In a 17th-century stone farmhouse, holiday shopping, done differently
On Saturday afternoon, the author and newspaperman Pete Hamill arrived in the second-floor "great room" of the old stone 1699 farmhouse improbably located at the center of a giant middle school playground and public park to do a bit of seasonal reading.
It was around 4:30 and the Park Slope native was the main attraction at a small fair, where local rare and old books dealers had spread out their wares on tables.
Fittingly, Hamill began with something old, and seasonal: O. Henry's famous parable, "The Gift of the Magi." The edition he read from was, unsurprisingly in the setting, a first edition of the O. Henry collection The Four Million; at the time of its publication in 1906 that was the population of New York City, and Hamill himself used to write a column for the New York Post called "The Eight Million," in homage.
"He's a very underrated writer," Hamill said, "because he doesn't have to be taught. He only needs to be read."
The two famous broke lovers of "The Gift of the Magi," Jim and Della, seemed to underscore the less commercial aspects of gift giving. Della has her long, beautiful hair cut off and sold to purchase a "platinum fob chain" for Jim's prized gold watch. But Jim sells that watch so he can buy Della the "pure tortoise shell" combs "that Della has worshipped long in a Broadway window."
"And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house," O. Henry concludes. "But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest."
Hamill then read "Wishes," from his new short story collection, The Christmas Kid. The story, which dwells on things like family and nostalgia and a Brooklyn that no longer is, was gorgeous. He read beautifully and changed accents to accommodate the story's dialogue.
It was all very pleasantly mellow, and earlier in the afternoon a leisurely meander around the tables had been similarly unlike a K-Mart stampede. I was hoping to find some gifts here, though this is not the kind of shopping you can do with a list.
Among the eight or so tables set up throughout the second floor of the building—which is part community function-house, part information center about Brooklyn's role in the history of the Revolutionary War—there was a lot to be engrossed by: art tomes, pocket-sized poetry books, aged reference guides, religious tracts, cheesy paperbacks.
On one table a thick volume with metal clasps sat next to a pile of comic books. The man selling it, from Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights, told me it was a commentary on the bible by Martin Luther, from 1556. The price? $5,000. It probably should have been in a museum, or a Christie's auction, if that's exactly what it was, but there it sat.
A slim volume by the comic book journalist Joe Sacco called Palestine: In the Gaza Strip was more affordable. It's full of hardboiled descriptions, and the black-and-white illustrations recall R. Crumb's crosshatching.
"Some of the world's blackest holes are out in the open for anyone to see…," Sacco's story begins, ellipses his. "For instance, you can tour a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip…" (By the way, if you read the book you're gifting, as I did, does it cheapen the gift?)
P.S. Bookshop was selling a $300 first-edition copy of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, the playful T. S. Eliot poetry collection that inspired the musical Cats. Sitting next to it: a $3,000 copy of Dylan Thomas's Deaths and Entrances, signed by the author shortly before he drank himself to death.
The inscription reads:
little writing for a little book
I stumbled across two old volumes called The Apples of New York, reference guides published in 1905 and written by the horticulturalist S. A. Beach. Together, they cost $400.
In the preface to the first volume, W. H. Jordan, then the director of the New York Agricultural Experiment Station, writes:
"There is every reason to believe that these two volumes will take their place as a part of the standard literature of pomology and will be useful and stimulating to one of the most important industries of the state."
I can't say I knew the word pomology existed until I read that sentence.
Honey & Wax, a Park Slope bookshop, had a number of elegant books on display. Gwen White's A Book of Dolls, published in 1956 and substantially cheaper than the other first editions I came across, was exactly what it sounds like: a short historical analysis of dolls. It's in great shape; the original dust jacket is just slightly yellowed. It's also full of pretty illustrations and weird observations.
"At the time of writing," White writes, for instance, "the dolls themselves are not really beautiful. They look rather cheap, although they are expensive to buy, and their eyelashes are too close together."
I'm not sure how I feel about the last book I bought, from Singularity & Co., a bookstore in Dumbo devoted to science fiction and other odd titles. I paid $5 for a paperback copy of Gidget Goes to Rome. Frederick Kohner created the character of Gidget, based on his own teenaged daughter, but this one is not an original Kohner novel about Gidget; it's a novelization of the 1963 film based on his character, and irrepressible young surf-moll.
Gidget has been played in various movies and on television by Sandra Dee and Sally Field, but Rome starred Cindy Carroll who in promotions for the movie looks pleasant enough, if a bit plain, but who on this book's cover looks very much like a man dressed as a woman.
The description on the back of the book reads, in full:
Roma, I call it, like the natives do. It was full of ancient masonry, fettucini, vino, fountains, moonlight—and Jeff and me.
Only, there was this girl guide our chaperone hired to show us Roma, a sensational Italian beauty with the same endowments as me, but more of them, if you read me. Jeff started cucumooching around with her…
So I dove, fully clothed, into the Trevi Fountain and got my dripping-wet picture on every newspaper in the Eternal City—AH ROME, AH ROMA, ROMA, ROMA!
I can't decide who I'm giving this book to. Probably somebody who will appreciate the word "cucumooching" as much as I do. It won't be the gift of the magi, exactly, but then the "wisdom" of gift-giving can't be all about lists and big stores, can it?