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Remembering Princeton: I Memories of Parnassus Bookshop
167 Nassau Street was once Parnassus Bookshop
Mermories of Parnassus Bookshop
In 1943 my father, J.Keene Fleck, opened an antiquarian bookshop one block from the campus of Princeton University at 167 Nassau Street. It occupied one half of an old three-story home (now the Gauss House) and its outside banisters were replaced with book display cases.
During the next eight years until its closing, such notable customers as Albert Einstein, R.P. Blackmur, John Berryman, Edwin Panofsky, Herman Broch, and W.S. Merwin (then, an undergraduate) and Robert Oppenheimer browsed its shelves.
Albert Einstein is One of Customers
The most striking boyhood memory I have is of Albert Einstein walking into Parnassus Bookshop in his stocking feet (leaving his shoes outside) and ambling over to the poetry alcove and sitting on an ox-horn stool to read a slim volume of (what I later discovered to be) Rainer Maria Rilke. Perhaps he read auf deutsch Rilke's Poem "A Walk":
My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
Going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So if we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance--
And changes us, even if we do not reach it,
Into something else, which hardly sensing it, we already are:
A gesture waves us on, answering our own wave...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.
He could easily have identified with this poem through his own mystic walks in outer space.
The two front rooms of our home were lined with shelves of books, and two oaken display tables set on oriental rugs commanded the center of both rooms with newer books or with oversize art books. The older and rarer volumes (including a first edition of Sir Thomas Moore's Utopia and a signed edition of William Butler Yeats) represented the fields of philosophy, art history, literature and criticism (Shakespeare and Dante in particular) and cultural and social history.
There were many nice armchairs for customers to plunk down into with a good book. Some people stayed to read all afternoon as though it were a library. (B.F. Goodrich was one of them).
Monday Evening Lecture Series
Around 1944 my father began a Monday evening reading and lecture series in the shop. Such a series afforded Princeton poets (from Professors to students) the opportunity to read before a bookshop audience of 50 or 60 persons. The poets included John Berryman, then an English Instructor, Charles Bell, a physics Instructor, and undergraduates like W.S. Merwin, Bernie Ryan, Bink Noll, William Meredith, Galway Kinnell, Louis Cox, Bruce Berlind and a town poet by the name of Byron Vazakis. Each audience sat on metal chairs as still and as intense as spirits from another world.
But the Monday series also included Princeton faculty and graduate students in English, Classics, philosophy and art history. Richard P. Blackmur lectured on critical theory, William Arrowsmith on appreciation of Roman classics, Edwin Panofsky on Renaissance artists, and James Cole on Ernest Cassirer.
German Jewish Intellectuals
Another fascinating component were German Jewish intellectuals exiled from Germany. It was Albert Einstein who came over to Princeton before Hitler and offered a safe harbor for other German Jewish intellectuals to come and live at One Evelyn Place that Einstein bought for them. Herman Broch, author of Death of Virgil and Erich Kahler, author of Man the Measure were not invited to speak at Princeton University but were more than welcome to my father's bookshop. They also held informal discussions during the day with my mother (Anne) and father and any other interested people who happened to be in the shop.
Before Parnassus Bookshop had opened its doors, Thomas Mann had come to Princeton to stay at One Evelyn Place with Kahler and Broch. This little writer's colony had the backing of Einstein as the Nazi regime had confiscated all of the wealth of former industrialist Erich Kahler. As a result of this colony in exile, Kahler went on to produce some of the profoundest intellectual histories of man including Man the Measure. Charles Bell, John Berryman and Jewish poet Sidney Monas held discussions for hours on end in a pipesmoke-filled alcove of Parnassus.
Rich Memories of the Customers
Those difficult but wonderful years between 1943 and 1951 are years that I shall treasure even though I was only a child of 6 to 13 years of age. How could I ever forget Einstein's frown, Kahler's mirthful "yah,yah,yah," Berryman's terse wit, or William Arrowsmith's ringing laughter, or Robert Oppenheimer's intensely sad blue eyes. Other bookshops like Parnassus certainly existed or exist like Sylvia Beech's Shakespeare and Company in Paris or Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, but such a gestalt as Parnassus of World War II and the beginning of the Korean War will remain forever a haven in my memory. The tragic conditions of war were tempered in this little shop by the genuine pursuits of wisdom.
John Haffenden's Life of John Berryman refers to Parnassus Bookshop several times..
*Parnassus is an 8,000 foot-mountain in Greece that was and perhaps is the mountain of poetic inspiration.
Have you ever bought a book from an antiquarian dealer?
© 2009 Richard Francis Fleck