Books, Birds and Fellowship
Recalling the Late John Lynes
By Edward Shanahan
Apart from the buying and selling of books, a singular pleasure of operating a used bookstore was the unannounced appearance at unexpected times of someone who would quickly settle into a comfortable chair and proceed to visit.
Visiting didn’t do much for paying the bills, but it was the social commerce that made my store a kind of home away from home for me and others during more than 15 years.
I was reminded of this the other day upon reading about the death of John Lynes, who was only 97 at the time of his passing.
John, often accompanied by his bookish traveling companion, Stanley Greenberg, former reference librarian at Forbes Library, often brought fresh news of what was going on in the world of used books, as they roamed widely through the region visiting every possible antiquarian bookstore.
My visits with John touched on a range of matters, especially his long-time friendship with the late political radical and publisher James Cooney and his wife Blanche, who John and his wife Marion first knew in Woodstock, N.Y. The two couples moved to this area virtually together during the second world war because of their shared interests, especially pacifism and left-wing politics.
John was a classical musician and teacher of same at Smith College for many years. He supplemented his income with private lessons. He also was a relentless and knowledgeable bird watcher and bird enthusiast, as was evident by the regular purchases of bird books made at my shop and at many others.
In fact, the last time I saw John was at the annual holiday party he threw for his friends this winter at his home set on vast acreage off Edwards Road in Westhampton. He bought the house and land at auction in 1945 for $1,800, or some such ridiculous figure, he once told me. Throughout the house, shelves were jammed with thousands and thousands of rare and probably priceless books about birds, a collection that probably is without equal except perhaps by those at institutional libraries. I had never seen such a private collection of bird-related material.
He was an active birder well into his 90s, along with Greenberg, and used to recount the birding expeditions he often took with Samuel Eliot, a Shakespearean scholar at Smith College, who wrote a classic volume titled the “The Birds of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts.”
So committed was John Lynes to the world of birds that years ago he donated his home and entire property to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, along, I suspect, with many, if not all, of his bird books upon his death.
Our conversations transcended birds, to include music, radical politics, education, literature, publishing, and, of course, books, with a few stops along the way for references to some of his romantic experiences when he began dating after the death of his wife in 1994, and even nostalgia for amorous activities during his days at the college. I gathered John’s life was rich and varied in ways that did not include having a lot of money.
I will miss my encounters with John Lynes, as I know his many friends will, as well.
The obituary for John Lynes was straight-forward, as I am sure John would prefer, completely unadorned by the all-too silly and hyper-inflated language now so common in current Gazette obituaries, written by well-meaning family and friends, where the deceased is “carried aloft on the wings of angels” rather than simply died.
John Lynes was great fun because of his abundant enthusiasms. In fact, he was a rare bird, and all who came within his obit were enriched by the experience.
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