Garrett Scott aspires to be Ann Arbor’s Captain Charley.
Antiquarian Book Shop
For Intelligent People
By Risk or Appointment
I’m not certain I meet the sign’s description, but I take the risk and enter the warehouse behind 1924 Packard, by Morgan & York’s back door.
“The sign is a reference to Joseph Mitchell’s sketch ‘Hit on the Head with a Cow’ and the proprietor of the Private Museum for Intelligent People, Captain Charley,” explains Garrett Scott, forty-six. “Should I live long enough, my hope one day is to step into a role as Ann Arbor’s Captain Charley.”
On a warm summer day, the doors are flung open, revealing shelves and stacks of leather-bound books and cases with intriguing labels holding pamphlets, diaries, journals, letters, political tracts, songbooks, and early photographs. The shop’s website, bibliophagist.com, refers to the warehouse and store as “central Washtenaw [C]ounty’s most semi-pleasant conditions for the casual browser.”
Casual browsers will find “works of obscure Americana, literature, and religious thought” of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, collected by a bookseller with a strong sense of humor and a passion for a business he describes as “fitful and contrary to most accepted economic principles.”
“My job involves a special kind of matchmaking,” Scott says, sitting down at a desk piled high with his wares. “I find unique, or at least unusual, materials and match them to customers or, more often, university special collections. I research the needs and strengths of libraries’ collections and try to locate appropriate additions to their collections.”
Scott loves old books, manuscripts, journals, letters, religious tracts, and songbooks, and he treats them as honored guests until he can find them suitable permanent residences. He discovered his calling as a history undergrad at Stanford. “I was majoring in cutting classes until I landed a work-study job in the library’s special collections section. I was hooked–instantly,” he says. “My supervisor had to make me leave after I’d worked long past my twenty hours a week.”
After college, he worked at the renowned antiquarian Brick Row Book Shop in San Francisco while his wife, Betsy Davis, finished her graduate studies. When she was offered a position in the U-M School of Education in 1998, Scott ordered “starter stock” before the couple headed to Ann Arbor and had it delivered here. They arrived to find forty cartons of antique books and manuscripts waiting on the steps of their duplex.
“I date the beginning of the business to the day after I quit my job in San Francisco: August 1, 1998,” Scott says. In 2007, when his stock outgrew their home, he moved his collection into the warehouse.
Scott sells at book fairs all over the country, including, on September 13, the Kerrytown BookFest. Among the treasures on his desk at the moment is an 1804 first edition of An Affecting History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs. Mary Velnet, an Italian Lady Who Was Seven Years a Slave in Tripoli. The lurid adventures described in the small leather-bound volume are set during the First Barbary War. “At that time, there was a fascination with the idea of a white woman taken hostage by non-white captors,” Scott says, opening the cover carefully. “This is a tale of lust and sadistic graphic violence.” As proof, he shows a startling woodcut frontispiece featuring a bare-breasted woman in chains–in a novel published during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency.
“Books like this help present-day historians understand early Americans’ society and concerns about their national identity,” Scott says, closing the novel and moving on to three journals kept by William Pym Long between 1871 and 1911. An Illinois schoolteacher who moved to Nebraska and became an early nurseryman, Long was an astute observer of life on the frontier. In a voice worthy of a thespian, Scott reads a passage aloud:
Think there never was a house more thoroughly polluted with bed bugs than this proved to be. We found them in the kitchen–in the sitting room and up stairs. They had taken possession. The plastering was full of holes of various sizes from the size of a shot up to the bottom of a cup and in these we would find from one to 25 or 30 bugs–while those that could not get accommodations in the holes had taken up lodging in the numerous crevices which were to be found in Window frames, Door frames, and floor … We thought we had them all killed but upon retiring found that we could not sleep–Suspecting that the bugs were the cause of our annoyance we struck a light and to our astonishment found the bed and walls surrounding literally alive with the varmints. We thought they had come to take vengeance on us for the murder of their friends during the day–We resolved to act on the offensive and accordingly every bug that greeted our ocular optics was speedily and summarily dispatched …
As I surreptitiously scratch my arm in sympathy, the bookseller says that he plans to offer the volumes to the University of Chicago’s Newberry Library. He’ll ask less than he would at a book fair “because I want to see them find a permanent home there.”
The Internet has changed a centuries-old business model overnight. “In years gone by, collectors might spend a year visiting different shops, looking for a special volume,” Scott explains. “Now, in a few minutes, they can find fifteen copies listed on the Internet. For that reason, the backbone of my business is the sale of pamphlets and other ephemera.”
One current favorite is the Boston Temperance Glee Book, published in 1848. “The organization just changed the lyrics of popular tunes and published the music,” he says, reading one refrain aloud, ending with the stirring call to Stand firmly, unshaken, to the Cold Water Pledge. “By reading this, we can learn that these weren’t just stiff-necked people. They were complicated individuals who liked to have fun.”
Scott adds philosophically that when this item is sold, he’ll discover another favorite. “I love paging through boxes of grubby papers to find treasures. I don’t buy stuff to hold. I buy it to share.”
But, with coaxing, he does admit to accumulating two collections he won’t part with soon–if ever. The first is a series of early photographs showing ordinary people–families, townspeople, neighborhood children–posing with baseballs and bats. “My daughter Lucy plays fast-pitch softball, so I guess her interest piqued my interest in these old photos,” he says. “I’m fascinated by the much larger stories these pictures tell.”
His other personal collection consists of letters, journals, and printed material from one important year in history: 1856, when the first Republican presidential nominee, John C. Fremont, ran against James Buchanan, and the Civil War was a shadow on America’s horizon. Scott has a letter written by a northerner describing the plight of slaves in Florida; a letter written by a Native American living on an Indian reservation, petitioning for beads so she can make crafts to support her family; and a journal written about life in Gonzalez, Texas, among many other items. “One day, when I’ve accumulated enough material, I’ll find the right place for this,” he says, replacing the materials in plastic folders.
“My niche is formed around interesting, though sometimes dead-end, movements in American thought, especially nineteenth-century thought, when so many people felt a compulsion to create,” he says, scanning the rare treasures that cover his desks, tables, and shelves. “American literature during those years was much more than Hawthorne, Melville, and Mark Twain. There was a huge sprawling community of writers and thinkers. They were political activists, abolitionists, utopians, suffragists. I look for stuff that will help others tell a new story about American culture.”
In the September, 2015 issue of Ann Arbor Observer