Novels, Poetry and More from The Brick Row Book Shop
By Michael Stillman
This month we review our first catalogue from The Brick Row Book Shop. Brick Row may be new to us, but not to bookselling. The firm was founded by former Yale students in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1915, and over the years, in keeping with the advice of Horace Greeley, has followed a slow progression west. With stops at Princeton, New Jersey, New York, and Austin, Texas, it migrated all the way to its present location in San Francisco. For the past 35 years, California has been its home. It is currently operated by its third owner, John Crichton, who purchased the firm in 1983.
This latest catalogue is headed Miscellany No. 47: Recent Acquisitions. This is a generalist catalogue. However, there are notable concentrations of 19th century and earlier novels and poetry. Most are not among the best known novels and poems. They were either obscure in their time, or were once popular but now not often remembered. Some of the earlier novels are particularly interesting since at the turn of the 19th century, novels were generally looked down upon. They were thought to corrupt the mind with diversionary if not downright salacious trash. Books were supposed to offer truth and learning. It would take many years for the novel to achieve a measure of respectability. Nevertheless, this type of book, like everything that touches on the scandalous, quickly became quite popular. Brick Row takes us back to those early days with many of the items in their catalogue. Now let's take a look inside.
An indication of the low esteem with which novels were once held can be seen in Emily Hamilton, a Novel. Founded on Incidents in Real Life. By a Young Lady of Worcester County. Indications of the image problem can be seen by the fact that author Sukey Vickery did not use her name, and in her insistence that it is not pure fiction, but based on "real life." This 1803 work was published by the very respectable Isaiah Thomas, founder of the American Antiquarian Society, still the largest American repository of pre-1876 books. It tells the story of three young girls who deal with such issues as prearranged marriages and unwanted suitors. In the introduction, Ms. Vickery feels compelled to defend the merit of novels, stating, "Novels ought not to be indiscriminately condemned, since many of them afford an innocent and instructive amusement, and being written in the best style furnish the young reader with elegant language and ideas." Item 82. Priced at $1,250.
Here is a novel evidently not written in the "best style." The title is Vigor, and while it appeared under the pseudonym Walter Barrett, Clerk, the author was Joseph Scoville. According to Sabin, the 1864 book was suppressed by Carleton of New York, its own publisher. Apparently this copy was once in the library of John Harvey Vincent Arnold, whose collection went up for auction in 1879. In that sale catalogue, the book was described as, "one of the most atrocious and grossly indecent novels ever published in this country. It was rightly suppressed shortly after publication." Kind of makes you want to read it. You can, for just $150. Item 5.