From the Albany Times
Saturday, November 22, 2003
By Paul Grondahl,
Times Union staff writer
Amid the books, he lives and reads
Schenectady — Owner of W. Somers Bookseller makes point of getting
out-of-print books onto shelves, stacks
Habent sua fata libelli. Books have their own destinies.
The Latin phrase hangs on a blank
wall of Wayne Somers' antiquarian book- shop. It's one of the few spaces not
overflowing with teetering piles of books.
After 22 years on Union
Avenue, W. Somers Bookseller, a stuffed warren for
bibliophiles a block from Union College,
still possesses that old-book smell.
A musty, tangy and pulpy odor
hangs over the place like a vapor that imbues the 20,000 used and out-of-print
books lining shelves and stacked helter-skelter in aisles and atop tables with
the scent of erudition.
Stepping inside the
2,000-square-foot space and scanning across a choppy sea of bound words, one
spies Somers' unruly nest of gray hair poking silently out of leaning towers of
old volumes, bent over a desk, buried in an open reference book. About books, naturally.
He is a gangly fellow well over 6
feet tall, who shuffles around a maze of books with a stooped, crooked back —
an occupational hazard of lugging heavy boxes of books from attics of deceased
dowagers and estate sales hither and yon.
“It's a very pleasant way to
make very little money,” said Somers, 64, who speaks with the well-chosen
words and precise diction of a man who has spent a lifetime with his nose
between the covers of books.
He has the air of an absent-minded
professor, currents of thought from the clutch of books he reads simultaneously
swimming in his head.
“I've been in this business
for 32 years and I still get books every day I've never seen before. That is
one of my greatest pleasures,” he said.
Alas, he's a member of a dying
breed. Somers is one of three members of the Antiquarian Booksellers
Association of America in the Capital Region. The others are Lyrical Ballad in Saratoga
Springs and aGatherin' in West
Raised on Van Wie
Point along a bucolic stretch of the Hudson River in Bethlehem,
Somers attended the former Milne School
and then enrolled at Union College.
He studied humanities for four years and left in 1961 without graduating.
“I have a philosophical
objection to degrees,” he said.
He went to work at Union
College as bibliographer in the
library for the next 10 years — essentially locating and acquiring rare and
out-of-print books. The college awarded Somers an honorary master's degree of
letters in 1969.
Somers left academia and used his
expertise in becoming a bookseller.
From 1971 to 1981, he and his
wife, Jane, director of the New York State Talking Book and Braille Library in Albany,
ran a catalog used-book business out of their home near Mariaville.
In 1981, he opened the bookshop on
Union Avenue and has been
resisting the whims and passing fancies of bookselling ever since, particularly
the Internet bandwagon.
“It doesn't make sense to
have a bookshop meant for browsing and then sell the books on the Internet,”
said Somers, who prices his books to move, mostly in the $3 to $5 range for hardcovers.
Somers will always stock unusual
inventory, like a seven-volume Swiss Encyclopedia written in German and
published in 1945 ($35) or the 54-volume set of “Great Books of the
Western World” ($175).
A job perk is taking books to read
and then selling them afterward. Atop a large stack he intends to bring home is
the British historian Eric Hobsbawm's memoir,
“Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life.”
One of the only new books for sale
in the shop is his own, a shrink-wrapped leviathan of a text,
“Encyclopedia of Union College History.” Commissioned and published
by Union, Somers spent a decade scouring Union archives each morning, tending
his bookshop in the afternoon and writing at home at night.
The encyclopedia begins in 1795
and covers two centuries of Union's history. The
848-page tome includes 828 entries. It was a massive undertaking for one
person, although he received a few dozen contributions.
Somers considered it a high
compliment when a friend called the book “interesting against all
odds.” The author is proud of the fact that it's as thick as similar
encyclopedias of history for Princeton and Brown
Things are a little quieter than
usual at the shop these days, ever since the passing of Fritz and Maurice, a
pair of cats who lived amid the books.
After a pleasant, unrushed couple
of hours on a rainy November day, Somers bids a visitor adieu. He makes a
pre-emptive apology if he fails to remember the person.
“I forget faces, but I never
forget a book,” he said.