Colt (Defend The Valley, 1994) tells the story of a Manhattan-based mom-and-pop military bookstore in this memoir.
In September 1975, after Harris Colt learned that his small brokerage firm was shuttering, he said to his wife, Margaretta, “It’s time for the bookstore.” Although she had no idea what he was talking about, she was soon helping her husband realize his lifelong dream: to open a rare and out-of-print bookshop specializing in military history. Despite the risks of renting a storefront in Manhattan, including its proximity to dangerous neighborhoods and the fact that American interest in anything military was at a low ebb, the Military Bookman opened shop at 170 E. 92nd St. the next summer. This is Margaretta’s account of a quarter-century of selling books; of becoming an expert in the many histories, accounts, manuals, memoirs, and ephemera that make up the military market; and of learning to wrangle the obsessive collectors who seek them out. It chronicles the shifting landscape of Manhattan in the last decades of the 20th century and the changing tastes of the American public regarding warfare (always reflective of the politics of the time). Most of all, it’s the story of a couple who dedicated their lives and livelihoods to a small, peculiar field and the community that arose to embrace them. Colt is a surprisingly urgent and elegant writer, particularly when she gets into the minutiae of her merchandise: “One of my favorites was an anomaly, the rare depiction of Napoleonic battles by a Chinese artist, with a godlike view above the fray, almost aerial perspectives of tiny, ignorant armies on a not-too-darkling plain.” Expect no high human drama, though: although the characters are colorful, the books themselves are the focus of this memoir. For some, that may prove uninteresting after 50 pages, but never mind those people: this is a read for the reading-obsessed, for those who truly love the physicality, variety, and dynamism of the printed medium and for whom a day in the musty stacks of a darkened shop sounds like something close to paradise.
An engrossing, delightful descent into a life of books.