Farewell to Bookman Fred Marks
By Edward Shanahan
Like most bookmen, Fred Marks, who for many years operated a used bookstore in the second level of the Carriage Shops on East Pleasant Street in Amherst, was slightly eccentric. That’s what made him such good company.
Thus, I was saddened to learn recently that he had passed away at age 85.
But then, he had had a rich and diverse life, which enabled him to pursue two very different careers and lifestyles - first as a agent for 30 years at a very large insurance company in New York City, and then as a book dealer for 20 years after his retirement to a small New England college town where he nurtured a specialty in the works by and about Emily Dickinson, hometown icon.
A few years ago when we lunched together and talked about the closing of his bookshop and the sale of his 3,000-volume inventory to a book dealer from Saratoga Springs, Fred hinted that there might be one more career to follow, and maybe there was.
Add to that his life-long passion for the opera and for the classical music genre, which resulted in his close relationship with radio station WFCR and the people there who brought him and others of us endless hours of fine music. It would appear that Fred Marks made some intelligent choices about his personal enthusiasms.
Many book dealers spend almost as much time in the shops of other dealers as they do in their own, and Fred was no exception. He would call up in advance to report he would be stopping by my shop on Sunday because that was the day his store was closed. He haunted many area shops, especially the Book Bear in West Brookfield. These visits to other dealers were as much for the conversation and personal give and take as a book-buying outing.
And many of us returned the favor by stopping in at Fred’s book habitat in Amherst to chat about the book trade and some of the individuals he encountered in making his bookstore rounds.
Marks, who bore a strong resemblance to the late Alfred Hitchcock, surrounded himself with books on subjects that were personal favorites - photography, art, classical music, literature, theater and movies. And the longer he toiled in the Amherst community the larger his selection of volumes by and about Dickinson and Robert Frost. "They were naturals, of course," he explained.
While Fred could be regarded as courtly, a characteristic of gentlemen of his generation, he had very strong opinions, which would not be described as courtly at all. In other words, Fred had definite likes and dislikes and did not try to conceal which was which. He was intelligent, literate, opinionated, in sum, an engaging raconteur.
That’s what lured me back to his shop from time to time - Fred’s personality and independent approach to his bookish activities. The goal of the store, he admitted in that earlier conversation, was "to provide people to talk to me about subjects I enjoyed. I looked upon the bookstore as a quasi-social enterprise. I didn't look upon it as a business. If people came and wanted to talk that was the point."
He continued: "It was strictly a self-pleasing endeavor. I wasn't in it for the money, for the glory. It was strictly for the pleasure."
What were his expectations when he started out? "I was playing it by ear, what happened, happened," he told me. "I later discovered each bookseller's experience is different."
He believes his store's reputation was based on specialties that were "a little off the trodden path," especially his deep selection of books about classical music. Most used bookstores don't have a strong music section, he said, "because you have to know something about music."
He traces his musical roots back to the 1930s when he was 10 or 11 years old. He tells of getting home from school and finding his mother listening to a radio broadcast of Wagner's opera "Siegfried." "I said to her what is that music?"
Whereupon, he got on the subway and headed off to the Metropolitan Opera's box office and asked when the next Wagner opera would be performed. It was "Tannhauser."
"I bought a ticket way up in the family circle, and that was my first experience,” he said. "Brother was I hooked."
Of the last 20 years, he said during our luncheon interview: "I looked forward to every day because you never knew who would come in, or whether anyone would come in. But there was always a hard-core of serious book-buyers who preferred to come to an individual shop with a point of view. I have no regrets. I had a good run."
I feel privileged that my own somewhat delayed vocation as a bookseller enabled me to cross paths with Fred Marks.
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