A Long Overdue Trip to Portland

My wife and I used to make regular trips to Portland, Maine years ago, sometimes two a year, but as of October 2004 it had been four years since we last visited. Many of the folks we once knew there are now long gone. We always enjoyed meeting with one of the grand-daddies of New England booksellers, Francis O’Brien, and with a good friend of his, Dorothy Healy who curated the Maine Women Writers Collection at Westbrook College from 1967-1990. Of course one could never visit the area without stopping at Doug Harding’s bookstores, one of which was in Portland but now only his Wells store exists. We also visited a number of the local booksellers including Allan Scott–from whom I bought my first Mosher books in Portland and who shared much useful information to a then young collector–; Pat Murphy; Carlson & Turner; and several of the other but mostly inconsequential used bookstores, for me anyway. As far as garnering Mosher treasures in the town, it was Francis O’Brien and David Turner of Carlson & Turner Books who provided the most wonderful material  But those days are certainly gone. David and his wife Norma travel about to South American, Mexico, Florida and still summer in Montreal, or so I’m told. Consequently we visited less and less frequently until we finally resolved to visit our old stomping grounds from October 17-21.

The usual eleven to twelve hour trip to Portland didn’t seem as long as we had remembered. Changing leaves and the occasional glorious wash of intense color kept our attention riveted to the scenery and time just flew along with the new interstate speeds. We were on our way to the Inn at St. John whose European like charm, narrow winding staircases to the upper floors, and one hundred year old tradition, all awaited our arrival. It was still light when we got there, and unseasonably warm. There was the old Longfellow statue and just beyond the Lady of Victory monument still holding her wreath up high. Congress Street, and “look there–Pat Murphy’s store location has changed” and such sights all greeted our arrival and we couldn’t wait to check in and walk about town.

Walk about we did, and although there were many changes, especially along Exchange Street, the more we saw that was different, the more we realized that we were in the same place–a sort of home away from home. in fact, at one time we almost moved to Portland. I already had an apartment and a job with Carlson & Turner Books, but then matters evolved away from that and we just continued to visit. Perhaps it was a good thing, however, because the Carlson & Turner store changed hands and who knows where I would have ended up. Oh, I mentioned Exchange Street. This street was the focus of our attention each and every time we visited the city. The reason isn’t hard to figure out. Thomas Bird Mosher’s publishing office was located at 45 Exchange and that’s where we had the plaque commemorating his once having hailed from Portland. Furthermore, Exchange Street was always lined with restaurants, shops, other book stores, and all sorts of attractions that it was natural to gravitate to its confines. After walking about at night I finally rested my hands on the plaque which doesn’t look the worse for wear since it was unveiled fourteen years ago. We walked back to the Inn and soon hit the sack knowing that we’d have a full day ahead of us.

Our days there in Portland were filled with travel both inside the city and to the environs like the jaunt to Ogunquit where we always love to walk the Marginal Way–actually an old Indian trail–and eat at Jackie’s Restaurant at the edge of Perkins Cove, sample the candies “downtown” and in general just have a high ol’ time of it. There also happened to be the most spectacular flaming red tree we were to see on our New England sojourn. But as wonderful as such can be, it was Portland and Wells that attracted us most. While traveling into Wells, I told Sue I wanted to stop by a little bookshop called East Coast Books. It’s a terribly small shop just off the beaten path, and we usually end up empty handed after one of our quick visits. I had something in mind however. Four years ago we visited the same shop and as usual I inquired about any and all things Mosher. The proprietor indicated that she did have an extra-illuminated little Mosher book but that it was at her home and she didn’t know just where it was, but she took my name and contact information, including e-mail address, and said she’d get in touch with me when and if she found it.

Months went by since our visit, but on February 3, 2001 I finally received a notice by e-mail that the extra-illuminated Mosher book was being mounted on eBay for sale. It was a copy of The Roadmender (3rd. ed.) with four watercolor vignettes of a stream, a hamlet, birds, and the road mender himself along with a bar of manuscript music and the mysterious word “ellis” written in front (the artist?). It was described with worn cover, missing part of the spine but otherwise tattered, and “overopened” which, after a follow-up e-mail to get a better description, I found out meant that the sewing was going and the pages are loosened from the binding. So all in all, except for the watercolor vignettes, the book’s binding was in shabby condition. Anyway, the book was put up as a seven-day offering with an opening bid of just $250. This was a ridiculous amount given the condition so I didn’t bother to bid–nor did anybody else–and because of that too-high opening bid I didn’t even bother to respond after the book went off eBay. So, here we were again at East Coast Books years later, and I told Sue I’d like to stop there just in case a little something might be there in her showcase. When we walked in, guess what? You guessed correctly:  the little volume was laying flat on it’s cover opened to the road mender vignette with a little hand written sign laying on top reading:

$50 —
3rd ED

I approached the owner and said I’d like to have a look at the book which she dutifully took out of the case and put into my hands. I opened the front cover and saw $100 written in pencil on the front flyleaf. She read my gaze and remarked “as you can see we’re put the book on sale at half the price which is a good deal.” I asked if she honored a dealer discount to which she gladly responded “oh yes, 20% if you’re a dealer.” After looking at the book I placed it and her sign on top of the showcase and told her “I’ll take it.” She was pleased, and why not… after all, it waited there for over three years since being offered at a mere $250 and subsequently passed on by every visitor to her show for those same three years. I told her to keep the bill of sale open because there might be a few more things we’ll find in the shop since Sue had brought over an item which she wanted me to get. Then Sue made what was to become as wonderful a haul of books on American author’s homes as she had come across in years. What gorgeous and exceedingly fresh copies of Harkins’s Little Pilgrimages Among the Men Who Have Written Famous Books (1902) and its companion Little Pilgrimages Among the Women… (1902) both in signed bindings. She also found a very nice copy of Bullard’s Historic Summer Haunts from Newport to Portland (1912) and a bright copy of Halsey’s American Authors and Their Homes (1901) which we only found out had a full hand-written letter of June 6, 1901 tucked away in its pages saying we “desire a photograph of an extension of your home or of your library for Amer. Authors & their Homes…” What a surprise when that letter dropped out while she was reading the book in bed that evening! So, we bought them all and left one off-the-beaten-path bookseller very happy we visited that day.

I should add that before we settled the account I gave the bookseller one of my cards and she slowly pondered over it and eventually a light must have gone off in her head. “Say, aren’t you the same fellow who didn’t think much of this book when I showed it to him here?” I explained that I never saw the physical book but only eBay’s virtual display. She was positive I poo pooed the book which she claimed I previously saw in the shop, and although I tried to explain the background she seemed not to remember the circumstances clearly. What she did end up saying was that she was glad the little book made it into the hands of somebody who appreciated it. She was right, I did, but not at the $250 level or anywhere near that. When I got home I brought up another copy of the 1912, 3rd edition from my storage area, took the two in to my bookbinder and had him remove the very good cover from the one and the all-but-destroyed cover of the other, and marry the text-block with an authentic 3rd edition cover which carries the date 1912 at the foot of the spine. He did a marvelous job of it and one would almost never know that the cover was applied from another copy. Now it’s fit to look at and rather charming although not nearly as nice as some of the more ornate water colored copies in the collection. The book has been saved from further destruction and I’m happy to finally have it in the collection.

Our trip to East Coast Books was only the beginning, and we bought more books from several other bookstores including a nice set from Hardings which I quickly sold at the Boston ABAA show at a low price but one which still doubled my money. As for more Mosher books, we still had to make a call to the home of Francis O’Brien’s daughter, Bevinn.

Visiting Bevinn O’Brien is an experience apart from any other book stop. In my eyes she’s delightfully idiosyncratic leaning toward the nutty side, but I get along with such a personality perhaps because I recognize some of my own self in such people. I’m comfortable around the whimsical yet benign eccentric, and believe me when I say that they’re great fun, unlike eccentrics I’ve come across who are as repellent as a junkyard dog or as mean as a nasty drunk. After all, I once worked for one such bookseller and know the difference very well. In short, Bevinn was a hoot. There were piles and piles of books everywhere–and what? Six cats? Eight cats? I lost track, but Hiram (named after the farm estate of Bevinn’s father) clearly took a liking to me and I to him. Bevinn had just bought out her brother’s part of the house on High Street so was rejoicing in the fact that she could expand her biblio-kingdom, and she and I just kept talking and talking about the old times, her father and his relationship to her mother, who she allows to rummage through her book and paper piles and who she doesn’t, and all sorts of topics under the sun. Indeed, I like peppering my life with such delightful folks and was enjoying myself immensely.

Anyway, we finally got down to business and I spotted a very difficult to find copy of The New Life, the 1900 “third edition.” This title came out in 1899 imprint first marked as “third edition“ which I noted in the Mosher bibliography, but the 1900 copy I hitherto had not personally owned. I also found a copy of Felise from the Bibelot Series with an unusual oil-painted cloth cover of violets tied with a ribbon, one of the Old World books, The City of Dreadful Night, still in its sealed tissue wrapper, and a Japan vellum copy of The Kasidah (1896, No. 72/100) once owned by Bevinn’s grandfather. Granted, these are little things, but still different enough to be books for the Mosher collection. Another reason why I greatly enjoy “business” transactions with Bevinn is because she treats me differently than she does many other customers. Maybe it’s because we “click” or maybe it’s just because I humor her (but enjoy every minute of it speaking my mind as I darn well please–there’s a freedom in that you realize). She’ll take a look at the prices she has written in her Mosher books, and then she usually proceeds to half the total. She knows this won’t be my last visit and that I’ll keep coming back for more, so she’s happy and I’m happy. In fact, the only time I was somewhat dismayed was when just prior to my visit “Dame Edna,” the alter ego of Barry Humphries who is also the consummate book collector, had gone through all the Mosher books Bevinn had upstairs and apparently had bought quite a stash for his (um… “her“) collection.. Believe me, under my breath I was saying things other than “Rejoice Possums!” What a drag! But really, I guess the only slight I really felt was that I hadn’t gotten the chance to meet Humphries. I think we probably could have talked on Mosher and kindred subjects for hours.

Well, visiting Bevinn again is always one of my highlights in visiting Portland, and Sue and I had a very enjoyable time. But before leaving Portland and this little essay on our most recent trip, I do have to add that a very curious thing took place one morning while having continental breakfast at the Inn. We had seen that there were several Victorian portraits on the wall in a little alcove they keep aside for serving their morning treats, but since we were lingering rather than zipping out the door, I walked in and immediately saw the portrait of Thomas Bird Mosher hanging on the wall as well as the separate portraits of two of his closest publisher friends– Horace Traubel of Walt Whitman association, and William Marion Reedy of Reedy’s Mirror in St. Louis. I was stunned that all three images should be on the walls of this hundred year old Inn at St. John, formerly known as the Hotel Victoria built by railroad tycoon John Deering in 1897 to accommodate passengers going to and from Portland’s Union Station. Everything was coming together:  our visit to Portland, my hunt for more of the books associated with the Mosher saga, and Mosher himself and his friends. I truly felt like I had come home.

© Philip R. Bishop
26 October 2004

This essay is Copyright © by Philip R. Bishop. Permission to reproduce the above article has been granted by Gordon Pfeiffer, president of the Delaware Bibliophiles and editor of that organization’s newsletter, Endpapers, in which the article appeared in the March 2005 issue. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without expressed written permission from both parties.