Anne Fadiman may be responsible for riverrun’s survival and we never thanked her properly. In fact, though profoundly grateful, we never thanked her at all.
The transition from riverrun owner Frank Scioscia, who always subsidized the bookstore quite heavily, to his son in law Chris Stephens, who did not have the luxury of outside funds, was fraught with peril. At one very dark moment I was beginning to wonder if we could make it.
Then there was a miracle. Someone told us that they’d read a zippy article about the store. Several other customers came in telling us how they’d read of riverrun in a complimentary article by Anne Fadiman. We didn’t know Anne Fadiman. A stranger had discovered us!
Someone brought us the article from the Library of Congress magazine, Civilization. We loved it. It isn’t really an essay about riverrun. It is an essay about the love of books, the way books furnish an outward environment for the inward self, and about a husband who has the good sense to share one’s love of books. Only incidentally does the essay mention a birthday surprise expedition to riverrun bookshop, the long browse there, and the 19-pound purchase carried back to New York City. The way we read it though, it was an essay about riverrun. It buoyed our spirit and strengthened our will and eased our way across the difficult transition.
We taped that article to the front windows of riverrun and it continued to smile at us daily as we came into the store.
Seasons passed. The ink from the article transferred itself to the window glass. The paper became brown and tattered but remained in place until the landlady had to replace the store windows.
Gone with the discarded old windows! Why hadn’t we made copies of the article when it was fresh and new and still readable?
No matter. Anne Fadiman’s collected essays from Civilization were published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in a wonderful book called Ex Libris. The essay mentioning riverrun is the last in the book, “Secondhand Prose”. Clever.
My first copy of Ex Libris was given to Chris and me by a beaming customer. Re-reading “Secondhand Prose” was such a pleasure that I read and reread every essay in the book, oblivious to all else. I read them again today when I took this book out to scan for the blog.
These essays are perfect. I wanted more. Luckily there are more. I just ordered another couple of books by Anne Fadiman. At Large and At Small and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I have a treat coming in the mail.
Not everyone knows about these jewels. Why not? For one thing essays are hard to categorize. I know of a case of mis-categorization.
Our daughter Mary – quite a good bookwoman herself – was working at a bookstore in Memphis. Mary was keeping a low profile for reasons of her own, but she couldn’t keep silent when she saw Ex Libris shelved in the foreign language section. “This book isn’t written in a foreign language,” she told another worker.
“It isn’t?” He stared at the title, baffled.
If I had been Mary, I’d have stood on a chair waving the book in the air and making noise. “This book mentions my family’s bookstore,” I would have shouted. “And it belongs in a high visibility spot so people can buy these superb essays!”
I thank Fadiman for those superb essays. They are a delight to read and to reread. I also thank her for mentioning riverrun at a point in history when the bookshop might have winked out of existence.
Thank you, Anne Fadiman, thank you!
At Large and At Small
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
Rereading: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love (edited by Fadiman)
Bio from Yale:
article and interview from Atlantic online: