Thursday, September 22, 2016

Mr. Carlson

Roger Carlson at Bookman's Alley (photo by Marc Perlish)

      They're expecting a good turnout for my reading at Bookends & Beginnings Thursday night. But one person I'm not expecting to be there is Roger Carlson. He's in his late 80s now, doesn't get around much anymore, and besides, having worked for a third of a century in the sprawling store tucked in the alley behind Sherman Avenue, I imagine he has spent enough time there without making a special trip now that he no longer owns the store.
      Mr. Carlson, as I always called him, was not the come-out-to-see-you sort. Even in his prime, he would register my arrival by glancing up from his book and exclaiming "Neil!!!" not so much happy as amused, as if he had entirely forgotten the concept of me, and there I was, in all my ridiculousness, standing before him once again. 
     We would talk, and I would confess my undergraduate anxieties, if it were the early 1980s, or my suburban newspaper anxieties, if it were the mid-1980s, or my night shift drudge anxieties, in the late 1980s. Through the 1990s, it was book publishing woes, and I would talk about my current endeavor, and admire the lithograph he had of Napoleon aboard the Bellerophon, being taken to St. Helena. Something about the Little Corporal's face, the knot of French officers. I related to the emperor-in-exile.  From time to time I would try to buy it from Mr. Carlson, but he didn't entertain the notion, either because it would be too expensive, or he just didn't part with the quirky artifacts decorating his store, or he just assumed that I couldn't pay him what it was worth. 
       I got the sense he supported himself by dealing in the rare editions he would discover at estate sales,  and the shop itself was just a clubhouse, a place to set and read a book and talk with his actual friends—people other than myself—who happened in.  Later, when I profiled him, first for the Daily Northwestern, and then for the Barrington Courier-Review, and finally the Sun-Times, I learned a bit about his life. He had been a hard-drinking adman — magazine sales —gotten sober, left that life to pursue his dream: this store.
     I wasn't the only writer to notice him. Audrey Niffenegger gave him a cameo in her best-seller The Time Traveller's Wife:
     Roger is sitting behind his little untidy desk chatting with a ruddy white-haired gentleman about something to do with chamber music. He smiles when he sees us. 'Clare, I've got something you will like,' he says. Henry makes a beeline for the back of the store where all the printing and bibliophilic stuff is. Gomez meanders around looking at the weird little objects that are tucked into the various section: a saddle in Westerns, a deerstalker's cap in Mysteries. He takes a gumdrop from the immense bowl in the Children's section, not realizing that those gumdrops have been there for years and you can hurt yourself on them.
   Not true — the gumdrops were in the front, by Humor. It was those strangely soft, chalky white mints that you seldom see anywhere that were back by the children's section. Creative license I suppose.      
    Mr. Carlson surprised me when, in 2008, he held a signing for Drunkard at Bookman's Alley. It was a memorable night of conversation and laughter and a  big turn-out. I was surprised he went to the bother; my theory is he related to the subject matter, but I can't be sure. That was a defining characteristic of Mr. Carlson. He had mysteries. When he finallly closed the shop in 2013, it was after a series of false starts. Even then, I couldn't quite believe he was closing, not until one day he gave me a present—the Napoleon print I had always admired. I thought I would cry.
     I wasn't the best customer. I talked more than I bought. He probably made more on any given rare book transaction than I spent in my entire life at his place. The most expensive thing I ever bought there wasn't even bought by me, but my wife, acting on my behalf. I pulled down a copy of James Thurber's Fables for Our Time from the shelf, thinking it was the book my wife had bought me as an expensive present and saw no, according to the receipt inside, from Jan. 10, 1988, it cost $8 and -- oh look -- Mr. Carlson subtracted 80 cents. Must have given me a discount, out of pity, I suppose. The gift was the book next to it, a first edition of The Seal in the Bedroom And Other Predicaments, with an introduction by Dorothy Parker. The price, $45, still penciled in the inside cover. That's love.
    An introduction by Dorothy Parker, now that I think of it, that I quote in my new book, where she says the people in his drawings have "the semblance of unbaked cookies." A perfect description.
      The new book will be stacked at Bookends and Beginnings — something of a get, since the first edition has sold out and the University of Chicago Press is hurrying to print more. Amazon can take two weeks to ship it. But I will be there, 6:30 tonight, to read, and talk about the book. And while Mr. Carlson will no doubt stay in, I hope you go out and join me. It is a special little bookstore, and deserves support. All bookstores do, but this one more than most, not just because it is a cozy-yet-big, well-designed and well-run place, and its new owners, Jeff Garrett and his wife Nina Barrett, have recast into something both new and homey, fresh and familiar. I gave them their due when they opened the store.  Now it is your turn. They've devoted their lives to getting this place up and running. I'm hoping you'll join me in devoting 90 minutes to celebrating my accomplishment, and theirs.

"Out of the Wreck I Rise," reading and signing, Bookends & Beginnings, 1712 (Rear) Sherman, Evanston, 6:30 - 8 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 22.


  1. If you ever get out to the West Side, you should drop in at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore on Madison Street in Forest Park. Tiny place, but properly outfitted with books of every description and a dedicated, knowledgeable and curmudgeonly proprietor.


  2. Good to hear the book is selling well. My copy is on order.

    I liked the Dorothy Parker quote about Thurber's draftsmanship. Did you I wonder, given the general tenor of your tome, quote her poetical rumination on over-indulgence?

    "I like to have a Martini.
    Two at the very most.
    Three and I'm under the table.
    Four, I'm under my host."

    Tom Evans

    1. No, because it is too familiar -- we tried avoid the familiar. And the tone is wrong for our purposes.

  3. Did Mr. Carlson buck your expectations and show up?

  4. Oh, well. I hope you were able to reconnect a few times between then and his passing. I'm sorry for your loss, and you did wonderfully in commemorating him at various times while he was alive.


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