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.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Home Again

Came home a couple a couple of hours ago. Hobbling along nicely toward full recovery.
Incidentally, I was dead wrong about the physical and occupational therapists. My new heros, they combine push, patience, encouragement, and humor in exactly the perfect proportions. I take back the grumpy things I said about them.
Very glad to be back.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Temporary Suspension

Tomorrow morning I go in for elective surgery so the blog will be quiet for awhile.

I am only going to be in the hospital for a few days but then I check into one of those Physical Therapy sanatoria where they contort and exhort in a medically approved regime of torture. I've never been, so I don't really know. I suppose. I have my impressions though:
These places are run by bouncy, fit bullies who admonish if you whimper and applaud only when you sweat and tremble with painful physical effort.
I'm going for the physical effort but I intend to be peevish about it. Peevishness is not the ideal mindset for blogging. Besides I won't have a computer.

My plan is to resume writing on August 4, but secretly I'm hoping to come back a little before that target date.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Conversation With Bob McPhillips - Literary Critic

Bob visited riverrun. We chatted. How did he get interested in reading, I wondered.

"I always read," said Bob. "But just the ordinary books that everyone was reading. Then when I was in high school, Them [Joyce Carol Oates] came out in paperback. It was about the time it won the National Book Award. Them changed my reading life.
"Oates was prolific so there quite a bit of her work already in print. I went back and read it all. It affected me so much that I wrote to her."
Bob must have been just a kid then. Did she write back?

"Yes, I was in 10th or 11th grade. Fifteen or sixteen. And yes, she wrote back. I thought she was in Windsor, Ontario. Actually she was in England but my letter got to her and she sent me a postcard from London. It had a reproduction of Botticelli's Venus. The one on the half shell from the Tate Museum. I still have it."
Oates' writing awakened Bob's critical reading interest.

"I read Philip Roth, John Updike, John Cheever.
"John Cheever came to my high school in Ossining while I was there. He gave a mini course. We met up in a corner of the balcony over the auditorium. It was open to anyone but there were just a few of us. I was actually reading Cheever's short stories at the time but I didn't like the idea of bringing his book to the class. I brought short stories by Oates instead.
"At one point another student asked John Cheever to recommend some writers. 'Saul Bellow,' said Cheever. 'Philip Roth. John Updike.' Then Cheever looked over at my book. 'And, ah well, yes, I always say, straight away, start your day with a bowl of Joyce Carol Oates and bananas.'
"When I quoted this to Oates, she said, 'Cheever has always been an unpredictable soul.' "

John Cheever lived in this area and he went to a local AA. "Each AA member is assigned a mentor. Do you know who was Cheever's mentor?"

I did, but I thought it was supposed to be a secret. Bob assured me it was no secret. Both Cheever and the mentor had been outed in a recent biography of John Cheever. Already outed or not, I prefer to say just that the mentor was a book dealer that both Bob and I knew.

Bob McPhillips read good and interesting books from his last years of high school on. He went to Colgate and majored in English, of course. He took his graduate studies at University of Minnesota where he was admitted with a teaching assistantship. By this time McPhillips already had a well established relationship with the Birth of Venus post card sender. He wrote his PhD thesis on Joyce Carol Oates.

"It took me a long time to finish that dissertation. Each of her sentences took me off into an area I wanted to discuss. Some people say that Oates overwrites. Too many words. I think this may have been one of the things that drew me to her. I might use too many words too; might pursue too many paths. There was no one there telling me to tighten my focus and I wanted to examine everything."
Before the dissertation was finished McPhillips was writing literary criticism.
"Did you know I was Joyce Carol Oates' official literary biographer for a little while?"
I didn't. How did that come about and why was it just for a little while?

"I met Elizabeth Pochoda at a conference. She was the literary editor at the Nation magazine. Elizabeth invited me to the Nation to do some reviews. For instance, I reviewed Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler just before it got the Pulitzer Prize. I didn't give it a particularly good review. I enjoyed reviewing for The Nation.
"Phil Pochoda was Elizabeth's husband. He was in publishing but switched sides to become a literary agent. He and Elizabeth decided that a biography of Joyce Carol Oates would be desirable and marketable and a good way for Phil to begin his new career. They launched the project. I hadn't finished my dissertation but I'd written a lot about Oates. They asked me to author it. They were both very helpful with my proposal to Oates. She liked the idea and appointed me her official literary biographer.
"Probably the best approach would have been to go to Oates' editor, Billy Abrams at Dutton. Phil was an enthusiastic beginner though. He said we should be aggressive. He sent proposals to every important editor. 'We'll have it on their desks waiting when they get back from Nantucket, or wherever. Then in August, we'll have an auction.'
"It was an overplay though. It didn't work out well and I didn't want to pursue it. Greg Johnson had already written about Oates. He suggested that he write another about her personal life and I write one about her literary life. Both Elizabeth and Phil were warmly encouraging, but I bowed out."
How did that affect his relationship with Oates?

"Not at all, really. I concentrated on finishing my dissertation. I sent her a copy . She sent me a limited edition of her poetry. I continued to see her and her husband from time to time. I still feel very connected to Oates. Very fine writer."

At riverrun bookshop there are always stacks of marvelously good things piled precariously. It's hard to avoid knocking a stack over. Sure enough. Bossing Bob around about photo placement, I misdirected him right into one of these stacks. Over it went. Everything got reshuffled. The mishap exposed a lovely broadside of Snowfall by Oates. It must have been karma. Bob McPhillips and Joyce Carol Oates are indeed connected

Bob McPhillips' book on New Formalism B & N
book review of Them
profile of Elizabeth Pochoda

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bob McPhillips working at riverrun


Bob McPhillips was one of riverrun's very appealing assets.

McPhillips knows and loves books, especially modern poetry and prose.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Frank Scioscia leaves riverrun

In the rose-filled June of 1993 Frank Scioscia enjoyed life. He argued politics, discussed new authors, played bocce with friends, and read Daniel Deronda aloud with his wife, Mary.
Scioscia was sparklingly engaged at riverrun. Anyone who saw him there could plainly see he would never leave riverrun as long as he had breath left to draw.
But that’s just it. He didn’t. On July 10, 1993 Frank Scioscia died.
Everyone found it hard to believe because he was so packed with vitality. When I told a customer acquaintance 2 weeks later, he argued with me.
“No,no. He couldn’t have. I just saw him Tuesday, I think it was Tuesday. He was playing bocce down by the railroad tracks.”
It was a lead, he thought. I was mistaken and could start my search at the railroad tracks. Don’t worry. He’d turn up.
Frank’s death pained many. One of the most moving reactions came to me from a stranger’s disembodied voice.
I’d gone down to riverrun and left a short note on the front door. I also put a message on the store answering machine. “riverrun bookstore is temporarily closed. The owner, Frank Scioscia, died on July 10 of a heart attack. The family will reopen and operate the store sometime soon.”
Later I listened to messages. One was a long silence followed by a shocked whisper not meant for me.
Oh my god.” Click.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Andrea at riverrun

Today was Andrea's second day of work at riverrun. Her grandfather gave her the reins.
On the first day she learned about packing orders. The packer is aiming for neat, secure packages - the kind I never quite mastered. The packer has to watch out too. Watch to be sure the books ordered go to the actual person who ordered them rather than someone else who ordered something different. Watch to be sure you don't slice yourself up with the very sharp cardboard cutter. Watch to be sure the packages are entered in the log.
Andrea did all that beautifully on the first day.
On the second day Andrea learned how to do a box list. This means you squeeze through narrow passageways and reach way up over your head for heavy boxes of books. You carry them elsewhere, open them up, and check the contents against a list of what is supposed to be the contents. You resolve discrepancies.
Andrea did that all beautifully on the second day.
The thing is though, that when you're given the reins, there are more than 2 days worth of lessons that you should know. She hadn't been shown the map of the store, so she couldn't help customers locate books. She knew there was a riverrun website, but not the address, so she couldn't satisfy an impatient telephone inquirey. ( She hadn't been shown how to work the cash register, so customers had to supply exact change, which she laid out neatly in front of the register.
Why did a 16 year old with 2 days' experience have the reins anyway?
Because Chris got an irresistable call from a house with a library available that day only. It was a library entirely in Hungarian and Chris does not actually read Hungarian.
"Andrea, there's a library that sounds promising. Do you mind holding down the fort for a couple of hours?" She didn't. Not even when it turned out to be for the whole day. I came down to help her close.
"So. Your grandfather didn't make it back," I said to her.
She laughed. "No. And he sounded ecstatic when he told me he was delayed."
Indeed that part of the book business - the part of going into houses and buying books - is his favorite. It the ecstatic part.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Moondragon - Marvin Cohen

The Moondragon Press was born in 1975. That's the year I thought of it. That's the year I took typesetting and hand printing classes with Richard Minsky at The Center for Book Arts on Bleeker Street in New York City.
I didn't want to wait to acquire more skills before publishing my first broadside because I was intrigued with the idea of celebrating the 25th anniversary of my press in the numerically magical year of 2000. So far away, it seemed at the time. Nine years ago now.
I only printed 3 or 4 broadsides. No wonder I clean forgot to celebrate.

My first broadside was this poem of Marvin Cohen's. More stories of Marvin and of Moondragon are sure to follow in future posts.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Archie Goodwin, an appealing fictional character created by Rex Stout, spends a good part of one morning trying to work around his boss’s dictionary-burning project. The dictionary is Webster’s Unabridged International Dictionary – 3rd edition. The boss sits before a fire. The heavy (but getting lighter) dictionary is on his lap.
With grim satisfaction Nero Wolfe systematically tears fistfuls of dictionary from the binding and tosses them into the fire. Wolfe hates the book for a million reasons. The one he mentions to their client is the sloppiness of allowing that “infer” and “imply” can be used interchangeably.
Fictional Nero Wollfe had plenty of real-life compatriots. The 3rd edition came out in 1961. It was scornfully received. Newspaper editorials predicted the end of nuanced thinking. Scholars held tight to their old dictionaries. They tossed those 3rd edition replacements into the fire. Figuratively at least. An appellate court dismissed a definition from the 3rd, used in a case, in favor of a different definition found in the “classic” 2nd edition.
What made these dictionary-users go berserk ?
The 3rd edition added many new words. But so did every one of the many new editions since Webster’s first in 1809. Pictures and historical chronologies and addenda of various kinds were eliminated. But all the information eliminated was available elsewhere, perhaps more appropriately than in a dictionary.
The 3rd edition tossed out archaic usages and spellings. This gets closer to the cause for outrage. The real crime was this: The editors made a philosophical departure. They moved away from the idea of a dictionary as a compendium of words for word-lovers. For word-lovers the tiniest distinctions in meaning are thrilling and enhance thought.
The editors published, instead, a book for the common guy who heaves out words willy-nilly in the careless confidence that they will be more or less understood as they were more or less intended. Editors of the 3rd embraced the “living language”. They abdicated linguistic authority.
The dictionary annoyed Wolfe by conflating infer and imply. It annoyed others with this and many similar instances of dictionary-shabbiness, and by condoning casual slang like ain’t, and by refusing to hold up a standard.
Chris Stephens goes nuts at the common misuse of momentarily and of comprise. Even I cringe at the common misuse of decimate. The 3rd accepts misuse as an alternative definition.
My favorite piece about words is an essay written by Anne Fadiman. It first appeared in her Common Reader column for the Library of Congress publication, Civilization. I read it in her absolutely perfect collection of essays, Ex Libris.
In that essay Fadiman writes of the tickled delight that word-lovers feel at finding a word they don’t know. Another word, another treat.
Luckily for me, the Webster’s Unabridged International Dictionary – 2nd edition – is on the dictionary stand in my living room. It was purchased in 1965 by book dealer Frank Scioscia, from book dealer Peter Howard, as a wedding present for book dealer Christopher Stephens.

scroll down to bit about Fadiman
Librarything on Ex Libris
a word post on Macro Micro and Vice Versa
Amazon customer reviews for Gambit by Rex Stout

Sunday, July 5, 2009


tribes represented in the photos: Sauk Fox, Warm Springs, Pinal Apache, Tawakoni

After a week at the beach - a great treat - Chris Stephens returned to riverrun to yet another great treat. In his absence a woman had come to riverrun with cabinet cards of American Indians. For more than one reason, Chris was thrilled.

Chris has been interested in American Indians since he was little. As a tyke he was a Quiz Kid. Indians were his specialty. In the green room the radio men talked to all the Kids about what they knew to put the youngsters at ease.
At show time Chris was so small he couldn't reach the radio microphone. The producers put telephone books on his chair so he'd be the right height. They asked a lot of questions. Chris knew answers but didn't care to raise his hand. It was radio though. The audience couldn't see whether hands were raised or clasped tightly to one's sides.
The announcer asked some questions about Indians, then lied smoothly into the microphone. "Ahh. I see young Chris Stephens has his hand up. Yes? Can you give us the answer?" He could. He did, but he didn't like the game.

He continued to like Indians though. He continued to read and research the tribes. The cabinet cards were a treasure for him.

NOTE: Can anyone help us locate the woman who brought in these interesting cards? She was cleaning out a relative's house and she brought the cards to riverrun last week while we were sunning. Chris Stephens wants to know the stories. He wants to know if there's anything else. And in any case, he wants to give her some more money.

Sauk & Fox history
Warm Springs Indians & other tribes of Columbia River
two videos of Warm Springs dancing
Native News Apaches
another Tawakoni article

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Hudson River

June 1984

Two book dealers, Frank Scioscia and Peter Howard, at the Hudson River.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Peter Howard

August 1975

Peter Howard is shown here with his famous book mobile. In the 1970s Howard drove this volkswagen bus, stopping in bookstores at crossroads and out of the way corners as well as metropolitan centers all over the continent.
Peter Howard's bookstore, Serendipity, is a literary landmark in Berkeley California.

Serendipity homepage
The Berkeley Daily Planet review