Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book man

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

    Roger Carlson died earlier this week, at age 89. For decades he ran Bookman's Alley, an oasis of used books tucked in the alley behind Sherman Avenue in Evanston. He was an amused, twinkling presence, and I loved his store, and found some of my favorite books there. 
    Maureen O'Donnell gave him a fine send off. 
    I wrote about him a number of times, first in the Daily Northwestern, most recently when I had a signing at the new bookstore in the old Bookman's Alley space in September. This story ran over 30 years ago, and captures a little of his spirit, I hope. Then again, it should: it's very long. That's how we did it in those days. Ironic, now that the internet allows stories to run as long as we please, we keep them very short, because attention spans have shrunk, stunted by the siren call of the infinite variety awaiting us. 
     Notice toward the end how the 26-year-old me handled the fact that Mr. Carlson—as I always called him—was an alcoholic, who began the store as a way to get himself away from the temptations of the magazine ad industry and start life anew. I suppose I thought I was being subtle. 

     A young couple once wandered into Bookman's Alley and spent a half hour or so looking at the shelves filled with old books, walls covered with art and etchings, and displays of antiques, curios and collectibles. On their way out, they stopped by the cluttered desk of owner Roger Carlson and asked if he would ever consider selling any of his books.
     "They must have thought I was some low-rent museum run by the city of Evanston," laughed Carlson.
     Carlson does indeed sell his books, though it's easy to see how the store could be mistaken for something else. Part of the confusion comes from its unusual location. Bookman's Alley is not just a colorful name designed to evoke images of Paris bookstalls. The store actually is in an alley, off Sherman Avenue just north of Evanston's shuttered Varsity Theater. Carlson puts out a green flag in the alley to let people know when the store is open.
     Another reason Bookman's Alley might be mistaken for something else is its decidedly unstorelike atmosphere. Unlike most bookstores, Bookman's Alley has plenty of places to sit: 23 chairs, four couches and three stools, to be exact, not counting the stacks of folding chairs to handle the excess crowd when Carlson hosts occasional live musical events—usually string quartets or ensembles from Northwestern University's music school. Bowls of gumdrops and mints are set out for those who might be taking their lunch hour to pore over "many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore," to quote Edgar Allan Poe.
     The ambience is no accident nor an act of eccentricity, but part of a carefully thought-out plan.
     "It makes me feel comfortable; I like to work in attractive circumstances. I'm doing it quite consciously because I want people who are in here to feel comfortable. I want them to know that I enjoy their being in here. I don't want them to feel pressured. I want this to be an oasis for them. The end product of all this benevolence is I want to make a living and that requires some of them sometimes to buy books."
     The bookstore's location is the result of a compromise between Carlson's vision of what a bookstore should be and his severely restricted financial situation when he opened the store six years ago.
     "I wanted a lot of space. I envisioned using space essentially in the way I've done it - an open space, uncrowded, with lots of opportunity for people to sit down and think about things. I had, in essence, no money; that made it certain I had to find a garage or warehouse building where the rent was in my reach."
     What Carlson found was an old, windowless warehouse that was, ironically, completely isolated and within a half block of Evanston's central business district.
     "There are disadvantages to the location. The kind of person who needs to leave a trail of birdseed to get home has trouble finding this place and, beyond that, being in an alley is not good in a time when people have fears. Alleys do not conjure up the best associations. I once thought of putting an insurance machine at the entrance of the alley, for the small percentage of persons reluctant to enter an alley."
     Interspersed among the rows of books is a Victorian clutter of antiques, collectibles and near-junk plucked from Carlson's collection and cleverly tied in with the books' subjects. Near the shelf marked "Adventure Books" is a snowshoe, a harpoon, an antique model of a kayak, an Eskimo doll, a compass and a framed map from a Byrd Antarctic expedition. In the "Old West" section is a full-sized saddle resting on a sawhorse, along with chaps and several Stetsons hanging from hooks. An old map of Africa and a zebra skin watch over the African books. A detailed model of a three-masted ship, a wooden pulley and an iron double pulley act as bookends on shelves devoted to ships. An ancient Corona portable typewriter holds up books on the Paris Herald, Villard and Chicago press. Tucked in among books in the crafts section is a miniature loom.
     Not all the tableaus are connected to books. Some are just pleasant to look at. Near the blue piano is a small oval empire table. On the table is a silverplate Champagne cooler, filled with fresh-cut flowers, a Japanese enamel bowl, a carved wooden Mexican statuette and an eight-volume set of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1825.
     Carlson says he does not expend any particularly great effort assembling his little displays. "They just sort of happen. They're constructed of things either that I was seemingly born with or that I ran into at estate sales or auctions."
     Carlson's personal opinions also manifest themselves in displays. For years, while James Watt was secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, Carlson hung a sign that announced the expected arrival of Watt's The Endangered Species Cookbook. At the back of the store he posts a "Best Seller's List." It is not the standard list made up of what Carlson sneeringly refers to as "all these popular things on how to make money and analyze yourself." Rather, it is a list of authors Carlson would like to see as best sellers among today's public, names like Hemingway, Wodehouse, Jung, Dickens, Twain, Thoreau, Churchill, Mann, Joyce and Dinesen.
     With all the interesting distractions in Bookman's Alley, it would be a mistake to overlook the books—Carlson estimates he has around 18,000. The vast majority are hardback, with an emphasis on American history and 20th century literature. Carlson also carries a good selection of rare books, autographed volumes and first editions. A glass case displays rarities like a signed 1874 copy of Mark Twain's The Innocents at Home and an 1850 first edition of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. But most of the books fall into the $5 to $10 range, with the most expensive item being a five-volume set of The History of England, published in 1732, selling for $1,200. The cheapest is a bin of books offered free for the taking.
     Adding to the ambience at Bookman's Alley is Carlson himself: a tall, jovial gray-haired man of 58 with an impish grin and twinkling eyes. Except for infrequent occasions—a wedding or an emergency—Carlson is there, usually sitting on a comfortable chair at the front of the store, reading a book.
     "I'm afraid I tend to think I run the place better than anyone I could hire. That's not entirely ego. I know where everything is since I bought it and priced it and shelved it. I have 80 classifications, and sometimes a book could fall into several categories. I know where something belongs. If I'm not here and a person inquires about something, he may well walk out empty-handed, even though the book is here. I would have been able to find it. I have some good friends who play guest host. But I enjoy it enough I don't feel the need for a day off."
     Carlson has been a fan of books for as long as he can remember. As a child he would go to his room at night and, tossing a carpet in front of the door to prevent the light from shining underneath, regularly read until 4 or 5 in the morning.
     Despite his love of books, Carlson did not set out to be a bookseller. His dream was to be a writer, but when he found he lacked the ability, he drifted into advertising sales, a profession that didn't suit him, and which he languished in for years. "It didn't start out being terrible. But it got that way."
     In the late '70s, Carlson took a sobering look at himself, and decided to change his life as an ad salesman. He always had enjoyed reading and collecting books, and began selling them from his home. "I sold by mail and by appointment, rare books and collectible things. But it was clear to me quickly it was no way for me to make a living. You have to spend your day selling books and I didn't want to sell books—I wanted to read them—so I knew I had to have a shop."
     When Carlson first opened his store, he had so little money that he was forced to stock the shelves with several thousand books from his own collection. Carlson takes a pragmatic view of the loss. "It was something I was able to face without any particular problems because I was so close to the wall. It was really sell or die. I could comfort myself with the thought that at least I had the chance to see the books and handle the books."
     Ironically, though he is able to part with first editions of Hemingway and signed copies of Fitzgerald without regret, Carlson does wish he held onto a particular volume —a book by Willard Schultz.
     "It wasn't especially valuable, but the inscription was so great. He was a white man who was raised by the Indians in Montana, I think. This was a book published in the '20s and his inscription was, `So few of us left who lived upon the buffalo.' I thought that was a very sad inscription. I only sold the book for $50 or $60, but it seemed to have a meaning far greater than its monetary value. But at the time I needed the $50."
     Nowadays, things are not quite so tight for Carlson. Business is good, and a poster and framing store has moved into the other building sharing his alley. Carlson can do what he loves most, read books, supported by his friends who stop by to chat, browse, rest, ponder and, occasionally, buy books.
     "A lot of really interesting people come into bookshops. A bookshop can be a nice kind of social center, if that's the way you want to operate, and I do."

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 17, 1986



  1. I think the "sobering look at himself" was subtle...and telling as well. Not bad for 26.


  2. Ah, now I see why you recently commented on the post from last year. Sorry for the loss of your friend.

  3. Damn, I wish I could have seen that place. Quirky establishments in near-hidden locations have always appealed to me, and Bookman's Alley sounds perfect.

    That "sobering look" would have gone clear over my head if you hadn't spelled things out in the intro.

  4. I only visited Bookman's Alley once; it was a wondrous experience. I never met Mr. Carlson, but from everything Neil has written about him he must have been a treasure. My condolences on his passing.

  5. Yes, that bookstore was a wonderful spot, and he seemed like a very congenial guy. His giving you that Napoleon print was a heartwarming detail from last year's post. "Sobering look" seems subtle to me -- makes the point without highlighting it. Like Bitter Scribe, though, I think I may well have missed the point if I hadn't read the intro.

    And a three-fer today on EGD. Each one as charming as the next. Of course, I'm hard-pressed to read 3 nice pieces like that without picking a nit. Ms. O'Donnell writes: "Customers had to walk down an alley to enter the rambling little carriage house..." NS, in 1986: "What Carlson found was an old, windowless warehouse..."

    Are those descriptions mutually exclusive, or was it both, I wonder...

  6. An inspirational tale. Not easy to stay sober in media sales, and not everybody escapes to a life well lived.

    His decision to be cremated is understandable, but he would make a companiable neighbor to Vincent Starrett, who's column eponymously titled "Books Alive," appeared in the Tribune for many years.

    Starrett, who once wrote "when we are collecting books we are collecting happiness," now dwells in Graceland Cemetery under an open book fashioned out of marble and inscribed with a legend describing him as "The Last Bookman."

    Requiescat in pacem.



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