Memoirs of a Book Snake
Forty Years of Seeking and Saving Old Books
By David Meyer
Glenwood, Ill.: Waltham Street Press, 2001
Paper back: ISBN: 0916638545 Price: $23.00
The malapropism “book snake” is applied to David Meyer by an acquaintance reaching for the word “bookworm.” “Snake” suggests a creature that navigates hazardous terrain and tight corners in a single-minded pursuit of its prey. “You have to be willing to go anywhere, and climb over, dig through, and move around all manners of obstacles to get to the books,” Meyer writes.
As a boy, he accompanied his father on weekly visits to Chicago bookstores in the 1950s. The chapter, “The Bookmen of My Youth,” remembers them, especially Bill Newman’s Gallery Bookstore and the antiquarian department on the third floor of Marshall Field, “when it was still the great department store it had been for nearly a hundred years.” Meyer also relates the fascinating story of Reinhold Pabel, a German soldier interred stateside during the Second World War. Pabel escaped from his prison camp, married, and opened the Chicago Book Mart before he was caught by the FBI in 1953. He recounted his story in the 1955 book, Enemies Are Human. “If you bought ten dollars’ worth of books from Pabel,” Meyer remembers, “he offered you a free copy.”
The book’s strongest chapter is a profile of Margaret Donovan DuPriest. Meyer started his career as a “sometime bookseller” at Maggie’s Old Book Shop in South Miami. She’s truly a character: “As I dusted the books…I read titles and checked contents with an idea toward purchasing books for myself. Maggie frowned on this habit… She did not consider me a customer, and it was the customers, not the help, whom she was saving her books for. She may have also not liked the idea of paying me, only to have the money handed back to her.”
On a whim, she later moved the store north to Greenwich Village and rechristened it the DuPriest Book Shop, and then relocated it a year later to Columbia, South Carolina, where she was disappointed by a literary life less lively than that of New York. Maggie would be a first-rate protagonist in her own story.
Meyer’s biography is filled with a similar wanderlust. After college and military service in Vietnam, he traveled the country, hunting for treasures in bookshops and uncommon places. Along the way, he encounters remarkable titles, authors, and friends, whom he often associates with a particular discovery.
Memoirs of a Book Snake almost falls into the “And then I bought this” class of books about books. Meyer likes to relate his great finds, bargains he later resold for substantial sums, but the real highlights are the fascinating people he meets. Meyer tells a good story and evocatively describes several book people who should be remembered by collectors. The chapters are brief, and so is the book itself, a small five-by-seven inch volume. Unlike many self-published volumes, this is a little book worth scouting.