Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mary Jane Books -- Cobleskill, NY

Books in the Attic?

Perhaps one of the little known secrets about book shops is that some of the best, and I mean very best book shops are not to be found in the big cities...but out in the countryside. Now, I know there will be some folks that will say, "but the Strand is the best!" Okay, NYC book shops can be behemoth in size, but places like the Strand (which I like), are often way over priced. The point of going to book shops, especially "used" book shops or any other second-hand store that sells books is that you can find great deals. If you don't want deals or the joy of the book hunt, well, then go to Amazon, aLibris, or your local Walmart. But if you are up for some bibliographic fun, and are simply entertained by the peregrination factor involved in searching for bookish places, then the country book shop is for you.

The added element of these country book shops is that they all have their unique flavor--their shops have some sort of curiosity, flare, and personality. From the proprietor and/or owner, to the cats perched up on window sills, or Labradors curled into wintery warm fur pillows on knitted rugs. I'm also a fan of book shops, which have couches and lounge chairs--as long as they're not covered with dust mites or bed bugs or too much cat hair! But back to more pleasant topics: these local book shops can be great, and pleasant finds. A few months back I was driving through Cobleskill, NY...on my way to Brooks BBQ in Oneonta--which if you haven't tried it, you must! But back in Cobleskill, there is an old book shop that I just adore, called Catnap Books, on 574 Main Street. I've been going there for years, and have found some excellent books there at very good prices.

This time through, I discovered a new place called Mary Jane Books, which apparently has other "branches," even though it's a used book shop. (I should say that there are some other notable examples, such as Powell's Books in Chicago, which is a used shop--and probably my all time favorite book shop--but has several branches). Mary Jane Books may not have the variety or even gravitas of Catnap, but it is a fun little place, and is located at 509 W. Main Street, just down the street. I think, as I have been visiting and reviewing the book shop culture for some time now, that these shops do best where there are colleges and universities--for obvious reasons. And I think that anyone interested in this sort of business would be wise to start up such an enterprise in just such an area.

The link to Mary Jane Books can be found here:

The Cobleskill branch is small, and is located in a space, which looked to be above a what felt like an attic! But there was plenty of parking and the interior was pleasant and inviting for readers. And there was ample light (natural and otherwise) for sitting and going through a few volumes. There were some deals to be had here, for sure. So if you're in the Cobleskill area, stop off and visit these great little book shops.

Oblong Books--Millerton, NY

Bookshop on the "Borders"

I've often wondered where the name "Borders" came from (as in "Borders Books"), and simply considered it had something to do with the "limits of our imagination." No such luck. In fact, it turns out that "Borders" was simply the last name of the brothers, Tom and Louis, who started the first "Borders" book shop back in 1971 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Though nowadays, with the corporate amalgamation that this humble shop became, Borders Group, in fast decline and bankruptcy, the only borders we may speak of are the old ones which limit time and space. This came to mind recently, when I went to visit the small, yet delightfully old fashioned town of Millerton, NY, which has a great number of specialty shops and eateries (somewhat like Woodstock, NY--but slightly different). Millerton is on the "border" of New York State and Connecticut, and among its featured businesses is Oblong Books (see above), which also has a branch in Rhinebeck, NY. This family owned business sells mostly new books, but still has the flavor of a locally brewed book joint, with affable and knowledgeable staff. They seem to promote community in various ways, including hosting readings and other events on a pretty regular basis. So if you're ever in town--Millerton or Rhinebeck--stop by one of these shops and take a look!

Woodstock, NY Bookshop

Just Passing By...

Occasionally, I'll find a bookshop worth mentioning, and offer it up for readers--without much commentary. I discovered this shop in Woodstock, NY a few months ago, nestled between the other interesting shops of the town. There are many curious places to see in the area, both in terms of retail shops and cultural activities. There are also quite a few good eateries in town. As usual, check it out!

Another Closing: Remembering Merritt Books in Redhook

How Many More...!?

It seems like every time we turn a corner, another book store closes. I know that over the last few years, as I've been exploring book shops, libraries, and other bookish things, I've covered or reported on the closing of a handful of such locales--the Mercury Cafe Lending Library in Chicago, the Theological Library in the Chicago Convent, the Barnes and Noble in Lincoln Center, the majestic seminary library of Mt. Saint Alphonsus, and others. This story is now about a year old, as it was probably last January or so when I came across this book shop, Merritt Books, in Redhook, NY--not far from Rhinebeck, NY, where Oblong Books still survives. As I drove by the store, I saw signs that read something like "Going Out of Business," so I went in and inquired.

And so, it was true. And what I found were mostly empty shelves--shelves which once held hundreds, maybe thousands of books. And though it had not closed completely yet, they were now selling off their shelving units, at varying prices, but somewhere in the area of $100-$400. There were still some items left, but not many. The shop itself closed just a few weeks after my visit. Luckily, it was only this location that closed, I later found out. There is now a Merritt Books in Millbrook (not Millerton, where Oblong is). As the market for bookshops tightens with online book shopping, there is a hope that they may find a specific niche, which will help them flourish. And there book shops that ARE flourishing. We just need to keep visiting them.

Forgotten and Other Seminaries (Part 3): Catholics and Unificationists

Interesting Histories: From Private Estate to Religious Institutions

The small hamlet of Barrytown, NY, is bound on one side by the great Hudson river, and lies squarely within the historically rich confines of a once immense land grant owned by the Livingston family, on the eastern shores of the river. For centuries, literally, this land was held by the Livingston family, gradually broken up into smaller parcels. So, in usual fashion, one share of this land went to a Livingston descendent, who decided to build a fine estate. As we find in one Dutchess County local history account about John R. Livingston:

"In 1797 he built a marvelously elegant mansion, called Massena after one of Napoleon's great generals. (Massena House, today part of Unification Seminary, stands on the site of the original 18th-century mansion.) Its central feature was a splendid glass-domed library. Perhaps in later life he had time to read the books in his excellent collection, but for the next 25 years, as in the preceding 25 years, he scrambled for money so fast and furiously that it is hard to imagine him sitting quietly for more than a thumb-through." (Full Article)

That said, he and his descendants lived in the Massena House for the next century, until the death of its last owner around 1903. In fact, there are two images below, which show the Massena House as it looked at the turn of the twentieth century, in an ad for its sale (note there is an expansive lawn from which the image was taken), and another photo, which I took just recently, from inside of the present seminary.

Between 1903 and ca. 1930, the house was owned and inhabited by other parties, of which I have yet not identified. But it is clear that, probably in the late 1920s, the owners of the estate sold the property to the Catholic Church (unless it was acquired by the church at a much earlier time--this would have to be researched further). In 1930, the St. Joseph Juniorate and Novitiate in Barrytown, operated by the Lasallian Christian Brothers, opened. This Novitiate, run by Lasallians (often indicated by FSB
-- Fratres Scholarum Christianarum--after their names), was an educational institution, which ran until 1973, and within two years was sold to another religious organization. The original building structure is still in use, by its successive property owners, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, and was made into the church's seminary.

The day I visited, it was in great part by accident. I had been visiting a nearby town, and was driving near Barrytown. I saw a sign on the road for the Unification Theological Seminary, and had recalled various unclear visions of the so-called "Moonies" (a term which is pejorative, and not used in any positive way), whom I'd come in contact with as a child in the late 70s and early 80s--a time which was probably the height of their Public Relations battles. Nonetheless, I'd always been intrigued by the seminary, which I'd never visited. And so, on this cold winter day, I decided to venture in and see what I could find.

Entering through the front gate--which was now empty, and boasted a cutout of Santa Claus--, I first drove around the estate, which has both paved and dirt roads, and wends through the hilly terrain of the old Livingston estate. Regal barns and other out-buildings still dot the landscape amid oaks, pines, and locust trees, bending down to the earth like old men with canes, who'd been there for countless generations, watching children play and grow in the grassy fields. Coming back toward the front of the seminary, across from the old Massena House, I curiously found a woman and some children doing garden work--in the cold of the December weekend.

I pulled in and parked, and got out to speak with the woman. I asked her about the seminary and if there was a chapel that I could see. She told me to enter a side door, and take a look for myself. So I did. It was still a bit cold inside, and somewhat castle-like. When I finally found where I was going, I discovered a marvelous old chapel, that in some ways had been reduced in size--at least by its chairs. There were no pews, just a few rows of chairs, a grand piano, and some instruments along with sound amplification hardware. Symbolic flags hung from either side of the chapel, and off to the right, in a corner, there was an alter, with a Bible to one side, framed squarely with the famed photo of Rev. and Mrs. Moon--he standing and smiling, she regal in her golden imperial dress.

I walked around a bit more, still rather cold. The sound of youngsters ricocheted through the corridors, and soon I saw a handful of kids, probably between 9 and 15 year olds, running down the hallways and into the chapel. They came in and started playing songs on the piano, as I made my way out. In one hallway, I discovered some display cases of books--"New Arrivals at the UTS Bookstore" a placard read. There were books, but also mugs reading "UTS" on them. Behind another door, which led down an interior hallway, I found a door and a sign that read "Bookstore," but there was no indication that it was open or even operable any longer. Especially since the institution's main facility is now in Manhattan, according to both the people I spoke with at the seminary that day and their website, it seemed likely that the operations of the Barrytown location were winding down.

As I walked around a bit more, this realization became ever more apparent, when I cam upon another display--this one of images accompanied by evocations of religious profession by the Rev. Moon. It showed the Reverend with congregants reliving biblically imagined fishing expeditions in the Hudson River, right off the property to the west, down a slight and rolling hillside. The images are extraordinary, in many ways, not in the least that they convey a time and a place in the religious explorations of the 1970s, that were somehow almost impervious to the mass suspicion that technology and communications of today bring to religious claims. In some ways, that period still allowed myth making or king making or religion making in a way that would be almost impossible today.

The great curiosity of this intriguing band of religionists is still enshrined in this weathered temple of theological education and its surrounding buildings. And four-decade-old remnants are still here to be found, for now--with kind, quiet, and pleasant people living and working here.

From what I understand, the library no longer operates, and the main library and book center, for curricular needs has shifted south to NYC.

Heading out, that morning, I drove around the estate-turned-campus, with a slight sense of melancholy. With a sense that religious institutions have always gone through transitions, but with more issue and trouble in the last hundred years; and even more in the last twenty years. Technology has moved us away from the physical school, the physical realm of education in many ways, to a sphere of all-information, all over the place, all of the time.

We could just imagine some young novices, during the old Lasallian days, wandering from one statue to the next, one station of the cross to the next, in these magnificent old Livingstonian fields, with the warm breeze of spring, and the flight of some robins nearby. Each young learner imbibing the majesty of place and the power of nature.

Now, we might wonder if place even matters any more--at least in our quest for understanding education, especially theological education.

Presbyterian on Rye?

Even Calvin Would Be Speechless!

I saw this in Washington Heights last month, while walking one Saturday with my co-worker Matthew. I'm not even sure how to respond to such a cultural delicacy as this. Though, my only real guess is that there is a committee running the place. Or else they accept laminated pages of the Institutes as legal tender.

Anyone for a little General Assembly with that pastrami?

Subway Preacher

Book in Hand, God in Mouth

Another preacher on the street...or more accurately, in the subway. I caught this one as I was heading home one day. They often congregate by the Port Authority and other high density pedestrian areas. This subway preacher was reading loudly from the Bible (in hand), as the throngs of people came and went.

Night Time Street Preacher in NY

Preaching God at Night

I'm not sure what this fellow was actually preaching, because he wasn't very easy to understand, but he did have this look in his eye like he was possessed, while shouting something like "God will heal you!" It was loud, erratic, and staccato'd in its delivery. He carried a book, which looked like a Bible. And when I stopped near him, he had a blank stare, as if he were blind....or possessed! He then handed me a pamphlet about alcoholism, and then continued his walk and shouts of godliness.

A Curious Bodega: Open or God?

Are You Open? Sorry, We're God!

I had to share this unusual shop sign, which I passed by last month in the upstate town of Troy, NY. I was walking around the downtown area and spotted this little bodega, which was closed. But instead of there being a "CLOSED" sign, there was this crudely made sign right smack in the middle of the door that read "YHWH." I'm not even sure what kind of social commentary to add here, because this totally surprised me. "YHWH?" I mean, if you weren't expecting it, and couldn't read Hebrew, my guess is that you might think it reads "CLOSED" in another language. But I'm sure there is some deep theology going on here, but it is clearly esoteric, and cannot be had by us mortals in our quotidian rummaging in upstate cities.

I know that Augustine said something about God's hiddenness and presence being wrapped up into one. But clearly, God...or YHWH is not hidden here, for our bodega friends. Maybe this is some sort of anti-theft device: "Yeah, we're closed, but guess what? There's a God of the Hebrew Bible hiding inside, watching you!" Maybe the sign is supposed to read like a "Beware of Dog!" sign. Except...yes, I'm sorry to say... it's really "Beware of God!"

It's your call, readers.