The Corn Cob Club [I][I] The latter half of this chapter may be omitted by all readers who are not booksellers.
The Haunted Bookshop was a delightful place, especially of an evening, when its drowsy alcoves were kindled with the brightness of lamps shining on the rows of volumes. Many a passer-by would stumble down the steps from the street in sheer curiosity; others, familiar visitors, dropped in with the same comfortable emotion that a man feels on entering his club. Roger's custom was to sit at his desk in the rear, puffing his pipe and reading; though if any customer started a conversation, the little man was quick and eager to carry it on. The lion of talk lay only sleeping in him; it was not hard to goad it up.
It may be remarked that all bookshops that are open in the evening are busy in the after-supper hours. Is it that the true book-lovers are nocturnal gentry, only venturing forth when darkness and silence and the gleam of hooded lights irresistibly suggest reading? Certainly night-time has a mystic affinity for literature, and it is strange that the Esquimaux have created no great books. Surely, for most of us, an arctic night would be insupportable without O. Henry and Stevenson. Or, as Roger Mifflin remarked during a passing enthusiasm for Ambrose Bierce, the true noctes ambrosianae are the noctes ambrose bierceianae.
But Roger was prompt in closing Parnassus at ten o'clock. At that hour he and Bock (the mustard-coloured terrier, named for Boccaccio) would make the round of the shop, see that everything was shipshape, empty the ash trays provided for customers, lock the front door, and turn off the lights. Then they would retire to the den, where Mrs. Mifflin was generally knitting or reading. She would brew a pot of cocoa and they would read or talk for half an hour or so before bed. Sometimes Roger would take a stroll along Gissing Street before turning in. All day spent with books has a rather exhausting effect on the mind, and he used to enjoy the fresh air sweeping up the dark Brooklyn streets, meditating some thought that had sprung from his reading, while Bock sniffed and padded along in the manner of an elderly dog at night.
While Mrs. Mifflin was away, however, Roger's routine was somewhat different. After closing the shop he would return to his desk and with a furtive, shamefaced air take out from a bottom drawer an untidy folder of notes and manuscript. This was the skeleton in his closet, his secret sin. It was the scaffolding of his book, which he had been compiling for at least ten years, and to which he had tentatively assigned such different titles as "Notes on Literature," "The Muse on Crutches," "Books and I," and "What a Young Bookseller Ought to Know." It had begun long ago, in the days of his odyssey as a rural book huckster, under the title of "Literature Among the Farmers," but it had branched out until it began to appear that (in bulk at least) Ridpath would have to look to his linoleum laurels. The manuscript in its present state had neither beginning nor end, but it was growing strenuously in the middle, and hundreds of pages were covered with Roger's minute script. The chapter on "Ars Bibliopolae," or the art of bookselling, would be, he hoped, a classic among generations of book vendors still unborn. Seated at his disorderly desk, caressed by a counterpane of drifting tobacco haze, he would pore over the manuscript, crossing out, interpolating, re-arguing, and then referring to volumes on his shelves. Bock would snore under the chair, and soon Roger's brain would begin to waver. In the end he would fall asleep over his papers, wake with a cramp about two o'clock, and creak irritably to a lonely bed.
All this we mention only to explain how it was that Roger was dozing at his desk about midnight, the evening after the call paid by Aubrey Gilbert. He was awakened by a draught of chill air passing like a mountain brook over his bald pate. Stiffly he sat up and looked about. The shop was in darkness save for the bright electric over his head. Bock, of more regular habit than his master, had gone back to his couch in the kitchen, made of a packing case that had once coffined a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
"That's funny," said Roger to himself. "Surely I locked the door?" He walked to the front of the shop, switching on the cluster of lights that hung from the ceiling. The door was ajar, but everything else seemed as usual. Bock, hearing his footsteps, came trotting out from the kitchen, his claws rattling on the bare wooden floor. He looked up with the patient inquiry of a dog accustomed to the eccentricities of his patron.
"I guess I'm getting absent-minded," said Roger. "I must have left the door open." He closed and locked it. Then he noticed that the terrier was sniffing in the History alcove, which was at the front of the shop on the left-hand side.
"What is it, old man?" said Roger. "Want something to read in bed?" He turned on the light in that alcove. Everything appeared normal. Then he noticed a book that projected an inch or so beyond the even line of bindings. It was a fad of Roger's to keep all his books in a flat row on the shelves, and almost every evening at closing time he used to run his palm along the backs of the volumes to level any irregularities left by careless browsers. He put out a hand to push the book into place. Then he stopped.
"Queer again," he thought. "Carlyle's Oliver Cromwell! I looked for that book last night and couldn't find it. When that professor fellow was here. Maybe I'm tired and can't see straight. I'll go to bed."
Roger spent the morning in doing a little housecleaning, in preparation for his wife's return. He was a trifle abashed to find how many mingled crumbs and tobacco cinders had accumulated on the dining-room rug. He cooked himself a modest lunch of lamb chops and baked potatoes, and was pleased by an epigram concerning food that came into his mind. "It's not the food you dream about that matters," he said to himself; "it's the vittles that walk right in and become a member of the family." He felt that this needed a little polishing and rephrasing, but that there was a germ of wit in it. He had a habit of encountering ideas at his solitary meals.
After this, he was busy at the sink scrubbing the dishes, when he was surprised by feeling two very competent arms surround him, and a pink gingham apron was thrown over his head. "Mifflin," said his wife, "how many times have I told you to put on an apron when you wash up!"
They greeted each other with the hearty, affectionate simplicity of those congenially wedded in middle age. Helen Mifllin was a buxom, healthy creature, rich in good sense and good humour, well nourished both in mind and body. She kissed Roger's bald head, tied the apron around his shrimpish person, and sat down on a kitchen chair to watch him finish wiping the china. Her cheeks were cool and ruddy from the keen air, her face lit with the tranquil satisfaction of those who have sojourned in the comfortable city of Boston.
"Well, my dear," said Roger, "this makes it a real Thanksgiving. You look as plump and full of matter as The Home Book of Verse."
"I've had a stunning time," she said, patting Bock who stood at her knee, imbibing the familiar and mysterious fragrance by which dogs identify their human friends. "I haven't even heard of a book for three weeks. I did stop in at the Old Angle Book Shop yesterday, just to say hullo to Joe Jillings. He says all booksellers are crazy, but that you are the craziest of the lot. He wants to know if you're bankrupt yet."
Roger's slate-blue eyes twinkled. He hung up a cup in the china closet and lit his pipe before replying.
"What did you say?"
"I said that our shop was haunted, and mustn't be supposed to come under the usual conditions of the trade."
"Bully for you! And what did Joe say to that?"
"`Haunted by the nuts!'"
"Well," said Roger, "when literature goes bankrupt I'm willing to go with it. Not till then. But by the way, we're going to be haunted by a beauteous damsel pretty soon. You remember my telling you that Mr. Chapman wants to send his daughter to work in the shop? Well, here's a letter I had from him this morning."
He rummaged in his pocket, and produced the following, which Mrs. Mifflin read:
I am so delighted that you and Mrs. Mifflin are willing to try the experiment of taking my daughter as an apprentice. Titania is really a very charming girl, and if only we can get some of the "finishing school" nonsense out of her head she will make a fine woman. She has had (it was my fault, not hers) the disadvantage of being brought up, or rather brought down, by having every possible want and whim gratified. Out of kindness for herself and her future husband, if she should have one, I want her to learn a little about earning a living. She is nearly nineteen, and I told her if she would try the bookshop job for a while I would take her to Europe for a year afterward.
As I explained to you, I want her to think she is really earning her way. Of course I don't want the routine to be too hard for her, but I do want her to get some idea of what it means to face life on one's own. If you will pay her ten dollars a week as a beginner, and deduct her board from that, I will pay you twenty dollars a week, privately, for your responsibility in caring for her and keeping your and Mrs. Mifflin's friendly eyes on her. I'm coming round to the Corn Cob meeting to-morrow night, and we can make the final arrangements.
Luckily, she is very fond of books, and I really think she is looking forward to the adventure with much anticipation. I overheard her saying to one of her friends yesterday that she was going to do some "literary work" this winter. That's the kind of nonsense I want her to outgrow. When I hear her say that she's got a job in a bookstore, I'll know she's cured.
"Well?" said Roger, as Mrs. Mifflin made no comment. "Don't you think it will be rather interesting to get a naive young girl's reactions toward the problems of our tranquil existence?"
"Roger, you blessed innocent!" cried his wife. "Life will no longer be tranquil with a girl of nineteen round the place. You may fool yourself, but you can't fool me. A girl of nineteen doesn't REACT toward things. She explodes. Things don't `react' anywhere but in Boston and in chemical laboratories. I suppose you know you're taking a human bombshell into the arsenal?"
Roger looked dubious. "I remember something in Weir of Hermiston about a girl being `an explosive engine,'" he said. "But I don't see that she can do any very great harm round here. We're both pretty well proof against shell shock. The worst that could happen would be if she got hold of my private copy of Fireside Conversation in the Age of queen Elizabeth. Remind me to lock it up somewhere, will you?"
This secret masterpiece by Mark Twain was one of the bookseller's treasures. Not even Helen had ever been permitted to read it; and she had shrewdly judged that it was not in her line, for though she knew perfectly well where he kept it (together with his life insurance policy, some Liberty Bonds, an autograph letter from Charles Spencer Chaplin, and a snapshot of herself taken on their honeymoon) she had never made any attempt to examine it.
"Well," said Helen; "Titania or no Titania, if the Corn Cobs want their chocolate cake to-night, I must get busy. Take my suitcase upstairs like a good fellow."
"Well, gentlemen," said Roger as his guests assembled in his little cabinet, "it's a cold evening. Pull up toward the fire. Make free with the cider. The cake's on the table. My wife came back from Boston specially to make it."
"Here's Mrs. Mifflin's health!" said Mr. Chapman, a quiet little man who had a habit of listening to what he heard. "I hope she doesn't mind keeping the shop while we celebrate?"
"Not a bit," said Roger. "She enjoys it."
"I see Tarzan of the Apes is running at the Gissing Street movie palace," said Gladfist. "Great stuff. Have you seen it?"
"Not while I can still read The Jungle Book," said Roger.
"You make me tired with that talk about literature," cried Jerry. "A book's a book, even if Harold Bell Wright wrote it." "A book's a book if you enjoy reading it," amended Meredith, from a big Fifth Avenue bookstore. "Lots of people enjoy Harold Bell Wright just as lots of people enjoy tripe. Either of them would kill me. But let's be tolerant."
"Your argument is a whole succession of non sequiturs," said Jerry, stimulated by the cider to unusual brilliance.
"That's a long putt," chuckled Benson, the dealer in rare books and first editions.
"What I mean is this," said Jerry. "We aren't literary critics. It's none of our business to say what's good and what isn't. Our job is simply to supply the public with the books it wants when it wants them. How it comes to want the books it does is no concern of ours."
"You're the guy that calls bookselling the worst business in the world," said Roger warmly, "and you're the kind of guy that makes it so. I suppose you would say that it is no concern of the bookseller to try to increase the public appetite for books?"
"Appetite is too strong a word," said Jerry. "As far as books are concerned the public is barely able to sit up and take a little liquid nourishment. Solid foods don't interest it. If you try to cram roast beef down the gullet of an invalid you'll kill him. Let the public alone, and thank God when it comes round to amputate any of its hard-earned cash."
"Well, take it on the lowest basis," said Roger. "I haven't any facts to go upon----"
"You never have," interjected Jerry.
"But I'd like to bet that the Trade has made more money out of Bryce's American Commonwealth than it ever did out of all Parson Wright's books put together."
"What of it? Why shouldn't they make both?"
This preliminary tilt was interrupted by the arrival of two more visitors, and Roger handed round mugs of cider, pointed to the cake and the basket of pretzels, and lit his corn-cob pipe. The new arrivals were Quincy and Fruehling; the former a clerk in the book department of a vast drygoods store, the latter the owner of a bookshop in the Hebrew quarter of Grand Street-- one of the best-stocked shops in the city, though little known to uptown book-lovers.
"Well," said Fruehling, his bright dark eyes sparkling above richly tinted cheek-bones and bushy beard, "what's the argument?"
"The usual one," said Gladfist, grinning, "Mifflin confusing merchandise with metaphysics."
MIFFLIN--Not at all. I am simply saying that it is good business to sell only the best.
GLADFIST--Wrong again. You must select your stock according to your customers. Ask Quincy here. Would there be any sense in his loading up his shelves with Maeterlinck and Shaw when the department-store trade wants Eleanor Porter and the Tarzan stuff? Does a country grocer carry the same cigars that are listed on the wine card of a Fifth Avenue hotel? Of course not. He gets in the cigars that his trade enjoys and is accustomed to. Bookselling must obey the ordinary rules of commerce.
MIFFLIN--A fig for the ordinary rules of commerce! I came over here to Gissing Street to get away from them. My mind would blow out its fuses if I had to abide by the dirty little considerations of supply and demand. As far as I am concerned, supply CREATES demand.
GLADFIST--Still, old chap, you have to abide by the dirty little consideration of earning a living, unless someone has endowed you?
BENSON--Of course my line of business isn't strictly the same as you fellows'. But a thought that has often occurred to me in selling rare editions may interest you. The customer's willingness to part with his money is usually in inverse ratio to the permanent benefit he expects to derive from what he purchases.
MEREDITH--Sounds a bit like John Stuart Mill.
BENSON--Even so, it may be true. Folks will pay a darned sight more to be amused than they will to be exalted. Look at the way a man shells out five bones for a couple of theatre seats, or spends a couple of dollars a week on cigars without thinking of it. Yet two dollars or five dollars for a book costs him positive anguish. The mistake you fellows in the retail trade have made is in trying to persuade your customers that books are necessities. Tell them they're luxuries. That'll get them! People have to work so hard in this life they're shy of necessities. A man will go on wearing a suit until it's threadbare, much sooner than smoke a thread bare cigar.
GLADFIST--Not a bad thought. You know, Mifflin here calls me a material-minded cynic, but by thunder, I think I'm more idealistic than he is. I'm no propagandist incessantly trying to cajole poor innocent customers into buying the kind of book I think they ought to buy. When I see the helpless pathos of most of them, who drift into a bookstore without the slightest idea of what they want or what is worth reading, I would disdain to take advantage of their frailty. They are absolutely at the mercy of the salesman. They will buy whatever he tells them to. Now the honourable man, the high-minded man (by which I mean myself) is too proud to ram some shimmering stuff at them just because he thinks they ought to read it. Let the boobs blunder around and grab what they can. Let natural selection operate. I think it is fascinating to watch them, to see their helpless groping, and to study the weird ways in which they make their choice. Usually they will buy a book either because they think the jacket is attractive, or because it costs a dollar and a quarter instead of a dollar and a half, or because they say they saw a review of it. The "review" usually turns out to be an ad. I don't think one book-buyer in a thousand knows the difference.
MIFFLIN--Your doctrine is pitiless, base, and false! What would you think of a physician who saw men suffering from a curable disease and did nothing to alleviate their sufferings?
GLADFIST--Their sufferings (as you call them) are nothing to what mine would be if I stocked up with a lot of books that no one but highbrows would buy. What would you think of a base public that would go past my shop day after day and let the high-minded occupant die of starvation?
MIFFLIN--Your ailment, Jerry, is that you conceive yourself as merely a tradesman. What I'm telling you is that the bookseller is a public servant. He ought to be pensioned by the state. The honour of his profession should compel him to do all he can to spread the distribution of good stuff.
QUINCY--I think you forget how much we who deal chiefly in new books are at the mercy of the publishers. We have to stock the new stuff, a large proportion of which is always punk. Why it is punk, goodness knows, because most of the bum books don't sell.
MIFFLIN--Ah, that is a mystery indeed! But I can give you a fair reason. First, because there isn't enough good stuff to go round. Second, because of the ignorance of the publishers, many of whom honestly don't know a good book when they see it. It is a matter of sheer heedlessness in the selection of what they intend to publish. A big drug factory or a manufacturer of a well-known jam spends vast sums of money on chemically assaying and analyzing the ingredients that are to go into his medicines or in gathering and selecting the fruit that is to be stewed into jam. And yet they tell me that the most important department of a publishing business, which is the gathering and sampling of manuscripts, is the least considered and the least remunerated. I knew a reader for one publishing house: he was a babe recently out of college who didn't know a book from a frat pin. If a jam factory employs a trained chemist, why isn't it worth a publisher's while to employ an expert book analyzer? There are some of them. Look at the fellow who runs the Pacific Monthly's book business for example! He knows a thing or two.
CHAPMAN--I think perhaps you exaggerate the value of those trained experts. They are likely to be fourflushers. We had one once at our factory, and as far as I could make out he never thought we were doing good business except when we were losing money.
MIFFLIN--As far as I have been able to observe, making money is the easiest thing in the world. All you have to do is to turn out an honest product, something that the public needs. Then you have to let them know that you have it, and teach them that they need it. They will batter down your front door in their eagerness to get it. But if you begin to hand them gold bricks, if you begin to sell them books built like an apartment house, all marble front and all brick behind, you're cutting your own throat, or rather cutting your own pocket, which is the same thing.
MEREDITH--I think Mifflin's right. You know the kind of place our shop is: a regular Fifth Avenue store, all plate glass front and marble columns glowing in the indirect lighting like a birchwood at full moon. We sell hundreds of dollars' worth of bunkum every day because people ask for it; but I tell you we do it with reluctance. It's rather the custom in our shop to scoff at the book-buying public and call them boobs, but they really want good books-- the poor souls don't know how to get them. Still, Jerry has a certain grain of truth to his credit. I get ten times more satisfaction in selling a copy of Newton's The Amenities of Book-Collecting than I do in selling a copy of--well, Tarzan; but it's poor business to impose your own private tastes on your customers. All you can do is to hint them along tactfully, when you get a chance, toward the stuff that counts.
QUINCY--You remind me of something that happened in our book department the other day. A flapper came in and said she had forgotten the name of the book she wanted, but it was something about a young man who had been brought up by the monks. I was stumped. I tried her with The Cloister and the Hearth and Monastery Bells and Legends of the Monastic Orders and so on, but her face was blank. Then one of the salesgirls overheard us talking, and she guessed it right off the bat. Of course it was Tarzan.
MIFFLIN--YOU poor simp, there was your chance to introduce her to Mowgli and the bandar-log.
QUINCY--True--I didn't think of it.
MIFFLIN--I'd like to get you fellows' ideas about advertising. There was a young chap in here the other day from an advertising agency, trying to get me to put some copy in the papers. Have you found that it pays?
FRUEHLING--It always pays--somebody. The only question is, does it pay the man who pays for the ad?
MEREDITH--What do you mean?
FRUEHLING--Did you ever consider the problem of what I call tangential advertising? By that I mean advertising that benefits your rival rather than yourself? Take an example. On Sixth Avenue there is a lovely delicatessen shop, but rather expensive. Every conceivable kind of sweetmeat and relish is displayed in the brightly lit window. When you look at that window it simply makes your mouth water. You decide to have something to eat. But do you get it there? Not much! You go a little farther down the street and get it at the Automat or the Crystal Lunch. The delicatessen fellow pays the overhead expense of that beautiful food exhibit, and the other man gets the benefit of it. It's the same way in my business. I'm in a factory district, where people can't afford to have any but the best books. (Meredith will bear me out in saying that only the wealthy can afford the poor ones.) They read the book ads in the papers and magazines, the ads of Meredith's shop and others, and then they come to me to buy them. I believe in advertising, but I believe in letting someone else pay for it.
MIFFLIN--I guess perhaps I can afford to go on riding on Meredith's ads. I hadn't thought of that. But I think I shall put a little notice in one of the papers some day, just a little card saying
It will be fun to see what come-back I get.
QUINCY--The book section of a department store doesn't get much chance to enjoy that tangential advertising, as Fruehling calls it. Why, when our interior decorating shark puts a few volumes of a pirated Kipling bound in crushed oilcloth or a copy of "Knock-kneed Stories," into the window to show off a Louis XVIII boudoir suite, display space is charged up against my department! Last summer he asked me for "something by that Ring fellow, I forget the name," to put a punchy finish on a layout of porch furniture. I thought perhaps he meant Wagner's Nibelungen operas, and began to dig them out. Then I found he meant Ring Lardner.
GLADFIST--There you are. I keep telling you bookselling is an impossible job for a man who loves literature. When did a bookseller ever make any real contribution to the world's happiness?
MIFFLIN--Dr. Johnson's father was a bookseller.
GLADFIST--Yes, and couldn't afford to pay for Sam's education.
FRUEHLING--There's another kind of tangential advertising that interests me. Take, for instance, a Coles Phillips painting for some brand of silk stockings. Of course the high lights of the picture are cunningly focussed on the stockings of the eminently beautiful lady; but there is always something else in the picture--an automobile or a country house or a Morris chair or a parasol--which makes it just as effective an ad for those goods as it is for the stockings. Every now and then Phillips sticks a book into his paintings, and I expect the Fifth Avenue book trade benefits by it. A book that fits the mind as well as a silk stocking does the ankle will be sure to sell.
MIFFLIN--You are all crass materialists. I tell you, books are the depositories of the human spirit, which is the only thing in this world that endures. What was it Shakespeare said--
By the bones of the Hohenzollerns, he was right! And wait a minute! There's something in Carlyle's Cromwell that comes back to me.
He ran excitedly out of the room, and the members of the Corn Cob fraternity grinned at each other. Gladfist cleaned his pipe and poured out some more cider. "He's off on his hobby," he chuckled. "I love baiting him."
"Speaking of Carlyle's Cromwell," said Fruehling, "that's a book I don't often hear asked for. But a fellow came in the other day hunting for a copy, and to my chagrin I didn't have one. I rather pride myself on keeping that sort of thing in stock. So I called up Brentano's to see if I could pick one up, and they told me they had just sold the only copy they had. Somebody must have been boosting Thomas! Maybe he's quoted in Tarzan, or somebody has bought up the film rights."
Mifflin came in, looking rather annoyed.
"Here's an odd thing," he said. "I know damn well that copy of Cromwell was on the shelf because I saw it there last night. It's not there now."
"That's nothing," said Quincy. "You know how people come into a second-hand store, see a book they take a fancy to but don't feel like buying just then, and tuck it away out of sight or on some other shelf where they think no one else will spot it, but they'll be able to find it when they can afford it. Probably someone's done that with your Cromwell."
"Maybe, but I doubt it," said Mifflin. "Mrs. Mifflin says she didn't sell it this evening. I woke her up to ask her. She was dozing over her knitting at the desk. I guess she's tired after her trip."
"I'm sorry to miss the Carlyle quotation," said Benson. "What was the gist?"
"I think I've got it jotted down in a notebook," said Roger, hunting along a shelf. "Yes, here it is." He read aloud:
"Roger, my boy," said Gladfist, "your innocent enthusiasm makes me think of Tom Daly's favourite story about the Irish priest who was rebuking his flock for their love of whisky. `Whisky,' he said, `is the bane of this congregation. Whisky, that steals away a man's brains. Whisky, that makes you shoot at landlords--and not hit them!' Even so, my dear Roger, your enthusiasm makes you shoot at truth and never come anywhere near it."
"Jerry," said Roger, "you are a upas tree. Your shadow is poisonous!"
"Well, gentlemen," said Mr. Chapman, "I know Mrs. Mifflin wants to be relieved of her post. I vote we adjourn early. Your conversation is always delightful, though I am sometimes a bit uncertain as to the conclusions. My daughter is going to be a bookseller, and I shall look forward to hearing her views on the business."
As the guests made their way out through the shop, Mr. Chapman drew Roger aside. "It's perfectly all right about sending Titania?" he asked.
"Absolutely," said Roger. "When does she want to come?"
"Is to-morrow too soon?"
"The sooner the better. We've got a little spare room upstairs that she can have. I've got some ideas of my own about furnishing it for her. Send her round to-morrow afternoon."
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