Friday, January 29, 2010

Libraries Dumping Books!

Some Real "Books and Biblios"

The final resting place for some of our theological library's collections came one fine mid-winter morning, in the shape of garbage containers and giant metal waste bins. Now I must admit from the start that this will be a difficult piece to write, because it is something that I am personally not in agreement with, philosophically. But it is part of my job, and that makes for fun biblio-dilemmas. One might accuse the author of being "too attached" to books in general, which may have some truth to it, but to amplify the destruction of books, or libricide as some scholars have called it, is a difficult thing to witness as a bibliophile. More difficult is the required participation in such an activity. But for some, it is all in a day's work. That's what we do as library professionals: we weed, we sell and distribute, and the rest, we throw out. I know this will irk some of you out there, as it does me to some extent. But we will explore this issue further in this blog. Of course, I had to begin with these four volumes of "Biblio" to accent the moniker of the blog: a shame, these "biblios" gone to the wasteland.

Well, most of this sort of book-tossing begins with the weeding process, which as some of you might know, is in full swing, and has been for a while. We are preparing for a sizable retro-con project in coming years, so we need to cut down the collection, to its elemental forms. This means that areas or disciplines, which may seemingly be out of the ken of theological education, are more likely to be targeted for the dumpsters. Such was the case with many of the areas of political science, sociology, and political philosophy. Though, some might make the argument that this should not be the case, because these three areas DO in fact have a great significance in the field of theology. It's all relative though. And when it comes down to space, resources, and finance, difficult decisions must be made regarding seemingly "good" books--but the "useful" question comes into play, and it is harder to make the case to save such "good" books.

The process usually involves a good portion of the staff--we de-select books and then consult one another. We do "second passes," to see if we are on target with our de-selections. Then the catalogers sweep through behind us, collecting the de-selected books. They go through the process of un-cataloging the books; crossing out the call numbers and marking the volumes with "WITHDRAWN" stamps, usually with the help of some industrious student workers. Depending on the books, shelf list cards are pulled--we still have a partial card catalog! Admittedly, I don't have much involvement in this part of the process, so I cannot speak to it in full accuracy or detail. But this is the general description of tasks that are undertaken. Before we get to the final "dumping" stage, as we see in the image above, there is a process where the library tries to sell or give away books to used book shops or other organizations, who re-distribute the books to groups, who might use the books--usually at seminaries or theological schools in other countries.

Hundreds, if not thousands of books are given away like this each year. But we cannot get rid of all of them, and they end up languishing on shelves, abandoned, orphaned books. There is a certain sadness about this, but not much can be done, even simply to give them away. Students, especially in Hyde Park, have too many books cluttering their overwrought shelves already. They have too much to read for classes and for papers. Even good books are hard to get rid of in this neighborhood, partly because everyone has them already. I think there is a general sense of what constitutes "the Hyde Park Bookshelf," meaning "that which every good Hyde Parker has, or ought to have!--especially if they are UC grads--and this usually covers everything from The Wealth of Nations to Plato's Dialogues or Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.

So, if you have so many "good books" floating around, imagine how hard it is to get rid of so many average or sub-par volumes! I'm not saying that we're getting rid of sub-par volumes, per se, but there are quite a few in there. As you can see, from some of these photos, there are signs reading "DUMPSTER." It is a hard fact to swallow for bibliophiles like me. I don't like seeing anything resembling a waste bucket near books. Books don't belong in garbage cans or in dumpsters, they belong on shelves, in people's homes, on tables (well, some tables), in libraries, everywhere else in society, but in dumpsters!? One of the things I kept thinking about as we were collecting these books from the shelves, throwing them into movable garbage bins with wheels, and pushing them out to the bigger dumpsters through a modest snow falling that morning was..."why couldn't we have given these to someone?" I think I've already answered this above, but it still is something that eats away at my idea of book responsibility. If you have something, which is of some value, why waste it?

Obviously, there are many obstacles to overcome this question: the "someone else" who might be able to use these materials might simply be too far away, in a new seminary in Ghana, for example. The costs may be prohibitive to transport. Otherwise, the materials are not relevant even to those seminaries or seminarians in another country. Some have argued "why give away our junk to someone else?"--presuming it's junk! But perhaps the more salient issue is "what is happening in other libraries?" One can be certain that books are being thrown out at sizable rates. Others might call these "alarming" rates, but the fact is that more books are being published each year, and room needs to be made for incoming volumes, new ideas, (or even, old re-hashed ideas!) Whatever the case may be, here we have just one "mass dumping" of books. Take it in as you may. As I've noted earlier, I didn't want to be part of this exercise, but was pulled into it by the eager staff, wanting to get the job done quickly. It felt rather odd, in some respects, like we were doing something unnatural, even hostile: librarians tossing out old books of theology, philosophy, sociology, and political economy?

With my own interests and research of the book as symbol in society, it was difficult for me to see such images: it only made me think that the books were being "deported." When someone considers books to be extensions of ourselves and society, the idea of ridding oneself of those extensions, book-bodies, and corporeality seems absurd. But both the absurd and real abound in our world: dumping books is still a question of one's perception of the circumstances, and sometimes needs to be done.

"The Happy Librarian Doing a Book Toss!"

"Seminary Stalinism!"

Even with books like these on out-of-date communism scholarship being thrown out, I felt like I'd committed some sort of "informational war crime," and should be hiding from the Librarians' Hague! Our director commented that one of the reasons there were so many books on communism, and more precisely, "anti-communism," was because one of the former faculty members, the Syriac scholar Arthur Voobus (pron. VOY-bus), was from the Baltics; he came to the US sometime after the Second World War, and had experienced the cruelties of the Soviet Regime over the Baltics. He was virulently anti-communist, and it is very likely that his tenure on the faculty prompted the school to purchase oodles of anti-communist literature, itself a valuable historiographic tool for the study of that literature at that time. But alas, these books are no longer. They've been sent to their own gulags, somewhere in the moist earth of an Illinois landfill.

Books which were headed to the dumpster included:

Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Machiavelli, The Prince (several copies)
Ch'ien Tuan-sheng, Government and Politics of China, 1912-1949
Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism
History of Chinese Civil War
French Historiography from Ancien Regime

and many more...

I must admit that I saved some of these (but not all!) from the dumpster, as I could not bring myself to toss such gems of the intellectual canon into the nothingness that they were being consigned to.

This work, "The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia," from around 1904 was among the larger and older books that were trashed. I took some photos of the book plates, imprints, and primary ownership mark. I don't know who Andrew Smith of Wilmington, N.C. was. I'm not sure we ever will. All we know is that he lived more than a century ago, and had some connection to the Lutheran Seminary in Chicago. His former books, as well as his finely penciled name are no more.

Below are images from inside of these massive volumes. As I had finished my morning's work, I couldn't help but notice the magnificent images between the pages of the giant Cyclopedia. So I went and took photos of the more interesting, the more curious ones...

By shelf space, somewhere around 1,000 books went to their ends that day. I looked over the massive dumpsters adjacent to the seminary's parking lot--they were filled to the brim, each one of them, with the remnants of old information. I will not say "lost information," because presumably our controls should have made sure that our library did not carry "the very last copy on the planet." But there is a sense of loss among the images of human creation, which held fast for at least a century in and on the old shelves of the seminary. I look at these lithograph cuts of the old miner, the Linsang, or the swift, and I wonder what value these had...or could have had for re-use, maybe for some art project. I now know what a Cerberus is (see below), only because I was dumping books too. And yet, I wonder if that knowledge is worth it?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

In Memoriam: Slaveyko Z. Miranov (1948-2009), Master Craftsman, Bookcase Maker, Friend

Farewell to a Friend

On December 12, 2009, Slaveyko Z. Miranov died in his wood shop in Hyde Park, doing the work he had done for decades. Slaveyko was a kind and loving man, a good friend, father, son, and husband. He was the local bookcase maker, whose skill was known throughout the city of Chicago, and beyond. I first got to know Slaveyko some years ago, when I first came to Chicago. I asked him to help me with a few little woodworking projects, which weren't usually part of his business, but he kindly offered to help, for little cost. In the years to come, he replaced the bases of my dining room chairs and fixed some damaged wooden toys that belonged to my children, but with such care and detail that you knew he was not just a professional, but a real master craftsman with years of experience.

The photo above is of Slaveyko, though it must be at least 20 years old. The Slaveyko I knew had salt-and-pepper hair, though more toward "salt" in recent years; he had a deep, deliberate, and at times raspy voice, which emoted the sensitivity of a kindly bearish uncle. He had great big hands, marked by hard work at a workman's bench. And he wore horn-rimmed glasses from Soviet Era Europe, which magnified his soft, yet intense eyes.

I had been at a party a few months back, sometime in January, when someone brought up Slaveyko in a conversation. "You know he died, right?" said the other person. "What!?" I responded incredulously. "Yeah--he was in his shop with his son." I heard the story and was deeply grieved by this news. Not because I thought we'd just lost the nice Bulgarian book-case maker in the neighborhood. No. It was because over the years I'd found a charming and heartwarming man in Slaveyko, a man who enjoyed sharing good conversation, waving to me on the street, or sending great big smiles to my kids; a friend.

Not too long after I discovered this, I saw Slaveyko's wife and son standing outside of their building. I went over to them and spoke to them, and found out that in the coming week there would be a Memorial Service for Slaveyko. I departed from them with my condolences and walked on into the drizzling evening.

When the day came, the service was held in Bond Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago. I walked over to the morning service, which was to be held at 10AM. Besides the family, I was one of the first visitors to show up. I went in and greeted the family, then went up to the front of the chapel and sat by myself. The sound system was on, and the sounds of a lugubrious priest and choir were bellowing the incantations of a solemn Bulgarian Orthodox mass. It saddened me more, listening to this, by myself in the softly lit chapel, alone and thinking about my dear old friend. Like the infamously short verse of John 11:35, I felt the quiet, steady rains, the low lights, the baritone priest, and the solemn reflection of my old friend wash over me.

When the service began, we learned more of our friend. A Lutheran minister presided and spoke of Slaveyko at various points of the service. The Order of Service included...

Reading of the Obituary
(by Pastor Michael Steinke)
Song: Atlas-Spi svoia sun (Sleep Well)
(by Ventzislav Marinov, Dr. Samuel
Refetoff, and Aaron Ginsberg)
Remarks (from Letters and Guests)
Closing Song: Warren Zevon-Keep Me in Your Heart

The biography of Slaveyko, as conveyed in his obituary, and which was read, follows...

"Slaveyko Marinov...was born on July 14, 1948, in Nedan, Bulgaria to Zlatyu and Jivka Atanassov. Slaveyko graduated from a vocational high schoo in Russe, Bulgaria, having been trained as a cabinetmaker. Following his two years of service in the Bulgarian Army he returned to Nedan and met and married the love of his life, Veselka Petrova. Together they moved to Pavlikeni, Bulgaria, where they built a house and raised their children Jenny and Ventzislav. In 1993 Slaveyko, Veselka, and Ventzislav immigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago, Illinois. He worked as a cabinetmaker and in 2002 started his own business, Bookcases by Slaveyko. He was a loving and devoted husband, father, and grandfather, an eternal optimist, and had a wonderful sense of humor. He will be sadly missed."

Different people spoke, including his son, a friend of the son, an old Bulgarian friend, former employees of his wood shop, and myself. My reflections, which I hadn't prepared, were (roughly) these...

"I must admit, I have a confession to make today: I never bought a book-case from Slaveyko...but this never stopped me from getting to know Slaveyko, my friend. He was a great man, with a warm heart and a sense of humor. And now that I reflect upon it, we had more in common that I realized. He was an immigrant, like my father and grandparents; and my grandfather was a carpenter and wood craftsman like Slaveyko. Perhaps that is why he and I often joked or got into discussions, either in his shop or on the street. Not long ago, around the time of the presidential election, I stopped by his shop. It was cold out, and I was running late for a meeting, but I had to ask him something about a wood project. We got into politics, somehow. He had a big Obama sticker on his little car. And he started talking about how communism in his country was misunderstood by Americans, and that it wasn't as bad as people thought. "You didn't have homeless people like here!" he would declare. I had to go, but somehow, I ended up staying for half-an-hour more! I was late to that meeting, but today I am glad; glad, because I got to spend that much more time with my friend."

After the service, we all left the chapel. I slipped out into the cold embrace of a wet January morning. I walked through the streets by myself, casting my eyes at the puddles and sound of raindrops. I went through an alley and came upon Slaveyko's old shop. I went by it again, and looked at the place. "Bookcases by Slaveyko." I had learned at the Memorial Service that Slaveyko's dad had been here already, and had brought his son to the US in 1993; but the dad had died not long after, of a heart attack. He too was in his 60s at the time. I felt sad about all this, as I walked on through the alley. In a few minutes, I'd be in the home of the family's friends, sharing stories and enjoying antipasti, quiche, and fresh strawberries. But for now, I could only think about and reflect on the legacy of this good man by myself. And be grateful that I'd known such a great and kind human being.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chasing a Library Thief!

Not Your Usual Patron...or Blog Post!

Well, I wonder if this is something that should be taught in library school: how to chase someone who has stolen something from your library--or from another patron? Like "Thief Chasing 490B--Lab Session held in Gymnasium." It's difficult to know, but I can't actually say that this person was a patron, per se. So here's the story...

Back in December 2009, a suspicious character stole a laptop from a seminary student in our library. I say "suspicious," because the person was young (an adolescent), had odd clothes on, and a dyed-red mohawk, partly covered by a "hoodie." But most suspicious of all was the person's fleeting glances, all around, and constant, leading library staff to investigate. Nothing came of this investigation, apparently. And when no one was looking, and while a student's laptop was unattended, he snatched it up.

The student whose computer was stolen, had just come back, because she had a bad feeling about leaving her stuff unattended. Just as she returned, she saw the "perp" run off and out the security doors, setting off the alarms. She ran after him down the street, but he was too fast. Shortly after, the police, facility management, library staff, and others had assembled on the first floor of the library, and were attempting to get the story for the police report. It was chaotic; the information was unclear; one person thought it was a woman; another a man; they didn't know what the person was wearing. The general characteristics of a crime--everyone sees everything and nothing; and then nothing matches. The rest of the afternoon was spent clearing up information among different groups, including the police departments of the University of Chicago and the City of Chicago: apparently, the agencies don't really "talk to one another," instead it is up to the victim of the crime to contact both agencies separately. This is not so much a criticism, but a poised moment of shock and reflection upon this curious anomoly of Chicago beaurocracy. I helped out the student, to navigate through the "311" call and other issues. One of our IT guys came over and helped me unearth the digital trail on one of the computers that the "perp" was using. We not only discovered what the person had been looking at--and that those interests included various forms of graphically lewd images and disturbing pornographic sites, but we also discovered the person's likely name! "Lawrence Coleman" had left his digital imprint!--and an email account, which he'd logged into. The victim of this crime had even written dear "Lawrence" (that's really the name!) an email demanding the computer back. Of course, we can all likely guess that Mr. Coleman never came by and apologized for his actions, along with the Mac laptop. "Oh, so sorry: I thought it was mine!" I gave this information to the police, hoping to hear something back at a later time.

And then, at the end of the day, we all felt a sense of vulnerability and violation, and a bit of anger. "How could someone rob someone in a library--OUR library!?" We're a seminary library, and one would think it a safe haven for students. Apparently not!

A month passed. It should have been a quiet morning of the first week back after Christmas break. Another suspicious character appeared in the library. This time two of our library staff members asked the person if he were a student, but somehow, whatever response was given, he remained in the and all! I was not there. I'd gone off to lunch. And, you guessed it: bam! This time a purse was stolen. I did more digital sleuthing: and again, I found more traces of "Lawrence Coleman," including more porn and another email account. This was given to the police. After the second incident, we had meetings about safety, which resulted in "putting signs up." But frankly, I'm not too sure this was even a worthy effort to stunt the thievery. Thieves don't care about signs. They probably don't even read them! Everyone was fairly certain that this was the end of the "crime wave." Not one week later though, came the true action of this story. It was early one morning at the library. I went to the first floor to look for something. Just then, I passed within inches of a young man, the red-mohawk man! He was there, casing the joint. He went swiftly up the stairs. I followed quietly. When he'd gone out the library's main doors, I told the student worker at the desk to call security; I hit the alarm buttons calling the police; I ran to my co-workers and told them what had happened, then grabbed my coat, and ran outside. Immediately, I looked out the window and already saw a swarm of the facilities crew moving down the street in hot pursuit. We ran and ran. The University Police were speeding around in their cruisers. I ran around for more than an hour, and it was in the cold of a January morning. We had lost him. And most of us who were running were over 35, some twenty years older. This young thief was a mere sapling of youth, sprinting at gazellish speeds. But then, about 45 minutes into the gone-cold chase, some of the group was walking down an alley. The first and last photos on today's blog show the area where we were walking at that moment: a house being renovated with a barbed wire fence. I caught glimpse of him behind this green-tarp covered fence. There were shouts and we once again were in pursuit. I ran after him, finding myself stuck at the end of another alley--this one above, with a 6-foot wire gate. But within a few seconds, I realized I'd somehow climbed the gate and fence, and sat up in the air wondering how I'd get down on the other side!

"I'm going to break my neck, or at least my leg," I thought. Of course, I had to get down. I jumped, and was fine. But then I tried to run, but was exhausted. I turned the corner to look down the street and found nothing, absolutely nothing. He had jumped over a much smaller picket fence, something only about a foot tall, and had bounded through the snow and brush here. This was the front yard of the house, which was being renovated, and where he'd been hiding behind just a few moments before. And now, he'd disappeared once again! It was unbelievable!
I walked around, and looked at the freshly trodden snow. I tried not to disturb it, attempting to pull a Miss Marple or investigate like an old British PI. It looked like he had sneakers on, but it was rather hard to tell. So, I took a photo of the tracks, both from around the corner and closer up.

In this image, you can see that the tracks in the middle were created with great strides, leaping across and through the wet snow. You can see the space between them and the slide marks at the base of the foot print itself. But this did nothing more than give me a sense of what the "perp's" footwear style might be. It barely gave me a direction to follow. The prints went cold. I looked behind bushes, under cars, next to porches. Nothing. He was gone. Disappeared.
Not a thing had turned up. We gave our reports to the police. I handed over the information I gathered regarding the digital trail of Mr. Lawrence Coleman. And things were quiet after that. Our policies on entry really haven't changed. Anyone can walk in off the streets, but we reserve the right to see if you are doing "real" work--as a student, faculty, staff, minister, or lay person doing work in religion or theology; and if you are not a bona fide researcher, you may be asked to leave.

And so--months later!--as for the case and the likes of our library thief...nothing has come of this. "Lawrence Coleman" is still out there. Some have said that "even if they caught this guy, what could they do to him?" The circumstances have not been such that he'd likely be charged with a crime. Even though he's stolen over $2,000 in personal items from students, he'd likely walk free, unscathed on his record. The police said they'd even found a record of someone by the same name, who was caught stealing from a nearby high school. But that doesn't mean its the same person. And so, our young boy with the red-dyed mohawk walks free.

I wonder if Marylin Johnson, author of "This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All" ever thought about this one? She talks about all sorts of crazy and true tasks and working issues that librarians do, act out, perform, or whatever. But chasing thieves? We are in an urban environment--at least that's what everyone says is the reason for this. (Though, I'd bet there's some crime in rural areas too!) Anyhow, so goes the super hero myth...on Johnson's front cover is an image of a caped super hero librarian (a woman in this case) flying off with book or computer-book in hand. Little did she know. Admittedly, I was a tad embarrased by all the attention, and people saying "who knew librarians were super heroes!?" Awww, come on now! We're just trying to protect our students from getting things stolen! We're all super heroes. We're just doing our jobs. Perhaps, the better moniker is "super fool" on my part. What the heck was I thinking, chasing a library thief!? Well, let's just hope this doesn't happen again. Or else, Marilyn Johnson may have to write another chapter.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Farewell to the Mercury Cafe and Lending Library

A Caffeinated Biblio-Relic

With sadness I write this obituary. Purposely, I call it such, because the most glorious of Chicago shabby chic cafes has gone the way of the stage coach, daugerreotypes, and BETA track recording. The Mercury Cafe, located at 1505 W. Chicago Avenue in the Noble Square neighborhood of Chicago closed this past fall. I had gone there last summer, and discovered that this fine cafe was in fact more than just a "fine cafe," but a marvelous location for community activity and engagement, which had great lattes and espressos, but also a magnificent collection of books, which it both sold and lent out to patrons of the establishment. I must say, this was one of the first times I'd encountered such a place, and it was wonderful. When I went the first, and only time, while it was still functioning, I think I bought a dozen books--from environmental feminist novels published in the mid-1970s to a book on the history of the Shakespearean sonnets.

Yet, when I went back, the second time, I was devastated to discover that not only was the Mercury Cafe "not open," it was permanently "CLOSED!" This was a shock. Later, I went online and discovered a threaded discussion on the community forum "Yelp!"... see the following:

In this link, there was discussion of the closing of the Mercury Cafe, including a note by one of the previous owners. This person made clear that the main reason for closing was that there were still large numbers of patrons coming to the cafe, but that half of the revenues were coming in. Now to understand what this person meant, you really had to see the inside of this formidable coffee shop. I say "formidable," because I can honestly say that the Mercury Cafe was probably "the" largest coffee shop I'd ever been in. Not only was it large, it was--to use a popular neologism--"ginormous." Seriously, it was more like a church banquet hall or a Knights of Columbus conference center than a coffee shop; to call it a "cafe," which seems to give off a spatial sense of "coziness" or "comfortable charm" seemed a misnomer. Though, it was a comfortable and charming place, despite its enormity.

I can't say for sure how large it actually was, but to give you an idea, it could probably fit 300 people comfortably; and you could have likely squeezed in a thousand. It took about 25 seconds to walk to the counter from the front door, partly because you were stunned to see such a vacuous space with so many places to sit, and then you had to walk the 100+ feet to the glass case with croissants or to look at the caffeinated choices scrawled out in blue-chalk collegiate penmanship! I bought my drink and sweet foodie treat, and wandered around the place in awe. It had no less than a dozen couches, if my faulty memory is moderately correct. There were soft, comfy chairs scattered all about. And there were tables everywhere: big tables, small tables, medium tables, tables that wobbled, tables that were flat, tables that lilted, and, heck, tables that spoke Dutch! I mean, I think there were tables for everything.

And then I discovered the "library" and sale books shelves. In the image of books above, one can see the "books for borrowing" in the lending library. They were marked in their own cataloging classification system, with stars and dots of red, blue, and so forth. I never documented the variety of classification notations, because it never entered my mind that the place was going to close! Looking to the image at left here, it read "Come visit our eclectic mini-LIBRARY." I was so impressed by the whole set-up. They must have had well over a thousand books for borrowing. I perused them and discovered books of all categories: politics, sociology, literature, gender studies, history, and more. People were sitting around the mini-library shelves, chatting, discussing, sipping coffee, reading. It was a wonderful atmosphere, enhanced by this magnificent pearl of a micro-lending-library.

On the opposite side of the giant room, there was a space with several more book shelves, dedicated to "sale books," as you can see in the image below.

I spent a good portion of the rainy afternoon in the Mercury cafe looking at books, selecting books, putting some back, re-selecting, and finally buying some. I purchased my hot drink, which steamed itself into the space above my table, where I'd gathered my dozen newly acquired volumes. And I sat there, looking through each with that wonder, which a new book brings to its owner (or, is it partner?); and I looked out onto the street, which was drenched in sheets of rain. What a fine afternoon.

The role of this blog has shifted and adapted in many ways since I began in back in May 2009. With the passing of the Mercury Cafe and Micro-Lending-Library, writing these entries, and accounting for these relics of the biblio-past, "On Books and Biblios" has become an historian of sorts; a preservationist of Chicago flaneury, cafe-culture a la Karl Kraus, and bibliotourism. In some ways, the role of this blog and my work as biblio-journalist is to show examples of books in their multivalent spaces, and how ever-present and ever-involved in our society and lives they continue to be. And yet, when we find the gradual decline of these spaces, such as we have today, perhaps an accounting of this fleeting memory is suitable...whether for those who once frequented the Mercury Cafe and Mini-Lending Library, or for those curious of the culture that once was. And I suppose that's not such a bad task to perform.

Books and Orthodox Icons

Welcome to Drazen Dupor's Studio

So, "who makes icons anymore?" you ask. "Icons--those relics of antiquity? I thought monks made them in deserts...thousands of miles and ages away!?" Well, sort of. But not only! The final stop in the Madison area was a storefront workshop on an unassuming strip of industrial streets, somewhere on the outskirts of the city. And it was the curious signs that read "Icon" and "Gallery" that brought me to pull my car over and knock on the door of this establishment. Figuring that I'd surely find a tourist shop selling icons, I didn't think much about what was behind these doors. But I need to continue to remind myself that "every place and every thing has a story." And so, when a soft-spoken, spectacled man, with a heavy and charming Balkan accent greeted me, I knew that I was in for an interesting treat!

Dupor Drazen (or, Drazen Dupor--depending on how you read his business card) is, according to a Madison magazine, The Daily Page (Oct. 1, 2008) by Amelia Cook "an iconographer, a painter of religious images in the tradition of Eastern Christianity. Using deep color and precise lines, his images of Christ, angels, and the saints transcend this world and stir souls. Born in Gracac, Croatia, Dupor paints in the ancient Byzantine style (think incense-filled basilica) and his work is displayed in churches, galleries, and homes worldwide." When I first spoke with Dupor, he told me that he was from "Yugoslavia" and that he'd studied for some time in Greece, so he also spoke Greek. But I could not muster anything of the modern, Attic, or Koine that would even remotely allow us to communicate in such a way. Dupor was a very kind and friendly host, showing me all of his works and the process by which he completed his works of art. (Above you can see him in the first two images).

Drazen Dupor's Gallery:

As it was winter, when I visited his gallery, it was very cold. Inside the gallery and workshop itself it was chilly. Though, when he led me into this back room, where he did his sketching and painting, he had a little heater, which generated an ample cloud of warmth, and afforded a more comfortable environment for working on his projects and generating good conversation. As you can see, he draws many of his icons in first by pencil, then paints in over the pencil lines.
Admittedly, I found this work very attractive. I'd known some folks who'd done similar iconography, when I lived in Jerusalem. Specifically, there was a group of young Armenian novitiates, young priests in training, whom I was friends with. They'd once told me of how they'd spend their spare hours working on icons, but then stressing them to look older, even antiquated, and then sell their crafty wares to unsuspecting tourists! Back here in Chicago, this past winter, I was given the fine gift of "icon making lessons" by my lovely wife, which I attended for a few weeks. Of course, this is a dedicated craft, an art even, that takes a great deal of time and patience.

Looking toward the central themes of iconography, we must consider the focal text of this artistic and spiritual endeavor: the Bible. And for our good friend Dupor Drazen, it was the King James Version of the Bible, specifically. I suppose, there must be an old saying like "if it gives you inspiration, and doesn't hurt anyone --use it." And so, this lone and solitary book was perhaps the most prominent feature of this workshop: solid, hefty, regal, solemn black and white cover, with clear indications of use. In some way, just looking at this brickish book of God gave the whole room a sense of gravity, seriousness, and power. These images were here, because this artist sat around, perhaps sipping some warm tea on a bitterly cold day, flipping through the pages of scripture and thinking up the creative notions of Biblical prophecy in images as old as stone and dirt and air. Well, not quite. But old enough to emote the gravitas of monastic sublimity and spiritual ecstasy in art.

Above, one can see some work tables in the front room of the Icon Shop. Below are images painted on flat blocks of wood.

Many of the artist's images were displayed on tables in the entry-way. Below is the sign that got my attention and made me swing over and park the car. Who wouldn't be curious about a place like this!? (Okay, don't answer that.)

Once again, it is with these simple, out-of-the-way discoveries, that one finds some of the greatest treasures in the world. Icons are not exactly things you can pick up at your local corner store. And they don't seem to be all that typical in the daily workings of our artistic culture. But they are there, somewhere. I spoke of saints in a recent piece, and come back to that theme here. Saints often come on the edges, the fringes, and margins of society. It was emblematic that Drazen Dupor was engaged in this spiritual activity on the outskirts (or what appeared to be the outskirts) of town, on a quiet, low-key strip of road, in an unassuming location. An artist performing his craft in a majestic, calm, and spiritual way. Like the Armenian novitiates in Jerusalem, creating images of divinity, our Madison artist was devoted to this craft. But even moreso perhaps, Drazen seemed to embody a profound link between the written word and the created image. This quiet artist, welcoming and pensive, is yet another treasure along the biblio-highway. So, if you're interested, and you're in Madison, look around, and maybe you'll find the city's own saint, sitting and working quietly in his workshop.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Books and Bookshops of Madison, Wisconsin

Okay, I know what you're thinking!

I must admit, I don't usually start off with such lewd images, but when I saw this book in the window display of a Madison, Wisconsin shop, I had to snap a picture of it. Of course, I mean not to offend anyone, but this may push some of you to the brink. Yes, that's right: you're looking at a book with a cover displaying an image of someone "giving the middle finger," "flipping the bird," or what have you. Might this be repulsion or invitation? The shock for some might send some biblio-visitors packing, while others may be drawn into the illustrious world of the biblio-oddity and other tchotchkes. Though not specifically a "bookshop," whatever this place was, it was ripe and bountiful with such bookish objects.

Let us take a gander and gape at this next image: books on disaster, "beer pong," and your "inner bitch(!)" along with Jesus action figure and, uh, yes, multi-colored thongs. Pong and thong. Not exactly my idea of classy. Nor appropriately "Books and Biblio-ish," but I try not to censor my topic too much. Anyhow, I want you folks to see what's "really out there!" And so, by viewing such curiosities of the biblio-plentiful world, we also see the variety of our human world. Of course, this was an interesting introduction to my visit to Madison some months ago. Having driven into the city from Chicago one afternoon, I went into the downtown area of Madison, not far from the state legislative building, the glorious rotunda. I'd eaten at a nice little Thai fusion place, and then decided to walk around a bit. And there I was, pad-thai and iced-tea filling my gullet, walking on the side-walks...and whammm!--a book greeting me with distended middle finger, beer pong theory, and, already know the rest.

But I was pleasantly delighted by the more traditional book store on one of the main streets, which was not far from this biblio-flipping-finger.

And this was Avol's Books--which you can find more about at: (
Avol's is an interesting place, a good old-fashioned book store that effervesces with the dust of biblio-antiquity, emotes a genteel sense of a Kiplingesque study, and creates a general nostalgia for bibliophilia. The shop itself is spacious, even sprawling, and contains sub-compartments of other book-sellers within the store. In one corner, on a shelf, there were leafs of hand-made paper for sale ($5 per sheet, or $40 for ten sheets). I felt like I was somewhere between a manuscriptorium and an art fair, gazing at the near-lost arts of a medieval economy. The lighting too was superbly ambient: soft bulbs glowed upon lots of "mapley" wood browns and pipe-smoke grays.

At every turn there was something nostalgic--and I use this term cautiously, because it often has a cheese-factor; something nostalgic can be seen as something with limited value or as kitchy. But nostalgia can also be a fundamental aspect of memory, triggering nigh-forgotten aspects of childhood and youth. Something like this massive dictionary, sitting on a lectern or reading stand brought back many images of bygone times for me--a dictionary similar to this still sits (usually open) in the little sun room of my grandparents home in New York.

Now the patron saint of librarians may be Saint Jerome, but the patron saint of book sellers (and vendors?--hmmmm) is Saint John of God. Or so this poster reports. By some twist of fate, I happened to be at a lecture this afternoon--April 14th--in Chicago (the same day I am writing this post) about the "construction of the idea of the saint."

The lecture, which started off with a fine vegan lunch of rosemary focaccia, fruit-infused cabbage salad, mango barley, a dash of red wine, and ending in coffee-maple granita, didn't seem to have much steam at first (save the food!), but evolved into a fine discussion about the role of "saint construction" with academic observations of hagiographic characters from Joan of Arc to Padre Pio. The discussion focused on the idea of "excess," specifically regarding how the lives and narratives of saints' lives promote the concept of excessiveness: that place beyond "legitimized centrality" in society. So, one might imagine the excess in prayer by a saint during his or her lifetime, or devotion to God through excessive practices of self-abnegation and torture of the physical self: walking miles barefoot for mass; sleeping on straw or wearing burlap sacks. These are but a few.

Yet, I wonder if there were a saint who "read too much," to fit this formula, "a reader in excess?" The scholars at this discussion were seemingly concerned with the ideas of space: that we are all living in specific spaces in the world, but that the saint lives in "that space beyond," which plays into that role, act, essence of "excess." Of course, I wonder, if this paradigm might be inwardly or reflexively cast back on the American audience, or the audience of "the West," which to others in the world may seem to live in "excess," profoundly, even grotesquely so. Yet, this is not a place beyond for those who are excessive in the West (whatever "West" really means!), nor is the West inherently "saintly." And we must remember, there are surely other criteria, which contribute to the idea and formation of saintliness, not simply some codes of conduct set by the Catholic Church.

Since we are on "saints" and "saintliness," let us turn our attention to some of the photos that are placed before us from the bookshops of Madison. One above, a joker of sorts, was painted on the wall of this same bookshop--might we make an argument for his own saintliness? An excess of laughter, or making others go beyond their space of thinking and comfort? Well, beyond the "saintliness" of the joker, we have yet another series of "saints"--how about this fine "Founders Wall," which I caught a glimpse of in a back hallway in the bookstore? I must confess that this cork-board commemoration wall seems a bit of both fact and fiction. I say this because some of these finely spectacled and mid-century dressed individuals look to be from among the circles of American "biblio-saints" and literati, like Salinger and Capote. But they may in fact be the early proprietors of the Madison book elite. I don't know. I never found out. And I apologize to my dear readers that I did not follow through on this one. Of course, I can also leave this to our own imaginations: perhaps it is better off not knowing, and letting you make your own pilgrimages to the Wisconsin capital, to discover who's who among bookish pursuits and historiography!

Certainly, I could not let a chance pass that included a shot of shelves dedicated to "books on books." Above you can see some of the choice selection from the same shop.

After my evening roam around downtown Madison, along the fine isthmus that is the center of town, I drove back toward my hotel on the western edge of the city. It was near there that I found a sprawling mall complex, which included this other new/reduced price independent book shop--the Frugal Muse. It turns out that Madison has two Frugal Muse shops. The one above was on the far west side of the city, actually outside of the city beltway itself. Here is a link for those interested:

Back in downtown the next day, I discovered this fine para-kabbalistic, New Age "world-mind" image of Barack Obama in the window of another shop, along with other book covers. I also found this great modern mural-style painting depicting Madison aglow with planets!

As I finished up on the main block of downtown, I came across this whacky poster reading "Beat the Bookstore"--which seemed to imply some low-cost prices for students at UW-Madison. What caught my eye, though, was the image of a caffeine-crazed student tearing his way through the pages and cover of a book, with the word "frustrated?" marked underneath him! Hmmmm, that's an odd one. Actually, on a closer look, you see that he's clenching cash in his hands too. Click on the image to enlarge and see for yourself!

Heading out of town, there were a few stops to be made, but these were still in Madison itself. First, was the St. Vincent de Paul Society Thrift Store. As I may have mentioned in past postings, thrift stores often yield the greatest biblio-finds. And I must say, this branch of the St. Vincent de Paul Society had a phenomenal book section--thousands and thousands of books. AND, they were well- and neatly organized. I found, but did not purchase, a complete set of the works of Lenin in English. (For those unfamiliar with communism, see the previous post on "Un-American Activities"). The image below is from inside the SVDP Thrift Shop.

One of the recommendations I must make to you all is Lazy Jane's Cafe in Madison. Seen here from the side of the cafe, in great big Scrabblish letters, Lazy Jane's is a fine "brunchery" and more. The food is quite good, and worth any wait. When you enter, you are going into a converted old house. There's a counter, which looks like it was built into the living room, with a staircase running adjacent to it. You place your order (it may be cash only, but I'm not certain), and then you find a table, chair, or couch with a coffee table. Then you wait for the cooks to shout your name in deafening yells: "TONY!" "JANE!" "MICHELLE!" and the cling of a bell! I sat upstairs on a mid-70s chartreuse-green couch, while I waited for my seitan-bacon, eggs, and home fries. I sipped a hefty thick brew of coffee, which was delicious, and read some books and magazines piled up all over the place. Below, you will see some of the selection of children's books. Lazy Jane's was written up and recommended in the New York Times' section "36 Hours in Madison" not too long ago. So go on and check her out! It's also along a very nice street with other fine establishments, and not far from the SVDP Thrift Shop.

The last stop on this biblio-journey was to the botanical gardens in Madison, which, as we've seen before, often have their own collections of books dedicated to botany and horticulture. And sure enough, the beautiful Olbrich Botanical Gardens had their own library, the Schumacher Library, the entrance of which you can see above.

Being winter during my visit, the most apparently live-looking plants were in the conservatory, which was misty and humid. A show dedicated to carnivorous plants was in session, and visitors paying $2 for entrance fees, were greeted by Venus Fly Traps and Pitcher Plants hanging from ceiling pots! Back inside the library, I wandered around and chatted briefly with the circulation staff on duty. I was told there was a bona fide librarian on staff, which was a great thrill to hear. As you can see, even though a moderately small library, by context, it was sizable.

Before heading out, I found this little gorilla curiously eyeing a book on English Cottage Gardens, perhaps wondering about the possibilities of topiary wonders in the British Isles. And below, I snapped a photo of some books on Poison Frogs. I started to think about this a little bit: why have a book on poison frogs in a botanical library, "frogs aren't plants!" But this goes back to another question and concern in my own library, "why have literature and sociology and American history books in a theological library?--they're not theological!" Ah, "au contraire" good people. To think like Borges, such things like "theology are part of literature," so too all things should be contextualized for their importance. And like these poison frogs, such seemingly ancillary topics are part of the ecosystem which maintains, provides, and works with the so-called main topic of a collection. Now whether you are interested in beer pong, manuscript paper, rare books, cheap books, thrift store books, or poison frog books, there is more than one place to find these objects of our affection. And books have place and purpose in seemingly out-of-the-ordinary locales, even if they don't seem to belong at first glance. Like the saintliness of excess, which we spoke of earlier, let us not think of a book's oddity of place as being "excessive" and, therefore something to be dismissed or done away with; rather, let us consider its value, ancillary or tangential, which may add greater depth and breadth to a collection, library, or book shelf. Let's not cast away the "oddities" of life. And let's face it, I'm sure in one way or another, poison frogs have saved the world. It may just take us a little while to figure out how.