Friday, October 14, 2011

MacDonald's Travis McGee and more

John D. MacDonald
Stephen King called John D. MacDonald "the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller." He is also one of Florida's favorite writers, creating the gangly, knight-errant hero, Travis McGee. He wrote 21 Travis McGee novels and scores of other novels, short story collections, nonfiction books and magazine articles.

Much of his Travis McGee work is still in print, but most coveted are the older novels written before the Travis McGee series. The collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA includes plenty of samples of MacDonald's work. Here, you'll find the early paperbacks, like Soft Touch, Cancel All Our Vows, Where is Janice Gantry?, The Deceivers and Murder in the Wind.

Here, too, are such science fiction works as The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything and Ballroom of the Skies.

Also in the collection, of course, are Travis McGee novels in both paperback and hard cover. There was always a color in the title, mostly capturing the hues that make up life in subtropical Florida. McGee, the "knight in rusting armor," as MacDonald put it, was an enviable fellow, taking his retirement in increments while he was still young enough to enjoy it.

Devoted Travis McGee fans know he lived aboard a houseboat called The Busted Flush (won in a poker game), docked at slip F-18 in Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale. They also know that there really was a slip F-18 at Bahia Mar and there was a brass plaque commemorating the home of McGee's Busted Flush, but it is there no longer. A redesign of the marina several years ago eliminated the legendary location. Instead, there is a big monument at the marina honoring McGee and John D.

McGee has a healthy disdain of modern society that stirs a longing for freedom in readers who lead ordinary lives, caught up in the fabric our complex culture. "And I am wary of a lot of other things," says McGee, "such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny."

MacDonald's work is translated into multiple languages and published around the world. One of the more interesting items in the Lighthouse collection is a signed German paperback with a title that translates, The Light Flickers Four Times.

Near the end of his life a Helsinki publisher, Eurographica, produced a limited edition of 350 copies of a collection of four of MacDonald's best short stories. The book was called The Annex and Other Stories. It was printed on handmade paper and was signed by MacDonald. The edition was never distributed, however. A signed copy from that edition is also in the Lighthouse collection.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Trade cards: 19th century entertainment

Hold the card up to the light, readers were told.
In the days before television and radio, American families sometimes entertained themselves with trade cards—colorful advertising cards the local grocer or dry goods purveyor might have included with a purchase.

The cards had wonderful scenes on the front and an advertising message on the back. People collected them, traded them and put them in scrapbooks. An evening might be spent sorting them, talking about them and carefully attaching them to pages to be enjoyed again.

The cards came about because of a development in printing called chromolithography that eventually allowed inexpensive mass reproduction of these pleasant images. Early on, chromolithography was anything but cheap. Multiple colors in a scene required that the printed sheet be passed beneath many stones, each etched with a color contained in the image. That proved to be both very time consuming and very expensive. Fine art prints were created this way.

But eventually printing became much more streamlined and huge quantities of these little cards could be produced. An assortment of 19th century advertising cards is in the collection of rare and unusual items at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. The cards were most popular from about 1800 to 1900, though their popularity had begun to wane by the 1890s as merchants and manufacturers turned to newspapers as their primary advertising medium.

The cards offer a glimpse into lifestyles of the period. Here are cards advertising coffee, for instance, long a staple of the American household. One particularly humorous card shows a couple clearly at loggerheads over some unknown issue. Below them reads, "BEFORE using The Great A&P Tea Co's Coffee with A&P Condensed Milk." When a reader inverts the card, a happy couple is revealed, cleverly drawn into the bottom of the illustration of the bickering couple. The corresponding caption reads, of course, AFTER using the products of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (which became better known as the A&P grocery store.)

Here, too, are cards for toiletries, patent medicines, baking powder, and other kitchen supplies, packaged food items and more, all printed in beautiful color.

The array also includes a mini-program for a play starring Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Florence, who were popular performers for many years during and after the Civil War. The play was
The Mighty Dollar, which the couple toured with for at least a decade. Presumably the Florences offered a respite from evenings of sorting trade cards.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The library of orchid expert Eric Christenson

By all accounts, Eric Christenson was a world-renowned authority on orchids. He was a research taxonomist, a scientist who studied orchid species and classified them, recommending scientific names for new species. [Below is a video he made in 2006 explaining his work.]

In 2002, Christenson was hard at work on a description of a new species that had been discovered in Peru. Christenson, who lived in Bradenton surrounded by a 3,000-volume library of orchid references, had spent considerable time studying Peruvian orchids and had become a leading authority on them. He worked from photographs from colleagues in Peru.

On June 12 of that year, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota published a description of a new unclassified species—the same one that Christenson had been working on. A specimen of the plant had been brought to Selby by orchid enthusiast Michael Kovach from Peru. He said he got it from a rural crossroads flower stand. It was a ladyslipper orchid and it had never been classified.

The scientists at Selby Gardens named the flower Phragmipedium kovachii, after Kovach. They said it was the most spectacular orchid discovery in a hundred years and they sent out a news release about it. The orchid world was all atwitter.

On June 17, a livid Christenson published his description of the flower in Orchids magazine, a publication of the American Orchid Society. Christenson said the name should be Phragmipedium peruvianum, although some scientists didn't think that was a good name because there was another flower that had a similar name.

Phragmipedium kovachii
Three days later the Peruvian government complained to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that Kovach had violated the endangered species act. Kovach ended up in court, was tried and sentenced to two years probation and a $1,000 fine. The whole scandalous episode was an embarrassing nightmare to Selby Gardens, which ended up with a $5,000 fine itself.

As for Christenson, he was vindicated but the name of the flower was never changed. The episode did bring Christenson world recognition though. "He was well known before that time but the kovachii incident made him famous around the world," California orchid grower Marni Turkel told the Bradenton Herald for his obituary. Christenson died in April of this year.

Christenson is well remembered in orchid circles. He did field work in Guyana and French Guiana as well as Peru, and wrote numerous books and articles about his findings. He worked with David Bennett of Lima in researching orchids in Peru, identifying more than 100 new species.

Christenson's vast library can be seen by appointment at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. It contains numerous rare and unusual volumes, including a numbered, limited edition reprint of the 1837 edition of James Bateman's The Orchidaceae of  Mexico and Guatemala,  a 1677 volume by Swiss botanist Caspar Bouhin, an 1887 edition of The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, published by his son Francis, and an 1846 first edition of a book by British botonist George Gardner.

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Florida Antiquarian Book Fair

Michael Slicker was the founding president of the Florida Antiquarian Booksellers Association and has served as chairman of its annual Florida Antiquarian Book Fair since its inception.

The 36th annual book fair is set for April 21-23, 2017 at The Coliseum in St. Petersburg.

The fair is the oldest and largest antiquarian book fair in the Southeast. Learn more about the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair and the Florida Antiquarian Booksellers Association.

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