Obituary: George Goodspeed

Nicolas Barker
Wednesday 28 May 1997 23:02 BST

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.

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