Monday, February 8, 2010

Booksmith Recollection I: St. Augustine is for book lovers

This is the view down Stokes Creek yesterday afternoon, looking through the live oaks and Spanish moss, through the wind-bent trees limned with moss, adorned with resurrection fern. When we first moved here my husband's brother said it looked like a little slice of Old Florida. Like Cross Creek, maybe. We thought so, too; this disappearing old Florida was what we'd fallen for when we bought the place.

Years go, there was a marvelous independent bookstore in St. Augustine called The Booksmith, carefully and affectionately run by Diana and Bob Smith, and it was my first real career-job, the first job I loved and didn't just go to so I could collect a pay check. In fact, The Booksmith was the first time it had really occurred to me that such a thing was possible: to go to work and be fulfilled by how you'd spent your day.

Matchmaking happened every day, for one thing. Every day someone came in and said they needed something to read, but weren't quite sure...every day, one of us said, "What's the last thing you read that you loved?," and then, "What's the last thing you tried to read but hated and could't finish?", and we could always put a book into their eager hands. If they hated the book, we'd let them bring it back. Perhaps these were the questions later co-opted into the algorhythm I imagine whirring and whizzing under the hood at Barnes & Noble and Amazon and places like that. And we did magic, too. Regular, everyday magic, like finding obscurities in Books In Print, which we owned in multi-volumne hard copies we had to buy every year or so. But we did some modestly exotic white magic, too, more complicated but still more art than science. Like this, for instance: a man came in and said to me, "I was reading this book, and I loved it, and I couldn't wait to finish it, and you won't believe this, but I came home and the dog really had eaten it. The cover is gone, and I can't remember the title." He looked at me sadly.

"Who was the author?" I asked hopefully, but he looked sadder than before. "I can't remember," he said, "not for the the life of me."

I thought for a minute and then asked, "Well, what was it about? Can you describe the plot or characters, or anything?"

"Dear me, yes," he said. "It was about a kind of crazy guy who lives in New Orleans with his mother...." and while he talked I walked to the shelf and handed him his replacement copy of John Kennedy O'Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. He stared at me. In all modesty, as I said, it was a kind of simple magic we did, a lacing together of shared knowledge, for I certainly hadn't read every book we had. But there were Diana and Maggie, Sue and Katie and many others whose shared knowledge encircled the little store like a gently cast magic spell, and mostly we could find those lost things for people if they were stories or books. Sometimes, we could find things even more unexpected, but that is another story, my loves. Remind me to tell you about the OED, Unabridged. This is the Oxford English Dictionary, and as I mentioned, unabridged, and in those days ran to more than a dozen volumes and was (I am not making this up) about $2500. Really. But you must remind me, my dears, for that story on another cold night by the fire.

Famous people breezed in and out, usually without our realizing; occasionally with our unspoken agreement to ignore their fame and treat them like everyone else. And of course there were also those people whose fame was important to them, or who were only marginally famous and wanted more attention, or whose 15 Andy Warhol minutes had passed despite their best efforts. The view of our little creek in the golden sunlight reminded me to tell you about this one. Mr. Baskin used to come into the store now and then, and more often would call and order something someone had mentioned and which he thought he ought to read. He always expected to be recognized, and liked to be fussed over a little. I had to ask Diana who he was, and for some local context.

(Bear with me for a momentary geographic digression to help make a better picture, won't you? The location of the store doubtless played a role in its guest list, at least sometimes. And it might help you, when I come round to tell you Booksmith Recollection II, or III, or what have you. Rocky will be in one of those. Lis will be in one. Gamble Rogers, Jimmy Buffett...those are fine stories, my dears, still to come. For now, it's enough to tell you this, and to thank you for being patient.)

The Booksmith's tiny back storage room shared a wall in common with its neighbor, a local landmark and famously, realistically seedy and universally loved bar called The Trade Winds. At other end of our small block was The Cathedral of St. Augustine, and our front yard was the Plaza. The Cathedral and the Plaza and perhaps their proximity to one another often reminds visitors of Europe. And right across the Bridge of Lions was the picturesque neighborhood called Davis Shores. David Nolan wrote a book about it, favored among locals, called Fifty Feet in Paradise. Lots of us have lived in that beautiful old neighborhood over the years; some close friends still do.

And sometime between the 1940s and 1960s, so did Norton Baskin and his wife, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Here is a photo I took from an uncredited photo in a book from Rodney's St. Augustine collection, with some unnamed folks and the new-made Mr. and Mrs. Baskin on the far right; they have just been married at the St. Johns County Courthouse, itself only a two-block walk from The Booksmith. It's not a good picture, of course, but you can look it up for yourself if you like. By the time my path crossed Mr. Baskin's at The Booksmith, he was quite elderly but he did like to be remembered, and I think he liked people to know he'd been the husband of Ms. Rawlings.

So here we are, Rodney and I, on our tiny corner of the land that must look much like the tiny outpost of Florida Marjorie Rawlings found, profoundly grateful to share it with you and remind you that it may be much smaller, but it's still here.


  1. Ms. Rawlings is one of my major heroes and someone I would be proud to emulate. She put the cherry on top of the cowgirl of "sense of place."
    Good one, dearie.

  2. of my favorite and most-missed comfort zones in our little favorite area was the children's section, so large and comprehensive for such a small store...sweet memories.

  3. Ms. Moon, thank you, thank you. What it would have been to meet her, but of course meeting Mr. Baskin was a connection with a kind one rarely has.

    Lorie, thank you for remembering that section of the store as I do. There was one place in town we were NEVER without a copy of Good Night, Moon or Pat the Bunny or Are You My Mother...what a place.


Please share your thoughts. If you have trouble getting past the gatekeeper, email and let me know.