Monday, July 22, 2019

'He Never Took People Casually'

Happy serendipity is finding a book you never knew existed, devoted to a previously unknown subject. At Kaboom Books I was browsing in the Books on Books section and found a slender, turquoise-colored paperback with the title on the spine all in upper-case lettering: FRANCESCO ALFREDO GIUSEPPE SCIOSCIA. On the cover is a drawing of a triangle-shaped tree and words that might appear on a gravestone:

“Born January 31, 1922, Scranton, Pennsylvania
Died July 10, 1993, New York, New York”

I had no idea who Scioscia was but wondered if he was related to the Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989). No, he was one of twelve siblings born to Italian immigrants in the United States. He served in the Army before becoming a sales executive at what is now HarperCollins, and was proprietor of riverrun bookstore in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. The book is a collection of tributes from family, friends and colleagues, a Festschrift published in 1996 for a man who seems to have been universally loved, one of humanity’s genuine nice guys. John Dillman, the owner of Kaboom, who has been selling books for almost half a century, first in New Orleans, now in Houston, said he hadn’t heard of Scioscia either. In her introduction, Scioscia’s widow, Mary, makes it clear her husband was a reader, a lover of books, not merely a retailer:

“We’d been on a George Eliot binge during our last year together. We read Adam Bede and Middlemarch and were 300 pages into Daniel Deronda when Frank had to be taken by ambulance to St. John’s Hospital. He finished the remaining 600 pages in the hospital while attached to various machines, and kept apologizing for getting ahead of me. The Vicar of Wakefield was the last book he read. He found it so amusing that he read parts aloud to our son, Charlie, when he went to visit his father at New York University Hospital three days before he died.”

Dana Gioia recalls walking into Scioscia’s bookstore in the late nineteen-seventies: “When Frank saw me shopping the poetry section, he started up a conversation [A rare event in my experience. If a book dealer engages in conversation, it’s usually the customer who initiates it.], and I knew almost at once that we would become friends—not casual acquaintances, not literary chums, but genuine and abiding friends.” Gioia inventories his friend’s “many gifts –his charm, his intelligence, his humor, and his unfailing good will,” adding: “What seemed so special about him was mysterious totality, the tangible presence of a soul so deep and generous, and yet so sharp and playful.”

Fran Manushkin, the children’s book writer and an early reader of Anecdotal Evidence, recalls casually mentioning to Scioscia that she had recently discovered the work of Willa Cather: “The next day, when I came to work, I found three Knopf hardcovers of Willa Cather’s novel on my desk. They were early printings with beautiful green-cloth covers. Gazing at them I felt as if a kindly providence had heard my wish and fulfilled it.

“I picked up the phone and called Frank to thank him. He sounded pleased but diffident, as if his generosity was not at all remarkable. Even though I saw Frank rarely, his attitude toward me and others can only be described as an I-Thou experience. He never took people casually.”

[Also at Kaboom I found a 1952 second edition of Henry Green’s “interim autobiography,” Pack My Bag, published by Hogarth Press, and a paperback of Timothy Steele’s Sapphics Against Anger and Other Poems (1986).]


T. Wood said...

The bkshop Mr Scioscia founded those many years ago, riverrun in Hastings, is now owned and operated by Tom Lecky, a fine fellow and a consummate bookman - in case you don’t know.
Hot here, Houston?
Tom W.

Unknown said...

Patrick, I 'm so pleased that you came upon the book of tributes to Frank Scioscia! That book is still on my bookshelf. (Many books have come and gone on my shelves, but never that one.)
I could mention how dashing and handsome Frank looked (especially on weekends when he wore black cowboy boots, but i won't.)
Oh, one more story that reveals Frank's goodness and tact: when I told him I was disappointed in the sales of my first children's book, Frank said, "Well, "The Giving Tree' started slowly.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry I forgot to mention my name when I wrote my comment; it's Fran Manushkin.