Christopher P. Stephens, Bookman

Chris Stephens has been a book dealer since 1965 - earlier if you count childhood buying and selling.

Stephens has sold major collections to university libraries all over the world. He has operated appealing bookstores in Mt. Carroll, Illinois, Hastings on Hudson, NY and several in NYC, NY. He is a wholesale dealer to other bookstores all over the world.

Chris loves books.

Stephens now maintains a lively internet operation out of his new home in Scranton, PA.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Richard Kostelanetz

     Richard Kostelanetz does not like trees.
     Could this be true?  Chris Stephens claims it is.  "Not trees.  I like concrete."  Chris says Richard said this more than once, and that he didn't mean concrete poetry - which he also liked.  He meant the kind of concrete from which buildings and massive walls are made.
     Not sunlight or views either, apparently.  Kostelanetz had blocked out the windows in his loft on 17th Street.
     Aubrey Beardsley, another creative genius in black and white, also kept his windows closely shuttered to keep out the daylight.
     Our book loft on 38th Street had unblinded windows on 4 sides.  Maybe he didn't see them.  In the main part, where the books were stored, and where we had Kostelanetz' party, those windows were not a noticeable feature.  Long lines of bookshelves formed bright corridors on the window sides blocking light from the other side.  Those shelves facing the bright outside held boxes of books.  Open book shelves were in the interior.  Sunlight fades book spines.
     Chris knew Richard better than I did.  To me, Kostelanetz seemed a man so full of artistic exuberance that he wouldn't want to shut anything out, let alone sunshine. 
     In any case, he was entirely at ease at his party at that loft full of hidden windows.  There's a little more about that party in an earlier post.   

Monday, April 27, 2009

Brajarani Scioscia at riverrun

June 1988

Brajarani Scioscia, on the left, enjoyed an afternoon in riverrun with Mary. The cousins were friends.
Brajarani had an interesting and unusual childhood but at this time she lived in Hastings on Hudson, right around the corner from riverrun. She worked at riverrun during her sophomore year of high school and off and on during the next years. "I felt so grown up when I was there," said Braj. "But look at this picture! I was young."
Braj and Mary went to the local high school together. They liked to hang out in their grandfather's bookstore even on days when they weren't formally working. Frank Scioscia liked his granddaughters dropping by. Sometimes they gave him a hand with shelving books or carrying boxes. They always brought these wonderful smiles in to light up riverrun.
Brajarani travelled after college. She went on to have two great children, Holly and Bilbo. She designed costumes and later became an ESL teacher. It's a job that works well with her interest in other people and in exotic climes.
Now Brajarani has settled in England. By coincidence, Mary is there too. They both read. They both write. Neither has been published yet, but they will. Mary writes enchanting stories for children and funny stuff about the mishaps of love. Brajarani writes lively travel commentary and compelling memoirs of her fascinating life. After almost 20 years, they're still dear friends. Whenever they're in NY, they still bring those wonderful smiles in to light up riverrun.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Gotham Book Mart - University of NM

     The March 1975 issue of Antiquarian Bookman has an article on page 1354 describing the University of New Mexico's purchase of Gotham Book Mart stock.  The 5th paragraph contains this single sentence:  "Christopher P. Stephens (325 West 38th St, NYC) acted as intermediary in the transaction."
     Believe me, there are more sentences than one involved in that story.  I can't write them down just now.  Too busy gearing up for the coming week of opera Monday, Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday.
     In early May, when the Wagner Adventure is over, then I will be able to tell the Gotham sale story properly.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Donald Westlake by CPS

photo by Christopher P. Stephens - September 1981

     Donald Westlake very much liked this picture Chris took, so Chris gave him some prints.  Chris Stephens very much liked the books that Westlake wrote, so Westlake signed him a few.   
     Donald Westlake wrote a wide variety of novels, mostly mysteries with a light touch of humor.  He's best known for the Parker series written under the name Richard Stark.
     Chris enjoyed researching Westlake's books and various pseudonyms for the checklist he published on Donald Westlake. 

Westlake's own website, maintained up until just before he died on the last day of 2008.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Alma has lunch with Chris

     Alma Singer gave this picture of her husband to Chris Stephens.  In 1993, Alma wanted to sell the books out of her apartment on 86th Street where she and Isaac Bashevis Singer had lived for so long.  Someone recommended riverrun.
     Alma was a character.  She could be a bit cranky.  She could be abrupt.  Just like Chris Stephens.
     The two hit it off.  They talked and argued and were cranky and abrupt with one another.  They enjoyed themselves immensely.
     At noon Chris needed a food break, but not a conversation break.  "I'd like to take you to lunch," he told Alma.
     "Yes.  That would be nice."
     "Where should we go?  Can you recommend a good place?"
     Alma suggested a nearby deli.  "The food's not so good," she told Chris,  "But the price is right."
     Chris preferred good food.  He wasn't stinting on his pay for her books.  He didn't want to stint on lunch either.  "No. no," he said.  "Let's go someplace where the food is very good.  What's the best restaurant around?"
     Alma didn't think Chris should waste his money.  They argued.  Both were stubborn, but it looked as if they were going to have to eat where the price was right, and the food wasn't.
     Then Chris made the convincing argument.
     "You know, Alma, I'm buying books from you.  This lunch is a business expense.  It's tax deductible."
      Alma was delighted.  "You mean we'll go to lunch on the government's money?"  She directed Chris to a mighty fine restaurant and settled into her seat with satisfaction.  She spread out her menu in anticipation of additional satisfactions.  "My husband was a vegetarian," she told Chris, with relish.  "But I'm not.  I'm ordering beef."
     After a long and very good lunch, Chris and Alma returned to her apartment.  Chris packed up more boxes of books.   Later, it was such a pleasure to unpack those books at riverrun.  It felt good to handle books from their apartment - books that I. B. Singer had written and had read. Books they'd both read.  We integrated them into our stock.
      The picture didn't stay at riverrun.  Chris took it home.  He hadn't purchased that photo.  It was a gift from Alma.  Although Chris picked up the bill, that lunch was a gift from Alma too.

NY Times - Cass Canfield

The New York Times, March 22, 1978, notes the opening of Canfield & Stephens Rare Books and Pictures, Inc.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Canfield Stephens Books - opening party

invitation on 6x10 heavy laid paper, designed and handprinted by Ron Gordon

     Cass Canfield and Chris Stephens inaugurated their antiquarian bookstore with a marvelous party.  

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Publishers' Representatives

publishers' reps left to right:  Zeb Burgess - ?, unknown, Ted Maass - Macmillan, Frank Scioscia - Harper & Row

     Don't trade book salesmen have great jobs?  The responsibilities are hardly onerous.  Each salesman has a territory filled with book stores.  The salesman visits each one regularly and chats with the book buyer who is often the owner.  The book buyer orders inventory from the publisher's new season list while they discuss readers and book buyers and authors.
     The salesman checks stock and culls returns for the bookstore.  Then he drives off to another bookstore for more fun.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Theron Palmer - publisher's rep

photo July 1976 - Frank Scioscia & Theron Palmer - in Stephens' backyard

In the 1970s Theron Palmer was a sales representative for Dial/Delacorte and also represented Harper & Row and Atheneum. It’s not supposed to be that way. Usually one person represents one publisher. Theron’s territory – Texas and Oklahoma - had a lot of open space between bookstores. Theron was able to work out a joint arrangement.
In 1975, when he drove those long open stretches, oil prices and import problems led congress to pass a national speed limit of 55 mph. Many people complained. Theron didn’t. He cut his speed 20% - down to 55. Theron was patriotic and law-abiding. He said if he could do it on his long drives, then anyone should be able to keep to 55.
Theron grew up in Oklahoma. He talked about the difficulty of farming poor soil during the depression. He remembered that he only had onions to eat as a child. Those onions sustained him well though. He became a tall, broad man with a wonderful singing voice. I met Theron Palmer in the early 1960s, not long after my father met him. This was before he returned to OK/TX. In the early 1960s he just represented Dial and his territory, like my father’s, included southern California. Many evenings Theron brought his guitar to our house. His strong voice sang out in our book-lined living room. My father could never get enough of Theron’s songs. Theron had a wide repertoire of country songs but most memorably he sang a powerful version of “The Tennessee Stud”.

The Tennessee stud was long and lean,
the color of sun and his eyes were green.

     Theron twanged it out loud and hearty. The song is basically about a cowboy hero who loves a beautiful girl with golden hair.

I had some trouble with my sweetheart's pa,
And one of her brothers was a bad outlaw.

    The cowboy had to ride away on his very fine horse, the Tennessee stud. He rides into all sorts of dire situations, but he always gets out safely because of this exceptional horse. Time passes and he misses the girl. As it turns out, the stud’s in love too. He misses the Tennessee mare. They return. The cowboy whips the girl’s brother and pa and rides away with the girl who – coincidentally I guess - owns the Tennessee mare. Not all of Theron’s songs had happy endings, but this one did.

Pretty little baby on the cabin floor
Little colt playing around the door
I love the girl with golden hair
And the Tennessee stud loves the Tennessee mare

Sometimes Theron brought his wife, Violet, to our house too. My parents, Frank and Mary Scioscia, became friends with Violet and Theron Palmer. Both men travelled, selling books to stores far and wide. It's a special kind of life.  They both loved books. All four of them did. Whenever Theron wasn't strumming his guitar and singing, the adults were talking about books.

Friday, April 17, 2009

clerihew contest

The Literature Club of Hastings on Hudson has announced a clerihew contest as part of its 100th year anniversary festivities. A clerihew is a 4-line bit of nonsense with an aabb rhyme scheme. The subject can be anything, but to be eligible for the contest your clerihew must have a literary subject. (There’s a link to more details at the bottom of this posting.)
There are marvelous prizes. riverrun is involved. But the fun of the contest is in thinking up an entry more than in winning. I’m joining the clerihew party myself for that fun. Here are my submissions:

1.) What is a Clerihew?

A ditty silly not sublime.
Four lines with a-a-b-b rhyme.
Named for Bentley, Edmund Clerihew
And now it’s time for us to air a few.

2.) King Lear

Lear rewarded daughters two,
Would not believe their words untrue.
But for the banished girl who would not lie
He suffered anguish to see her die.

3.) Cyrano and Roxanne

He wrote of love in phrases rarified.
Alas, the signature she had not verified.
This blind triangle ends in ways quite drastic.
Consigning poor Roxanne to a life monastic.

4.) Lolita

Part woman, and too part child
This drove HH completely wild.
He made a plan and he took action
That led to his dark satisfaction.

Now that it’s typed out, I can see that Lolita does not really lend itself to a nonsense rhyme.
You try one. Send it in.

Find out more on the Literature Club website:
Send your entries to:
O'Gara & Wilson, a Chicago Bookstore, runs a fun blog that also mentioned this contest on April 1

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Opening Day

photo taken by an accommodating stranger

     The new Yankee Stadium is open for its first regular-season game.  It's a beautiful day for it.  Clear sky.  Warm sun.  Spring's sweet promise has touched trees and highway medians in New York City.
     Christopher Stephens and his four children are baseball enthusiasts and Yankee fanatics.   Chris and his daughter, Isabel, are at the game now.  (Top of the fifth, 1-0 Cleveland, Posada just threw out a renowned base stealer.  I know this and pass it on only out of family loyalty. )
     No worries for riverrun while Chris is truant.  Martin Kelly, riverrun manager, is a Mets fan.  Martin is on the job, attending to riverrun business.   

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Frank Scioscia at Old Oregon Bookstore

July 1979 - unknown photographer

Here Frank Scioscia is visiting his old friend, Mac McMann at Mac's bookstore, The Old Oregon, in Portland Oregon.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Conversation With Dan Frank - Editor

Dan Frank is editor-in-chief at Pantheon Books. An author once told me that Dan Frank’s authors affectionately refer to the publishing house as Dantheon.

Dan came into riverrun on Sunday. He talked about publishing. He thinks changes are coming.
“The age of corporate publishing preeminence may be drawing to a close. Small, independent publishers are already springing up and filling niches too small for the giant corporate machinery. It’s exciting. The orientation of a small publisher is completely different. They’re passionate about what they publish. They aren’t as passionate about bottom line considerations.”
This is how Dan Frank sees the development of big corporate publishing in the first place.
“Book clubs were very successful. Book of the Month Club and other mail order book clubs. People all over the country subscribed. This made bookstore corporations develop nationwide aspirations. Book retailing chains opened up, dotting the map. Now publishers jumped in. There was that glint in the eyes of the executives. They figured the distribution was in place. They could mainstream cultural items, publish in greater quantities and make bundles of money.
“They didn’t understand though. The book market is a niche market. People want to read history or poetry or fiction or mystery. Only very rarely is there crossover interest where all the different markets converge on the same book for gigantic sales.
“It does happen occasionally. There are a few golden success stories, like a John Le Carre spy novel, but the few breakthrough blockbusters only reinforce the unrealistic dream. Dream: If we can sell 10,000 copies of a book, why can’t we sell many multiples of 10,000? This business model is based on ever-increasing expansion but publishing is not really that kind of industry.
“People in publishing have torn themselves away from the corporate trough before. Atheneum, for instance, was founded in 1959. Michael Bessie was disgusted with Harper’s. Pat Knopf hated the idea of working with his father. Hiram Hayden left his post as editor in chief at Random House. They started Atheneum and published quality books without regard for mega-sales.
“There are other small, distinguished publishers, and I think more are coming.”
This is an interesting prediction for publishing. Dan Frank sees parallels with the movie industry. “You have the major studios producing pictures, and at the same time you have all these independent film makers.”
The 40 or 50 years of corporate publisher dominance have changed the nature of not only publishing, but writing too.
“The corporate publishers have created a class of writers that didn’t exist before. The publisher’s advance is the difference. Years ago, advances were a minor part of the pay package. A publisher would take on a worthy book even where they anticipated sales of just 5000 copies. The offer to the author might be something like $4000 advance against royalties. No one can live on that kind of money. The author kept his day job.
“Nowadays publishers look for the huge seller. Bidding is competitive. The advance is big, really big. Now the advances are big enough for the author to live on. He can leave his day job and write fulltime.
“The fulltime author is a creation of corporate publishing and the big advances.”
As Dan Frank sees it, this new class of author changed the dynamics of publishing in many ways.
“Twenty years ago, the most important relationship was still between author and editor. Now it’s between author and agent.”
The editor’s job is to get the best book possible out of the author. The agent’s job is to get the most money possible for the author. I’d heard that Dan Frank has very loyal authors.
“Not all,” he said. “More left than stayed.” I was skeptical.
“And editors move now too,” Frank told me. “It used to be that an editor spent his entire career at one publisher. Take Cass Canfield. He wasn’t going to leave Harper’s. He was doing what he wanted to do, publishing the books he wanted to publish. It used to be the only reason an editor left a publisher was if he couldn’t sign the authors he wanted. Bob Giroux, for instance, left Harcourt for Farrar, Straus because he wasn’t allowed to sign Catcher in the Rye. I mean, that was the last straw.”
“Now the editor’s job is more tenuous. Editors move around just like authors move around.”
Dan Frank talked about authors.
“A part-time author who writes around his schedule is, in a way, more even-keeled with his publisher. He’s happy to be published. He’s happy to be paid for his writing. The new fulltime writer, created by corporate publishing, is not in the same easy position. For him, publishing is his livelihood. And it’s a remarkably fickle livelihood. No wonder the author moves. When that day comes that his publisher doesn’t want the next book, or wants to pay less, or demands more revision work, the agent says ‘Come on. We’ll find some other publisher with deep pockets.’
“I think the hardest thing is for an author to stay true to what they are.”

Dan Frank offered more insights and anecdotes. It was a great conversation.

More Conversation With Dan Frank

As a student, Dan Frank was interested in philosophy and poetry but he wasn’t convinced that the life of a poet or of a philosopher was for him. Luckily he ventured further afield because, as Dan says, “I love publishing.” And publishing loves him.
Dan Frank had a couple of small jobs before he became an editor at Viking.
“I was really lucky. I got there just about the time Penguin purchased Viking. There were great editors at Viking – like Cork Smith. He was a real Pynchon enthusiast and he had such a good editorial eye. And Alan Williams. Quality history.
“With the Penguin/Viking combination, they were pushing some of these fine editors out, but I got to see their work”
Dan talked about the editorial eye. “It’s completely grounded in the individual’s interests as well as his curiosity and urge to push on for more. You’re thinking ‘I want to know more about this,’ but it’s really your familiarity with the subject that allows you to recognize something you haven’t seen expressed that way before. You’re reading, and you say, ‘Oh my god! I’ve never read a book like this.’ And that’s what you want to publish.
“For example, here’s someone who is looking at Einstein as a man who is thinking as dreaming.”
Is that real, I interrupt Dan. “Yes. Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman.
“An important aspect of the editorial eye is that it’s shaped by your early encounters with reading – your earliest sense that what you’re reading is entirely different from what you’ve read or thought before.”
So what is Dan Frank’s eye exactly? What does he want to publish?
“I want to find books that are still going to be read 40 years from now. I’m not as interested in the first 6 weeks of a books life as I am in the next few decades. I want books that offer writing and concept that isn’t dated. There is this thing that rarely gets talked about in publishing – the truly great authors that may or may not have been a success in their time.”
Dan Frank’s editorial eye has far reaching vision. He wants to publish books whose greatest success may come beyond our time.
“Of course your employer wants you to find books that will sell – will make money now. That has to be one criterion in the selection. But consideration of the book market today need not be the dominant criterion. At Pantheon, we’re allowed to be quite idiosyncratic. We make money on Alexander McCall Smith and on the high quality back list. We’ve been publishing books for the future all along.”
I wonder about some of the authors that Dan Frank most likes. He spins out a few of his favorites.
“David Abram. The Spell of the Sensuous. It’s a book of natural philosophy, about how language comes out of human experience with the earth. Abram has a lot to say and he says it his way. Sometimes he takes my suggestions but other times he doesn’t want to make my changes. This book speaks to many. He has become hugely influential in the environmental movement.”
“Richard Holmes is a big biographer of romantic poets. He’s written a wonderful book, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. He writes about what a biographer does – about how he excavates his subject. Holmes, the writer, is taking you on a tour of his own workshop in a way. He shows you how it’s done, what interests him, how the research works.”
“Joseph Mitchell. Great writer. He wrote in the 30s, 40s and 50s. McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. The Bottom of the Harbor. Up in the Old Hotel. I convinced him to let me reprint his essays. He wanted it done a particular way. He wanted everything in one volume.”

Dan Frank has lots more favorites. He sparkles with enthusiasm for authors, for books, for publishing, for reading. His enthusiasm is quite contagious.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Louisa Likes Talk

Louisa Stephens and Dan Frank

photo by Christopher Stephens

(all other color photos, except those noted - like this one - taken by L. Scioscia Stephens)

I'm always ready for a good conversation. Most conversations are like bubbles - delightful, then gone. It is the conversation's passage through, leavening our daily lives, rather than the conversation itself that is significant.

Sometimes though, conversations themselves are kept. For instance, I'm going to post an extremely interesting one I had here with Dan Frank on this blog in a couple of days.

Another good way to capture a conversation is at Storycorps. This is a global archive of conversations housed at the Library of Congress. The project was created by David Isay. He has sound booths set up in a couple of cities and two mobile booths that travel throughout the USA collecting recordings of people talking. About anything. The booths are staffed by remarkably empathetic "facilitators" who handle the technology and exude encouragement.

Dan Frank indulged me by chatting with me in a Storycorps booth. Look it up if you're in Washington D.C. Go chat with someone in a Storycorps booth yourself. And come by riverrun for books or conversation.
storycorps blog

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Jan Herman


The Something Else Press sales catalogue is fascinating reading.  Double click to enlarge these pages by Jan Herman.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Buying Something Else

Something Else Press printed wonderful books and pamphlets. I just came across the press' last catalogue 1973/74. Jan Herman, sales manager, wrote descriptions of each book. What great descriptions! I wanted to read every single book.
Chris Stephens often ordered books from Something Else Press. One day in 1974 he telephoned to place an order. Jan Herman answered the phone. He sounded down. "Sorry. Can't. We're broke," he told Chris. "We're out of business. Closed down."
Chris was appalled. "But where are the books?" he asked.
"Lawyer has them. Has all our papers. You might be able to get something from the lawyer I suppose. I don't know how he's handling it."
Herman gave Stephens the lawyer's number. Chris called. The lawyer wasn't filling individual orders but he asked if Chris wanted to buy everything. Chris did. The lawyer sent lists of books stored in Vermont and in NYC. They negotiated a price for the entire inventory and papers. The lawyer said Chris would have to send a truck for them but that he'd arrange workers to load the boxes onto the truck.
Chris was very pleased about the books but not about getting them. For one thing, he had a weekly poker game at our apartment, which he hated to cancel. For another Chris didn't relish a lengthy road trip.
I did. I love road trips. I rented a truck and packed the kids into the back of the cab. I brought along my friend from Marvin Cohen's creative writing class, Bruce Hovenstot. It was evening by the time we were finally ready to roll. The poker players had already arrived. I drove out into the night. Bruce quietly criticized my driving the whole way to Vermont.
We were waiting outside a Vermont barn at the appointed hour next morning. The lawyer came with some workers. We didn't get to meet any of those notable authors and poets and artists in person, but we did get to pack thousands of boxes of their work into the U-Haul truck.
I drove back. We unloaded at our loft on 38th Street. Those books took up a lot of room but we had a lot of room. We had the whole top floor, 17th, and around that time we took the 16th too. Chris picked up more Something Else Press books from the NYC distributor. For months we looked through those boxes.
Business files were there too. Chris could see that production costs on some titles exceeded wholesale price. No wonder they were broke.
Chris Stephens himself, and Frank Scioscia too, have often flipped conventional business wisdom. The riverrun proprietors routinely bought high and sold low. But the difference is that those lines rarely crossed.
Something Else Press was publishing remarkable material. It pumped creative energy into our society. Their bankrupcy leaves us all slightly bankrupt. It was a very fine press - a very fine project.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Conversation With John Zubal - Book Dealer

  John Zubal is in town today. It's always good to see him.
     Zubal has 180,000 books for sale on the internet. That's a lot of books. I think that makes John Zubal Book King of the Internet.
    His books are warehoused in Cleveland, Ohio. He has a big operation there with a large staff processing incoming books and outgoing orders.
     "I work at the warehouse 8 hours every day. Then I bring a box home. I have a computer in front of the television set. I watch TV and research books. One hand's on the keyboard, the other holding a nice glass of red wine."

     In this way Chris and John are alike. Chris also spends evenings at home looking up or listing books on the internet while he half watches sports or movies. The book dealers agreed that it was a good life. "It's hard work," said John. "But it's good work."
     John opened his book business in 1961. He concentrates on scholarly and antiquarian books. Over more than 45 years John, like Chris, has seen major shifts in the way used and antiquarian books are sold. The internet has changed the market.
     The two book dealers discussed business over lunch. They talked about how Amazon could change the price structure of books on American Book Exchange now that ABE belongs to Amazon.
     The book dealers didn't like the glut of unsaleable books, hundreds of a single title, listed for a penny or a dollar. Those mysteries and popular fiction were published in gigantic print runs for a temporary market. "Those books will never sell. People who wanted to read them bought them at the time. If they're new to the author, they'll buy a paperback reprint. Those listings just clog up the system."
      John told a story about visiting ALibris. "Typists were lined up to process books coming along on a sort of conveyer belt."  It's different from the Wise Bookman taking a book off a shelf, and looking through it to determine publishing information and condition.
     Both John Zubal and Chris Stephens have bridged the chasm of change between book dealing old style and book dealing new style. Their operations are successful in part because they've kept the one and added the other.

  These book dealers survived and are optomistic about the future.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Pramoedya Ananta Toer

One afternoon, almost 20 years ago, Chris Stephens was in the William Morrow publishing offices. He was talking with an editor friend. The editor was planning a trip to southeast Asia. Conversation came around to Indonesian author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
"He's in Jakarta under house arrest," said the editor. "Carefully guarded. In a comfortable situation now, I understand, but still confined."
Pramoedya's earlier imprisonments had been far from comfortable.
The Indonesian government was allowing the editor to visit Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Stephens had an idea.
"Wouldn't it be great to get some signed copies of his books? They'd be the only ones. "
"You don't understand, Chris. His books are outlawed there. He's imprisoned because of his writing. You don't just stroll through those streets with his books in your arms."
"What about blank sheets? You could bring him blank sheets. He could sign them and then we could tip them into books when you brought them back here."
"That might work," said the editor.
That did work. Chris brought the editor a packet of blank book-sized pages. The editor brought them to Indonesia.
Pramoedya was reluctant to sign blank sheets. He worried that someone might frame a contract or a confession above the signature and he'd be in further trouble. The editor reassured the author. He got the signatures.
Back in the United States, the signed pages were tipped into existing books. Those signed books came with a good story.
A couple of years later, Pramoedya Ananta Toer was finally released from house arrest. He traveled. He went on a North American book-signing tour.

some of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's books that have been translated into English: The Fugitive (CPS's favorite), Corruption, The King The Witch and the Priest, The Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, House of Glass, House of Glass, The Girl From the Coast, A Mute's Soliloquy

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Prussian Calvary Officer

Going into strangers' houses for books puts Christopher Stephens into the lives of those strangers. Sometimes he brings more than books back to riverrun.

These were small possessions of an old man long gone. His name was August Giehr. He was a Prussian Calvary officer. The picture on the left was taken 90 years ago, in 1919.

Giehr's time worn kit is painfully touching. There, amongst scuffed stays and shirt studs, lie his medals.
What about those medals?
  Born after WWII, raised in the 1960s, I've been indifferent to valor.  Until now.  Giehr's kit gives me a glimpse of a different world where medals are a treasured currency of honor in battle.

left to right:
1914 Iron Cross, 2nd Class - awarded for bravery, far beyond demands of duty. The original 1813 design is on the back with initials FW for Friedrich Wilhelm III, King of Prussia.   
Silver Cross of Merit with Crown bearing the words 'virbus unitas', the name of an Austro Hungarian battleship
Kyffhauferbund medal - WWI veterans' medal

  There's much more about medals on the internet.  Here's a start:
diggerhistory website with pictures of Prussian military medals
a google collection of websites about German medals
a google collection of WWI Allied military medals

Monday, April 6, 2009

Dana Gioia

2 b&w photos - photo credit Christopher P. Stephens 
 Dana Gioia and Frank Scioscia in front of riverrun 1984

     Dana Gioia discovered riverrun shortly after the store opened.  He and Frank Scioscia became fast friends.  They were a generation apart but they shared a way of thinking about books, authors, readers and life.
     Dana's wife, Mary Gioia, and Frank's wife, Mary Scioscia also became close friends.  The two Marys  belonged to the Hastings Literature Club which celebrates its 100th year anniversary this autumn.   The couples saw each other often.
     When they moved to Hastings both Dana and Mary Gioia worked in management at General Foods.  Dana Gioia kept his poetry on low profile, really no-profile, at GF.  In a parallel world to his work there, his poems were being widely published.   The way I remember this story (but have not been able to corroborate) is that Esquire Magazine ran an article, in the early 1980s,  on the most promising young new poets.  Dana Gioia was named as one of the best.
      The poetry-cat was out of the bag.  Some people had trouble reconciling excellence in poetry with his excellence in business but it was disparate talents like these that later made him so exceptional a Chairman at the National Endowment for the Arts.
     He became the Chairman in 2003, when the organization was riven by external controversy and internal confusion.  He was enthusiastic about art for the widest public.  He introduced great programs like memoir and poetry by returning soldiers, the nation-wide reading project - The Big Read,  community Shakespeare, and more.
     Dana Gioia left the National Endowment for the Arts this January.  He stopped and visited riverrun "on his way" to California.
     I wonder what he will do next.  With his many interests, his many talents, I bet it will be another something big.

Some students at Lyceum Kennedy in NYC enjoying The Big Read with Fahrenheit 451

Dana Gioia's poetry collections: Interrogations at Noon,  Gods of Winter,  Daily Horoscope
Gioia's other books:  Disappearing Ink,  Can Poetry Matter?, Barrier of Language
There are many other articles, essays, poems, anthologies, translations and also libretti

Dana Gioia's website
some video clips of Gioia
a very interesting excerpt from a commencement speech given by Gioia and printed in WSJ

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Isabella Bannerman Draws at riverrun

drawing copyright Isabella Bannerman 2009

Isabella Bannerman visited riverrun last week. Chris showed her around the store. She took out her sketchbook. At first she thought of a cartoon picturing proprietor Chris Stephens as a Meriwether Lewis or William Clark, bushwacking his way through a wilderness of books in the store.
That would have worked. Riverrun contains some dangerous passageways. ("Do you want me to help tidy up a little?" Isabella asked.) Long corridors between shelves in the back are like canyons. Open areas in the front are mighty vistas.
In the end, her vision could not be contained within walls. The magnificent palisades across the Hudson became books. Meriwether Stephens points the way.

Isabella Bannerman is the Monday cartoonist for the syndicated Six Chix strip. Her off-beat humor is a great treat.
There will be an exhibit of Isabella's work at the Station Cafe in Hastings on Hudson on April 25th. You can catch her Mondays in any one of hundreds of newspapers, or anytime on the internet.

Isabella Bannerman's website
Six Chix website (I especially like the painting of Kinally Cove posted there on March 6)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

riverrun - 2002

More Siv Cedering photos by Dan Wilcox

photo credit s Dan Wilcox
copyright Dan Wilcox 1986

Dan Wilcox sent more photos of Siv Cedering reading at riverrun on March 23, 1986.

In the first photo, Natalie Polly (then, Natalie Safir now) is introducing Cedering. Natalie Safir organized the Pomegranate poetry reading series. She is a poet herself.

Dan Wilcox sent along photos of other poets reading at riverrun for future posts here. Check out his addictive blog of poetry readings in other venues.

Dan Wilcox's poetry blog, DWX

Natalie Safir's entry in Poets & Writers

Siv Cedering in from the Academy of American Poets

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Collection of Bookpeople


left to right: David McCullough, Virginia Scioscia, Fran McCullough, Bob McPhilips, Mary Gioia with Mike and Ted, Myriam Belloch-Cort seated with Andrea Stephens

A Conversation With Fran McCullough - Editor

I asked Fran McCullough if it was okay to include a quote from her about publishing going to the dogs, in my March 12 post. She said "sure, and that's not all."
Fran told me how the grand old industry turned not-grand in the early 1970s. "A man at Harper's typified the change. Tad Akaishi. He was briefly head of the trade department but he wasn't a real bookman."
One wonders how someone who wasn't a real bookman became head of Harper's trade books. McCullough explained.
"First he was a Korean minister and then he was the head of the religious department, which is generally not one of the high visibility profit centers in publishing. Under Akaishi, Harper's religious department was extremely profitable. People asked him how.
" 'Easy,' he said. 'Keep the best sellers in print. Drop the others. Don't take chances."
His successful publishing philosophy may have catapulted him to a head position but it was anathema to McCullough. Other editors found it repellant too. Fran tells about a philosophical collision.
"Tad summoned all the editors. He wanted to get everyone on board the Harvard Business School model. The Love of Literature model wasn't necessarily taking them to Profit City. He wanted to know the editors' plans. He asked Joan Kahn first. You know Joan," Fran said to me. "She had her own mystery imprint. Tad asked about her five-year plan.
"Joan spoke clearly. She said, 'My plan is to find the best books I can and to publish them well.' 'No, no,' said Tad. 'I mean what is your publishing plan? What are your projections? What numbers do you see in the future?
"Joan stood her ground. She said it again. 'I intend to find the best books I can and to publish them well.' All the editors agreed with Joan.
"Someone else said, 'Every book we publish is an experiment.' "

Those editors who follow the Love of Literature model look for the best books. They pour their hearts into them and hold hands with the authors and publish the books well. After that they wait and see. That's because they know that each book they publish is an experiment. Quality is part of it. Chance is part.
Fran says, "In the old days, when the Love of Literature model prevailed, literary editors were trusted to sign up books they loved and few other questions were asked. No one can do that anymore, though it's assumed that editors love what they publish - but they also have to be able to argue persuasively that these books will be successful and support their arguments with numbers. So does the Biz School model work? Not at all, but it lets everyone off the hook by pretending to be scientific, and its so pervasive now that it's virtually impossible to try any other system that might be more realistic."
The meeting Tad Akaishi held early in the 1970s was just a skirmish. The editors won that one, but over the decade they lost the war.
"But Tad Akaishi wasn't really a bad guy. He was just ahead of his time and in the wrong place. Eventually I came to like him. He had interesting other talents too. For instance, he knew a technique for walking on bad backs and making them feel better. You'd lie on the floor, right there in the office and he'd walk on your back."

In college Fran McCullough won the competitive Madamoiselle intern contest. It was the same contest that Sylvia Plath had won and made famous in The Bell Jar. Fran was disappointed to be matched with Bennett Cerf for her internship, but she learned a lot about publishing.
"Cerf told me, 'Publishing is a business, like the butcher business.' It was very shocking to me at the time, but of course, it couldn't be truer."

In the early 1970s Fran McCullough was a poetry editor. Later when backlists and insightful, interesting poetry weren't bottom-line material, McCullough became a cookbook editor. This is not the radial transition it may seem. Fran McCullough is a magical cook. She makes poetry out of meals.

Fran McCullough's cookbook website
an interesting paper comparing Sylvia Plath and Iranian poet Forough Farrokhad - bibliography includes poetry edited by McCullough
Bennett Cerf profile
1945 announcement of Madamoiselle contest

Thursday, April 2, 2009

J.K. Gill's Bookstores

summer 1945

Mary Lou Hershey and a friend are pictured here on the rooftop of J.K. Gill's Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. I doubt they were supposed to be there. The store was 10 floors high and there aren't any guardrails. And look at their expressions. Mary Lou in particular (on the left) looks as if she knows full well that the roof is off limits to employees.
J.K. Gill's closed the last of its stores in the 1990s. They'd been selling books and stationary and art supplies for more than 100 years.
In the 1950s J.K. Gill's was a fine old bookstore in downtown Portland. The first 2 or 3 floors were retail floors where they carried a comprehensive stock across all publishing companies. The upper floors were dedicated to the J.K. Gill's publishing and wholesale division. On one of the highest floors books were packed and then sent down a twisting shoot, very much like a sliding board, to several floors below where they were shipped out. I imagined myself on that terrifying ride down the book slide - out of the lit packing area through several unlit lower floors, gathering speed in the dark as I went. I imagined it so much that I almost think I really did go down - or worse, my little brothers did.
Edith Bristol ran the Children's Book department at J.K. Gill's. She had good posture and wore suits. She pulled her hair back. If she wasn't twinkling, she could look a little austere.
There was a wonderful Golden Books display unit in the Children's department. It was a sturdy wooden box about 4' x 4' x 5', painted to look like a house for elves. Elves were painted looking out the painted windows and working in the garden. The yellow roof was on a slant with little cubbies for book display. Back-up inventory could be stored on shelves inside the box. I know this display unit so well because Edith Bristol gave it to my brothers and sister and me when Gill's was through with it.
Edith lived out of the city some distance with a woman who didn't dress as well as Edith did.
Mary Lou Hershey was 18 when she got a job at J.K. Gill's. This was about the time she she met and fell in love with Frank Scioscia. No wonder he fell in love with her too. She was lovely, sweet, smart, cheerful AND she was a reader. She was a reader who worked in a bookstore!
Later, after he was discharged from the army and they were married, Frank Scioscia took a fun job amongst all those books at J.K. Gill's too.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Siv Cedering and Dan Wilcox

photo by Dan Wilcox
March 1986
Siv Cedering read her poetry at riverrun in 1986. Dan Wilcox was there and photgraphed her. Wilcox posted this paragraph on December 27, 2007 on his own very interesting blog.
I recently found out that one of my favorite poets from the 1980s, Siv Cedering, died in November from pancreatic cancer. I saw her read once & took some photos of her at the riverrun bookstore in Hastings-on-Hudson in March 1986 (one of my very earliest photos of a poet). What I liked about her work was its "thingness." Check out her poem "Hands" on

Cedering was a poet, a sculptress, a painter and an illustrator. She wrote novels and children's books, TV shows and she translated. Her work won many awards.
Cedering was born in Sweden. She lived in New York with her husband, Hans Van de Bovenkamp.
Dan Wilcox is a poet and a poet enthusiast as well as a photographer and political activist. He runs a very lively blog about poets and readings and other things.

  Novels by Siv Cedering: The Pighouse Game, The Ox
Poetry collections by Siv Cedering: Cup of Cold Water, Letters from the Island, The Helge, Mother Is, How to Eat a Fortune Cookie, The Juggler, Letters From the Floating World: Selected and New Poems, Letters From An Observatory

Siv Cedering website

Dan Wilcox' poetry blog