Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Booksmith Recollection III: The OED

In the image at the top here, you can see the 1880s view of the intersection of Cathedral Place and Charlotte Street, where the Booksmith stood a little more than a hundred years later. What used to be called by locals "the slave market", though slaves were never sold there, is visible in the foreground, where it stands today at the eastern end of the Plaza de la Constitucion. (The bottom image is of the Cathedral itself, after the fire of 1887. The Cathedral was rebuilt after this fire. In a corollary blog I've been telling the story of Sister Patricia Eileen, who worked tirelessly to see a pipe organ added to that re-contruction, also just about a hundred years later. It's a funny little town, as I may have mentioned.) I believe these are antique stereopticons, common at the turn of the last century and viewed with a device kind of like the ones Boomers remember as View Masters.

There's the intersection of Cathedral and Charlotte. The Booksmith stood on that corner. It was a tiny place, dusty and eccentric, filled with books and related stuff I loved, bordered by St. Augustine landmarks as venerable as the Plaza and the Cathedral and as uniquely local as the Trade Winds. And it was peopled, as you probably already know, by a range of regulars and locals and droppers-in, who ranged from the most intellectual and erudite to focused specalists to the most casual readers and tourists. I've told you about Gamble Rogers and Jack Hunter, and maybe Jimmy Buffett and the guys from Tom Petty's band (and one of their mothers) and a million other interesting folks. There were so many of them. One by one, they seem to be wandering into my recollections. With your indulgence, here's another.

This was long time past, my heroes, as T.H. White would have said, long before there was a Barnes & Noble 30 miles to the north, so long ago that you couldn't order books online, if you can imagine such a thing. There wasn't a Borders, at least not one within easy reach. There were only a few small independent stores whose staff members carefully chose the books we put on the shelves, actually read the books, and sold them by hand, which essentially means we sold them as a result of thoughtful conversations with people and the application of our own insight and expertise. It was a special skill, believe it or not, and while it might have been classified as "retail sales" it wasn't a job for a faint-hearted retail store person. You had to know about books. You had to know about people and the books they loved, and the books they WOULD love, if only you put those books in their hands. Because there wasn't a huge store locally, one that felt sort of like a library and allowed people to browse, our Booksmith people came to us so we could order books for them. Even after the big new Barnes & Noble opened in Jacksonville we had dedicated customers who went up there to shop, made lists and called us so we could order the books for them. Others read the New York Times on Sunday and called us to order on Monday; sometimes we made predictions: "I bet this person will call to order this book...", after we read the Times Book Review ourselves. Often we were right.

But this memory is about a special order like no other, one we didn't see coming at all. Louise and George were Booksmith favorites. I didn't know them well and can't tell you much about them, except that judging by the books they ordered, they were both educated people and inveterate and discriminating readers. They were an older couple, retired, I guessed, with old-fashioned manners and sensibilities. Louise would call and say, "Hello, Angie. This is Louise (she would always give her last name, too). I have a list for you today," and she would dictate her list to me and inquire about the expected arrival date. I would try to wrap up the conversation in the time-honored southern way, making a little small talk. Invariably, Louise would say very kindly, "Thank you," and just hang up the phone. No "good-bye", no small talk. I thought it was a little odd at first, but I got used to it. Their book lists were always so interesting I looked forward to Louise's calls. And then she called to order the OED.

The Oxford English Dictionary - the OED - is the ultimate ride for word lovers, work collecters, writers...just about anyone with an interest in etymology. Anyone passionate about the English language has probably peered into a copy of the OED at one time or another; today most of its content is available online. Long ago, you had to buy a copy. For most people, this purchase was of something like the Compact Edition, or another variation. When Louise called, she said, "Hello, Angie; this is Louise. I would like to order a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, Unabridged."

Unabridged? Was she sure? She was. I looked it up. It was in 20 volumes, and it was $2,500.00. It's not a typo. Two thousand, five hundred dollars. Yes, Louise said calmly, that sounds about right. Please call us when it comes in.

The order was placed, the OED arrived, it was duly picked up and presumably installed in a suitable location at home. Back at the Booksmith, the staff continued to marvel now and then about the order. The price tag seemed staggering, but it was the value, the relative importance of spending all those dollars not on real estate or stocks or a grandchild's college or trust fund. Imagine: the study of the English language was important enough to this couple to warrant an expenditure that equalled in one publication what most people spent on books in a year, in two years, or more. It was, in the truest sense of the word, wonderful.

A year or so afterward, I asked Louise about it. "I'm just curious," I said, "about the OED. What's it like, having the unabridged version at your fingertips?" Louise was genuinely pleased I'd asked, and as it happened: it was delightful. Not only were she and George deeply gratified by having access to the whole language, right at home, all the time, but they'd found it to have a kind of irresistible pull to their family and friends, as well. Often, she said, they would find a houseguest curled up with a volume of the dictionary. Having meant only to look up a word, they seemed to be easily caught up in serendipitous energy, driving exploration. A quick consultation of the Dictionary could become an hour or two under a reading lamp, uncovering the unexpected. "You can read it, you know," Louise said, marveling a little, "You needn't be looking for anything in particular, you know. You can just pick it up and drop in. it."

Tonight's credits:
Photo courtesy of The Internet (as Your Aunt Becky might say)
Proofreading courtesy of Dylan; any typos or missed recollections are on me. Thanks, Dylan.


  1. Great recollections, Angie ~ I loved the Booksmith so much, especially the Women's and New Age and Local and Children's sections ~ I always found something interesting and still have some of them on my shelves today. Now, if only I had $2,500 to spend on books...

  2. Dear Lulumarie, isn't it the truth? It's amazing to me to think of $2500 on books, even 20 years ago. Amazing. And like you, I collected a BUNCH of books from the Booksmith, most of which are still living on shelves in my house today. A mark of our ages: I remember when Diana's younger son (Owen, Ms. Moon!) was lurking around under the tables when he was about 3 or 4. He's a grown up guy now, with a lovely wife and I do believe TWO little ones of his own. How the days do fly. Love you!


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