I'm heading for the beach with my summer reading fare: All Passion Spent (1931), by Vita Sackville-West, is a slender and gentle paperback of 174 compelling pages about an aged widow who asserts her independence, which I've almost finished, and Wolf Solent (1929), by John Cowper Powys, is an intriguing and rhapsodic novel (614 pages) about a mystical return to the English countryside, which I hope will see me through August.
Strange and obscure choices, you might think, but only if you don't know the incredibly well-read woman who recommended them to me.
Madeline Fox is the sort of shy and retiring woman who could have stepped from the pages of a novel by Jane Austen, an author we both admire. She has been a fixture at the Joseph Fox Bookstore in Center City since her husband, Joe— whom she describes as "a high school drop-out who was self-taught"— opened it in 1951. (Since he died in 1998, it's been run by their son, Michael.)
Although the store is widely hailed for its books on architecture, music, art and children's classics, it also stocks an exhaustive inventory of fine literature.
They read Trollope
Back in the mid-'60s, as a freshly minted liberal arts graduate from Penn, I began going to the store regularly— as much for the conversation as for the books. Between them, Joe and Madeline had read all of Trollope's novels. "Joe knew the Pallisers backwards and forwards," recalls Madeline. "I was more familiar with the Barchester Chronicles."
In the '70s, with the advent of "Masterpiece Theater," I remember going to the bookshop to discuss the characters from Galsworthy's Forsythe Saga. Madeline was one of the few people I knew who understood why I named a spirited young puppy I adopted Fleur. Although I had majored in 19th-Century British fiction, I recognized at once that I had two teachers at Fox Bookshop who far surpassed any of the dull professors I endured in college.
In Madeline, however, I also recognized a kindred spirit. She introduced me to the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of women novelists who weren't taught in school. Rose Macaulay, Rosamund Pilcher, Dodie Smith, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Jane Gardam, Ida Cook, Deborah Eisenberg"“ all became intimate companions.
Secrets of survival
But Madeline is nothing if not up to date. Several months ago, she gave me what I believe is a true masterpiece: The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje. In it, the narrator reveals how the incidents of a short journey shaped the rest of his life.
Madeline has influenced my own journey in much the same way. For isn't it true that we are what we read? That our entire outlook is affected by great literature?
Against all odds, the Fox Bookshop has survived competition from behemoth book traders and online venues. While Barnes & Noble and the recently shuttered Borders promoted themselves as communal literary centers where you could sip a cappuccino, munch on a muffin, shop for gifts or attend a reading, the entrepreneurial Michael Fox has turned his weaknesses into strengths: For lack of adequate space, he holds his author readings at tony locations like the Art Alliance, the Athenaeum, the Free Library, the National Constitution Center and the Union League.
Found on her shelf
The most important weapon in the Foxes' arsenal, however, is their unique knowledge of their customers, and the loyalty of their patrons, who don't buy elsewhere. Why would I forgo the immense pleasure of consulting my own personal librarian? Would anyone at Barnes & Noble know exactly what I should read on any given day?
But back to Vita Sackville-West. Madeline tells me that the hardbound edition of All Passion Spent was given to her by the late Philadelphia historian John Francis Marion. Recently she found it on her shelf and re-read it. Then she learned that the paperback had been issued by Virago Classics, so she ordered it for the store and passed it on to me.
As for the author of Wolf Solent: Madeline agrees with the assessment of the Saturday Review of Literature, which compared John Cowper Powys to Emily Bronte, Proust, Wordsworth, Dostoyevsky and Poe. I can hardly wait to begin.♦
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