What is it about books? They carry the weight of considered thought, expression and imagination. They keep us company, as if all the ideas expressed in them lay in wait for the moment we seek to just dip in – or fully engage.
When former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy died, in May of 1994, her son, John F. Kennedy Jr. announced her passing to the world. “She was surrounded by her family, her friends and her books,” he said. “The people and things that she loved.”
We do love our books. Some of my books on cinema have traveled with me for fifty years. I have noted the number of people I see during this pandemic, in Zoom sessions, positioned squarely in front of their books. One even has a virtual background of fully packed bookcases.
These rows of hard and softcover books seem like living, breathing companions that provide constancy during this uncertain moment. They suggest that we make available the time and space that’s needed to sit down and read, knowing that it’s always a fight to make that time available.
We’re lucky to have St. Johnsbury’s Boxcar and Caboose operating down on Railroad Street and the Green Mountain Books and Prints in Lyndonville, that has been a fixture there since March of 1977 when summer residents, Ralph and Rosemary Secord, opened for business just three days a week during the summer months, then headed back to Connecticut, leaving the store in the hands of Stanley Brill for the winter. Mr. Brill built many of the bookshelves that are still in use today.
Caroline DeMaio operated the Northern Lights Bookstore for twenty-seven years in St. Johnsbury, first up on Eastern Avenue, just below the first Anthony’s Restaurant, then downtown. Bernie Flynn partnered with Caroline during the early days and Caroline’s sister-in-law, Vanna Guldenschuh, joined her on Railroad Street, years later, and added a fabulous café.
I remember seeing Academy Award-nominated filmmaker and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, David Mamet, read at Northern Lights during the 1990’s. Mamet was well-known for his Broadway hit, “Glengarry Glen Ross” and his screenplays for Hollywood hits like “The Untouchables,” “Hoffa” and “The Verdict.”
Mamet lived part-time in Cabot, then, and had recently released one of his early independent films which, like all indies, appealed to a more limited audience, especially compared with the blockbusters he wrote but did not direct.
“Congratulations on your new picture,” I said to him after his reading. “It’s damned tough out there,” Mamet said. “I know nothing – and just put one foot in front of the other - to try to survive.”
Over the years, Caroline also sold tickets out of Northern Lights for the early years of Catamount Arts shows. Before the dawn of internet technology, she’d have to pull out an envelope from under the cash register and match customer interest with the Xeroxed seating chart and specific allocation of tickets she had. She’d mark an X on the chart for each ticket sold – and direct customers to another outlet when she didn’t have the seats they wanted.
I can’t imagine that anyone would have the patience for this – although Caroline did. Patrick Black, Martin Bryan and others at Catamount’s box office continue to guide and service individual customers, with the help of online technology. But Caroline was a saint – and also chaired the Catamount Board of Directors.
Ned Densmore and Kathie Lovett’s Village Bookstore was also a Catamount ticket outlet – and helped all of Littleton to vibrate. And they sold more than 1,000 VHS copies of our Where the Rivers Flow North film – back in 1993. How we miss these essential sparkplugs to our communities.
When I revived the old performance series in 2009, calling it KCP Presents, I again turned to our local bookstore, Boxcar and Caboose, to host a book discussion on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I had booked my second show, a costly one-man performance by TV actor, Ed Asner, playing Roosevelt. I had no idea if anyone would attend, so I slogged through Jean Edward Smith’s 880-page biography, “FDR” and announced that I’d lead an after-hours book discussion at Boxcar and Caboose. Anything to sell tickets.
Three people showed up and two of them were in town for a brief visit before heading back to Connecticut. Fortunately, Asner’s star power exceeded mine and saved the day. We sold out the show and the series continued.
The Billings Farm and Museum’s Woodstock Vermont Film Series will stream D. W. Young’s entertaining new documentary film, “The Booksellers” from February 25-28th. The film takes us deep into the world of antiquarian booksellers in New York City. It shows us a dozen extraordinary NYC booksellers, among them Dave Bergman (The “smallest dealer with the biggest books”); Jim Cummins (The consummate bookseller, who owns over 400,000 books) and Adina Cohen, Naomi Hample and Judith Lowry, three sisters marking three generations of family ownership of the six overflowing floors of books at the Argosy Book Store.
“The Booksellers” shows intrepid entrepreneurs who are smart business people – and also detectives, following leads to “the next great find” that will excite buyers.
We know how the internet has threatened the existence of community bookstores. Many have closed, despite their irreplaceable value to local life. Bookstores are really cultural centers that draw us in to experience and discover the wonders of poetry, literature, non-fiction, children’s books and much more.
Although our local book sores don’t specialize in rare books, the bookstore experience in a Vermont town is rare, in and of itself. It is to be cherished – and supported.
”The Booksellers” will stream online for the Billings Farm and Museum’s Woodstock Vermont Film Series from February 25 to 28. Tickets and information are available at https://billingsfarm.org/filmseries/