelves, and stacks of boxes of old books. The people who operated used book stores were in a class by themselves. They would sit patiently at their desks, sorting through books, marking each one carefully on the inside page with a pencil price and code. They were proud of the fact that they knew where every book was in their store, and always asked the new customer: "Can I help you find something?"

I never asked for help. I have been in so many of these stores I had developed an uncanny instinct to go directly to the areas where I could find books on Antiques, Crafts, Museums, Architecture, and even early American History and Travel. I could spend less than 30 minutes, find what I wanted, drop $20 and go on down the road.

Most of all I remember the smell and light and quiet that these stores shared. It was another age. All that is gone now. Even the large retail bookstores have closed. I am sorry that young travelers these days will never know what an experience that was.

The popularity of the internet contributed directly to the demise of these wonderful places where you could find like minded souls. At the same time, most of these book dealers have closed their shops, they have opened virtual shops online. Now you don't have to travel. You just use book search engines. That is, if you know what specific book you are looking for...

For many years I had "hippie" bookshelves. You know, stacks of bricks and pine boards. Very practical, since they can be put up and taken down quickly, or changed to fit the space. Also very ugly.

That all changed a few years ago, when I was visiting a client's home here in town. They are wonderful supporters of my craft, as well as other artisans, and are able to contribute to the arts across the board. They had purchased a large quantity of bookcases, but they were changing their minds and decided to have other bookcases built instead. They asked me if I was interested in having their "old" bookcases. Free.

Gee, I had to think for almost a second about it.

It took several truck loads to move all the bookcases. I now have over 50 cherry cases, with bevel glass doors, and bases and crests, which were enough to fill the school room at work as well as my private library at home and also the kitchen of my partner, Patrice. What an amazing difference!

Now the students who attend the American School of French Marquetry have a real library to access, and we have a rich source of material to examine for our projects. I have every Antiques magazine ever published, from January 1922 to today. I have all the museum catalogues, books on French, German, Italian, English, Russian, and American furniture and Decorative Arts, as well as the related trades and technologies.

At home I have my rare books which I enjoy that are fully protected inside their glass cases.

Each time I open the glass door to extract a volume, I am instantly transformed back in time to the moment I entered some obscure bookstore in some obscure downtown for the first time. I hear the patron ask, "Can I help you?" and I hear my response, "No, I know where to look."

Every time I departed with my purchases, I would sincerely add: "Thank you very much."

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