A Bibliophile Christmas

December 16, 2012 by cynick | Posted in bibliophilia , saint-paul

I am a lifelong adherent of the Theory of “Scroogenomics”.

This is the rather unintuitive idea, promulgated by a Pennsylvania professor of economics, that compulsive gift giving during the Christmas season actually harms the economy rather than boosts it, due to the great deal of waste that such giving creates.

The only thing I hate more than feeling obligated to give people perfunctory gifts that they did not ask for, will not use, and will either end up in a landfill or a Goodwill, is receiving such gifts, and having to put on a veneer of false gratitude, lest I hurt someone’s feelings, and then having to file away little notes of remembrance in my brain to display, wear, or talk about such gifts each time I encounter the cretin who gave it to me, so that their feelings aren’t hurt in any future time as well.

Bah humbug! What could be more exhausting?

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a terribly stingy person, in fact, I think I’m fairly generous, and I do not limit that generosity to one narrow time of year. However, I’m only willing to display that generosity with things that are truly meaningful and useful to a person.

Sometimes, quite rarely, a great gift opportunity comes along that actually coincides with Christmas.

Now, my great friend Mike, who I’ve known virtually all of my life, comes from a long line of artists, and is himself a professional artist. I had always known that one of his ancestors has portraits of governors hanging in the Minnesota State Capitol, but it was only at the beginning of this year, on a field trip with Mike to the Capitol to seek out those paintings, that I learned more details about the man who made them: Mike’s great-great grandfather, Nicholas R. Brewer.

Mr. Brewer, it turns out, wrote an autobiography toward the end of his life, and after having expressed my interest in reading it, Mike pointed me to the website of the Library of Congress, where a scanned copy of this book could be viewed, page by page.

Since I am a person with a deep interest in the historical roots of St. Paul, this book proved to be an amazing document indeed! Mr. Brewer was born in Olmstead County in the year before Minnesota became a state, moved to St. Paul in 1875 with thirty-four dollars in his pocket – a true St. Paul pioneer! – and worked his way up to becoming a celebrated artist.

The book is peppered with names that litter today’s landscape – eg., Isaac Staples, Archbishop Ireland, James J. Hill, Pierce Butler, Frank Kellogg – and contains Mr. Brewer’s observances and anecdotes from conversations with these men.

One remembrance I found particularly interesting was his recounting of the horse-drawn streetcar on Fourth Street. On the “steep grade on a couple of blocks of Fourth St.” – presumably between Minnesota and Wabasha streets – the cars needed an extra horse to get them up the hill. This “reinforcement nag”, as he called it, was smart enough that they could unhitch him, and tell him to go back to the bottom and wait for the next car.

Mr. Brewer, being a lad of 18 who had only just arrived in town, assumed the horse was a runaway, and thinking he was doing the owner a favor, tied the horse to a post to prevent him from running too far afield – and in return received a severe tongue lashing from a driver of one of the cars, and slight mockery from some girls who were riding the car! He remarked,“I never go down that street to this day that I do not recall what a hayseed I was”; and now whenever I’m on those particular blocks of that street, I think about that story and smile.

Mike had said that one of his long term wishes was to find a copy of the book; over his many years of searching, he’d never found one. I made it my goal to find a copy of this wonderful book for my friend.

I strongly felt that if it were to be found anywhere, it would be at Larry McMurtry’s storied bookstore, Booked Up – which is less of a bookstore and more of a book campus, comprised of four separate buildings – therefore, on a recent trip to San Antonio, I went 400 miles off course to tiny Archer City, Texas, not certain of what I’d find.

On the way there, I had read that only a couple months prior, Booked Up had hosted an auction wherein about three-fourths of the collection, some 300,000 books, had been sold off; McMurtry wanted to scale back in order to avoid overburdening his children. Choosing in this instance to be a ‘glass-half-full’ guy, I still thought it was worth a try. I had budgeted up to three hours of time to look through the labyrinth of shelves – the layout is self-described as “whimsical” – or up to the first onset of mold-induced wheezing, whichever came first.

I pulled up in front of Building #1, next to a car with Maryland plates – another book hound on a similar quest, perhaps – and went inside. A friendly young woman was sitting at a desk in there, with the requisite cat or two for companionship. Usually when I enter such a place, I’m not looking for anything specific, indeed, my pleasure is mostly derived from the unexpected find, but in this case, I was able to clearly state that I was looking for a book called “Trails Of A Paintbrush”, by Nicholas Brewer.

She frowned, and said that she was fairly certain that most of the art books had been sold in the auction, but she rose and started off through a doorway to the back shelving area, beckoning me to follow. We turned a corner, went through another doorway to an adjoining space, down about three rows of shelves, and turned another corner into a dead end aisle, where she stopped in front of a tall shelf, probably 10’x6’, positively crammed with books.

She suggested I start scanning that shelf, and, failing that, there were a couple other areas she could show me.

And then something utterly amazing happened: the FIRST book my eyes focused on was the book! Forgetting decorum, I blurted out, “Holy shit! There it is!!”

It was near the top of the shelf. I got up on tiptoes and pulled it down. It wasn’t musty or moldy, and the binding wasn’t broken or loose at all. No dust jacket, but that is to be expected for a 75 year old book. As I leafed through it, every page was there, and in fact, a couple appeared to be uncut!

And then I arrived at the first page: It had been signed by Mr. Brewer himself, to Clifford K. Berryman, who a quick Google search revealed to have been a Pulitzer Prize winning Washington DC political cartoonist who had worked at the Washington Post, and for most of the first half of the 20th Century, at the Washington Star.

I had budgeted three hours, with fairly low expectations – even the story that I had explicitly driven there to look for it would have had some value! – but instead, after three minutes, I had come up with a signed copy! I am still geeking out about it; I can’t imagine coming up with such a miraculous find ever again in my lifetime!

As I drove away from there, I was grinning ear to ear.

When I returned, over thirty hours later, to St. Paul, I was actually scheduled to attend a concert with Mike the next evening but I said not a word of any of this. I wanted to wrap it and give it to him as a surprise Christmas gift.

And indeed, a couple weeks later, after a lengthy dinner conversation, still not having mentioned the book, I started my speech about Scroogenomics, and said, “but then sometimes… hang on a minute, I got you something”, and I went out to the car to fetch it.

His stunned reaction upon folding aside the tissue paper and seeing that book, and holding it in his hands, brought me every ounce of joy that I had hoped it would, a memory which I will savor for many years to come!