Book Review

At Micawber Something Wonderful Turned Up; An Appreciation

Stuart Mitchner

Note: I hope this personal expression of appreciation from a longtime (1981-2007) patron and friend of Micawber Books and Logan Fox will reflect the experience of others in the community who have cherished the store and found good books there, old and new.

Maybe the best way to appreciate how lucky we were to have had a store like Micawber Books is to try to imagine life in Princeton since 1981 without it. Remember in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life when James Stewart gets a guided tour of what life in his home town would have been like had he never existed? The reality of a Micawber-less Princeton might not equal Capra’s vision of a small town gone vicious and corrupt, but for those of us who have watched the little-shop-that-could grow from its original cramped locale to today’s double-barrelled wonder, the prospect of life here without Logan Fox’s store is not merely bleak, it’s unthinkable. Trying to remember all the local bookstores, both chain and independent, that have come and gone since 1981, I come up with Titles Unlimited and Encore in the shopping center, a short-lived Doubleday on Palmer Square, and several others whose names I can’t remember. Can you imagine ever forgetting Micawber?

In its cozy prime, when the essence of two well-stocked bookshops was squeezed into a space about the size of a subway car interior (“infinite riches in a little room”), Micawber really did suggest something out of a more sophisticated Frank Capra vision of Americana, a small town ideal both parents and kids could appreciate, where the owners were friends you could drop in on whether or not you bought something to talk (in my case) baseball and books, or (in my son’s case) rock and roll. For generations of kids, Micawber was a special place, and, for my son it became an enlightened safety zone matched only by the children’s room at the old library in the Dudley Carlson era. For adults, “enlightened” meant people who understood your question when you asked for a certain book, people like Roland Roberge, whose whimsical sculpture (a sort of Dadaesque mannikin) used to stand near the entrance, or Eleanor Burnette, also an artist, who was there almost from the beginning and now at the end, and of course Margaret Griffin who joined forces with Logan just when Micawber most needed her.

New and Old

One of the most remarkable things about Micawber was that it functioned from the start as a source of quality new books while continually sustaining and replenishing a strong secondhand stock. I’ve been trying to think of any other bookstore that managed to do both and I can’t. Perhaps on the West Coast, but here in the East there’s nothing like it that I know of, even in New York, including the Gotham Book Mart, which offers only a limited, highly selective supply of new books, or the Strand, where Logan worked before coming here. For all its secondhand glories and choice remainders, the Strand doesn’t house an easily accessible stock of new titles you can can count on the way you can at Barnes and Noble or Borders — or Micawber; in that cramped space, back in the years before the expansion into adjoining stores, Logan somehow managed to miraculously juggle both enterprises, old and new.

Although the in-store subject Logan and I talked about most often, aside from baseball, was new books, my experience of the store was dominated by the secondhand side. In the early 1980s, if one of your favorite diversions was buying or selling used books, Princeton was a fun place to live. It seemed that almost every weekend when the season was right you could discover at least one garage or estate sale in town where interesting and often valuable finds could be had “for a song.” If you felt like selling or trading what you found, you could go to either Pat at Witherspoon or Logan at Micawber or, further afield, Ralph at the Cranbury Book Worm, riding the used and rare book merry-go-round, where recycling was taken to the highest power. In those first years, Logan seemed to have an uncanny talent for attracting rare books.

Something “Turns Up”

I have reason to be especially grateful to Logan Fox, as do all the other authors for whom he hosted readings and conjured up brilliantly thoughtful book-signing parties. The one he gave for me, with a card of invitation in autumnal colors designed by Ellie Wyeth, who also designed the store’s bookmarks (as shown here) and Mr. Micawberesque logo, was easily the highlight of an otherwise predictably uninspiring publication experience. Two years before that, when the store was brand-new and I was writing the novel in question (which featured a secondhand bookstore based on the Old York in New Brunswick), the first item I ever bought at Micawber provided me with a crucial plot element and the germ of my denouement. To paraphrase Mr. Micawber himself, “something turned up” in the form of a boxed 2-volume set I still own and still use: The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville by Jay Leyda. Logan’s lightly penciled date and price are still visible inside the cover of the first volume. The date being 9/81, this clearly must have been among the first books he put out for sale, and it proved to be worth far more to me than the $17.50 I paid for it. In his introduction to this fascinating compendium of biographical data, Leyda says he trusts “the reader will find enjoyment traveling alongside Melville — through good days and bad days, through great aims and trivial duties.” But the “crucial plot element” I needed and didn’t even know I was looking for appeared on the third page of the introduction where Leyda refers to a “legend” claiming that “will-o’-the-wisp Mardi and Moby Dick manuscripts are still flitting about in New Jersey.” And so it came to pass that the manuscript of the Great American Novel turned up among the legendary treasures in the basement of my fictional New Jersey bookshop.

And while we’re speaking of treasures, how about the first American edition of Melville’s masterpiece, published by Harper & Brothers in 1851? This is not a volume you expect to see outside of a glass case in a rare book salon or auction house. One unforgettable day, however, when I happened to be in Micawber as Logan was emptying a grocery bag of recent arrivals, he came up with exactly this treasure, like a magician pulling a whale-sized rabbit out of his hat. While the spine was tattered, considerably reducing the value, the rest of the first American edition of Moby Dick was in fine shape, bright and tight. Micawber magic! Nothing in my bookshop adventures is ever likely to top that. And it happened at the one time in my life when I could afford to buy such a thing. But then, as was usually the case, Logan’s price was more than fair.

The Last Party

I wonder if others who were there feel as pleasantly haunted as I do by Micawber’s 20th birthday party, which was celebrated at Mingnella’s Hillbilly Hall outside Hopewell on Saturday, September 8, 2001. No one at the time could have doubted that it was a great, truly memorable party, a definitive celebration worthy of its subject, another scene out of Frank Capra, as joyful as the Christmas ending of It’s a Wonderful Life, and all the more so because it took place in a setting that reeked of Americana, a downhome roadhouse where it’s said that John Wayne used to hang out when he was in the area visiting the Biddle-Dukes and the Lindberghs. With a few adjustments, you could have staged a Hollywood western saloon brawl there, or a sad dance scene in a wartime romance, or a speakeasy sequence out of a Prohibition era gangster flick, or an Elvis Presley revival meeting. It had all the elements, a snooker table, a big shiny colorful juke box, rustic rafters and paneling, and a dance floor where Logan and his mother led the way, set the tone, no slow dancing that night, no waltzes or fox trots, it was let-it-all-hang-out full-speed-ahead rocking and rolling as a band of middleaged rockers pounded out inspired versions of “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Lady Madonna,” “All Right Now,” and “You Really Got Me.”

And then, only a few days later, came the event that seemed to herald the millennium more starkly and ominously than anything anyone save the most paranoid could have imagined. Even so, Micawber Books has achieved a kind of retail magnificence in the years since September 11. It’s going out in its glory. And the Trade Center catastrophe, rather than casting a retroactive shadow on that last party, only illuminates the jubilation with something like an end-of-an-era glow half a decade before the real farewell, which is coming, all too soon, in March.

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