Buying Some Old (and not-so-old) Books

October 15th, 2010 by Jennifer Tuttle

A Portland institution is going out of business.  Cunningham Books, in Longfellow Square, is closing.  This is a great loss for our community.  One reviewer on yelp sums up why: when shopping there, “I nearly always find something I can’t live without.”

Recently our curator happened to notice the 50% off going-out-of-business sale sign in the window,  and this spurred us to pay the store a visit.  We hauled in my laptop, found an area wireless connection, pulled up the UNE Library catalog, and proceeded to while away two hours, shopping.

I love books.  Especially old books.  In fact, I can get a little bit crazy if left to my own devices in a store with old books, and I usually have to ask someone to hold on to my wallet and not give it back until I’m well clear of the door.  In this particular case, however, I could actually buy some things.  This is, I think, the very best part of my job as the MWWC Healy Professor.

Cunningham Books did not dissapoint. We managed to fill in some of the few vacancies in our Elizabeth Coatsworth Collection, including first editions of Away Goes Sally, The Fair American, Cricket and the Emperor’s Son, and The House of the Swan.  My favorite was the adorable children’s book Dancing Tom.

We found a copy of Ina Ladd Brown‘s More of the Same with a charmingly whimsical inscription.

And we found what appears to be an English 389 class project by Westbrook College student Bonnie Studdiford, who apparently interviewed Sue McKonkey on several occasions and wrote about the substance of those interviews, incorporating insights on McKonkey’s poetry.  While skimming through this lovely artifact, I was pleased to find this passage:

“On March 27 I visit the Maine Women Writers Collection at Westbrook College and meet Dorothy Healy, director, who will be coming to class to talk about Sue McKonkey.  After showing me around the collection and telling me about many of the people I have met in my English class, dead and alive, Mrs. Healy talked of Sue McKonkey.  She finds her one of Maine’s most extraordinary women of this century” (n.p.).

Our more contemporary acquisitions were no less exciting.  We picked up an anthology of plays from the Portland Stage Company’s Little Festival of the Unexpected.

And we rounded out our collection of work by Jennifer Finney Boylan with a first edition of The Constellations: A Novel, published when she wrote as James Finney Boylan.

The periodicals were similarly enticing, and we were excited to fill a few gaps in our holdings of Harper’s Magazine, Scribner’s Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly, The Century Illustrated Magazine, and McClure’s Magazine from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

We picked up an issue of Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine from 1872.

And right as I was getting ready to walk out the door, I found a whole stack of Our Young Folks from the 1860s.  The one on top included an installment of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Little Pussy Willow,” so I hungrily grabbed the whole bunch.

It was only as I was leafing through that issue later that I found a previous owner had used it to press several autumn leaves, which are beautifully preserved.

As we paid for our purchases, we spoke with Nancy, the owner of Cunningham Books.  We commiserated about the bleak outlook for independent booksellers and the difficulties she had finding a buyer for her store who could actually obtain the necessary financing.  Finally, she decided simply to close the doors for good.

“I am glad,” she told us, ” that these books, at least, have found a new home, where people will be able to continue to enjoy them.”