Obituary: George Goodspeed

George Goodspeed was the last old bookseller. Old himself (he had outlived all his contemporaries), he knew old books, especially American literature and history, as few can hope to know them now. He conducted his business on an old style, too, with few concessions to modernity; it was an admirable style in many ways, especially when practised, as he did, with New England rectitude, irony and reticence.

Charles Eliot Goodspeed, his father, set up shop in a basement at 5a Park Street, opposite Boston Common, in 1898. A Cape Cod man by birth (his ancestor Roger Goodspeed, of Wingrave, Buckinghamshire, settled on Cape Cod circa 1640), he had moved to Quincy and there his son was born in 1903. Charles Goodspeed never went beyond elementary school, but his son went to Roxbury Latin School and Exeter, and thence to Harvard, from which he graduated in 1925. By then the firm had expanded to two adjacent ground-floor windows on Ashburton Place, and the young Goodspeed actually started work during his last summer vacation in 1924.

"It was only a subway ride," he wrote 50 years later,

from our commencement exercises to the first and only job I have held since 1925 . . . While I was under no pressure to do so, it was partly in following the line of least resistance that I went to work for the family enterprise. That I became early a partner and eventually the principal executive of the firm cannot be therefore attributed to any excess of talent or industry on my part.

But talent and industry he had in abundance, as well as a wit that turned inwards if anything more easily than out.

He inherited from his father, whose self-education had spread far and wide, a catholic taste and an inventive mind. He now learnt the art of cataloguing and writing catalogue notes, in which he came to excel. He also learnt that a customer whose needs are remembered and is fairly and loyally treated comes back to the store.

Knowledge of the highways and, even more, the byways of North American history seemed to be in his bones. Many of his stories (and they were good ones) turned on the luck or chance of finding some unsuspecting treasures. In others it might have been so, but neither Goodspeed left much to chance; their discoveries grew from a deep and wide knowledge of where such things might lie hid.

Goodspeed grew up in the trade during the Depression, which the firm survived, even growing in the process. Charles Goodspeed had been one of the first to appreciate the artistic quality of Audubon's natural history prints and to sense the growth and popularity of genealogy. Prints became the speciality of Louis Holman, who went his own way in 1930, and George Goodspeed tended to concentrate on American literature.

This was partly due to his friendship with Carroll Wilson, a New York lawyer whose work for the Guggenheim brothers left him time to form one of the best collections of American literature and to be the centre of a group of like-minded friends, in and outside the trade. Frank Bemis, Percival Merritt and Harold Murdock were already customers; C. Walter Barrett, J.K. Lilly and P.D. Howe came to follow them. Goodspeed served them all faithfully and with an imaginative flair that was all the greater because it was inconspicuous.

Who but he would have bought the 1551 Homer that belonged to the poet and essayist James Russell Lowell (the firm specialised in Lowell's books) and then, reading a letter from Lowell about his future wife, have found the words "on the mantel is a moss rose she gave me which, when it withers, I shall enshrine it in my Homer"? He opened it again and found the rose still there pressed between the leaves.

Who but Goodspeed would have bought the first children's book printed in America, disguised by a convenient misprint, for a fraction of its value? Who else bought and sold Wilde's sonnet on Keats, "Auld Lang Syne" and "The Wreck of the Hesperus".

In 1935, the firm moved to Beacon Street, where it remained in relatively palatial surroundings, finally returning to Park Street, where it closed in 1995. Long before that, Goodspeed had become a legend. Some of his best stories appeared in print, and his reminiscences, The Bookseller's Apprentice, were published last year. To read them, and the tales of great collectors and librarians, and those ironic touches (the customer who "though a medical man was on salary" and wanted time to pay), recalls a great and unforgettable man. He was indeed "The Last of the Mohicans", a parallel that might have come near shocking him.

Nicolas Barker

George Talbot Goodspeed, bookseller: born Quincy, Massachusetts 10 October 1903; married 1935 Ivis Jenney (died 1983; one daughter); died Brookline, Massachusetts 3 May 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence