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.
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!
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.