University of Virginia Library


Along the north wall of the foyer, below the "Bronze Brown" and "Green Lake" Bradley poster and running most of the three feet from the apartment door to the northeast corner, is a three-shelf oak bookcase, with a leaded-glass door on each shelf. These three separate, stackable, shelves, with a top and a base, are examples of the sectional "barrister" bookcases from the early years of the twentieth century. (The major brand was Globe-Wernicke, but I also have examples from three other companies.) I have written in an earlier autobiographical essay about how important this wonderful style of bookcase, handsome and well-made, is to my earliest recollections of the house I grew up in. Two of the three shelves in this stack in my foyer are from the family house, and the third (the only other with leaded glass that I have encountered) comes from one of the later batches that I purchased. Altogether I acquired over a hundred of these shelves. A few came from some estate sales in my Indiana home town and from my aunt Mary, who located them in Danville, Illinois; but my two largest acquisitions came from Chicago and from Madison, Wisconsin.

The source of the first was Owen Davies, a bookseller on La Salle Street in Chicago, specializing in transportation literature. His shop was not far from the Newberry Library, where I spent a great deal of time in the late 1960s and early 1970s working on the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of Melville in the spacious room that opened off the west side of the lobby. Once when I was in his shop, he told me about an apartment full of books that he was clearing out. When he mentioned sectional bookcases, I asked to see them, and we went to an apartment that was filled, almost floor to ceiling, with stacks of newspapers and unopened packages of books, leaving only narrow pathways to move through. Obviously the former resident was an obsessive accumulator, for whom bringing home bundles of books was the goal, since he never looked at them again. The bookcases were partly visible behind the bundles, and they were the kind I wanted, so we reached a deal. As a result, I went around Chicago for days in a station wagon filled with rattling bookshelves, until I had time to drive them south to the family house, two and a half hours away. The other large group of shelves came in the early 1970s from Grace Hughes, the widow of Merritt Y. Hughes, the famous University of Wisconsin


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Miltonist (whose intensely learned performances at oral examinations furnish my most distinct recollections of him). Some of Merritt's shelves were of a brand I had not seen before: they could be disassembled completely, rather than each shelf being an intact unit. When assembled, they are perhaps even more handsome than the others, and they now fill the east wall of my living room.

When I lived in Madison, I had only a small number of the sectional bookcases with me. Most were in the Indiana house (a large house, fortunately), where the bulk of my growing collections filled walls in many of the rooms. But in New York I have been able to accommodate a larger part of the collections (though by no means all), and I have eighty-five of the shelves in my apartment: besides the three inside the front door and the twenty on the east wall of the living room, there are seven on the west wall of the foyer, twelve on the west wall of the dining alcove, twelve on the north wall of the living room, three on the east wall next to the door into the hall leading to the bedrooms, two under the Hepburn table, and one next to the sofa—as well as twenty-five in one of the bedrooms. My partner also has eighteen in her house. The only ones remaining in the Indiana house are the sixteen black mahogany ones on the north wall of the living room, where they have stood for as long as I can remember.