by Raju Peddada
"When death comes, let it find me at my work."
—Ovid(Publius Ovidius Naso), 43 BC-17 AD
(Swans - September 10, 2012) Florence Shay was born on Valentine's Day, at the onset of the roaring twenties. By virtue of being delivered on that day she was guaranteed a life journey of love, especially from two quarters, like the bookends in her long life -- from her husband Art Shay, to all her admirers, till the end. She was raised by a homemaker mother and a businessman father from Brooklyn. She graduated from Brooklyn College with majors in literature and psychology. Both subjects turned out to be an "ideal combination," she had claimed in a 1991 Tribune, interview, for running her book store decades later. In 1944, she, as a summer camp counselor, married the camp bugler, who went on to become a legendary photojournalist for LIFE and LOOK magazines, eventually settling down to a freelance career in Deerfield, Illinois, in 1958.
I remember a cherished visit in the late fall of 2010, when I finally paid up for "A Personal Anthology" by Jorge Luis Borges, autographed by the author himself. That day, upon seeing me enter the shop, she jumped up and flew to the backroom shelf to get me the book and the receivable note inside. She was back at her desk before I could traverse fifteen feet. Then, with an affectionate smile, she offered this before I could say anything "... you'll keep me young and ticking... if you keep owing me like this!" My astonished and delayed response: "... where do you get this energy from?" Her comeback: "... young, handsome men from whom I have to collect..."
This was a battle-worn warrior, I contemplated -- indefatigable, intriguing, and full of life. Then, that devastating email from Art Shay: Florence Shay passed away on Thursday, August 23rd, 2012, after a battle with ovarian cancer, and is survived by her four offspring, six grandchildren, a great-grandchild, and her husband of 68 years, who reminisced: "... she was the most joyous and joygiving person I have ever known." And, her friends and clientele would mawkishly and unanimously echo those sentiments. I am not much for any type of an assembly, to sit in on sermons and eulogies, but I miss her, and reminisce alone, like many of us who had been touched by her and cannot appropriately articulate our dreadful and irretrievable loss.
In that grim spring of 2007, I stumbled upon this place called "Titles" and met Florence for the first time. After a few minutes there, I realized that this was someone special. She listened, her speech was droll and therapeutic, and her eye contact was earnest and palliative. I noticed how she handled a book, with a feather touch, "... a book is a work of art, it's a clear invitation... more so than a woman, (with a flirtatious smirk)... can you understand that this was held by its creator... and lovingly signed... exactly like Picasso would sign his work..." She made me realize that the book's own life was as important as its content.
The founder and owner of Titles, the rare-books store in Highland Park, was truly the last of the great book purveyors. She just happened to be an intellectual who sold books. She knew and hobnobbed with many celebrities who had morphed from being her clients to friends. However, she was not about who she knew, but what she knew. She never dropped names. Once, when I had asked her, early in our friendship curve, what her husband did, she diffidently allowed, "... oh, he is a photographer, and had done work for LIFE..." After she had mentioned his name, I sat up and said, "THE Art Shay?" For years, I treasured a monograph titled "Nelson Algren's Chicago" by him.
Where can we meet another bookseller like this? She had time for everyone, whether it was for me or B. J. Armstrong, or Billy Corgan, or David Mamet. We all came to Titles for her rare books, but, more so for her profound calm, and that understated expertise in the service of our passions, and also the page. Yes! She was indeed the sage of the page. She once pulled out a 19th century Decameronby Giovanni Boccaccio in two volumes, and showed me the handmade paper and binding from a very limited private production, extolling the flaws as the fingerprints of craftsmanship of an artisan who had vanished long ago. She pointed out the organic texture of the letter-pressed handset typeface on the paper, and the hand-stitched binding covered in some tree sap... and, not one sentence like "... this would look great on your shelf..." or "...It's a great price for history and craftsmanship..." She simply put the books back, while she shared their magical beauty, from one connoisseur to another. It's not hard to see the devastating effect on someone like me... Despite the price, that same Decameron set landed on my shelf in less than 24 hours of this exchange. She was the maestro of restraint -- in persuading, she cryptically pushed hard by dwelling on the art...a pure artist in her trade, and none like her out there!
Despite all the celebrities she knew, she was one herself, in the constant company of intellectual stars: her coveted collection of author-autographed first editions. Florence Shay lives in every story she had related about a book that I had acquired. She was the Leo Castelli of booksellers, the Peggy Guggenheim in her discernment, in culling her stock. She has left something in everyone of us -- an understanding of the wonder of printed art: as the page. She lives in our affectionate exchanges, and she is celebrated daily when I step into my library that is graced by the 119 books delivered by her, along with her yellow handwritten receipts, to yours truly.
She was an authentic modernist, dedicated to the family, focused on business, yet who stood behind and nurtured her husband's peripatetic photographic career. On the other hand, to many of us Florence was more than a tome-thespian; she was a loyal therapist to the lost, the weary, and the lonely. She often said "... the bookstore is like my house, and you all who wander in are my guests in this informal setting..." Ironically, all good things in life come to an end, and alas, her store, a "...good haven for lonely people," is closing by year-end, as per her last wish. And, book this, there is never going to be another empathetic therapist, doubling up as the sage of the printed page, like Florence Shay, in the realm of publishing and selling books. Thank you, Florence!
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)