Brentano's going bankrupt again! What curious memories this brings back of the real bankruptcy in the early '30s, when the chain was actually owned by the Brentano family. The Great Depression was too deep, and people just stopped buying books, although a good- sized biography then sold for $2.75, a novel or a mystery for $2 to $2.50, all hardbacks, of course. Employees' salaries were cut to $15 a week at the bankruptcy, and some lucky ones left to take government jobs at $25. So the new manager of the old F Street store, who was a relative of mine, talked me into coming to work there.
F Street was a great place to browse in those days: bakeries, dress shops, shoe stores, even hat shops. The most wonderful spot for lunch was the nearby Roumanian Inn, with a courtyard fountain, green plants (before they became compulsory) and blintzes with sour cream. An after-work treat was a walk through the Willard's Peacock Alley and dinner at the Gingham Club, upstairs in Child's on Pennsylvania Avenue.
It was fun to sell books. All that free reading, all those eccentric customers, the great people one worked with, the salesmen down from New York hawking hoped-for best-sellers. Some publishers saved by hawking their own lines; I remember Bennett Cerf, after he had founded Random House, used to lug in a heavy briefcase full of books, as did Mr. Grosset, of Grosset and Dunlap.
One large, blonde customer liked to breeze in and demand, "Come on, give me something to read while my husband talks to me."
And there was the very attractive shoplifter. He loved good books and would charm us with his conversations about them. He would take a stack of books from the lending library (yes, Brentano's had a lending library, 3 cents a day), and then browse half an hour or so among the serious books near the front of the store. After an inventory showed a strange discrepancy, a detective was hired. Pudgy and bowler-hatted, he was a hilarious sight pretending interest in the nonfiction section, but it didn't take him long to spot our attractive young man placing his library books on a stack of biography or history, then picking up the whole stack and slipping out the door. It turned out he was paying his way through college reselling them. College was interrupted briefly by jail.
Authors loved to come in and check on how many of their books we had stocked. Somehow you could spot them every time. One insisted on autographing in large flowing script every copy of his book that we had. That afternoon a friend of his rushed in breathless. "Thank God you've got Jim's book. I've been all over town looking for it. He's coming to dinner tonight and I told him I had a copy I wanted him to autograph." I don't know how he got out of that one.
One day a large car double-parked out front and the chauffeur came in with a list of books in hand. I stacked them up for him; he picked them up, and as he left called over his shoulder, "Charge them to Sumner Welles." I phoned the charge back to the office and Miss Nelson came roaring out "Don't let him get away. Stop him!" "What's the matter? Doesn't he pay his bills? "Yes, but he pays it all at once, once a year. I'm tired of our rich customers doing that." But the car was gone.
Among our co-workers we had dry little, wry little Mr. Avery, an expert on rare books, of which we had none left. And Mr. Simkins, who looked just like a walrus and handled the mail orders, including really strange ones from Harry K. Thaw from his asylum. And Jimmy, in charge of magazine subscriptions and the reprint department. He had a bright idea one day. He took a batch of 50-cent reprints that weren't moving and threw them on the floor. He dirtied them up and put dates in them in pencil to make them look like worn lending library books, then put them in with the library discards, where they sold fine at 75 cents.
Another co-worker, Marian Tracy, had an even brighter idea. She and her husband, Nino, found they were having trouble eating on their combined salaries of $30 a week. So they started tossing small amounts of meat into a casserole with large amounts of vegetables and seasonings. They'd put this into the oven, have a shower and a drink, then take out their one-dish meal for dinner. They experimented with this so well it turned into "Casserole Cookery." It still sells well today.
Eventually Brentano's was bought by Stanton Griffiths and started making money, good money. A lot of beautiful friendships were fractured when Marian Tracy, my sister, Peggy, and I decided to organize our fellow workers and ask the company to raise us to $18 a week. Heresy! Everyone was frightened of losing his job, and practically all of them signed a pledge of loyalty to dear old Brentano's. My sister was fired, for disloyalty, I guess, and Marian and I quit, she to write her cookbooks and I to start my own book shop.