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.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Conversation With Patricia Lowy - Graphic Designer & Artist

"I started working at William Morrow as a production assistant. Every week I had to type up a production report. And I didn't really know how to type. I was supposed to file all this stuff - manuscripts, cover art, production galleys, bound galleys, individual pages.
"It was totally boring but I had to support myself while I was in school."
Where was she going to school?
"Pratt had a special graduate program in graphic design. All the teachers were professionals in the field, so the courses were conducted in the evenings and weekends. It sounded great but many of these professionals had considerably more talent as artists than as teachers.
"There are professional artists that are also good teachers. They're rare. Milton Glaser is one example. I took a course from him at School of Visual Arts. He's an amazing graphic designer and he's an amazing teacher. A really great teacher. The Pratt program didn't have teachers like that.
"A better opportunity to learn came my way. Cynthia Basil, art director of Morrow Junior Books, took me on. I became her assistant and she taught me everything. She was great.
"Cynthia was quite a character. She chain-smoked Camels. She collected toys - all these old tin toys with moving parts. Her apartment was full of them. She never married. In a way, she never grew up. Maybe you need that Peter Pan characteristic to excel in junior books.
"In publishing, at that time anyway, you had to change publishers to get much of a salary increase. I moved to E.P. Dutton. Riki Levinson was a very talented art director at Dutton. Later I went Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. There I designed for adult as well as children's books."

What does designing books without illustrations entail?

"The designer makes decisions about the title page, the chapter openings, the whole way a book looks. The layouts are designed in pencil on tissue paper. Everything is ruled carefully. There weren't computers at this time. All work was long hand.
"In the 1970s and 80s publishers spent a lot of money getting type set. Now that's done more easily on computers. It's a big change. Then they hired retouchers. Now they use photo shop."

Patricia moved to McGraw Hill where she was the design supervisor. She worked on text books, which required quite a bit of design attention. "I earned more money but the work was dry.
"I left and became a free lance design consultant. Much more fun. My studio was above Shakespeare & Company. It was a convenient location. Dan and I lived nearby. Every publisher I'd worked for gave me work.
"One project was for William Morrow. I was designing a book by Charles Silverstein. My 5th grade teacher was named Charles Silverstein. He was a great teacher - memorable because you have so few really great teachers as you grow up. I wondered if it was the same person. It was! I telephoned. He wasn't phased in the least - he was thrilled to hear from one of his former 5th graders. He'd left teaching. He'd become a psychologist and had written several books, one of which I designed."

Patricia Lowy closed down her studio and her consultancy to devote more time to her sons. She remains a graphic designer and artist. Often her artwork blends unexpected combinations of paper and subject matter, or of emotional impact and technique. Some are drawn from an unusual physical perspective. All, even the ones of inanimate objects, burst off the page with bold vitality.
I especially admire her charcoal drawing that's behind Lowy in the photos. The decorative floral pattern, sort of like wallpaper, is a soothing screen you see at first glance. At second glance you see the body bags.

Patricia Lowy is always interesting to talk with. I might have badgered her too relentlessly for this particular conversation about her work in publishing. I appreciate this conversation though. I appreciate all of them.

NYTimes article by Vivien Raynor - Ms Raynor has a keen sense of self-importance but as an art critic she still has a distance to go. read paragraphs 5 and 6

Saturday, August 29, 2009

William Faulkner

William Faulkner first fell in love with Estelle when they were in high school. What with one thing and another, she married some other guy. Her parents felt quite strongly that this other guy had a more promising future than Faulkner (or Falkner as it was spelled at the time).
The parents might have misjudged. Estelle's first marriage didn't work out well. She divorced the other guy and Faulkner got to marry her after all. It's a romantic story.
William and Estelle look good in this photo, striding confidently into their future together.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Conversation with Dominique Bohr - Editor, Book Dealer

"Nothing changed my life more than computers," says Dominique Bohr. "With a computer and the internet, you are plugged into the world's greatest library - that is the best thing."
When Dom's son was in second grade, he wrote report on his father. "My father," Benji wrote "is mainly interested in knowledge."
"That's right," says Dom. "Anything. It doesn't even have to have any relevance to my life.
"When I was young, I worked, following knowledge, for Elsevier Publishing Company. Elsevier put out a good Dutch language encyclopedia. It's widely read in The Netherlands. Sixty or seventy percent of Dutch households would have that encyclopedia on their bookshelves at home.
"I was one of about 10 editors revising the encyclopedia. Elsevier had very strict rules about the format for the articles and how to handle issues like country of origin. You know, in Europe people are always being born in countries that don't exist anymore.
"My responsibilities were to research and revise entries at the end of G and all of H. That included gravity. We had a renowned physicist writing an entirely new article on gravity but I knew a little physics myself. Not much, but I was young enough to be really arrogant. As editor, I was basically proof reading the physicist's article. Somewhere though - probably in my science fiction reading - I thought I'd heard about something called a graviton. I wrote to the renowned physicist. I said 'your article is pretty good but why didn't you mention anything about gravitons?' "
Dom laughed heartily. He couldn't get over the fact that a kid who reads science fiction was given the editorial authority to challenge a mature scholar who has devoted his life to physics. Did the physicist respond?
"Yes," exclaimed Dom. "He apologized! He added a bit about gravitons to the encyclopedia article!"

Dom did plenty of other interesting things following, accumulating, and organizing knowledge. Now he's a book dealer. He says he was headed for that pleasure from the earliest times.
"In The Netherlands family and friends often give money for birthdays and other occasions. When I was seven or eight years old, I measured that money in pocket book buying power. One pocket book cost 25 gulden. That was my measure.

"The quantity of money that could purchase of one book was my basic unit of currency."

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Chris' Attitude About Book Ownership, in a nutshell

"If you've read every book you have, then you don't have enough books."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Baskets and Books

The woman who brought in these baskets had other things too. These baskets were woven in Ecuador near the border with Bolivia. Her brother spent years there as an anthropologist.
She first came into riverrun with the baskets. Chris liked them.
"What else do you have?" Chris asked her.
"Oh, I don't think anything else you'd want."
"Do you have an attic at home?"
"No. No attic. Although there is a barn. There's a loft in the barn. My great uncle brought big trunk from Finland in 1905. That trunk's in that loft"
A trunk in a loft in a barn sounded great to Chris. As it turned out the things from Finland were long gone but other treasures were tucked in the trunk. There were 20th century postcards and old toys and clothing from the 1930s. Mice had made nests of the clothes, but left the postcards and toys intact. Chris was delighted.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ernest Hemingway

A story about Ernest Hemingway made a big impression on me. It may not be a true story, but maybe it doesn't matter whether or not it's true.
In the story, Hemingway is working as a journalist in Europe. He writes fiction on the side but it hasn't been published. E.H. brings a couple of promising stories to an agent or a publisher, in Paris I think. The agent or publisher LOVES the stories. He's crazy about them. He finds out Hemingway has more at home.
"More manuscripts? Like these? You're kidding!" say the agent or publisher.
"Boxes full," says Hemingway.
"By god, Man, can you get them to me right away? Jumping Jehosophat! I need to see everything you have. I'll publish it all! This stuff is dynamite!"
Hemingway was understandably eager to accommodate the guy. He called his wife, one of the early ones, and told her to pack up all of his writing. "Bring everything," he told her. "Put all my stories into a suitcase, that big one. Bring it to me here. Yes! Now. Get the train to Paris." He spoke too loudly because he was so nearly overcome. Then his voice dropped. "This is the Big Break," he told her.
Whichever wife it was, probably Elizabeth, obediently gathered up everything. Drafts. Masterpieces. Copies. Discards. She put every single thing Ernest had written into a satchel. She boarded the train with satchel in tow, got off the train in Paris and hurried to the office where the men were eagerly waiting.
No manuscripts. In all the excitement she'd forgotten the satchel on the train.
That satchel was never recovered. All was lost.
Later Hemingway divorced that woman. If the story is true, then no wonder.
The part that impresses me is this: Ernest Hemingway continued to write after the disaster. He didn't yield to discouragement. He kept on writing.

links to Ernest Hemingway material
Still Images of Ernest Hemingway
videos of E.H.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Conversation with Amlin Gray, Playwright and Dramaturg

“A dramaturg oversees the literary integrity of the play,” Amlin Gray told me. “Dramaturgs do historical research to place the lines of the play in context. They do more than that. They make adaptations to the play. Often they are translators.

"As a dramaturg, I do a lot of translation and adaptation as well as historical and literary research.”
I’d never heard of a dramaturg. Amlin Gray opened a window to behind the scenes at the theater. I wondered if the research was mostly to help costume designers.
“No,” he said. “ Or partly. Costume and scene designers are usually very good researchers on their own. Primarily though, a dramaturg assists the actors and the director with background material, context, and literary flow”.

As a dramaturg, it helps to have experience as a playwright. Amlin Gray is a playwright. He downplayed it in our conversation, not even mentioning that he’d won the prestigious Obie Award for exceptional achievement. He won that award for his play, How I Got That Story, about a war correspondent in Vietnam.
Gray did talk some about his plays when we chatted about Joyce Carol Oates.

“She’s amazing,” said Gray. “She still teaches and she writes about a book a week!
"I worked on a play with her once,” said Gray. “Not exactly with her. Nagle Jackson was the artistic director at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. He adapted the Tragical History of Dr. Faustus for production as Faustus in Hell. Of course, that’s a tale that has been told and retold. Christopher Marlowe in the 16th century. Goethe in the 18th century. As opera, as symphony, as novel, poetry, plays.
“For Faust in Hell, Nagle Jackson commissioned 7 playwrights, each to write a short piece for one of the 7 sins. I wrote for Greed. Oates wrote for Lust.”
The other sins? The other playwrights?
“Edward Albee was Envy. His piece was great. Jean-Claude Vanitallie wrote Pride. Rommulus Linney – Rage. Christopher Durang – Sloth. John Guare – Gluttony. It was a great line-up of playwrights.”
Gray told me which piece he liked best of the seven. “It was brilliant, really brilliant,” he said, but I’ve irresponsibly forgotten which sin, which playwright. I do remember his admiration for everyone though, and his pleasure at meeting with them. “We were all brought together at the last to fine-tune before the production.”

From what languages does Gray translate?
“Spanish, German, French.”
Did he say Greek also, or did I just read that somewhere? I asked him later. “I don’t think I said Greek because I don’t have the same command of Greek I have of the other languages. One time though, I was asked to translate and adapt Sophocles. I used a dictionary and a grammar, but I was surprised at how much Greek I remembered from college.”

Amlin Gray talked enthusiastically about a few of his projects - being playwright in residence at Milwaukie Repertory Theater and his adaptation there of Don Quixote for young people, his interest in covert plots within the ostensible plot, teaching at Sarah Lawrence, his specialty in Shakespeare. He told how Shakespeare’s fairies, “in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, for instance, are a little more sinister, have a little more edge to them then generally recognized today.”
Although Amlin Gray specializes in Shakespeare, his interests are broad ranging.
“I adore Japanese theater. Kabuki is just so extravagant and then on the other hand, Noh plays are so austere.”

Gray enjoys much. He reads widely and deeply. His enthusiasms are contagious. Now I want to see all his plays. We talked in riverrun, so of course we talked about books too.
“I buy too many books,” said Gray.

How well I know (and admire) this characteristic! riverrun salutes all of us who buy too many books, and offers a special salute to Amlin Gray.

synopses, production history, and purchase information for these Amlin Gray plays:
Founding Fathers, How I Got That Story, Kingdom Come, Monkey's Teeth, Pirates, Villanous Company, Bindle Stiff, The Dream Chain, The Fantod, Outlanders, Wormwood

Sarah Lawrence faculty bio (alphabetical, skip down to Gray)

commentary on the 2004 revival of How I Got That Story

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Summer in riverrun

Irene Zenolli and Forrest Orick

Monday, August 10, 2009

New Windows

New windows and door were put into old riverrun this summer. They had to be. The insurance company wouldn't renew the contract for our landlady without the modern replacements even though the old ones served well.
Fond sentiments are so intense about riverrun that some felt badly to see the old paint-peeled doors and windows go. "But where is the old door now?" asked Michael. "Is it something I could have?"

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Greg at riverrun
winter 2008/09

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Steve Kanfer made the two RIVERRUN signs in the window on the north side of the street - 7 Washington. Kanfer brought them into riverrun in the 1980s. He brought plenty of books, plenty of customers, and plenty of music into riverrun as well. Steve Kanfer accompanied fiddlers and guitar players on his saw or his washboard.
Vincent Marchetti, a sign painter turned real estate agent, and a neighbor of Frank Scioscia's, painted the now faded BOOKSTORE sign as a gift. Marchetti enjoyed coming into riverrun from time to time. Kanfer enjoyed coming into riverrun all the time.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Center for Book Arts

Richard Minsky ran the Center for Book Arts. It was on Bleeker Street in NYC during the 1970s. Now it is a bigger more comprehensive operation on 27th Street with hundreds of inviting classes in the many aspects of making books.
In 1975 I took a wonderful class in letter press hand printing from Minsky on Bleeker. There were just a few of us n the class. Richard was an enthusiastic teacher. He was also enthusiastic about his own creative binding projects. While I was there he had just finished a binding that included an actual bird as part of the book.
One night Richard let me stay late to work on one of my broadsides - a heart shaped poem by Piero Heliczer. It was cold in the studio. Most of the lights were off. Alone there, it felt like I was back n time. Newspaper editors at the old west might have worked in the cold, in the dark, alone at night to put together a front page for frontier readers. I put together a few broadsides.
1.) Marvin Cohen 2.) announcement for a Richard Kostelanetz party 3.) lyrics of a country western song by Bruce Holvenstot, a friend of mine from Marvin Cohen's writing class at CCNY, and 4.) the Piero Heliczer poem of Auswich
These broadsides made up the entire output of my Moondragon Press.

Minsky's resume

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Edward Gorey

photo by Christopher P. Stephens about 1978

Edward Gorey has a distinctive, idiosyncratic art style that intrigues many. His adults are unsmiling. His children are somber - their pale, drawn faces clearly expecting the very worst from life. Which is largely what they get.
The detailed pen and ink drawings look like etchings. He illustrates a joyless world. Unless you count the fiendish delight one almost can't help feeling at the deliciously dark pictures of catastrophic episodes happening, or about to happen, or ominously threatened.
Edward Gorey illustrated in Boston. When he came to New York City, he met Andy Brown of Gotham Book Mart. The two became great friends. Andy promoted Gorey's work through the store.

Chris took this candid picture of Gorey at the New York is Book Country book fair one year. Gorey's glasses were rose colored, but you wouldn't know it from his drawing subject matter.

I didn't know Gorey, but I knew someone who did. In 1982 I took a couple of classes at School of Visual Art. In a superb color class, I made some friends. I was 33. They were younger. One night a couple of them made the long trek from 23rd Street up past the GW Bridge to my house for dinner. Barbara Ellmann came and so did a good looking young man. I think his name was Tom. This picture was hanging in our living room. They hadn't been here long before Tom stopped short, gawking at it.
"Where did you get this picture of Ted?"
"It's Edward Gorey."
"Yes. I knew him as Ted."
They'd travelled together for a year, the young man said. We didn't talk of it, but the young man kept looking up at the photo. He was thinking of it even in another room while we ate.
So, though I never even met Edward Gorey, he was sort of a fifth person at my dinner.

Edward St. John Gorey: 1925 - 2000

goreyography - includes an interesting account by Alison Lurie

images with many links to Gorey connections

Monday, August 3, 2009


This girl, dressed so perfectly, grew up to be this young woman. But then what happened? Did she marry and have children and grandchildren? And why don't they have these pictures?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Abandoned Memories

Someone must have treasured this album once. In the late 1800s someone carefully put cabinet cards and visiting cards into the thick guilt pages.
Then what happened? Probably the original owner bequeathed it lovingly to to a son or daughter. Maybe it made its way through several generations.
Chris bought the album in a house, but the seller hadn't descended from the first owner. He'd picked up the album at a garage sale in Connecticut, for pete's sake.

Who are these people? What became of them?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Margie Cohn - House of Books

photo by Christopher P. Stephens 1981 or 1982

Margie Cohn was Grande Dame of the Book business.
When Chris Stephens first met her in the late 1960s, she had already been establishing her expertise for almost 40 years. Margie and her husband, Louis, opened House of Books in 1930, the year they married.
Louis was proprietor. He had assembled an extensive Hemingway collection. He gave it to Margie as a wedding present. The two of them continued to build the collection. Louis became Ernest Hemingway's enthusiastic bibliographer. Hemingway cooperated. The author sent the book collector manuscripts and proof copies and various editions of his work. Hemingway designed a book plate for Cohn. It said: From the Works of Ernest Hemingway in the Library of Louis Henry Cohn. Hemingway wrote a note reminding himself to "give him the works".
The working relationship between Cohn and Hemingway - bibliographer and author - developed into a lasting friendship.
The Cohn's published other friends' poetry in their Crown Octavos Series. T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Stephens Vincent Benet, Marianne Moore are some of those poets. They also published W. Somerset Maugham, Thomas Wolfe, Cyril Connolly and Tom Stoppard. Because Margie and Louis were both born collectors, they kept files of all the correspondence with these authors and poets.
Louis Cohn died in 1953. The House of Books did not. Margie stepped forward and ran the operation. Some, who knew them both, say that Margie did a remarkably better job than Louis had. She continued to carry 20th century work. She specialized in the authors and poets she knew personally.
Margie Cohn had a brusque, no nonsense manner that Chris always enjoyed. She knew a lot. Margie continued to develop existing contacts with librarians, collectors, and writers. She ran House of Books in the pre-internet period. Book dealing was knowledge intensive. She guarded her knowledge of points for collectable editions. She also guarded her contacts. If a book collector dropped by when a young book dealer, like Chris, was visiting - for example - Margie made the collector wait in the anteroom while she shooed the book dealer out another door.

Chris did visit Margie often. He was tremendously fond of her. He admired her knowledge.

Margie lived to be almost 100. A few years before she died Chris saw her at a book fair. She was looking intently at some books. She was so immersed in what she was thinking that she didn't know Chris took a photo. Then she saw him.
"Don't you dare take a picture of me, Chris Stephens!"
Chris coaxed. He wanted more shots.
"If you take a picture of me, I will cut you off. I will not sell you anything. I will not buy anything. You may never again come to visit."

That was pretty clear. Chris smiled, laid down his camera and never mentioned to the one he'd taken. The one he'd taken of the great book lady for whom he had such high regard.

Margie: Marguerite Arnold Cohn 1887 - 1984
Louis Henry Cohn 1888 - 1953

A Bibliography of the works of Ernest Hemingway by Louis Henry Cohn

The Cohn Ernest Hemingway Collection at the University if Delaware

Paris Review interview of T.S. Eliot that took place at Margie Cohn's apartment

interesting anecdotal essay by Jack W.C. Hagstrom about Robert Frost, mentions Margie toward the end. Hagstrom sponsored her for membership in the Grolier Club.

a brief mention of the Cohns in a preview of what looks like a very interesting book: A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes