How did you get into the Book Business?
The Powelton Village Apartments
"How did you get into the Book Business?"
Long Story - Medium Length Version
Through my teen and college years I tried to visit book stores -
primarily just to get reading material.
The depth and range of my reading was quite enormous.
I was a restless youth and visited 49 of the 50 states before I was 21
(I am still missing Hawaii) .
I traveled primarily by hitchhiking, with a few stints on boats that
followed and transversed the coastal waterways.
So you can understand that most of the books I bought in those
years were paperbacks meant to be read and then passed on ... or tossed.
After college I settled in Philadelphia with my wife Isabel, and got a job with Chiquita Banana. We lived at the Powelton Village Apartments (then a bit of a slum - now a national landmark).
The job did not pay much, but gave me the freedom and time to travel.
One day my journeys led me to one of the great eccentrics of the America book trade
- Mr. Samuel Kleinman.
Sam Kleinman's Schuykill Book Shop (or Book Service) was located near the corner of Lancaster and Belmont Avenues in West Philadelphia, not too far from our apartment. The neighborhood had seen better days (probably the last "better days" were before World War Two). It was a storefront shop, painted dark green. The display widows looked like they had not been changed since those long gone "better days". The books, posters, ephemera, and what nots in the window were broken, faded, stained, and warped. Everything had sort of deteriorated to an almost uniform light blue gray color. The show window itself, probably not having been cleaned within the last decade, seemed to have a similar color.
The wooden door was locked, but through the small, dirty, glass panes I could see piles of books.
I guess I was reminded of Point Pleasant
and my heart skipped a beat. I knocked. I waited.
I waited some more - and as I finally turned to go
I heard some shuffling behind the door.
It opened a crack. An oldish man stuck his head out.
"Shop's closed!" he growled.
"Can't I just step in for a moment?" I asked.
"NO! - Go away!"
I did go away... but returned the next evening when I was greeted with
"What do YOU want??"
After explaining that I'd like to see what he had in his shop, I was subjected to a battery of questions. They were mainly about American history (a specialty of mine) with a smattering of questions about literature. He seemed pleased with my answers. In any case, he opened the door and said "OK - you can go in."
"Go in where?" I wondered. There was a VERY narrow path excavated in quick zig zags through piles of books precariously perched upon one another. I carefully moved along the trail which shortly terminated in a slightly open area, holding a desk completely covered with many cubic feet of papers, catalogs, and correspondence (most of which I later found out was never answered); a large fire proof filing cabinet or safe (of a type and configuration that I have never seen before or since); and enough room for two people to stand... and maybe one more if they were quite skinny. The main illumination was one naked light bulb suspended from the ceiling by a long wire. Beyond this cramped oasis were solid walls of books in stacks and upon shelves. They were massed so solidly that penetration into them would have tested the courage and resilience of the keenest African jungle explorer.
We stood close together in this little space and Sam began a show and tell. Actually, it was a show and ask. Sam would pull out some treasure (sometimes from the nearest piles - at other wonderful times from the safe) and ask me questions about it. I was often right in a general way and he would fill in details of specifics I had missed, or book trade terminology I had not yet learned. This was a scene that was repeated dozen and dozens of times over the next two years.
He found me an apt pupil. And though his method of instruction usually included a lot of yelling, pounding of fists, and fits that seemed almost epileptic - I found him an always informative and strangely patient teacher. And what wonderful things I saw. If I ever write the "full length" version of this tale, I'll try to describe the stuff we handled together. I hope it suffices to say here that, even now after over 36 years as an antiquarian bookseller used to working with the world's treasures, I am blown away by the memory of some of those great things.
Unbeknownst to either of us Sam became my earliest mentor in the book trade.
Indeed, he taught me that there was such a thing as "the trade".
He taught me how to profitably use AB Bookman's Weekly (more about AB in the next posting); and how to begin buying and selling these old books -
"Making value where none was previously observed."
He took me to auctions - mainly at Freeman's (America's oldest auction house) - where he was an intense, outspoken, and in later years an entirely batty buyer. He was proud of his physical strength, kept powerful through hoisting thousands upon thousands of books through his "jungles" and up and down narrow stairs to a claustrophobic basement. But he was already getting older and though he presented these as learning opportunities, I realized that he took me along to haul books for him. And he did need help. Sometimes he would buy 90% of the sale. When we got back to the shop a young black boy would meet us and help get the new acquisitions into the basement. I'm sure Sam paid the boy something - but I never got a dime. He knew that I'd gladly trade my labor for the tuition at this "school" of his.
A fellow "professor" at this school was Manny Kean, the proprietor of one of the then largest archives of antique pictorial images in America. Manny looked a bit like a Jewish general Grant. Sam, Manny, and I often had lunch together at a little dive near Sam's shop. Sometimes we'd run into other book men. Edwin Wolf II and Maxwell Whiteman being, along with Sam and Manny, my favorites. The talk was great. The personalities explosive. Each of these men deserves a serious biographical treatment ...
Hopefully some one will write one about Edwin that will include the others.
In later years, I asked Edwin why I was so accepted into this closed circle of powerful but aged book men. He said, "Ron - they all saw you as a book man of the old school. And so you are."
It is one of the finest compliments I have ever received...
And it was Sam who showed me what old-school really meant.