After Jesus and Philip, books are the great passion of my life. Not just any books, mind you. I’m very particular on this point. While, admittedly,there are some upstarts that rank themselves among my friends, it’s the old books that have my heart. And it’s mainly in praise of them–and in memory of the woman that introduced me to so many of them and infused the word ‘antiquarian’ with magic–that I offer this site.
A Saint Among Booksellers
Katherine Downs was the kind of businesswoman who would trade her books for vegetables out of the back of someone’s truck, but would turn up her nose at the decorators that wanted her lovely old leather bound volumes to fill a dead space on a client’s shelf. Her little bookshop was an endearing hodgepodge of gilt-edged first editions and dog-eared mystery novels; rows of Elsie Dinsmore and G. A. Henty at child level and valuable Joel Chandler Harris on a shelf behind her head as she sat at her desk. Low in a back corner was my particular nook where I would sit among piles of Gene Stratton-Porter novels and nature books, turning the colorful plates over with a reverent hand and desperately trying to make up my mind which one would come home with me in exchange for a carefully-hoarded sum of baby-sitting money. And invariably some sly calculating on Mrs. Downs’ part would make my total considerably less than I had anticipated.
When Mrs. Downs asked me to help her in the shop it fulfilled a dream I had long cherished, and more often than not I would approach her at closing time with a stack of books equal in price to the salary she would have paid me that day. But the collection that steadily grew on my shelves is more valuable to me than any money I might have saved. And the bearing of so noble a soul upon my ideals and impressions of life is more valuable still.
“The two best things in the world are a dirty cookbook and a marked-up Bible,” she used to say, her soft, wrinkled face blooming like a girl’s with the smile that she always wore. And there was ample evidence in her life for the substance of such a statement. How often did she greet me on a cold morning with a trim little packet of her famous sausage rolls still warm from the oven? And how regularly did her life exemplify the realities which her cherished Bible proclaimed? The two seemed almost inseparable, her cooking and her Christianity, as she blended them with the skill of an expert baker into a beautiful ministry of joyful service. There were toffee bars in the mailbox for the postman and parcels of savories for the girls in the office upstairs. But one of the most touching indications of this love-driven service was the instance of the ‘little old lady in south Georgia’ who watched the mail looking for Katherine’s teacakes as perhaps the brightest spot in a lonely life.
“She says that I’m the only one that can make them like her mother used to,” Mrs. Downs would confide with a grin as she left for the post office on her lunch break. I knew that it was trouble for her, and that undoubtedly the ‘little old lady’ wasn’t much older than herself, but there’s no room for thoughts like that in a heart that is running over with love. And it was that very flavor of holiness that gave her cookies and tassies and biscuits the aroma of a sacrament.
Patrons frequented her shop for Civil War books (in a section aptly labeled ‘War Between the States’), and children’s classics and limp volumes of poetry, but first and foremost—like me—they came for the sheer pleasure of Katherine’s bright-eyed candor and drawling wit. I used to sit for hours, perched on my stool in the workroom repairing books, and listen as she regaled a customer with humorous stories from her youth or chuckling commentary on the politics of the booksellers’ world. And after they had gone, I would curl up in the ragged green leather chair opposite her and let her talk about life and love and the man with whom she had so gladly spent her days.
“Don’t ever marry a man that you don’t look up to in every way,” she would tell me with a softening of her eyes. “Jack Downs was the greatest man I’ve ever known. Oh, how I loved him! And I would say that if he was sitting right here today.”
There would be a pause, perhaps a dabbing of a tissue. “I tell you, you’ve got to respect him. That’s the most important thing.”
None of my guy friends ever escaped a visit to the shop without her intense scrutiny. And I never escaped without a barrage of questions and insinuations after they left. But it wasn’t until a certain tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed young man began to visit that I was able to confess to her with a blush that, yes, here was the one that I would look up to and admire for the rest of my life. To be sure, the bookshop itself played a vital role in the early days of our courtship. But to this day it makes me happy to think that Mrs. Downs knew Philip, and that she approved. For though she died before our wedding day I am convinced that the blessing of such a beloved saint only bodes well for our union.
I dedicate this site to the memory of Katherine Downs under whose watchful guidance a love of books was cultivated into a genuine passion. I am indebted to her for life.