"A ghost story" is how Gary Goodman characterizes his memoir "The Last Bookseller: A Life in the Rare Book Trade," and there is a whiff of sepia among its pages. It is, after all, about a way of making a living that has changed dramatically in recent years, thanks to the internet, but it's also a swashbuckling tale of thieves and forgers, a man who would be king, celebrities and the never-ending search for gold — in this case, books, rare ones, and the lengths some will go to acquire them.
Goodman is a bit disingenuous when he tries to refute this: "Most bookseller memoirs are about finding a pamphlet by Edgar Allan Poe at the bottom of a coal chute and selling it for a half a million dollars. Not this one." His career may have been an accident, one he stumbled into in 1982 when he bought a "dismal hole" of a secondhand bookstore on St. Paul's East Side, but knowing nothing about books didn't stop him from having the adventure of a lifetime.
The highlights of that adventure are Goodman's encounters with those forgers and thieves, although he is quick to point out that "Some of the most educated and honorable people I have ever met were in the book business, but some of the most unsavory and illiterate were book people, too." And some of the most notorious were homegrown.
Goodman crossed paths with the "Book Bandit," St. Paul native Stephen Blumberg, in 1989 when the thief entered his Arcade Street bookstore. When asked if he needed any help, Blumberg left. He stopped coming in once he found out there was no rare book room or any rare books. Blumberg was arrested in 1990 after stealing 23,600 books worth about $20 million: "Unlike most book thieves, Blumberg didn't steal the books to sell but to 'protect' them from their current owners. (Not selling the books was one reason he was able to operate undetected for so long.)"
Along with the accounts of scalawags are those of eccentric Twin Cities booksellers, for whom Goodman clearly has affection. Melvin McCosh, who owned a dilapidated 17-room Lake Minnetonka mansion crammed with books and a Dinkytown bookstore frequented by Bob Dylan, ranks among them.
There is also a chapter devoted to hoarders — such as the St. Paul woman who "completely filled" three houses with books as she searched for 12 family photo albums her mother sold when she was a girl — and valuable discoveries among the floor-to-ceiling stacks and jumbles of books. Woven throughout is Goodman's own rags-to-enough-money-to-send-his-six-children-to-college story that includes owning St. Croix Antiquarian Booksellers in Stillwater, North America's first "book town."
Appropriately, the tone is conversational ("As you might have guessed from his name, E. Forbes Smiley III was not your average dude," for instance). He tells his tale like a man who has seen a thing or two and lived to tell about it, a story best unwound over a beer in the corner of a dive bar. And if a tidbit from Goodman's life or something gleaned from all his research doesn't quite fit the narrative? A footnote provides further details. Many, many footnotes, actually, strewn like nuggets of gold in this treasure trove of a memoir.
Maren Longbella is an editor at the Star Tribune.
The Last Bookseller: A Life in the Rare Book Trade
By: Gary Goodman.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 200 pages, $19.95.
Event: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 9, Stillwater Public Library, co-hosted by Valley Bookseller. Register at https://bit.ly/3krJXeD