Old bookstores and little museums

When I was growing up, Leary’s Bookstore in Philadelphia was close to its end. For many decades housed in a three-story building by the city’s consumer center of 8th and Market Sts., it was rumored to be the largest used book store in the world, its wares spilling out the door and across tables that lined an alley beside Gimbels department store.

By the 1960s, it was strangled with French grammars from 1911 and long-dead engineering texts. According to Wikipedia, it died in 1968. 

What you won’t find on Wikipedia is Chafey’s Books, on Market St. near 17th in Philly, my weekly haunt in the early 1960s.

Mr. Chafey, who sat at the cash register to the left of the door as you exited, held a slow, neverending smile that said, “Here I am, and I can think of no reason to be elsewhere.” He spoke in a high, reedy, near-piccolo voice and would buy anything. He would give you two bits for a ten-year-old World Almanac that he had not the least possibility of selling. Later, he would add it, randomly, to his collection. 

Random was the secret. There was no order whatsoever to the mounds and tumbles of books at Chafey’s. They reclined, spine-up, three deep on tables edged with four-inch boards to prevent their escape.

They also skyscrapered in stacks in front of those tables.

They crawled and heaped and grew and meandered in their accidental associations. History lay by engineering, science by religion, fact by fiction, medieval by modern, sewing by spelunking. You could burrow into these books like a groundhog, root through them like a boar, and never know exactly where you were in the last 400 years of the printed word.

There for a few pennies I bought, along with some occult oddments, a fat medical reminiscence with an extraordinary introduction. There I found – and to this day flagellate myself that I did not buy – The History of Meat, published in 1915 with color plates by either Armour or Swift. There I think I recovered brother Rod’s lost copies of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, given for safekeeping to a tangential acquaintance. My only other remnant of Chafey’s today is a 1924 edition of Popular Fallacies Explained and Corrected (With copious references to authorities).

Yet the main lure for me was not the books. Opposite Mr Chafey’s cash register stood a small table stacked with art prints, priced at $1 each. They were a revelation. I bought Chagall, blue-period Picasso, El Greco, Magritte, Dali, shimmering beauty that dead-broke me could afford to push-pin to my wall. 

Many years later, at the Welcomat, I wrote about Chafey’s and received a note from his daughter living in Arizona: No one before had acknowledged her father, who kept an entire barn filled with books somewhere in the city’s western suburb. I was and am delighted with her delight.

Chafey’s forms a logical connection to small museums. You don’t believe so? Please repress your ignorance, be quiet, and listen.

Linda and I tripped over some marvelous little museums when we traveled. Each started with a single, intense focus and beat it to death with glee, compiling hundreds of items that added up to a concise reflection of the mind of the originator, often unnamed.

Take Mr. Ed’s Elephant Museum, along Rt. 30 in eastern Pennsylvania. Mr. Ed has a fixation like few others. Elephants large and small, in 2, 3 and possibly 4-D. No image of another pachyderm – not a rhino, not a hippo, 10,000 elephants, from bead miniatures to a colorful full-size talking statue out front. 

He also sells homemade fudge – pounds and hills and mountains of fudge. A fire hit Mr. Ed’s some years back, but he successfully rebuilt. 

Not far from Mr. Ed lie the pastures of the Land of Little Horses, perhaps less a museum than a cross between mini-circus and barn show. The various performing breeds spent generations being downsized to near eohippus under an Argentine wacko before ending up on the rolling sward of PA.

We were especially taken with a tiny, black, wild-eyed stallion with Sylvester Stallone ambitions. For contrast, the Land also promenaded a massive Clydesdale, shaved and groomed in a checkerboard pattern (how are such things done?). The non-Italian stallion would run circles under the Clydesdale without the least sense of embarrassment.

Sedan, Kansas, 30 miles down the road from Linda’s home town of Cedar Vale, was the birthplace of famed Ringling clown Emmett Kelly, who gloomed around the ring as Weary Willie, his painted mouth turned down like he’d watched his teddy bear being steamrollered. He’d end his act sweeping the spotlight out of the ring.

The last time I visited the website for the Emmett Kelly Museum, it indicated that it has either moved from its former dusty quarters – every bit as sad as Weary Willie – or morphed into something awninged and bistroish. In 1985, when we stopped by, the Kelly memorabilia was unmemorable, but people had dropped off all sorts of other stuff – old typewriters, notebooks and attic effluvia.

What is not formally recognized on the website (but which exists between the lines) is the museum’s sterling feature – the world’s largest collection of commemorative Jim Beam whiskey bottles. Don’t you dare laugh – these things were hoarders’ gold, formerly showcased around the country by a couple in their trailer, who then retired and… donated them to the Emmett Kelly Museum.

Bless them. You will not elsewhere in your lifetime see such and so many individualized ceramic booze containers.

[Should I choose to continue with little museums on the next go-round, we’ll likely end up in western Nebraska.]

  1. #1 by Florence A Suarez on June 6, 2021 - 7:29 pm

    Keep traveling.

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