We are launching a website for Blenheim Hill Books this week. Designed by Dann Tincher, it features a re-designed logo (check out Jack our reading rabbit), this blog, an event page and a page to sell books. The website is the next step in our development. Last year at about this time we moved into our expanded, renovated space at 698 Main Street and started filling the shelves. Today, we have a wide selection of scholarly books, especially in history and women’s studies. Over the past year I have been learning a lot about children’s books, authors and illustrators and our large selection of children’s books speaks to that research. In addition to children’s classics we have added new award-winning picture books and young adult authors, including Holly Black, Rainbow Rowell and Lauren Oliver. Come in and browse, or just read a book in our comfy armchairs with a cup of Paul Newman’s Own coffee. We’ll be happy to see you!
Booksellers are frequently asked by their customers, where do you get your books? In upstate New York these are the books I found on my shop’s doorstep today: 1947 Girl Scout Handbook; 1944 Scottish Rite of Masonry, vol. 1; a nineteenth century volume of Dante; Habegger’s 2002 biography of Emily Dickinson and Solzhenitsyn’s epic novel August 1914, The Red Wheel Knot 1. Booksellers, unlike their customers, wonder why these books have been discarded, what links them in the reader’s mind? Although they are no longer wanted at home are they are too valuable to be thrown away, do they have sentimental associations, or …. Only the Girl Scout Handbook appears to have been read, it is self tabbed directing us to specific sections including Arts and Crafts, Home Nursing, Home Making, First Aid, Nature and Badges. Perhaps superceded by a newer edition, or donated after the death of its owner, it was bundled in with the others and left for a new reader to find.
The decorated, gilt-edged Dante is a reprint of the 1814 translation by the Reverend H. F. Cary by Chicago publishers Belford, Clarke and Co. Alexander Belford and James Clarke started their business in Toronto, moving to Chicago in 1876. By 1883 they had five branch stores, including one on East 18th Street in NYC. Their speciality — pirate publishing.
Belford’s first book, published in 1867 when he was just 13 was pirated. They are perhaps best known for pirating Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. He sued them unsuccessfully for copyright infringement in the 1880s, commenting “Belford Bros., the miserable thieves couldn’t buy a sentence from me for any money.” The firm became notorious for pioneering new, aggressive, promotional techniques, including hippodroming (isn’t that the most wonderful word), opening pop up stores in towns too small to support a bookstore and selling off backlogged inventory at low prices. Considered unethical by many other publishers the firm went from success to success. Their greatest triumph was the firm’s Americanized, inexpensive version of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The British compilers watched as the Encyclopedia become a fixture in American homes and schools and decided to contract with the company to publish their inexpensive edition in Britain.
A fire in 1886 destroyed their Chicago building and much inventory and the Panic of 1893 added additional financial stress leading to the break up of the firm. The Dante was published sometime between 1876 and 1889 doing its share to contribute to the profits Belford realized. Belford’s share of the firm amounted to over 3.5 million dollars at its dissolution. There was some money to be made in 19th century book publishing!
A little research is a wonderful thing. I was intrigued recently by a small dense volume found at the bottom of box of cast off books, With Columbus in America. It is an illustrated account of the “romantic incidents of the discoverer’s life…worked into a fictitious narrative” and was published on the 500 year anniversary of Columbus’s “discoveries.” The profusely illustrated 1892 volume was ‘translated and adapted’ from the German by Elise L. Lathrop, and originally written by C. Falkenhorst. Falkenhorst (1855-1913) was the author of a series of historical, romantic fictional accounts about great explorers, including Cortez and Pissaro.
While Falkenhorst might be more interesting to some, I was intrigued by Lathrop, who translated a wide range of authors and genres from German, Spanish and French for American publishers. Her translations were noted admiringly in reviews as ‘poetical’ , and well suited to the material she translated and adapted. Later in life, she authored Where Shakespeare Set His Stage (1906), Early Inns and Taverns (1907), Historic Houses of Early American (1936), and Old New England Churches (1938). These were prominent in a literature that helped to define and popularize the Colonial revival. She was an educated, working woman whose name was known to reviewers and whose translations made light romantic fiction from abroad available to American readers. The books she authored suggest either a deeply rooted New England past or a shrewd calculation about what would sell as each of her volumes was republished through the nineteen thirties.
One question that is worth asking is: Did she publish and translate under her own name or a nom de guerre? Elise uses the French spelling and accent while Lathrop hints at an older English, New England genealogy. Some quick library and ancestry.com research has yielded little, not even dates, for Lathrop. Was she the Elise Lathrop, pianist and mezzo who with her sister Helen, soprano, gave a Russian entertainment in Richfield Springs, New York at the Earlington Hotel during the 1895 resort season? Or was she the Elise Lathrop who wrote the New York Times in 1910 to challenge the idea that money alone defined aristocracy in American rather than “culture, ability, refinement, distinction in the arts and letters”, upholding in her words “republican doctrines”. Are they the same woman? More research is needed, but it is the physical object, that 1892 book that started me on the trail…
What do the first weekends of summer and classic British mystery writer Dorothy Sayers have in common? Reading, or in my case re-reading, In the Teeth of the Evidence makes a perfect transition from frantic spring gardening and those end of semester meetings to a different world, and the slower pace, of summer. Who wouldn’t want a virtual trip to an English country house, especially if there were a few mysterious murders to solve? Originally published in 1939, these short stories feature Lord Peter Wimsey, one of the great Golden Age detectives. Partnering with working-class Montague Egg they sort out crimes up and down the class structure of England.
It is truly relaxing to know that there are answers to even the most baffling questions. Happy summer! And if you are interested in purchasing one or more of these Avon originals featuring Lord Peter Wimsey — or any other vacation reading — leave your request and your email address in the comments section (we recommend using AT for @ and DOT for . in order to discourage spammers) and we would be happy to get back to you.
Keep your eyes on this blog for links that will let you request used and out of print books more directly.