Mark Twain once said “Those who don’t read good books have no advantage over those who can’t”.
Before I ever embarked on a quest to collect as many cookbooks as I could, I was interested particularly in two favorite fiction authors; one was Norah Lofts, perhaps the most prolific fiction novel author in my collection (*There are undoubtedly other authors who have written as many, if not more, novels than Norah Lofts—but I am referencing just those authors whose work I have collected). I began collecting the works of Norah Lofts around in 1965, about the same time I began collecting cookbooks. Norah Lofts’ published works is enormous—so much so that she has published works under other names. Norah Lofts’ novels were fascinating lessons in British kings and queens, as well as numerous novels about ordinary people–in the middle ages!
When I began collecting the fiction (as well as some non-fiction) works of Norah Lofts, I would buy two or three copies for a girlfriend here in California—as well as for a penpal in Australia. You could often find one of her titles for about a dollar each. My collection of Norah Lofts is undoubtedly incomplete, as I discovered when I began finding titles published in the United Kingdom but not always in the USA. The Internet has changed all that!
Another much-loved author was Janice Holt Giles. I think I began searching for her titles in roughly the same time period as I was searching for Norah Lofts. Again, I would buy more than one copy of JHG’s novels—one for me, one for girlfriend Connie – and sometimes one for my Aussie penpal. I think I have all of Giles’ published titles—several were published posthumously after Janice’s death by the University of Kentucky,
Kentucky was Giles’ home for most of her life—and the setting, often, for one of her novels. I once wrote a letter to Giles, in appreciation for one of my favorite novels, “The Believers” – she sent me a typewritten response, mentioning that the day she received MY letter, she also received a letter from a fan in another state, also about The Believers. It was through Giles’ novels that I developed a love for and an abiding appreciation for American pioneers.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.
Another favorite fiction author of mine—but one who only wrote a few novels—was a woman named Ardyth Kennelly. “The Peaceable Kingdom” was followed by a sequel, “Up Home” and are two books I have read repeatedly. The setting was Salt Lake City and the period of time was when Polygamy was being practiced. Also published was “Marry Me, Carry Me” and “The Spur”.
I am aware through the Internet that Kennelly had many other publications and works, not necessarily fiction novels; she passed away in 2005 at the age of 92. “Variation West” is a 2014 novel published posthumously and I don’t have that one yet. (I found an excellent article about Ardyth Kennelly in Wikipedia, for anyone who wants more information about Kennelly’s life.)
I remember back in the 1970s, when I took my young children to Ohio for the summer, taking my kid brother with me to downtown Cincinnati to explore the extensive shelves of a large used book store named Acre of Books—I had begun collecting cookbooks but still searched for books by any of my favorite authors; it is one of the major blessings of the Internet that you don’t have to search for the bookstores or their contents—it all comes to you via the Internet.
I would search for anything by Janice Holt Giles, Norah Lofts, Ardyth Kennelly—and some others. I had not yet discovered many of the authors whose works I would search for, and collect, for my own bookshelves. I also started a steno notebook of the business cards for bookstores that crossed my path—as well as the telephone book yellow pages in the cities I visited spanning several decades of my adult life – B.I. (before internet). It came as a distinct shock when, in 2008, my Canadian penpal Sharon and I stopped to visit a favorite book store in San Luis Obispo – only to find it gone; all that remained was an empty store front. Obviously, what the country gained in Internet services providing vendors throughout the country, we lost something vital to the life’s blood of any avid book lover….actually being there, browsing, touching, finding—and buying books.
Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it. – P. J. O’Rourke
And one of my favorites: Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book. –Author Unknown**
One of my favorite chefs, Louis Szathmary arrived, in his own words, “virtually penniless” in New York in 1951, with only fourteen books in his small wooden trunk. He appeared to have been fond of telling the story of arriving on our shores with $1.10 in his pocket, one change of underwear, two pairs of socks, one Sunday suit – and fourteen books. (It is worth noting that the 14 books Szathmary treasured most were not donated to any of the universities. The books he carried with him to America included a Bible he received as a child, three books on Mozart and several volumes of Hungarian poetry.
Upon his arrival in America, Szathmary began to collect books. Writes Szathmary, “My first purchase was a book by Ludwig Bemelmans at the Marlboro outlet store at 42nd Street and Broadway, where in 1952 all the remainder books were sold for nineteen cents each.” Szathmary confessed that he worked two jobs in the beginning, one during the day and another at night—and spent all the money he made on books. Of his early days in America, Szathmary said that he would spend hours in the Salvation Army basement searching for books, which he purchased for as little as five cents each. He said, “I rummaged through books in bins, on tables outside the door, and amid the garbage the accumulates in the back of used bookshops. I found treasures—valuable items—because I had the time.” Later, as time and money improved, he often worked at one job during the day and another in the evening. On the seventh day, he recalled, “I spent all the money I made on books.” (A man after my own heart!–I wish I could have known him!)
Szathmary’s confessions about buying books struck a chord in me; when I first started working full time at Western/Southern Life Insurance Company in downtown Cincinnati, where I was born; I often spent a portion of my paycheck on books that I found in thrift stores—sometimes in trays placed outside the entrance—for 25 cents each. Some times I found old early editions of Nancy Drew books. I wasn’t in the least interested in finding old books for their value—I wanted them because I wanted books; I didn’t want to just READ the books; I wanted to OWN them.
After Jim & I moved to California, my mother began sending my books to me and I began searching for used book stores in Burbank or North Hollywood, where we had settled. I found paperback mysteries at a used book store in North Hollywood, that I could buy for ten cents each. Michael was about 2 years old and in a stroller when I would walk to that bookstore in North Hollywood. (I was a steady customer of another used book store in Burbank, on Magnolia, for decades—until the owner, Pete, passed away. When I would take all four sons to that book store, he’d warn me “I’m counting children! Make sure you leave with the right number!” What a fantastic bookstore THAT one was.
Are all the used book stores a thing of the past? Not long ago, I read a newspaper story about a bookstore in downtown Los Angeles going out of business after sixty-something years–I was floored! I didn’t even know it existed!
All of which makes me wonder–what about some of my other favorite bookstores? Brand Bookshop in Glendale? Moe’s in Berkeley? Ravenscar Books in Sherman Oaks? The Book Village in Pasadena? David’s Books in Ann Arbor? After Words, also in Ann Arbor? Margaret Mannati in San Diego? Vintage Books in Vancouver (Washington)? Bart’s Books in Ojai, California? Madhatters’ Old Books in Langley, Washington? Phantom Bookshop in Ventura, California? Book Castle, Inc., Burbank, California? Shorey’s Used, Rare and New Books in Seattle, Washington? Simmer Pot Press/More than Just Cookbooks, in Boone, North Carolina? Yesterday’s Books in Washington, DC? Idle Time Books, also in Washington, DC? Earthling Book Shop and Café in Santa Barbara, CA? Again Books, also in Santa Barbara? Bookcellar in Carson City, NV? Timeless Books in Redding, CA? the Seattle Book Center, Seattle, WA? CODY’S BOOKS in Berkeley, CA? and one of my all-time favorite sources for cookbooks, MARION GORE BOOKSELLER in San Gabriel, CA? (I know, she has been gone for a long time—but not long ago I came across one of the annual booklets she would publish and send to customers. I met her once a long time ago.
And how about some of your favorite book stores?
The only redemption that we have is that many booksellers are now peddling their wares on sites like Amazon.com. It’s not the same thing as walking into a dusty used bookstore and spending hours browsing through their shelves—but it may be the next best thing—providing us access to hundreds of used bookstores of the past.
A few years ago, I discovered that Ohio Bookstore in downtown Cincinnati (several floors of books!! You name it, they probably have it!) and I began including a trip downtown whenever I am in Cincinnati. A few – or perhaps several – years ago, my shipment of cookbooks that my nephew packaged up and mailed home for me- got lost en route to California; I was shattered over that loss – so the following year (or the year after) when I was back in Cincinnati and heading directly for Ohio Bookstore, I told the owner about my loss. He said “You know, WE can ship any of your books home to you”–and since then, that has been what I’ve been doing. They have mailed 2 or 3 of my purchases back home to me and have wrapped them so professionally–I can’t complain–and the last shipment of books reached me about 2 days after I got back home. I hope and pray Ohio Bookstore never goes out of business. I could spend an entire day there (unfortunately, my last trip to Cincinnati was last April and my brother Bill, nephew Russ and his wife Linda – were along with me and I couldn’t very well say “go on without me and come back in 3 or 4 hours”. (or maybe I could have). I’d love to have more than a weekend in Cincinnati – so many places I would love to visit; we didn’t even make it to Fountain Square last April.
Well, those are some of my thoughts about books and bookstores. For me, you can’t have one without the other!
Sandra Lee Smith
Originally posted in 2009,
Updated September 3, 2018