Albany for the Writers, Cooperstown for the Books

I ‘d been browsing Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer with some pleasure, and noticed, after conducting one of my regular panoramic literary event scans covering a circular territory – centre in Montreal, circumference a 3 1/2 hour drive away – that she was scheduled to speak in a few days time right out on the edge of the circle, at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. 

The Skidmore readings are connected to the New York State Writers Institute, at SUNY in nearby Albany. Together they draw some impressive talent, so I’m very attentive to what goes down there. In fact, today, Salman Rushdie happens to be on deck. 

Time was limited. I put in a couple of calls, but predictably wasn’t able to tee up a Biblio File interview with Francine. Still, I was interested enough to jump in the car and drive down. I’d overnight near the college and drive to a bookstore in Cooperstown the next morning, July 4th. I’d dropped in on it years ago, but the visit was rushed, and I’ve harboured a desire to return ever since. 

On the way down to Skidmore I listened to a podcast called Think Again. The guest was Martin Amis. There was some interesting talk about Joyce – 25% of Ulysses is brilliant, says Amis, the rest, not so much. He’s read about a third of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest ( I flamed out at a quarter). He is respectful, and says DFW’s essays are good (agreed), especially the ones on tennis, but suggests that his fiction burns up the reader’s good will very quickly. Too quickly, unless of course you’re young and love the challenge of reading brain-crampingly boring text. When the podcast host, Jason Gots, offers up that he’s “enraptured” by Wallace’s digressions, I have trouble suspending my disbelief. When Part ll of the podcast comes on and the discussion turns to AI, it was all I could do not to change the channel. I never turn Amis off, but this was too much. 

Another thing that bothered me was Jason’s frequent outbursts of nervous, paradoxical laughter. Amis does his best to talk through it, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the seriousness of the whole enterprise. 

I should perhaps come clean here. Prior to driving down to Albany I’d been organizing a trip to New York, lining up various book people to interview. I was keen to talk to Amis. Have been for some time. Probably since I read London Fields. Who wouldn’t want to meet the author responsible for bringing Nicola Six into the world. So I fired off an email to his agent Andrew Wylie. “No,” was his firm response.  Not a hard, final no, just no this time round. The prospect might brighten closer to when his next big ‘baggy’ novel hits the shelves. 

So this “no” was ringing in my ears, at the same time I sat jealously listening to the jarring hyena laughter and the inanity AI novel writing.

After arriving at Skidmore I walked the campus a bit

found the classroom, and took a seat close to the stage. I wasn’t in the most sanguine mood. The talks weren’t terribly enlightening. Both participants made a point of repeatedly referring to “my students.” Once the floor opened up for questions I asked Francine what differentiated her book from How to Read a Book, written by a ‘dead white guy’ more than fifty years ago. Few seemed to have heard of Mortimer Adler. Basically he advocated close reading, which is pretty well what Francine does in her book, along with providing some engaging exegesis. 

More women, was the obvious answer. That’s pretty well it. I should add that although my question was presented provocatively, the intent was to facilitate her making this point. 

As the tents were folding a robust, busty young tatooed student glided past me and said “I’m looking forward to the day you’re a dead white male,” missing entirely the philanthropic nature of my question. 

A couple of items to note about nearby Albany: McGeary’s Irish pub in Clinton Square has an excellent happy hour where good, large stiff drinks are poured. Plus Herman Melville’s childhood home – a pink building – stands right next to it! Speaking of buildings,  check these out 

They’re right down town, part of a complex of state government buildings called The Empire State Plaza. It was built between 1965 and 1976 at an estimated cost of $2 billion. There’s a major public collection of 1960s and 1970s monumental abstract artworks on permanent display throughout the site. Plus there’s a performing arts center. The supervising architect was Wallace Harrison.

And final note: a year or so ago we were in town and I decided to check out the book section at a local thrift store. Damned if I didn’t find a 7th printing of the British Faber paperback edition of Anna Burns’s Booker-winning novel Milkman on the shelf!



Next morning I headed off to Cooperstown, NY, home to The Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a beautiful sunny day that brightened the already colourful surroundings. 

But I wasn’t here for the Hall, or for my name engraved for free on a bat

or for the baseball gear. Not even the dogs, although I did dunk a couple for lunch. 

No, I was here for the books, and Willis Monie Books had loads of them to offer at sparkling good prices. How good? Well check out the pile I bought ( mostly publishers’ histories). I think Willis was pleased. 

This hog print also spoke loudly to me

as did a number of dust jackets from the forties and fifties, on books all priced at under $10, including a striking one by Milton Glaser, and this beauty published by Faber. Had to buy it. 

After wobbling out of the store with my pile, I was greeted by this

actually, my first encounter with it was after the breakfast I’d enjoyed at this diner across the street. I’d decided to squeeze out all the good in a bad situation by leaving the car parked where it was for the day. Still, I couldn’t believe that the town would ticket me on July 4th. How damned unpatriotic.  

A SHARP Conference in Amherst, MA.

Literary Tourist in Massachusetts

So I’d heard of SHARP, The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing. I knew there was study of the history of the book involved, and I thought (erroneously as it turns out) that there also was some kind of official connection with the Fisher Library in Toronto.  But it wasn’t until I took the time to visit the website that I realized how similar SHARP’s objectives were to my own. Reading this: “Research addresses the composition, mediation, reception, survival, and transformation of written communication in material forms…” I was struck by how aptly it describes the parameters of my Biblio File podcast project, where the goal is to document the book at the turn of the 21st century, to develop a panoramic portrait by interviewing ‘best practitioners’ in and around the book trade – those involved with the book’s “composition, mediation, reception and survival.”  But I’m also interested in the past, which means interviewing not only people currently on the job, but also academics, biographers, and authors familiar with people from the past. This in part explains why I collect publishers’ histories and memoirs, and more broadly, books by and about people connected with books. In fact, some of my favourite interviews have focused on practitioners from the past. For example, James Laughlin 

Jack McClelland

and Blanche Knopf

Given that many members of SHARP epitomize the kind of ‘expert’ I’m looking to interview, I figured I should try to get to know some of them.

As it happened, SHARP’s 2019 annual conference was to be held in Amherst, MA. I could easily drive down there. So I contacted the organizers, Jim Wald and Jim Kelley, and convinced them to provide me with a press pass.

The drive was uneventful, save for a humongous downpour shortly before I arrived at my Airbnb in South Hadley about 20 minutes from the conference venue. It was unusually hot. After the deluge the streets were literally steaming.

Turns out I’d been in the hood earlier in the year to interview respected antiquarian book/author archives dealer Ken Lopez, in Hadley. Listen here to an enlightening conversation on how Ken went about developing two seminal book collections:

On the same trip I buttonholed Barry Moser in nearby Hatfield to talk about his storied career in the book arts ( and yes, he’s as fun to talk to as he is to look at!). Listen here:

Copped this photo of Dante hanging on one of Barry’s walls. If you haven’t seen his illustrations to Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of The Inferno, do yourself a favour. They’re frighteningly good.

You should also know about Barry’s own press, Pennyroyal and all of the beautiful books produced under its imprint, many of which we talked about.

Next morning the drive up to UMass was punctuated by this wildlife encounter

The second encounter of the day was with one of the used booksellers working the conference. His prices were really good. $10 for a copy of Sandra Campbell’s excellent Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press for example. I interviewed Sandra at her home in Kingston, Ontario last year about Pierce, one of Canada’s greatest publisher/editors. Listen here:


There was also a copy of Ruth Panofsky’s history of MacMillan Canada for sale. I’d interviewed Ruth years ago about this when the book was still in gestation. She was kind enough to reference our conversation in her acknowledgments. I already had a copy but it was buried in storage, so I decided to spring for this one, and get her to sign it (she happened to be at the conference).

The first morning session I attended included talks on three separate topics: Coloring the Alice ( in Wonderland) Books, Japanese books illustrating the American Civil War – produced contemporaneously, and the cost to John Murray of publishing photography books on Africa in the 19th century. Yup, about as esoteric a grouping as you could hope to find, and to this book-lover, all equally fascinating. Talk of Japan brought up memories of my trip to Tokyo last year and a conversation about ukiyo-e woodblock printing with skilled practitioner and ex-pat Canadian, Dave Bull. Listen here:

After coffee break I sat in on a session entitled The American History Textbook Project: Teaching an Evolving National & Cultural Identity with Book History. Sounds like a bona fide snoozer doesn’t it. Well it definitely wasn’t. There are considerable rewards now being reaped thanks to the accumulation and comparison of history text books, year to year, region to region. No wonder different states have such different beliefs and ‘personalities.’ For more on this intriguing project, click here.

The presenters were students of Jonathan Rose. He was in the session. Afterwards I cornered him and arranged an interview. Jonathan is known for much more than just this project. He in fact was instrumental in setting up SHARP back in the early nineties. Listen here as he tells the story:

Years ago I’d visited Jonathan at his home in Pennsylvania somewhere to talk about the history of Dent, the British publishing house, and its Everyman’s Library. I’d sought him after discovering this

and seeing that he was its editor. This book, along with companion volumes on American publishing houses became collecting bibles for me. At the end of each publishing house entry there’s a short bibliography listing sources. Pasteing them together provided me with my early publishers’ histories/memoirs hit list. Today many of the listed titles sit on my shelves. Naturally, as you can see, I got Jonathan to sign my copy.

After a plate of sprouts and over-sized, possibly genetically modified lima beans, I headed over to the Annual General Meeting. The amphitheatre was full. Various Society officers were paraded up on the stage, names were put to faces and awards handed out, including the 2019 DeLong Book History Prize.

“I saw literary scholars, historians, librarians and publishing professionals mixing amicably and conversing creatively,” said Jonathan after the first SHARP meeting in 1993. “That’s when I knew that [the society] was going to work”. While I didn’t run into any publishing executives, I did see a lot of young, enthusiastic academics and librarians crowding the hallways. The sheer number of interesting sessions on offer spoke to the breadth of their interests and curiosities.

For instance, I had a hell of a time choosing between Sites of Dissemination: Scribner’s Bookstore, Cultures of Publishing: Nineteenth-Century Publishers’ Series, and Agents and Agency: Sybil Hutchinson Literary Agent to James Reaney. The last was delivered by Ruth Panofsky, so I went with it. Wanted to connect with her, and get my book signed. Ruth is doing important work bringing attention to under-appreciated women in Canada’s 20th century book publishing world. 

After her talk, in the Q & A session, an academic, Julie Rak, whose work I’ve encountered before – a toxic cesspit of a book review in which she trashed Nick Mount’s excellent book on the CanLit boom, Arrival, for not devoting enough pages to women, or black or indigenous writers when the fact is “history” shows that, for good or bad, their voices just weren’t present – Nick was simply telling it the way it was – anyway, she asks this question about the Canadian publisher Jack McClelland, calling him a ‘real asshole’, and requests that Ruth give her “the dirt” on him. 

I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and shut up, but I was some tempted to blast her – only thing is, if I had’ve done so, I’m sure it would have stirred up more dust than was worth wiping out of my eyes.  Sure, at times, Jack was probably an asshole. But he went out of his way to champion female writers, and worked tirelessly to promote Canadian authors. He’s a hero and should be celebrated as one. Was he a Harvey Weinstein? I very much doubt it. Pretty well all the women who worked with him, loved, or at least admired him.  

It’s one thing to pay attention to those whose stories haven’t been told, quite another to smear the reputations of those who should be revered. The whole affair put me off my soup, so I went for the salad instead at that evening’s dinner. Having shredded my tongue, I wasn’t terribly inclined to socialize, so I headed for the door early.

Next morning I attended an interesting session on Books, Indigeneity & Settler Colonialism. It brought home the importance of access to books and archives, and how they can be used as proof to settle disputes from the past.  Regrettably I missed Jonathan’s afternoon talk on Playboy magazine’s female readership (it was huge),  but just the topic reinforced my opinion of how agile his mind is, especially when assessing and exploring the capacity of the printed record to teach us about history. There’s little doubt in my mind why SHARP is thriving: with people like Jonathan actively organizing, and preparing talks, it’s sure to continue to attract curious young scholars. Sure, I think the organization could use more collectors and book trade people – it’s a bit academic-heavy, but I guess this is to be expected, along with the accompanying activism and social justice agendas. You’ll find this everywhere though, and, within reason, all for the good. 

All told it was a really intellectually stimulating couple of days spent in the company of people in front of whom you didn’t have to be embarrassed when admitting your book geekiness. Next conference is in Amsterdam in June, 2020. For more info, click here

Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit Amherst Books (my friend, the poet Matthew Zapruder recommended it). But I did get to see this fine example of hard core Massachusetts graffiti, right next door

On my way out I visited Gray Matter Books in Hadley,

where I was pleasantly surprised to find these to add to my collection.

Great way to end off the trip.

Three literary hot spots in Amherst if you happen to be there: The Emily Dickinson Museum which, speaking from experience, offers excellent tours, the Yiddish Book Center, and The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Click here for tourist information.

A trip to the Hudson Valley, Interview talk in Connecticut & Sandwiches in Maine

Literary Tourist on the road in the U.S. 

The destination was Richard Minsky’s place in the Hudson Valley, just south of Albany, NY. Richard was/is the founder of The Center for Book Arts in New York. I’d heard about him some years earlier thanks to a book he’d written called The Art of American Book Covers, 1875-1930. On the drive back north from a visit to New York City one summer I called him up out-of- the-blue to ask if he’d like to be interviewed for The Biblio File podcast. He gamely agreed, and promptly fixed up a bountiful cheese plate (and drinks) for my wife and her brother, who was travelling with us, out on his patio. The two of us then got down to business inside. He poured me one of the best Negronis I’ve ever thrown back. We then sat down together to talk about the book arts. Listen above. 

 Richard owns cattle

and wildlife can frequently be seen on his property.

Hard not to be taken with his collection of beautifully illustrated

book covers too. 

I visited again not so long afterwards to talk about his impressive career as a bookbinder, and book scholar. Listen to our conversation here  

This time round I was down to interview Barbara Slate, Richard’s better half, about her newly revised book You Can Do a Graphic Novel  (stay tuned for the audio). Here’s a shot of one of her feet along with equipment and other essentials necessary to the conduct of good interviews. 

Not only are there purple cows grazing Richard’s grass, the house is filled with a colourful, eclectic selection of art.

The decor is a charming bohemian/pop/rustic.

Because I planned the trip well in advance, and mailing costs for books from the U.S. to Canada are these days exorbitant, I had a number (okay 6-7) delivered to his place, including a monster package of fine press & related journals acquired from Pradeep Sebastian. My wife decided to avail herself of this opportunity as well, and had a honking great barbeque shipped. It barely fit into the car. Richard patiently withstood the imposition. 

From Minsky’s I drove about a half an hour north-east to interview Laura Claridge about Blanche Knopf. 

The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire is a racy read, full of detail ‘n dirt. Despite being criticized by a few as fake news, I found the book credible and very entertaining. Alfred, from page one, is made out to look like a Grade A prick, while Blanche’s importance is elevated, as it should be. Listen here:

From here I travelled east

John lives in a bright, spacious, comfortable house on a large, sloping corner lot in a pleasant residential area that reminded me, somewhat surprisingly, of North Vancouver, where my father used to live. John has been training personnel at ESPN on how to conduct interviews since 2004. He only recently ‘retired.’

to Burlington, CT where, the next morning, I met with Canadian interviewing guru John Sawatsky. It was a glorious, sunny day and I was in a good mood having slept the night before at an Airbnb apartment situated right on the water. It was late when I arrived (at the Airbnb) (basically just brushed my teeth and went to bed), and lovely to fall asleep in the dark to the sound outside of the fast running Farmington River.

I knew that following the arc of a life was a good straight-forward way to structure an interview, so I started off by asking about John’s birthplace, Winkler, Manitoba. He talked about his early years on the prairies, his move as a young boy to the West Coast, his education and his subsequent relocation to Ottawa to work as a journalist. Ottawa was heaven for a news junkie like him. He then got into investigative reporting, and started writing a book on Brian Mulroney and teaching journalism at Carleton University. When we started talking about the standardized interviewing approach he’d developed at the time, things veered off the rails.

I got impatient and started pressing for details on what kind of questions elicited that best answers, and how I could best conduct ‘author interviews.’ John’s freely offered story arc, thanks, ironically, to me, crashed into the ditch. I couldn’t seem to get a succinct answer out of him from this point forward. I wasn’t sure if it was my ineptitude or John intentionally playing possum. I did however eventually get some intelligence: that storytelling is key to maintaining audience interest – but no real detail on how to achieve this (in retrospect it seems pretty simple: just shut up).

It was up to Sheila Rogers, who I emailed about John, to tell me that it was all about asking questions that encourage stories to be told (this from notes she’d kept from a workshop of John’s she’d attended years ago). John is currently working on a book about interviewing. I will be among the first to buy it. Stay tuned for our arc-less Biblio File conversation.

Continue reading “A trip to the Hudson Valley, Interview talk in Connecticut & Sandwiches in Maine”

Margaret Atwood, Literary Tourist in Kingston

Literary Tourist in Kingston, Ontario

A Biblio File podcast interview, in which: I talk, in rather rushed fashion, to great Canadian author and “bad” feminist Margaret Atwood about literary tourism: ‘place’ and her novel MaddAddam, Harvard and The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Kingston Penitentiary and Alias Grace, also about: the real and the imaginary, the unreliability of eye witnesses, following the research, Samuel Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, food and underclothing, bodies, space and smell, plus the importance of plumbing – all of which took place at the Kingston Writers Festival 

several years ago, a wonderful literary celebration that occurs every September in the city of wind turbines 

…of my (and now my youngest daughter’s) alma mater, Queen’s University 

with its Jordon Special Collections Library, full of Lorne Pierce’s Canadiana,

…of Berry and Peterson’s bookshop, where I regularly visit John and Richard to get the latest and hottest antiquarian book gossip

and learn stuff about books etc., like for example that important early editions of Canadian Forum magazine are worth diddly-squat.

…of Morrison’s where I used to go 30-odd years ago for hungover breakfasts (now I hear from famed Canadian book designer Laurie Lewis [ listen to our conversation about her time at the University of Toronto Press with Allan Fleming here]

that it’s not the ‘go to’ place anymore, Peter’s on Princess is, but still this is a pretty damned good photo so I’m leaving it in anyway)

…of the Belvedere Hotel

where I once met my hero, Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee who signed about 25 of my/his first editions and after my yammering on for about 10 of the signatures I suddenly shut up, realizing that I don’t know J.M from Adam, and what the fuck am I trying to do here anyway? Convince myself that there is some sort of relationship when in fact there’s nothing? And why am I so obsessed with signed firsts editions anyway…

…of Chez Piggy where I’ve spent some stellar evenings shooting the breeze with friends about airy concepts out on the back patio, and

…of Pat Grew my best friend, and the best math teacher in the world. Okay don’t take my word for it.

Motoring to Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago and Syracuse

Literary Tourist on the road in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and New York State

If you take the northern route between ground-zero (in this case Montreal) and Minneapolis through Algonquin Park, crossing over at Sault Ste. Marie and then along past Green Bay, there’s pretty well nothing of literary interest to see. Nothing unless you count this

in, yes, rural Wisconsin. One consolation: we came upon a coffee drive-thru that had a pretty good name.

Zinger coffee

As usual, once my wife, Caroline, had thoroughly planned out our dates and destinations, I tapped the Rolodex to solicit suggestions of bookish people on-site who might give-up engaging interviews. This time round I asked John Randle, proprietor of The Whittington Press for his thoughts. I’d interviewed John years ago at his sheep-surrounded studio near the cathedral city of Hereford (with its famed chained-library), not too far from Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh booktown. 

John publishes beautiful fine press books, and Matrix: A Review for Printers & Bibliophiles, a gorgeously printed annual. #31 had just dropped. I dug deep and bought a copy, first to commemorate my visit and our conversation (Listen here):

Second, because it contained an article by David Godine and one on Rocky Stinehour, both of whom I’d interviewed for the Biblio File podcast. The Whittington Press archive also happens to be at the University of Minnesota’s rare book library, along with an important collection of African-American literature and one of the world’s great Sherlock Holmes collections. Curator Tim Johnson is definitely on my interview hit-list. 

John recommended I interview Phil Gallo, a well regarded printer, and visual/concrete poet. Phil and I teed up a meeting at his apartment in St. Paul. We met for a chat early one afternoon several days before Christmas. The first thing I noticed – after Phil poured me a stiff shot of bourbon – was several shelves full of books on typography. A lot of them are type specimen books. 

Phil gallo books

Phil is the proprietor of the Hermetic Press, which kicked off in the mid-1960s. He purposefully doesn’t do much promotion. 

After our conversation I headed over to this little shop 

Against the Current bookstore, St. Paul

It had only recently opened. I didn’t find anything – most of the stock was geared, naturally, toward readers. I did have a good gab with the young owner however, and wished him well. 

Owner, Against the current bookstore, St. Paul

Then it was back to home-base, in Eagan, a bedroom community near Minneapolis. Our dear friends Jeff and Laura Spartz live here. We’ve visited them often over the years, mostly at Christmas time. Jeff runs a food-bank for the local crow population (you can see how successful this is)


Laura knows everything that is humanly possible to know about Jane Austen and the Regency period. The two are the nicest, most welcoming, well-travelled, smartest, politically-engaged people you can imagine –  exactly the kind who give Americans (most of them, anyway) a good name. We’re lucky to be able to call them, and their families, friends. 

Last time we visited, I had the opportunity to Continue reading “Motoring to Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago and Syracuse”