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Remembering My First Bryn Mawr Book Sale and a Man Who Was Interested in Everything

book rev1My early and invincible love of reading I would not exchange for all the riches of India.

—Edward Gibbon

I bought no books at my first Bryn Mawr Book Sale, April 28, 1976. I was incapable of serious browsing, having witnessed earlier that same morning the birth of my first, and only, child. I was floating. I floated in and I floated out. I don’t mean to slight the community’s single largest book event, but much as the arrival of a life in the context of Bryn Mawr 1976 puts the occasion in philosophical perspective, so does the loss of a life in the context of Bryn Mawr-Wellesley 2013. The life lost — that of Princeton bibliophile/philosopher/scholar/enlightened enthusiast Peter Oppenheimer — has given the sale one of the most sizeable and categorically rich and diverse donations in its history. Fifteen thousand volumes of philosophy, mathematics, history, art, music, literary criticism, literature, and biography, among other subject areas from Oppenheimer’s library, will be divided between the 2013 and 2014 events. Next week’s five-day sale begins with a $20 preview at 10 a.m., Monday, March 25, at Princeton Day School on the Great Road.

I didn’t leave my first Bryn Mawr sale empty handed, by the way. I had the piece of sheet music shown above in my hand. The cover silhouette of “Hindustan” signified another blessed event, my newborn book, Indian Action: An American Journey to the East. The lyrics were pure Tin Pan Alley circa 1918, “Shades of night are falling, nightingales are calling, every heart enthralling,” but the cover image was all it took to seal a special day and it’s been on display near my desk ever since.

Meeting Peter

My Bryn Mawr-Hindustan child’s first 10 years coincided with a particularly rich period in the used-book life of Princeton, centered in those days on bookstores like Witherspoon, Micawber, and the Cranbury Book Worm, and the annual sales at the library and at Bryn Mawr venues that eventually included Baker Rink and the rink at PDS, where I could sometimes be found with my son in one arm and a pile of books in the other. The 1980s were also a kind of golden age of garage and estate sales where extraordinary books could be found practically every week from spring through fall. But it was when Logan Fox came to town in 1981 and opened Micawber Books that the golden age truly began, since his store, true to its name, had a way of turning up wondrous somethings from some of Princeton’s most interesting libraries. Every week he seemed to be putting out rarities I could afford only by trading the previous weekend’s garage/estate sale finds. And it was at Micawber one day that Peter Oppenheimer and I arrived at a friendly territorial impasse. The objects of mutual desire were a set of Thomas DeQuincey from the 1850s, and two enormous, beautifully bound and lavishly illustrated books about Paris from the early 1830s. Peter got DeQuincey. I got Paris. If you believe in book sale fates and sheer serendipity, both these bones of ancient contention could turn up at next week’s sale.

Google Is Peter

Peter rarely if ever showed up at the garage and estate sales. Nor did he have any desire to join the stampede that had been a feature of the Bryn Mawr preview mornings until the folks in charge book rev2found a way to create an orderly procession — one that at least stays that way until people reach the arena where most of the books are. Then the game is on. Books fly off the tables, and you see big boxes dwarfing pairs of human legs moving weirdly about like book creatures in a book nerd’s nightmare while massive piles of hooded spoils rise in all corners. Peter would appear only after the heavy hitters had gone, and could sometimes be found there in the post-storm quietus when it was possible to calmly prowl and muse and putter amid the neglected multitudes.

Fortuitously based in the air-tight vault occupied by the Witherspoon Art & Book Store in the old Princeton Bank and Trust building on the corner of Nassau and Bank Streets, Peter was able to make the most of his enthusiasm for and wide knowledge of scholarly books as a trusted aide to the store’s owner Pat McConahay. “Wide knowledge” is an understatement. Peter’s family was in awe of his range. According to an email from his sister Lucy, “He was interested in EVERYthing.” To his younger brother Daniel, “Before Google, there was Peter.”

He was born in New York City, his mother an assistant classics professor at Hunter College, a musician, and a “Renaissance woman,” his father a mechanical engineer with an interest in language. Peter began reading at age three, was collecting books by the time he got to high school and would make notes on every volume he read in tiny print on 4 x 6 cards, a practice he kept up for the rest of his life. Browsers at next week’s sale may find some of these note cards still tucked between the covers of his books, although the print is so small you may need a magnifying glass. When I first knew him, Peter had serious ocular issues and seemed able to read only by holding printed matter right up to his eyes. Lucy says it’s because he used only one eye and had learned to read whole paragraphs at a time, “which is why he read so fast.” If we were in an R. Crumb comic strip about book freaks, Peter would appear as Barney Google and I would be a bearded Dagwood Bumstead forever barely making it onto the back of the bookstore bus.

Slightly built and intense, seemingly always processing thoughts, never without something to say, Peter talked a blue streak — “all over the place,” Lucy fondly recalls, “the same way he read.” It would be wrong, however, to restrict his story to a purely bookish environment. After graduating from the University of Chicago, where he studied mathematics, philosophy, and symbolic logic, he served in Malawi, East Africa in the first generation of the Peace Corps, an experience his sister says had “a powerful impact on him,” such that in the last few years he would reconnect with the others in his group every summer on Cape Cod at the home of novelist Paul Theroux, visits Lucy says “Peter thoroughly enjoyed.”

After Witherspoon closed in June 2005, Peter and I continued to encounter one another on Nassau Street, at the library, and in the Princeton Record Exchange. He always had more than books to talk about. Sometimes he would be responding to some film or book or record I’d written about in that week’s Town Topics. Like me, Peter came of age in the 1960s and was touched for life with the sixties spirit, so it’s no surprise that the Portable Beat Reader is among the books of his in Bryn Mawr’s Collectors’ Corner, along with the first edition of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

The scope of Peter’s holdings in classics and philosophy is staggering. His sister estimates that he owned 15 complete or partial versions of Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Among the hundreds of his books in Bryn Mawrs’ Collectors’ Corner are Cross Cultural Encounters in Joseph Conrad’s Malay Fiction; Japan Through American Eyes; Between Geography and History; Age, Marriage and Politics in Fifteenth-Century Ragusa; Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724. You get the idea. The list sometimes has the aura of a Borges library: The Ghost Festival in Medieval China; Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture; Death in the Tiergarten; Shipwreck with Spectator; and The Merciless Laboratory of History.

Asked to name favorite writers or specific literary, historical, scientific, or philosophical fixations of Peter’s, Lucy could only say that many of his books related to Samuel Johnson, Boswell, and English literature and history. That makes sense, for Samuel Johnson was, like Peter, interested in EVERYthing and perhaps best known for once telling Boswell, “When a man tires of London, he tires of life.” A portion of Peter’s “London” will be at Princeton Day School next week. It’s sad to think that this is one Bryn Mawr-Wellesley sale Peter would have stood in line for on opening day, it’s his dream, his baby, the sum of his heart’s desire.

For detailed information on the Bryn-Mawr Wellesley Book Sale, visit www.bmandwbooks.com. Preview Day Monday, March 25, admission is $20 per person, with hours from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Preview sale admission tickets have been issued using a lottery system. Tickets may also be bought at the door. Preview sale customers will have a chance to sign up for Collectors’ Corner as they pick up the tickets. The sale is open to the public on Tuesday, March 26, and Wednesday, March 27, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Half-Price Day, Thursday, the hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Box day, Friday, March 29, hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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