Notes to My Readers: Recently I have suffered a whopping case of writer’s block and just could not find my way out of it. After some frustrating attempts at doing what comes naturally, I decided to let the work rest awhile. The material I had to work with was rich and promising and the need to write was excruciating, but I was stuck in neutral. Period. I kept busy with everything but writing and researching. I stopped collecting more data that threatened to overwhelm my muse. And then I recalled some advice from author Stephen King in his book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” DUH. I forgot the read part. I mean really read…not the addictive work of pouring over historical research and gathering mountains of information. “Start reading, Deb”, Stephen whispered in my ear. READ. Damn it. I forgot balance.
So okay…I wasn’t in a “Ray Bradbury-David McCullough-Stephen King” frame of mind although Stephen’s new book is on my desk for a guilty pleasure read tinged with a jealous, but friendly admiration for his art and craft. This rehab remedy was going to require an extraordinary afternoon in an old book store without the glitz and glam of shiny dustcovers or the aroma of fresh Starbucks brews as ambiance. And I knew just where.
Baldwin’s Book Barn, Hiram Schoonmaker and Cousin Agnes
Just a 25 minute ride from home and nestled in the countryside of Chester County, Pennsylvania, Baldwin’s Book Barn has been the home of bibliophiles since 1934. The five story barn is a maze of rooms and stocked with thousands of publications. It is undoubtedly the perfect environment to commune with a surfeit of words and ideas and their authors…unassuming and exalted. Rehab for writers among barn cats named Bingo and one-time authors named Hiram Schoonmaker and his personal muse (nag), Cousin Agnes.
I spent several hours that afternoon wandering through the warren of rooms – pouring over the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that were jammed with old books which were peppered generously with dust and a soupcon of spider poop. Among the usual recent publications are unique literary surprises that no Amazon site or brick and mortar chain store would ever offer.
A worn 1922 high school annual with foxed and yellowed pages of photos sporting scrawled messages of “Good Luck!” was wedged next to an imposing leather-bound, gilt embossed legal tome that once had graced a lawyer’s reference collection. These strange partnerships of literature somehow make sense…at least to me. The merry promise of youth and the staid toil of adulthood. Both belong on our bookshelves-side by side. For balance.
As an historian and genealogical researcher, I have had been gifted with priceless information and insight into the life and times of my ancestors and their communities by a variety of sources. The rarest and most precious sources are from personal archives. Journals, annuals, self-published books were the rage in the 1800’s and early 1900’s…physical blogs of yesteryear filled with thoughts and experiences frozen in time. Each treasure is worth countless afternoon wanderings in old bookstores. And begging to be read. I hear you, Stephen.
I found a small self-published book written in 1916 by an old gentleman, Hiram Schoonmaker from New Jersey. He wrote, “my cousin Agnes left me no peace until I wrote this book. I care not if anyone reads it only that Agnes is satisfied.” I was hooked. I sat on the rough planks of the barn floor and read the odd little book cover to cover.
“Hey, Hiram. Hey, Agnes. Ninety-four years later …I read your book.”
I felt better. And the old mojo was definitely making itself known. Think I will call it Agnes.
The Presbyterian Reverend and the Butterflies
The old publications tender with age fairly demand to be taken off the shelves one-by-one regardless of the title or the humble nature and condition of its bindings. In fact, these simple, aged works are often the most remarkable when opened. Like fragile butterflies, newly freed, odd bits of paper take flight from their prisons of prose. “To my love…Congratulations…For inspiration…my kind friend”- sentiments written in all manner of handwriting-some lyrical and sweeping while other samples are careful and cramped, but all with a significance that reveals a moment, a relationship and a bond of thoughts and ideas.
Crouching to read the faded titles on a musty bottom shelf, I spied “History of the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca, New York during one hundred years, 1804-1904” sitting at the very bottom of a pile of brittle papers and dingy bindings. It is one of my history haunts…Ithaca, New York…and as it was a special edition, I just had to take it from the shelf to satisfy my curiosity. I recognized the architecture of the magnificent old stone building featured on the title page right away and leafing through the pages of photos and church history was like going home. The pages were dry and delicate so the process of turning them was slow and careful. As I was reaching the end of the centennial celebration book, I was preparing to close it and return it to the shelf when the butterflies took flight. Tucked inside the back cover, letters dated 1904 from the minister of the church to the owner of the book fluttered in my hand.
Finding an antiquarian book is one thing, but handwritten correspondence over 100 years old is tantamount to what I have come to call a “Hawaas Moment”.
An invitation to the church’s celebration including the original vellum insert and the announcement of the centennial book sat atop the bits of fluttering paper and kept them from sudden flight. The first typewritten page was tender and missing a diamond shaped fragment, but the ink was clear and crisp and the names of the elders, the trustees, the deacons and the Sunday school teachers were a litany of old Ithaca family names…Hayt, Downing, Brink, Lyon, Cuykendall, Middaugh. Most significant to this collection was the name Whiton…George Whiton, a trustee of the church in 1848 and before him …his father, John Whiton, who was a trustee in 1819. In a crimped and linear script their descendant, William Henry Whiton, had notated his relationship to the past trustees. The correspondence between William Henry Whiton and Reverend J. F. Fitschen dealt with the Centennial and the special publication and request for Whiton contributions of photographs and church memorabilia. The Reverend’s open and generous script on church letterhead was an easy read, but William’s tight and closed penmanship was at times a mystery and required rereading many times over with a good portion of the context still in doubt.
However, the gist was there…the church was reaching out to descendants of its pioneer members in order to enrich the history telling. W. H. Whiton’s eccentric habit of hanging on to correspondence made the deteriorating centennial book one man’s time capsule of old Ithaca, New York that somehow had found its way to a shelf in an old Pennsylvania antiquary and to a writer stuck in neutral.
Reading is Fundamental. Peanut Butter and Apples are Essential.
I have been writing for as long as I can remember and always believed my writer’s block was more about running on empty instead of just being stuck. A trip to the old book store and an afternoon of sorting through the shelves…leafing through old books…occasionally sitting on the floor with some feline company and visiting with the words and thoughts of another writer gave me new insight into my dilemma.
The research of late has yielded overwhelming new sources and substantial information not to mention several new research relationships. I am benefiting from the years of my hard work, but this was more like dining on endless champagne and caviar after a diet of peanut butter and apples and the occasional cold glass of milk. I needed peanut butter and apples and the odd little book of Hiram Schoonmaker and the one hundred year old letters of Reverend Fitschen. And whispers of author Stephen King all reminding me to read…and write.
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
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