Last Thursday night, the Kerri Gallery held an opening reception, Picture Books and Portraits, for Barbara McClintock and David Johnson, two of our favorite artists. Yes, they are known internationally but for us, they are local and friends. Barbara is on the Connecticut Children’s Book Fair Committee and both Barbara and David have been at the Fair and in the Co-op reading and signing their books.
Barbara’s astonishingly detailed watercolors from her many children’s books were lavishly framed and hung along one wall of this pretty space. I found myself feeling as if I were inside the paintings, there with the mice, or watching the bread kneaded and baked. Looking at her books, you are taken with the intricacies, but here, in real life, they are engulfing. I wanted to bring them all home and hang them on my own walls. Just one for that space by the table, I thought to myself.
David Johnson’s wonderful black and white portraits of authors hung, simply framed, on the opposite wall. Edgar Allen Poe. Kurt Vonnegut. Eudora Welty. One after another there they were, our favorite writers. Stunning. I wanted to buy all of them. They would be perfect in the bookstore. Actually, they would be great in my house. Paintings from his children’s books were also exhibited, emotive, stories each in themselves.
I loved that the gallery was absolutely crowded, packed – yes, mobbed with people. And more kept coming in. “It’s like New York,” I overheard someone say. Yes, I thought, but it’s Willimantic, which is transforming itself into a little arts city. Willimantic with its Julio de Burgos Poetry Park, and new art spaces, and Third Thursdays, and restaurants popping up every week is becoming a cultural hub. The amazing Kerri Art Studio and Gallery is at the center of all this activity.
The gallery focuses on the work of Kerri Quirk, whose bold, outsider acrylics have attracted the attention of many collectors. “Do you remember Michael Leonard?” I asked, feeling his presence in the space. Michael was a bookseller in General Books for many years and remained a friend after he left the bookstore. He was an interesting artist himself, a musician and composer, and a collector. He was an early admirer of Kerri’s work and had purchased a number of pieces long before the gallery opened. Yes, of course they remembered him and wondered what had become of his collection since he passed. They would love to have a show. Oh, I thought. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have an exhibit of the pieces Michael had collected, and some of his own pieces.
Saturday, people gathered in the Dodd Center to honor and remember Howard Reiter. It was a large gathering, with his
colleagues from Political Science, friends from his early college days, family, and many people from the UConn community well beyond Political Science.
For us, Howard was a wonderful and loyal customer. He ordered many, many books from the Co-op. He was always polite and treated each bookseller, whether a new student bookseller or one of us who has been here awhile, with great respect. Everyone in General Books was truly fond of him. So when his friend from his Cornel days, Eileen Hoffman stood to speak at the Memorial, and said that she had stopped in the Co-op on Friday to ask about his book, and the bookseller said, “What a nice man,” I smiled to myself that this touched her. We all thought that he was a nice man.
We liked having his books on presidential politics on our shelves. I think now of that last event we had for him on March 3, 2011 for his book Counter Realignment: Political Change in the Northeastern United States and the good- sized audience it drew. He was already very ill then, and had worked hard to finish the book, but it was a happy occasion. And after his talk, people stayed and chatted as if they didn’t want it to end. None of us wanted it to end.
I left the Memorial sad but feeling that I knew Howard a little better than I had known him in life. People spoke of aspects of him that we in the bookstore didn’t see. We knew about his scholarship of course, and what he was working on because we saw what he was reading. But for us he was the remarkably gentle and polite professor. The one each of us wanted to help. His friends spoke of his humor and puns, a part of him I wish I’d known, but I am glad for the side I did know.
Sunday, again in the Dodd, there was a gathering for Roger Crossgrove’s ninetieth birthday. Walking down the hill from
the parking lot, it struck me that just a day before, we were memorializing someone barely older than myself who had passed, and now we were about to celebrate a nonagenarian. I was not sure how to think about his.
Roger Crossgrove has long been important to the UConn Co-op and particularly to me. When I came here a bit more than thirty years ago, he and Francelia Butler became my mentors. I met Francelia first and through her, Roger. It seems that half the illustrators of children’s books working at that time, were Roger’s students, and those that were not his students, were his friends. He was on the founding committee for The Connecticut Children’s Book Fair (then the Connecticut Book Fair) and in those first years we relied on him for our roster. I smile when I recall that day Roger drove us both to William Wondriska’s studio to ask him to create a logo for the Fair.
And then there was the day he showed up at the Co-op with a bouquet of roses. It seems he had agreed to sell them for a fundraiser, but when it came to actually doing the selling, he could not bear the thought. However, sold or not, the flowers had been delivered to his house so he bought them himself and went around town bestowing bouquets of deep red roses to friends.
There was a small, retrospective exhibit of Roger’s work in the Reading Room to accompany the celebration: watercolor monotypes, photos, and two very early pastels. I am fortunate to have one of his pear monotypes in my bedroom, and one of his photos in my writing room from his Artists Open Studio days (something he encouraged me to participate in myself).
Rudy Witthus made an artist’s book for the occasion, using Roger’s photos to illustrate a Walt Whitman poem. It was on display and you could stand and turn the pages and feel the impression of the type. Wonderful. And there were old photos the family had put in a glass case and we all gasped when we saw a very young, very tall Roger during his Pratt years. “Everyone had a crush on him,” Tomie de Paolo said to me, “men and women.”
This was a celebration hosted by Roger’s family and of necessity guests were limited. Still, it was a very big party with lots of artist luminaries, including Tomie de Paola who went from being student to close friend. And the cake! Goodness it was enormous. Murleen Dutra baked and decorated it with one of Roger’s monotypes. Beautiful.
I write of all this, of the opening for Barbara McClintock and David Johnson, the memorial for Howard Reiter, the celebration for Roger Crossgrove because I am reminded that it is bookselling that brought all these amazing people into my life. Sure, we have books for sale at the Kerri Gallery, and our relationship with Roger and Howard and Barbara and David has been about books and selling books, but far more than that, it has been an honor and privilege to get to know and work with them. My life is better for it and I am grateful.
And it is an honor for the UConn Co-op to serve as booksellers in this community so rich in writers and scholars and artists and the people who appreciate their work. We are pleased to be a part of the cultural life of the University and surrounding towns. I hope, we hope, that we share many more experiences together. We look forward to both continuing to initiate events ourselves and supporting the events of others. I am glad that we can all share with one another. I hope that you too feel gladness.
I am in awe of all the Internet can do. I am writing on it now and sending this blog to you through it. But today, at this moment, I am happy for life in our physical world. Real people. Real books. Real art. Together in a real room. With real conversation and real voices. And it’s all right here in the place where we live and work. No, do not say Snorrs to me.