Time to Talk (Civil War) Books: A Conversation with Marc Ramsey—part two

The Owens & Ramsey book display on location at a Civil War show

Part two of five

We’re continuing my conversation with Marc Ramsey, owner of Owens & Ramsey Bookseller in suburban Richmond, Virginia. Yesterday, after getting an orientation to his shop, Marc began to tell me a little about the shop’s general operation.

Chris Mackowski: So, I’m assuming, when you go off to shows, you pack up your stuff. What stays?

Marc Ramsey: My darling wife promises me she’ll come over and keep the store open if she’s not on the road with me. (He gestures to a row of bookcases and the upper shelves, which consist of packable, stackable crates.) They’ll go, he says. The lower shelves will stay.

The heart of the operation, really, is our monthly catalogue. We started doing that—the gentleman and his wife before, that we bought the store from, had a catalogue kind of, like, whenever. They’d get some books, put out a catalogue. We determined to do it once a month since catalogue number eighty. Now we’re working on catalogue 334, which will be our February 2017 catalogue. [NOTE: Catalogue 336, April 2017, arrived in the mail as this story went to press.] We change about 100 titles in it each time, with about 200 titles total. We put them here, alphabetized.

The Post Office treats us really, really well. I’m in the Post Office two, three times a week mailing books. In over twenty-one years, we’ve only lost two—so I’m a big fan of the postal service.

In the last sixth months, though, we had a lot of reports of our catalogues being destroyed or torn open and happen to be forwarded in plastic bags. And I went to the postal inspector and asked about that—’cause I know when people get a torn-up catalogue they—fssst! (He makes a throw-away gesture.) “I’ll order next month.”

Well, you see, we just put a tab down here. (He points to the length-wise edge of the catalogue.) The post office has a new high-speed sorting machines over at the main hub for this area, and they whip so fast that these catalogue pages get opened, and that’s probably the reason. They get torn in the machines. So now what we have to do is put three tabs on them. (He points to all three open edges of the catalogue.) The most recent catalogue we did was out first three-tabber, and we have had no reports of any damage. It looks like everything got through the blockade or whatever.

So that’s our rhythm: catalogue, then heading out on the road.

The people who are “in the know” know to come to the shop right around the first of the month. And they’ll see in an organized fashion all the books that I’ve gotten that month. That’s the freshest stock, including new, used, and rare.

CM: Where are you getting most of your new material from these days?

MR: Savas Beatie, actually, has been a great source. Ted’s doing such a good job finding new material and new authors. I’m really happy to be in his roster of booksellers. And his books sell really fast. They’re a pleasure to deal with.

We, for years and years, depended on LSU and UNC—University of North Carolina—for our new material. But their books got so expensive, and it just wasn’t the same variety of good military studies. Awful lot of studies on race, gender, things like that—that’s all important, too, in their own way, if it’s well done—but we like military history. You know, battles and leaders, bios, unit histories, things like that. That’s our market.

CM: Is that because that’s what people buy, or are people buying that because that’s what’s easier to find?

MR: Actually, this is all just an excuse for me to get books! (laughs)

In the world that I grew up in—I read my first book on General Lee when I was ten, and from that point on, my poor parents, they had a little Confederate growing up in the house. [Marc originally hails from Clarks Summit, PA.] We blame my Aunt Connie. (laughs)

The world I live in is a world populated by people who go to battlefields, who study the campaigns from both sides. I follow the 41st Pennsylvania; my ancestors were in that. And we go to conferences and we never tire of hearing talks on Grant, Lincoln. That’s the world of Civil War history that we’ve been a part of all of our life.

And the collections that I buy—a lot of collections that I buy, especially the World War II guys, Korean War guys—these guys amassed a lot of books. They’re dying off. Families are liquidating. I get calls just about every day from people who are handling estates, whether they’re family or attorneys or whatever, and when you see the books, you see biographies of General Lee, biographies of Grant, biographies of various officers, and all kinds of studies of military aspects of the war.

CM: So let me back up to something you said a few minutes ago: You blamed it on your Aunt Connie when you were ten years old. So how did that interest develop?

MR: I remember because I still have the book. “What do you give little Marcky for Christmas?” You know, give him a Fort Apache set and a book. I was the book geek of the family. I grew up in a family that had picture books, encyclopedias—but they weren’t a bunch of readers. Still aren’t. But I was the book geek. So my Aunt Connie, who was one of the sharpest people in the family, knew to give me this book, and it was one of the Landmark Series of history books for young readers. I don’t know if you remember them. We still have of them here. Home school people come in here and buy them. But they’re great books. And also the “We Were There” books: “We Were There at the Battle of the Alamo,” ones like that. But this one was Robert E. Lee and the Road of Honor by Hodding Carter. And I read that—and I’ve had lots of life changes reading various books—but I just thought Robert E. Lee was cool. And everything about Virginia seemed cool.

And of course this was the period when my family started going to Gettysburg. My family went to Gettysburg a lot. I went there with Cub Scouts. And just couldn’t get enough of Gettysburg.

You used to be able to drive down to the Square and pick up a guide—they’d be hanging around. And I remember the best guide we ever got was this big ol’ guy. Sounded and looked like Burl Ives. Remember Burl Ives? We picked up Burl Ives. My brother, myself, and my mother got in the back seat, dad drove, and Burl Ives started talking about the battle of Gettysburg. [Makes his voice a little gravelly] “And Joshua Chamberlain on Little Round Top. . . .” Oh, man!

Marc Ramsey (far right) with members of the 15th Virginia at the Gettysburg 150th

Growing up, that was my battlefield. It still is. I’m up in Gettysburg a few times a year, and always go find some other little corner of the battlefield I haven’t seen in a while. Or if I’ve just read a book. . . .

I was up there a couple years ago, after having read the [Arthur] Freemantle book again, and his account of being up in a tree, I believe, and watching Pickett’s Charge. Well, I just happened to meet a friend of mine who’s a retired British military guy, and we went to where we thought Freemantle might’ve stood. And John—John White’s his name—I got him to read that section in his beautiful English voice, with the accent, as we’re standing on the ground. That was great.

So, first the book, then actual battlefield experience.

I tell everybody, “Take your kids to the battlefields.” And eventually they’ll become book customers of mine. That’s the way to really get the buzz going: playing on the cannons and everything.


Tomorrow, when we continue Chris’s conversation with Marc, Marc explains how his twin interests in books and battlefields intersected into his current career.

6 Responses to Time to Talk (Civil War) Books: A Conversation with Marc Ramsey—part two

  1. A wonderful interview, and thank you, Marc, for the kind words. Labors of love, all the way around.

    1. Dear Mr. Savas,

      My name is Jeffrey Ross and I want to thank you for establishing the “Gold Standard” on Civil War books, more specifically Campaigns and above all tactics. First I would like to tell you due to a disability I have to use “Talk to Text”, the reason its important to me to let you know (and I always remind Chris) is the system has alot of flaws and as someone who went to the University of Michigan the multiple grammatical errors is highly embarrassing. Now with that out of the way let’s get down to the fun stuff. Your hardcover books have the most beautiful and captivating dustjackets in the buisness. Opening the book the pages are always bright white with a crisp feel to them which always makes the black print stand out which in turn allows my 40yr old eyes to easily read the matierial. As we delve into the first chapter your authors and editors always make sure to set the stage for the brewing storm just right. To help even advanced readers remember who the lesser known generals, corps, division, brigade commander’s are we always get a picture to go with the name. As we begin reading as we come across a statement we haven’t heard before instead of blowing it off because trying to save your place while flipping around the back of the book hopelessly looking for the source you are the only ones who use footnotes rather then the aforementioned endnotes. Not only do footnotes allow you to find the source immediately if you pay attention they tell a story themselves. I have also found reading the footnotes direct me to lesser known older books on the subject I end up buying and enjoying also. After the first chapter or two of “setting the table” we get chapters on the commanders complete with background information (and a pic.) that helps us not only understand the decisions they make but also past and future decisions that they will make. After learning who’s in charge and why we follow the different armies and find out the routes they took to get to the inevitable clash. But rather then giving us a map of the state at the beginning and leaving it up to us to somehow follow the converging forces in our mind you give us MULTIPLE, clear, beautiful maps that allow us to concentrate on digesting the matierial completely rather then using half our memory on who’s where. Then we get to the actual battle where all the previous chapters allow us to understand the commanders, the movements, how the conditions and morale of each army effect how and why they fight. And of course it’s all easy to follow with the scores of maps showing troop movements down to the regimental level. Order of battles, appendices explaining the oddities, it’s just perfect Mr. Savas, your product is so far ahead of everyone else’s I don’t think they’ll ever catch up, thank-you for such a consistently quality product. I read WWII books for 25 years, I can pretty much tell you how Eric Von Manstien came up with and implemented everything from Operation Citadel to the battle of Kursk and how he was America’s first priority at wars end and shock 99% of the population letting them know he was actually responsible for setting up NATO’s first plans of war on the European plains if conflict with Russia broke out.Then on January 1, 2014 somebody had purchased me Shelby Footes 3 volume civil war set. I must confess Mr. Savas I immediately developed a addiction. Not only have I not purchased/read one WWII book since then I HAVE purchased/read 350 civil war books since then.The joy they bring me is infinite. Antietam is my baby

      1. Dear Mr Ross, There is much I could say, but let me reply like this….

        I am humbled by your words and praise. Your joy in reading about the war, and especially in being satisfied with our book, gives all of us tremendous joy.

        May I share your post (perhaps with some trimming for space without changing any substance?) Kindly let me know when you can. I can be reached at militarybooks@sbcglobal.net. Thank you.


  2. Fantastic interview. Thank you so much. I’m going to be in Richmond in June and Owens and Ramsey will definitely be a top priority. I agree that Savas Beatie is a wonderful resource for military history titles. I collected books from Morningside Press when I was a kid. They compiled a vast array of regimental histories. My copy of the 3rd Louisiana is still my favorite.

    1. James. Thanks. I have that 3rd LA book from old Bob Younger also. Morningside was in inspiration to me. Happy reading and thanks for your support.

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