Suburban Soliloquy 106.

My Father's Books

At best I was a mediocre student throughout grade school. By the time I reached the seventh grade, I was isolated from all my friends. They were the superior students and were placed in the better classes. At that time I merely assumed I was not as smart as them. They thrived in their classes while I remained bored in mine. They knew the camaraderie of like-minded students while I navigated a field of foes and bullies.

My father thought me extremely bright and could not understand why I didn't do better in school. He expected me to find learning fun, however he didn't think school was especially important. Meantime, I was cynical of his high regard for my intelligence. My mother didn't think I was bright at all. I was inclined to accept her verdict. It explained why I found school a painfully boring experience. Unlike my father, who tried to convince me learning was a kind of euphoria, my mother explained that school was just a nasty trial I would have to suffer through if I was to have any hope of making money, and money was the only route to happiness. My father was confident that one day I would figure it out and he didn't worry. My mother nagged me, but she didn't hold out much hope. They both neglected to help me in my school work.

I believe a good education is of the greatest importance, yet worry that the present educational system is failing to do a good service for the citizenry. I think the Bush Administration has done tremendous damage to public education. Even so, Ms Keogh, my more significant other, and I devote a considerable amount of time to assisting and supervising her ten-year-old grandson, my step-grandson, with his school work. I don't want him to make the same mistakes I did, thus finding himself nearing the end of a thirty-year career with AT&T feeling unfulfilled and misused. I'd rather he found a career about which he can be passionate and proud, a career that when he neared its conclusion he would feel he had accomplished something worthwhile.

The books on my father's shelves were my salvation. My father adored books. My mother recalls him going out to buy a suit, but returning instead with books worth his week's wages. He taught me his love of books. It wasn't just the content of the books, although that was essential and foremost, but he taught me to love the embodiment of that content. My father collected fine press books, preferably illustrated. These were books selected for their content and then made beautiful by a reverence for the choice of materials and the technique of manufacture. My schooling came from my father's bookshelves.

It didn't come right away. My love of books was ignited when I was ten years old and I began accompanying my father to Leary's Book Store in Philadelphia. We would start at Gimbel's on Chestnut Street where my mother preferred to shop. We were self-exiled New Yorkers and Gimbel's was the only department store whose name my mother recognized. She thought of it as a New York transplant, just like herself, and she remained loyal to New York, hating Philadelphia's provincialism and narrow streets. In Manhattan, Gimbel's was across the street from Macy's at Herald Square and Macy's had always been her first choice, but there was no Macy's in Philadelphia at this time. The fact is, Gimbel's came first to Philadelphia in 1894 and then to Manhattan in 1910.

My father and I would leave my mother to shop at Gimbel's and exit out the rear of the store. Leary's Book Store was on 9th Street just south of Market, a tremendous three-story building, the last of what was a row of early 19th Century buildings, but now Leary's pressed smack up against the back of a gigantic Gimbel's. A large signboard on the front of Leary's bore an oversized copy of 19th Century romantic painter Carl Spitzweg's The Bookworm. This painting portrayed an elderly scholar in long coattails standing atop a stepladder in a dense library. He holds one book to his face, but other books are grasped under his arm and between his legs. Into this cavernous bookstore my father would lead me. Books crammed the walls and were piled high on tables. A large hole offered a view of the second floor mezzanine also crowded with books. Among these treasures I was converted.

That first important book, which would begin my collection, was Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It had beautiful hand-colored illustrations and it had been printed on rag paper for the Limited Editions Club by the Plantin Press of Los Angeles. My father, forever generous, purchased it for me even though he thought it might be, for someone who didn't like to read, too difficult. I would read and re-read that book three or four times in the next two years.

There would be more trips to Leary's. And my father's books became my education. While school terrified and tortured me, I was constantly finding interesting reading on my father's shelves: Dante, Mallory, Kipling, France, Wells, Homer, Conrad.... Of course I also read D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Oscar Wilde's Salome, Aristophanes' Lysistrata, Frank Harris' My Life and Loves, John Cleland's Fanny Hill or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, et cetera; all for the wrong reasons and often drawn to them by their illustrations.

The bulk of my education has come from the reading I have done outside the restrictions and requirements of school. That reading goes on to this day, and my mother asks, "When did you get so smart?" Still, I know my limitations and know that I could never be a scholar. It is no different now than when I was in grade school as I cannot learn what doesn't interest me. Worse still, I can't remember some of the books I have read and once enjoyed. Also, shamefully, my shelves are filled mostly with books I have not read, so I am knowledgeable enough to know there is so much more I don't know.

I can remember my father reading. He would read a book on the day he brought it home. He would sometimes read it in one sitting, even if it caused him to be up most of the night. I have inherited my father's books and have increased them twice-fold with my own, but I haven't found the time to read. I am waiting for my retirement, which is another three years from now.

I own an ancient poster for Leary's Book Store. It is filled with text that tells me there was more to the store than I remembered. It had seven stories and a basement, "twenty thousand square feet of books, representing nearly five hundred thousand volumes." This Philadelphia icon is gone, leveled to become a parking lot that stretches to Market Street. It was very sad for many when the venerable bookstore closed in 1968, but there was a happy ending. It came while they were cataloging the contents of Leary's Book Store to be auctioned off at the Freeman auction house in Philadelphia. In an old book were found several original documents dating back to the Nation's birth, the most important one being an original 1776 broadside of the Declaration of Independence, its first printing, which was done by a certain John Dunlap. It was sold for $404,000. Somebody went happily into retirement.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"