Thursday, May 11, 2017

the new Tsar

Reading Bob Archambeau's little memoir of Ron Ellingson and Chicago's Aspidistra Bookstore in Bob's latest collection, Inventions of a Barbarous Age, I'm reminded of various bookstores in which I've spent time over the years. There have been many—Blacksburg's Softcovers, Ithaca's Blue Fox, Boca's BookWise, and any number of places in Washington DC and New York City. I haven't often struck up relationships with booksellers, alas, though when I have—Dave Wulf of BookWise, Sean Norton of Reston's Book Alcove—I've valued them. For a long time I've written my name in books, along with date and place of acquisition. Not usually the precise bookshop—but I can usually remember that, oddly enough, just by handling the book.

Reading Martin Gilbert's very long and not particularly good history of the First World War, I've gotten to the overthrow of the Tsar Nicholas and the Bolshevik revolution. Which reminded me, as it always does, of an incident in a bookshop in Alexandria, Virginia, a little over twenty years ago.

It was an odd place—in a kind of anonymous office space, as I remember it: not really a retail center at all, but a unit of office space that was being used as a bookshop. Well-organized; much of the stock seemed to consist of Library of Congress extra copies, or so they were stamped. I came up to the counter with five books: Terence Irwin's Aristotle's First Principles, three volumes of Mallarm√©'s letters in the big French paperbacks, and a nice hardcover Grove Press de Sade, 120 Days of Sodom.

The proprietor was an old man, heavily overweight, bald on the crown though long-haired otherwise, speaking with a thick eastern European accent. He chuckled at the de Sade: "You better not let your girlfriend see that!" As I paid for my books, he rambled on about how long he'd been in America. Then, apropos of nothing in particular, he started telling me about his childhood in Russia, how he'd grown up in St. Petersburg. "One day, my mother takes me out to the street. She holds me up, and there is a big car passing by, and a man in it with a uniform and a crew-cut. 'Look,' she says, 'it is the new Tsar!'"

He pauses. "It was Kerensky."

[Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky (1881-1970), for something less than four months leader of the Russian provisional government after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II; went into exile after being forced from power in the Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917]