When George Reifsneider offered young Amalya Langer a job in his well-established New York antiquarian bookstore nearly 60 years ago, she said she'd work there for nothing, just to be around the books. "Would I like to work in Heaven?" she asked him.
Of course he insisted on paying her. And then he made her manager of a new store and then, though he was 30 years her senior, he married her. "The age was not a problem," she says. "We liked the same operas and the same books."
Now Amalya Reifsneider is 86 and her husband is long since dead, but she is still in the business. She has become, as one of her colleagues puts it, "the dowager empress of Washington books."
Here is a shop full of old curiousities - Park Reifsneider's Antiquarian Book Gallery and Museum - a converted town house near Dupont Circle with three shingles out front hung one under the other reading "Book, Books, Books."
Inside are there floors of labyrinthine bookcases full of oddly juxtaposed titles: a first edition of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" confronts "The Spy Who Spoke Porpoise." In another room a browser may find an illustrated copy of Melville's "Omoo," a recently remaindered edition of Updike's "Rabbit Redux," a yellowing copy of "I Was a Nazi Flier." It's been on the shelf for a while.
The Reifsneiders - first in New York and then, after 1931, in Washington - were renowed for their art books, and the shelves in the "Gallery" are full of new and old color and black and white picture books. Then, here and there an expense of dusty records from the U.S. Geological Survey.
It's a place of haphazard surprises, a kind of literary funhouse. Some of the prices seem ridiculously low - two, three dollars. Others, for books, that can still be bought on a remainder counter, sometimes seem too high.
Turn a corner and you may encounter a browsing congressman: turn another corner and a folding bed has been shoved among the biography shelves to get it out of the way.
In the elevator that takes the customers from to floor (and a few favored friends to Mrs. Reifsneider's apartment at the top of the building, there are three emergency numbers listed: the repair service, the police - and seeress Jeanne Dixon.
"She's my best friend." says Mrs. Reifsneider, noting proudly "She's written a lot of books."
Mrs. Reifsneider "is just an encyclopedia," says Dixon, who lives next door. "You know I've been all over the world and I've never met anyone as amazing as her. She has a mind like a steep trap and a memory like 10 elephants."
On most days a customer will find Mrs. Reifsneider on the first floor, running the store from her wheelchair (a matter of convenience more than necessity) - or, more often, from half out of her wheelchair as she makes a point about prices or taste. "I get to be friends with my customers and I talk back to them."
"A bookstore," says Amalya Reifsneider "must be a place where a person comes in and goes out feeling someone was interested in them." Plainly she is interested in anyone who is interested in books.Her grestest pride is in her ability to talk to a person for just a few minutes and then tell him what books he would enjoy reading - whether the person is a Supreme Court justice or a child still suspicious of the printed word.
When she begins to reminisce about the business, which she will do if given the slightest encouragement, Mrs. Reifsneider's conversation becomes a steady torrent of names and tities.
"I had the privilege of meeting men I never knew were great until years later," she declaims with a trace of self-consciousness. "They all liked me . . . even if I was a little fresh."
F. Scott Fitzgerald used to browse through her New York store, but of course he was just a student at Princeton then.The Rockefeller children - Nelson, David, et al - were brought in by their governess.
Franklin Roosevelt was a long-time customer. "But no," she says stopping herself, "that's too personal," and she launches into another litany of names, avoiding details of book-buying habits that would be, to her mind, embarrassingly intimate. After all, is anything more revealing about people than the books they buy?
In some cases, however, she lets herself go. "Theodore Dreiser was always a grouch." It seems he was irritated that he didn't get any royalties from his books sold second-hand.
She was offended by Frank Harris, the notorious author of "My Life and Loves" and a fanatically jealous husband who would scold his wife publicly for spending so much time in the Reifsneiders' New York shop.
Over the years she has helped philosopher John Dewey, reluctant school children and Harry Truman find books that would give them pleasure.
"It's the only business, "where you're on an equal footing with everybody from a president down to a little beggar."
In the last decade a flock of anti-quarian and used book stores have opened in and around Washington. Where once there were only five or six, there are now at least 29 shops in the area.
Part of the growth can be traced to the burgeoning interest in books as collectibles ("They're trying to make books like stamps, which is all wrong," laments Mrs. Reifsneider. "I want to read a book.") But part of it is certainly due to the enduring mystique of the merchandise.
Most dealers, after a few remarks about dollars and cents will simply say that they love books.
It is, as novelist Larry McMurtry points out, a peculiar business in which many of the customers are dealers themselves. McMurtry co-owns Booked Up, an antiquarian shop in Georgetown, and like most of the other dealers he thinks "competitor" is a term that doesn't fit very well in his kind of book business.
Ailen Stypeck of Second Story Books opened his first shop just 2 1/2 years ago, and just recently expanded with a vast used-book store at 5017 Connecticut Ave. "We were just talking about Mrs. Reifsneider the other day," he says. "Washington is not like New York, where there are some old stores that have been around for a couple of hundred years and then gradual generatons of newer ones. In Washington almost all the old ones died out and now there's this new generaton. Mrs. Reifsneider is the only continuity there is. She's the grande doyenne - the dowager empress."
The Reifsneiders moved to Washington early in the 1930s. "Let me tell you there was never a Depression in Washington," said Mrs. Reifsneider.
At first they tried to buy Blair House, which was for sale as a shop, but they finally settled on the building at 919 G St NW. It was torn down in the 1960s to make way for the Martin Luther King Library. ("I didn't mind that. It was a worthy cause.") Urban renewal forced her out of her next location, on F Street in 1971. The gallery at 1310 19th St. NW is her third shop here.
Though she has been irritated by the trials of moving and the bureaucratic snarls in the D.C. government ("No matter what you look for, they haven't got it"), the most important thing is that her books are with her.
When her husband was alive she traveled with him all over the world. But since his death 30 years ago the books, the customers, the memories have become a world she rarely leaves. The last time she went to Europe was in 1950.
Speaking of the rich and famous among her clientele she says, "Many times thay have invited me to their homes, but I don't go." She pauses, then nods knowingly. "I know if I should go some place or I shouldn't go." She stays in the bookstore - still heaven after all these years.