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Ghosts of Christmas Past (#5)


On the eve of what has become the annual rising of the Red River of the North, we’re preparing for what is likely to be remembered as the Flood of the Millennium. Since I moved to Fargo there have been at least five that qualified as “Flood of the Century”, so it may be time to redefine the term. I mention this only because there are fifty—yes, fifty—bankers boxes in the basement, filled with books, and all fifty of these have to be brought up to the main floor for safety. Am I being optimistic that even the first floor will be high enough?

Several friends and I share an illness for which, like malaria, there can be no cure: an unquenchable quest for paper. I began collecting books in high school and the rate of acquisition has seen a geometric increase ever since. Indeed, the cause of my death is likely to read “Crushed by paper.” And, yes, Agincourt seems to be populated with many more than its fair share of such eccentricities—sorry about that—but there’s one of them Howard is anxious to recall.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Garage and estate sales will be my undoing. Likewise, the on-line auction site that shall remain nameless. So, it was against my better judgment that Rowan Oakes and I attended a sale over the weekend and came away with a couple boxes of books. Sorting through them at home, I noted several with a small tasteful sticker inside the back cover: “Shelf Life / 114 North Broad Street / Agincourt, Iowa / Telephone 727”. In the 50s, I had been among its denizens.

One Saturday afternoon my mother sent me to Vandervort’s Bakery for bread; I was eleven or twelve and in no particular hurry. So Frank (the family dog) and I took the great circle route, stopping at the old library and dropping in at Aunt Phyllis’s before heading back to Vandervort’s and home.

Vandervort’s window was always a distraction, crammed with baskets of fresh bread and rolls and platters of cookies, cakes and pies. For some reason, my eye was drawn to another door, the one just to the right of the bakery, and the stairs that led up to a book dealer on the second floor—to Shelf Life. Frank and I were regulars at the library and my parents often gave books for birthdays and Christmas. But I can’t recall buying a book of my own before that afternoon. Frank and I climbed one long flight and knocked softly on the half-open dutch door at the top of the stairs. “Come in, young man, and bring your friend,” came the invitation. If I said Lauritz Melchior, would it conjure a rich tenor voice from your mind’s ear? Out from a tsunami of paper reached the hand of Hamish Brookes, proprietor. “Welcome, Master Tabor.”

How did he know my name?


For what seemed like five minutes my eyes leapt from table to shelf, from wainscot to window, philadendron, goose-neck lamp and back again, around a room more wondrous than any in my short experience. In truth, few since have been its match. Mr Brookes stepped from behind his desk and cleared a ladderback chair for me, one of a mismatched set each of which seemed more shelf than seat. Every horizontal surface—even the floor itself—was fair game for piling paper, bound and otherwise. How all this had not fallen through to Vandervort’s below is a mystery. So I settled in, Frank by my side, to meet our newest friend.

I’ll save for another day my recollections of Hamish Brookes. It’s enough today to have been reminded of his service to the community and region. And to recall the appreciation I gleaned from him for the culture of paper, the composition of words on a page, the gathering of pages in signatures, and their binding into books—a liberal education free for the asking.

Some of his volumes were priceless. Suffice to say I left that afternoon with one I could afford: The Gold Bug by Edgar Allen Poe.


  1. […] are remodeling the second floor—former location of Hamish Brookes’s legendary bookstore Shelf Life—and creating an apartment, with a “Millennial” clientele in mind. Even Agincourt has […]

  2. […] long-time purveyor of that other sort of paper, the gift that goes on giving, The Book. Brookes deserves a few more words but that will wait another […]

  3. […] twelve basic Jungian archetypes, Hamish Brookes, bookseller, is the Magus: the magician-seer-revelator who knows more about you than you do of […]

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