by George Cowmeadow Bauman
Jack Matthews of Athens, Ohio, was an extraordinary man with a multi-dimensional life.
In addition to being a fine family man, he wore three professional hats: Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio University; well-respected rare-book dealer; and much-honored writer of seven novels, seven collections of short stories, a novella, and eight volumes of essays.
But in his younger days, he was also a private detective, a door-to-door Fuller brush salesman, and a produce warehouseman—whatever it took to keep body and soul together while raising a family, going to school, and writing.
He spoke to the Aldus Society on occasion, the last time on author Christopher Morley, and was a longtime member of our organization.
Anyone lucky enough to hear Jack tell booking stories was blessed, for he was a great raconteur. That ability to tell a tale was evident in his writings, especially his books of essays about his booking adventures: Booking Pleasures, which gave me the title of this story, Booking in the Heartland, Memoirs of a Bookman, and Reading Matter: Rhetorical Muses of a Rabid Bibliophile
I once told Jack, to his amusement and pleasure, that he was the only author I tolerated who made me keep a dictionary close at hand for those unknown—but just right—words he spiced his sentences with.
Jack passed in ’13, leaving behind a rambling house full of his private collection of books. He was a bibliophile (bibliomaniac?) who collected and sold books for decades.
His daughter Barbiel worked with Jack the last few years of his book-dealing days. He’d had HockHocking Books for many years, and most recently online at www.jackmatthewsoldandrarebooks.com.
In early November, Aldus Society members received an email inviting members to attend a big sale of Jack’s books, located in a large house of many rooms—all filled with books, in the wooded, autumnal country outside of Athens.
This caused quite a buzz, for we all knew that Jack had high-quality books; this wouldn’t be your average estate sale of books. Much of his inventory was high-end, acquired through the years from endless booking adventures.
“My mother was long-suffering,” Barbiel said with a winning smile. “While Dad visited bookshops and Goodwill stores all over Ohio, Mom sat patiently in the car.”
In Booking Pleasures, Jack invites us to go booking with him, which he defines as “the covetous foraging for old and rare books”. Later in the book he addresses his need to go booking, “I get so much pleasure from acquiring books that I sometimes buy them just to keep in practice.”
“And Dad loved to haggle!” Barbiel added. “He’d work out trades for books, using his own stock to acquire more. He didn’t like to spend a lot of money on a book, but he did want the very good stuff.”
So a few Aldines went booking like Jack…to Jack’s house.
On November 19th, several Aldine cars headed down Rt. 33 on a cold day with intermittent rain. Three of us from Acorn made the trip, hopes high, but keeping expectations low, which is a good practice through life.
Once there, we were greeted very pleasantly in Jack and Barbara’s large, airy living room by Barbiel and her husband, John Saunders, as well as her brother John and his wife Cathy. “There’s coffee and light food in the kitchen!” we were told by our gracious hosts, who clearly were caught up in the opportunity to share bibliophily with us.
But we Aldines came as book-hunters; the thoughtfully-provided coffee and refreshments would come later. The books were calling.
Soon we scattered to the many rooms, and a garage, full of oh-so-tempting books. There were Bill and Marcia Evans; Jay and Genie Hoster; Wes Baker; myself, Jack Salling, and Johnny B. from Acorn; and a bookstacker named John Begala, a longtime friend of Barbiel and John. Before arriving, we’d thought that—like some sales—we’d need elbow pads to push our way in to look at the books, but the size of both the house and the collection gave us all plenty of room to do our booking, unchallenged.
We browsed in silence, contentedly, occasionally pointing out a great find to one another. “An incredible sale,” Wes observed, as he and I browsed in Jack’s study, command central for his writing—he had two desks—and for his collection of books on books.
That was the room where I wanted to focus my browsing. Acorn Jack and John were downstairs, buying for the store; I was upstairs in the study looking for books on bookselling I needed for my personal collection, and found three signed books by British bookdealer, George Sims. “Old Jack”—as he sometimes signed books—also had many books by one of my favorite writers: the late Lawrence Clark Powell, librarian emeritus.
As Jack was one of my heroes, I was pleased to have a few minutes to myself in his study. I even sat in the great man’s chair, sitting quietly, pulling the atmosphere of books and writing around me like an inspirational literary cloak.
Eventually the gentle buzz of book-talk in the living room below brought me down to join the others.
Jay later told me that he’d found a beautifully-bound copy of “Saunterings in Bookland” for his souvenir of Jack’s study.
We were all so busy, so focused, during our book-hunt that the food was going mostly untouched, despite Barbiel’s urgings for us to visit the kitchen. So the Muffin Man appeared, carrying treats around to all. And napkins, too, for we didn’t want to soil any of the treasures we were handling.
And treasures there were. Books as far back as the 16th century decorated the shelves on seemingly endless bookcases. All price ranges were represented; therefore, many books were chosen. Jack’s strong Mark Twain collection was shelved in glass-fronted bookcases, while his assemblage of classic children’s literature was spread like a magnificent banquet on a large table in the dining room. His Americana shelves called to us like the American West called to pioneers. No matter which hall or room you wandered through, excellent books awaited.
There was no sense of competition among us, unlike some library or church rummage sales. More like friends hanging out together in the most laid-back, best bookshop we’d ever been in.
After a couple of hours, we began to wander back to the living room to add to our stacks and begin the check-out process, which gave us further opportunity to chat with Jack’s family.
It was a very social atmosphere, with Barbiel sitting on the couch, researching next to husband John; brother John sitting on the floor with wife Cathy in front of several stacks of books with their cellphones, also researching prices; and one or more of us bookbuyers standing, sitting, on the floor, or squatting near our stacks, scattered around the large room like so many yard gnomes. It was a fellowship of bibliophiliacs.
At one point, Barbiel made us laugh when she said, “If Jack were here now, he’d say, ‘Let’s all sing campfire songs! He loved to put people at ease, to cheer people up.” In his stead, Jack’s books were cheering us up.
Many wonderful titles were purchased that day as we took Jack’s book-children out into a larger world, grateful to him and his family for making such a wonderful collection available to the Aldus Society.
“Few passions are as great as those of the bookish sort.”
“Books render the things of this world distant, grand, mythical.”
“To hear and tell stories is our abiding human need.”
—Jack Matthews, Booking Pleasures