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Vol. XI, no. 1

TCU Library Newsletter, Web Edition

             April 1999
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A View Through the Transom
By Hugh Macdonald

    While in New York City in the late 1960's I had the privilege of working for two of the greatest bookmen of our time in the field of English and American antiquarian bookselling. They were Michael Papantonio and John S. Van E. Kohn whose partnership was called Seven Gables Bookshop, Inc. The name of course was taken from Hawthorne and denoted the shop's preeminence in American literature (from its origins through World War II) but the name curiously failed to indicate the authority and renown Seven Gables enjoyed in the realm of English literature (from its origins through the 19th century). While their expertise overlapped in some respects, English was Mike's area and American John's.

    Since they had joined their respective businesses together shortly after the war, they had attracted important customers and clients worldwide whose loyalty, respect and gratitude were already established by the time they hired me as a clerk and bibliographer. Mike and John, still known as "The Boys," were no longer young, Indeed, physically they appeared much older than the seventy years each was soon to achieve. Their minds and their memories were nonetheless phenomenal as was their generosity and patience with me. Only later was I to learn that they had speculated that I might prove to be interested and capable of someday carrying on the business, which interested none of their sons and daughters. (I demonstrated early on that I had no head for business).

    Mike and John were alike only in their addiction to cigarettes - a habit voraciously shared by the shop's septuagenarian secretary Alex(andra) Shultz. (God knows how many cartons of unfiltered Pell Mells were consumed each week; a thick bluish haze made vision from one end of the shop to the other impossible save when I worked alone on Saturdays.) Mike had never finished high school and had begun working in bookshops at age fifteen. Yet scholars on both sides of the Atlantic consulted him frequently and acknowledged him in their publications. John, on the other hand, was a graduate of a distinguished institution for the liberal arts, Williams College. Scholars and academic librarians relied on him, too. Perhaps it is now evident that these men deserve a memoir of substantial length, but my aim here is to relate an anecdote which might give you and idea of one aspect of what it was like working at Seven Gables. John, I soon learned, was a genial sadist.

    Both Mike and John provided the opportunities for me to expand my knowledge of rare books and manuscripts - and of literature. One usually pleasurable means was to take me to lunch either alone or with customers. Conversations over the table could be vastly educational (for me) and were never less than interesting. However, John would toy with my expectations for a great lunch. One day it would be a brisk walk to the Williams Club for a paneled oak ambience; on another it would be the cafeteria a few doors ahead of the Williams Club entrance. And disappointment in the cafeteria was topped by the embarrassment I knew when the mentally challenged busgirl spied me. Once I was noticed she would find every opportunity to push her clattering trolley past our table while calling out, "HELLO HANDSOME MAN. HELLO, HANDSOME MAN."

    John was all grins. On other occasions he would suggest a great seafood restaurant where he could enjoy vicariously the two martinis and four-course lobster luncheon he would insist on my ordering. John suffered from diverticulosis and a heart condition. Genial sadist? Yes, there were definitely instances in which John savored the embarrassment and psychological pain of others, but these were more than offset by this genuine pleasure in sharing his vast knowledge and experience with the new kids on the block. 


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