A Memoir of NYC’s Military Bookman

frontcover.jpegFor twenty-seven years, a specialty bookshop devoted exclusively to military history thrived on New York City’s Upper East Side. The Military Bookman, owned and operated by husband-and-wife team, Harris Colt and Margaretta Barton Colt, was established in July 1976, after Harris lost his Wall Street job and decided to follow his dream. Margaretta joined him in this endeavor, even though it meant wrangling with a predominately male customer base, including “Soldier of Fortune” types and even some with “SS tendencies.” Her new memoir, Martial Bliss: The Story of The Military Bookman ($19.95), affectionately chronicles the life and times of that bookshop.

Unique characters abound. One mail-order collector interested in Frederick the Great playfully regarded himself, in his correspondence with the shop, as “part-time Marshal of France” and dated his letters 1757 from his “Winter quarters on the Rhine.” The Colts responded in kind because, the author makes clear, the Military Bookman was that kind of bookshop--one where personal relationships with customers mattered. One regular called it “Cheers without the booze.” Even a few celebrities, e.g. Paul Newman, James Gandolfini, and Bette Midler, found their way to this remarkable place over the years.

We all have favorite bookshops and even bookshop memoirs. In this bibliophilic sub-genre, numerous stories are relayed about hunting for rare books and buying trips abroad; Martial Bliss ably covers this ground. But unlike other booksellers’ memoirs, it’s not nostalgia that fuels the telling. She shares her memories in a pleasant, matter-of-fact way, as if setting straight the record for posterity--or for her former customers, who will, no doubt, adore reading her account. As will those with an interest in antiquarian books, bookselling, or military history.

“The fine line between passion and obsession was probably crossed many times in the stacks of the Military Bookman,” she writes. Sadly, those stacks were dismantled in 2003. The rise of online bookselling as well as the increased production of cheap reprints of out-of-print military titles combined to make such a specialty shop obsolete in the twenty-first century. For those who missed out on this New York City institution, Martial Bliss invites us in. 

Image: Courtesy of Margaretta Barton Colt.

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