"Panic" Shopping at the Argosy

Sure I love books; but even more than reading, I enjoy hunting them down. It must be an instinct stronger than intellect that makes me want to sniff out volume after volume, many of which remain unread. Last Friday, for instance, en route to Birmingham International Airport to pick up two old friends from Germany who came to visit me for the first time here in Wales, we spent some two hours at Sunnycroft, a late-Victorian suburban villa once owned by a well-to-do, upper middle-class family.

As is often the case on such National Trust properties, there was a second-hand bookstore on the premises, however small and dingy. The piles of paperback romances did not bode well; and still I could not resist and stepped inside what, if I read the map right, was formerly the Sunnycroft boiler room. For something amounting to less than a dollar, to be left in a basket standing in for a salesperson, I snatched up a bound volume of The Snow Image, a British edition of some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-told Tales, probably as old as Sunnycroft itself. Here it lies, next to me, waiting for some wintry evening by the fire or such time I deem fit for its perusal.

Nineteenth-century treasures like this one aside, I am thoroughly modern in my choice of books, my library consisting chiefly of texts on that mid-20th century phenomenon known as radio drama. And while I do much of my shopping online nowadays, I still prefer walking around town—be it New York City or Hay-on-Wye—in search of well-worn volumes on my favorite subject.

On the Upper East Side in Manhattan, just around the corner from Bloomingdales, one such supplier of old books on film, theater, and radio is the aptly named Argosy. As I mentioned in the comments section of a previous journal entry, the store is run by the wife of Stuart Hample, whose all the sincerity in Hollywood is a fine introduction to the wit of radio comedian Fred Allen.

On my tour of the Manhattan’s fast disappearing used and antiquarian bookstores a few weeks ago, I was pleased to discover that the Argosy had one of its themed sales, the theme being drama and television. Among the $3 items displayed in front of the store, I found a 1944 copy of Behind the Microphone by one John J. Floherty, a prolific writer of supposed non-fictions like Inside the FBI, Your Daily Paper, and Board the Airline. I expected neither insights nor entertainment; this, I thought, was merely one for the collection. As it turns out, Mr. Floherty was quite the storyteller. Listen to this Daphne du Maurier rivalling introduction to the miracle of Marconi, whose Poldhu station I failed to visit during my Cornwall trip earlier this year:

The State Troopers’ lodge at Montauk Point on the easternmost tip of Long Island stands on one of the loneliest spots along this seaboard. Rolling sand dunes and high bluffs, at which the Atlantic has gnawed for centuries, stretch drearily westward to Montauk village nine miles away. 

It was here that Captain Flynn of the New York State Troopers had me enthralled one stormy Sabbath night with tales of the early days in the lumber towns on the Canadian border, when troopers and lumberjacks fought it out with the accepted weapons of the period and place—bare knuckles. 

Outside the night was storm mad. A sixty-five mile gale machine-gunned rain pellets with battering force against the windowpanes. The pounding surf on the beach a few steps from the door vied with the thunder that came in frequent peals. The crackling fire of driftwood gave the room a coziness for which I was thankful on such a night. 

The captain was in the middle of a story when the door was flung open violently and a woman, tall and blonde, hurled herself into the room in an onslaught of rain and wind. At that hour, on such a night and in such a place, it was as if she had been flung from another planet. She was drenched and dishevelled. Terror was in her eyes. She tried to speak, but gasped instead. She was followed presently by a bedraggled wisp of a man and a thoroughly frightened boy. 

“What’s all the excitement?” the captain said, as calmly as if he had been asking the time. The intruders stared at him for a moment with popping eyes. The woman spoke. “Haven’t you heard, Captain!? Haven’t you heard!!? Thousands of people are being killed in New York and New Jersey. Twenty of your troopers have been murdered. People are jumping into the Hudson River and drowning like rats. It’s a gas or something? Our children are in Brooklyn—do you think they are safe? Do you think the soldiers, or whatever they are, will attack over there?”

I have never read a more melodramatic—yet supposedly authentic—account of the “War of the Worlds” panic. I am glad the industrious Mr. Floherty had enough zest to spin such a yarn, which surely deserves a mention in Etherized, my study on old-time radio. And I am glad I returned to the Argosy, which, after some eighty years, is still afloat in a sea of corporate sameness.

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