Suburban Soliloquy #73

the edge of Oblivion

I have wasted much of my life with daydreaming. Imagining what I would do if great wealth were to befall me, undeserved, has been a frequent preoccupation that has rescued me from boredom. Daydreaming is a creative but undisciplined application of the mind, an effort that would have been better spent composing stories with a commercial interest. Nevertheless, daydreaming is less stressful when one is only trying to entertain one's self. However, when I met Ms Keogh, my more significant other, twenty years ago, even as we decided to weave our destinies together, so did we also find ourselves weaving together impossible dreams for our mutual amusement.

We imagined opening an all-night bistro near the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and serving a light meal, coffee, tea, and wine by the glass or bottle. The walls would be lined with art for sale and we would organize readings, debates, and small art shows. In the corner we'd place an upright piano to invite impromptu recitals. We conceived the name for our little place "the edge of Oblivion" with the letters all minuscule except for the majuscule "O". The name meant something significant to us, that our lives and all existence took place at the lip of a precipice; a false step, a freak accident, or sufficient time, and everything passes over the edge into non-existence. The name reminded us to appreciate the moment and enjoy it.

The name would stay a constant with us even as our dreaming continually evolved. The idea of a cafe faded and we became enamored with the idea of a bookstore specializing in fine press books, maybe we'd even design and publish some of our own. This idea was tied to our desire to move to Britain. We had business cards made up, "the edge of Oblivion", with "Fine Books" in the top right corner, our names as proprietors in the top left, and in the bottom left two lines that read:
Somewhere in Sussex
Sometime in the future

We have hundreds of those cards left over while our plans have continued to mutate. The bookstore became a bookstore-gallery became a bookstore-gallery-shop for objets d'art. We perceived our name as signifying the temporary rescue of things from oblivion.

Today the name has official status. We registered the name with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as an enterprise for art. It has become a catchall for dreams real and delusional. It serves as we give birth to our vague business of creative endeavors, Ms Keogh selling her paintings, which she does with reasonable success earning something shy of an income, and me selling my writings, which is done with great success so long as I don't charge any money. There is a mailing address:

the edge of Oblivion
Post Office Box 1244
Langhorne, Pennsylvania
U.S.A. 19047-1244

And still we continue to dream beyond our reach. I want to start up a literary publishing house in Philadelphia. I would seek out new talent and print limited fine press first editions, then a small run in paperback, and finally the books would only be available through P.O.D. (print on demand) technology, where each book is individually produced only when ordered.

This year I found the head office for my publishing house. It sits on the southeast corner of Washington Square, Philadelphia. The small park (6.4 acre) was originally laid out in 1682 by William Penn's surveyor, and served in the 18th-century as a potter's field and pasture. Southeast Square, as the Quakers called it, includes the dead of both British and American soldiers from the time of the Revolution. The 19th-century recast the park's role as a city arboretum and in 1825 it was renamed in honor of our first President. I had picked for our company's headquarters a white pseudo-Italian palazzo, the home of Locks Gallery, just catty-corner to the Lippincott Building and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

The Lea & Febiger BuildingPhoto B.Bentzman

I brought Ms Keogh to see the Locks Gallery, which we have yet to visit. The few times I've tried, I found it closed. Ms Keogh liked it very much and suggested we could build our dream house on its flat roof. (For more about the dream house, see Suburban Soliloquy #66: The Ambulatory.) She pressed to know how we were to finance our little empire. I said we would have to wait until I sold the movie rights to a number of my short stories, my stock answer.

"All this dreaming amounts to what?" Ms Keogh inquired. Nothing would come of it except to fill the time and occupy my mind when I'm bored. I told her I could make it the subject of one of my Soliloquies and here it is, but the story doesn't end here.

Wanting to know more of the history of the building that houses the Locks Gallery, I attempted fruitless research on the Internet. So on another day I went back to examine the building more closely. On the side of the building were holes and stains where once brass letters gave the place its original name. I couldn't make it out, but took a picture with Ms Keogh's digital camera. Returning home, I fooled with the photo using the computer's software. Lo and behold, Locks Gallery was formerly Lea & Febiger, Publishers. I had no idea who Lea & Febiger were, but with that basic information in hand the Internet coughed up a wealth of material. The Lea & Febiger Building at 600 South Washington Square is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places (designed in 1923 by Earl Nelson Edwards). But that's not all.

To begin with, 19th-century Washington Square became known as "publishers' row". Surrounding this square are the Lippincott Building and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, as mentioned earlier, but also the Farm Journal Building, the Bible House, the former headquarters of W.B. Saunders Publishing Company, the home of American writer Christopher Morley, and the Curtis Center where Curtis Publishing produced The Saturday Evening Post and The Ladies Home Journal. As for Lea & Febiger, they were the oldest publishing company in the United States, founded by Matthew Carey in 1785.

Matthew Carey was an irrepressible Catholic born in Dublin, 1760. At fifteen years of age he disappointed his father, a successful man, by going into the book trade, selling and printing. He produced pamphlets that Parliament decided were evidence of the seditious nature of the Irish. Dublin's Catholics, hoping for favorable legislation in Parliament, sought to find and prosecute the author of the pamphlets. Carey escaped to France where he met and apprenticed himself to Benjamin Franklin. He then returned to Ireland, wrote more, found himself in further political trouble, was imprisoned, was released, and following the recommendation of friends, snuck off to America - I mean emigrated from Ireland to America in disguise. The Marquis de Lafayette, who Carey befriended while in France, met him again in Philadelphia and gave him $400 to start up his publishing business, a sum which the company later paid back when Lafayette was in financial straits.

Carey, who died in Philadelphia in 1839, was given the largest funeral the city had ever seen. Across two centuries the company's name has gone through transformations: Carey, Stewart & Co.; M. Carey & Son; M. Carey & Sons; Carey & Lea; Carey, Lea & Carey; Carey, Lea &Blanchard; Lea & Blanchard; Blanchard & Lea; Henry C. Lea; Henry C. Lea's Sons & Co., Lea Bros & Co. and finally Lea & Febiger. I don't know what has become of Lea & Febiger. In recent years they left Philadelphia and may even be defunct. I would have liked buying the company and restoring it to its Washington Square home, a fairy tale ending with new brass letters mounted where their name had been removed. Bentzman & Keogh, Publishers. Or Keogh & Bentzman, Publishers. Whichever you prefer.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is number 73 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"