My conversation continues with Marc Ramsey, owner of Owens & Ramsey Booksellers in suburban Richmond. Yesterday, Marc talked about falling in love with the Civil War through books and through battlefielding. Eventually, that led to a career selling Civil War books.
Chris Mackowski: So, you started out as a self-described “book geek,” then you started visiting battlefields. How did those twin roads intertwine to the point that you became a professional Civil War book guy?
Marc Ramsey: I had to go through a lot of different careers before I got to this one. I wish I’d discovered this many years before.
I was a theater major, one of the reasons being that it was a way to go back in time. I loved playing historical characters. But then when I grew up and had to get a real job, I ended up doing radio. I ran a radio station in Louisa for about ten years, went to another radio station and had a falling out with the bankers and came back to Richmond—I graduated twice from VCU, a master’s and an undergraduate degree—anyway, came back to Richmond and got a job at the Valentine Museum and WRVA news, and I wound up working for Clear Channel.
CM: My condolences.
MR: Yeah. (laughs) “Why don’t you do radio?” people have asked. Yeah, work for those characters—those cutthroats. You never know, when you show up to work, if your combination is going to work on the lock, ‘cause maybe you’ve been fired overnight. It happened to so many people.
But one night—and I worked part-time until seven years ago. I cut an ad over there for the antiquarian book fair last year and a couple of my old buddies in the newsroom were trying to figure, “How long has it been since you were here?” I wound down about seven years ago, I stopped taking their phone calls. I was working three days a week, but then they eliminated that position and just had me sub: Ah, Sunday morning! Christmas morning! No, I’m going to just do the bookstore.
But one night, a number of years before that, just before the five o’clock news on a Friday, I’m the only one in the newsroom, just about to go on the air, reading the newspaper, and there’s an ad for a military bookshop for sale. Wow!
I called my darling wife. We’d been thinking we had to stop working for other people. We had to find something else to do. I said, “This is it!” She said, “Ah, man, we’ve got to look into it, make him an offer, whatever.” I said, “Great,” hung up, dove into the news booth, and (in his radio announcer voice): “Marc Ramsey, WRVA News.”
Whew! My heart’s pounding. I had thirty seconds to go or something like that. Fortunately I had the newscast together.
We knocked it around for about six months and wound up buying. It was a store that was almost out of business. This guy was failing and didn’t tell me about all his liabilities and debts. They’d had the shop for about eight years and had just worked themselves into all kinds of debt. Fortunately, thanks to the bankers I had the falling out with—they made me the general manager of a failing station that they’d bought, we disagreed on nearly everything, and eventually I was out of there—but they taught me a very important lesson: asset-only purchase.
So, when we did the paperwork with the lawyers to transfer ownership of this place, I made it prominent: asset-only purchase. And it’s a good thing I did! For the next two, three years, I was fending off phone calls from lawyers and collection agencies and all kinds of people. And this guy had not told me that he was, you know, in such dire straits—just that it sounded like a cool little business. But we got all that straight. And we progressed.
So that was our baptism of fire, those first couple of years.
CM: Whatever happened to him, do you know?
MR: Yeah, he shows up from time to time. He’s a graphic artist. He’s an unlikely kind of character. When we first met him, I thought, “This could not be the owner of a bookstore.” He had long, black hair. Turns out he’s a Confederate Angel, part of the biker gang that used to be in town.
Over the years, Gary Gallagher was one of our best early friends early on because he needed a bookseller for the continuing education program that he did in the summer, which we wound up doing for ten years or so. You probably heard of the conference, a week-long conference they did every summer with A-list historians. Wound up, its last few years, being at the University of Richmond. And we were the only bookseller, and that really put us on the map. It allowed us to meet all kinds of really interesting people. Lots of authors.
That launched us into doing conferences. That conference is no longer, but we still do Civil War Trust, Civil War Education Association, and various other ones. And I just love them. I love getting to know the authors, too.
CM: So what’s it like to live a life where you’re surrounded by books?
MR: It’s a comfort. I used to collect relics. I sold my collection when I got into this thing for operating capital. And I don’t miss it. Relics are dead. They don’t talk to you. But my house—we have books in every room—I walk past the books, and they’re still friends, and they still talk to me. I’m surrounded by great company. It’s a living kind of thing. It’s amazing.
Nothing like going to a shelf and pulling a book off that you read maybe twenty years ago that you really liked.
CM: Have there been books that have come in or gone out that you’ve had particular attachments to?
MR: Oh, boy. There’s been so many that we’ve liked. And we’re always reading something.
I was on a book panel recently, talking about the business and my favorite books. Last year, the best book I read was the newly edited and annotated John B. Jones’s Rebel War Clerk’s Diary. Dr. James I Robertson—Bud Robertson—edited it and added 3400 footnotes. It was like reading my favorite author in the world, Douglas Southall Freeman. It’s like reading Freeman: Don’t skip over the footnotes. They tell a whole ’nother story.
I read John B. Jones years and years and years ago. But it never had endnotes or footnotes or anything like that. Or an index. I don’t think the original didn’t have an index. This one was like reading Freeman. I just read it slowly. Plus it was kind of exciting: I was reading a two-volume work for the first time in a while, you know? People don’t read multi-volume works like we used to. So I’m reading it, and in have a book marker in the notes and a book marker here [in the text].
And it’s been great, especially if you love Richmond. And we really, really do; this is our town. And this has been such a view of Richmond during those four years, from start to finish. And I just love that. I wound up selling fifty of them for the University of Oklahoma Press. It’s twenty-five sets, that’s right. I just sold my last ones. But I really recommend it.
Now, that was last year’s. We’re into 2017, and I said I had two favorite books. . . .
When Chris’s conversation with Marc continues tomorrow, Marc will share his top recommendations for 2017 (so far, anyway). One of them will be quite familiar to ECW readers; the other, Marc says, was a story quite familiar to him, yet he still found much to learn.