Buying for other people: some thoughts on bookshops ON BOOKS

November 22, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

From time to time on these pages we pose a question, related to books, to two or three dozen smart people, and publish their answers. Today, on the page facing this one, there is a series of neat little stories about gift books that have had unusual impact. I hope they may aid and comfort our readers in this gift-choosing season.

I am grateful to our respondents, busy people all, including Mayor Schmoke, with his generous-hearted citation.

Searching my memory, I find I have given away so many books that no single miracle stands out. But I hope you find the others' answers helpful - more so than the endless holiday listings published by many newspapers and magazines. If you still find yourself in despair for ideas, you could do worse than working your way down the best-seller list on this page.

Better yet, I think - for this is the way I do it - go to a book shop. Give two minutes' thought to each of the recipients' names. Scribble a few words beside them: "money, drink, obscure foreign travel" (for your banker, of course), "vampires, wrestling, herpetology" (your sister-in-law, the accountant), "hot-house flowers, ballet, bird-watching" (Cousin Spike, the police captain). That kind of thing.

Then let your feet and mind wander. Nibble and browse. Stop and read a page. Note books as they arise as contenders. Go back as you find more fitting titles. Test and balance. Go inside the intended's head. Give yourself a firm deadline. When that moment arrives, any decision is better than none.

As you roam, don't hesitate to ask bookshop people for guidance. These days, sad to say, many of them seem to read little and know not much more, though I have run across some brilliant exceptions. But there no longer are many shops of the sort that in times long past made the task of choosing and buying books a joy.

Special genius

The economics of merchandising speak resolutely. That is a loss - the inexorable deaths of the traditional bookshops. I loved them. They had a special genius. They knew.

For many years, I lived in Philadelphia. Like Baltimore, it is a city with a richly bookish history. There was one legendary bookstore, on Walnut Street in the center of the city, named Sessler's. It had been a family enterprise beyond the recall of living memory.

It was operated and staffed by the sort of people who once worked in bookshops all over the world - or so sentimental legend would have it. They not only could find books when asked, but they convincingly knew something about them, suggested alternatives, offered to order, wrap and mail things that were not in stock. Most importantly, they cared. About books. About readers. About you.

Sessler's fell upon hard times. Not because it was not loved and frequented. But this was the late 1970s and the chaining of bookselling had begun. The last of the family, a splendid woman in her 80s or near to it, was infirm.

A group of people, some friends of mine, decided to put together a small investment syndicate to ensure the shop's perpetuity. Two of them, very serious book lovers, were commissioned to examine the place from top to bottom, to estimate what should be offered to the estate - and its prospects.

Ultimately, the effort failed. Such are the economics of individual, independent book shops. But the effort yielded lots of rich experiences. I shared one of them on a Sunday afternoon, when I joined the two assessors in looking at the files of the firm.

They were neatly preserved in manila folders, tabbed with family names, in walnut cabinets in a back office. The files held lots of dust - and invoices and notations of checks received. Their glory was correspondence. Almost all was hand-written. Some went back many decades.

For shame!

One of those letters tattooed itself on my memory. It was dated in April, some time in the 1940s. It was addressed to "My dear Miss..." - shame on me, I have forgotten her name. It was in the elegant handwriting of - the address made obvious - a lady of means. It related that the family, as ever, would be going for the summer to their house in Northeast Harbor, Maine, at the beginning of June.

It asked that Sessler's forward, in advance of their arrival, some two dozen books, mostly by title, a few by author's name and bits of description. The letter was signed, very formally, and then there was a postscript:

"p.s., Again, for much of July, Mr. X's aunt Agatha will be joining us. Would you please include in this order 12 books of the sort that she likes to read." That was it. Not a word more.

Attached to that was a copy of an invoice that listed, along with the specified ones, a dozen books, apparently novels, that I had never heard of. But there was not the slightest doubt among any of us that every one of them was precisely the sort of book that dear Aunt Agatha liked to read, and adored reading all through that July by the sea.

Those times will not return. But books will endure. So please read - on the facing page - the little tales from John Alden, from Victoria Brownworth. Read Elsbeth Bothe's, Monica Crowley's - the Rev. Bruce Rosomer's. Read them all. Every one could become a book, you know. Don't you love stories?

Have a good time shopping.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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