Virtually every San Antonio citizen over a certain age with any interest in literature will have vivid memories of Rosengren’s Books. It was the absolute center of literary culture not only in San Antonio, but in Texas, for decades. Indeed, from the 1930s to the 1980s, Rosengren’s Books was considered one of the finest bookstores between New York and San Francisco. It was a mid-continent haven for writers as diverse as Frost, John Dos Pasos, J. Frank Dobie, and Larry McMurtry. Rosengren’s Books: An Oasis for Mind and Spirit is the story of a great American family of independent booksellers and the important literary institution they created. Beginning as a rare book store in Chicago, Frank and Florence Rosengren brought the store to San Antonio, Texas, in 1935. Located in various downtown locations, it became most well known as the charming book shop behind the Alamo, where it was visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world. At the heart of the story is Florence Rosengren, whom former San Antonio mayor Phil Hardberger calls the “Sylvia Beach of South Texas” and Texas Observer founding editor Ronnie Dugger described as “the chief guardian of civilization from here to Mexico City.”
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About the Author
Mary Carolyn Hollers George is an architectural historian whose work has focused on Texas and Mexico. She is the author of Alfred Giles: An English Architect in Texas and Mexico, The Architectural Legacy of Alfred Giles: Selected Restorations, Mary Bonner: Impressions of a Printmaker, and O’Neil Ford: Architect. She is a member of the Society of Architectural Historians and taught courses on the history of art and art appreciation for several years at San Antonio College. She lives in San Antonio, Texas.
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An Oasis for Mind and Spirit
By Mary Carolyn Hollers George
Wings PressCopyright © 2015 Wings Press, for Mary Carolyn Hollers George
All rights reserved.
The Rosengrens: A Family of Booksellers
This is a love story — a story about the love of books — a passion that has given insight, enlightenment, and delight to untold multitudes since the invention of the printing press over five centuries ago. This is also the story of a family of booksellers, a story unlikely to be repeated and therefore worthy of retelling. The number of booksellers — described by Samuel Johnson as the "generous, liberal-minded" true patrons of literature — is shrinking daily. We mourn this loss as we move into a future where reading itself is being redefined.
The patriarch of the Rosengren family of booksellers was born in 1892 and was given the baptismal name of Knut Henning Rosengren, later to be known as Frank Rosengren. His story began when his father, a skilled carpenter whose name was later translated as "Andrew" in English, went to install a cabinet in the residence of the Archbishop of Uppsala, the Lutheran primate of Sweden. There he met Cristina, a fetching young employee in the Archbishop's household. They soon married and their first two children, Carl ("Charlie") and Gerda, were born in Sweden. The family immigrated from Sweden in 1883 to the United States, where two more children, Frank and Kitty, were born. Carl would die in the flu pandemic of 1918. Andrew and Cristina made their way to the Humboldt Park area on the north side of Chicago, a community of skilled artisans — mainly northern Europeans with a preponderance of Swedish families. This may explain why Cristina would never learn to speak English. Still, she was very wise about the ways of her adopted country. Her oft-repeated advice to her son, Frank, was to "get in business for yourself."
An invaluable account of Frank Rosengren's progress in getting "in business" for himself was written in 1948 — a year before his death — while he was confined in a nursing home. Titled "My Education as a Bookseller," he submitted the 20-page manuscript to Frederick Melcher, the publisher and editor of Publisher's Weekly. Alas, his long-time friend kindly replied in a letter dated September 20, 1948, that he could not suggest where it could be put in print. The document was subsequently lost for six decades until his son, Frank Duane Rosengren, discovered this treasure in 2008 while searching through storage boxes filled with random collections of papers. The following narrative of Frank's early life draws heavily upon this source.
From Uppsala to Chicago
When Frank finished the ninth grade, his first year of high school [ca. 1906], his father felt he could not afford to educate him and loaned him the money to finance several weeks at a business college. Frank soon had a job at $15 a week in the "commission house district" on South Water Street in Chicago. But working in the frantic Chicago financial markets was not Frank's cup of tea, and he began to think of following his real love — books. He quit his $15 a-week job and got a job as a stock boy at $7 a week at A.C. McClurg & Co. — at that time reputedly "the largest bookstore in the world." His father was apoplectic. His mother understood. He also developed a wanderlust. Each spring, he would quit his job and go hoboing about the country until the chill winds of fall drove him back to McClurg's. Apparently, he was too useful an employee to fire.
These tramp trips provided the adventure and excitement his youth craved. He worked as a lumber camp cook, a coal stoker, and a farm hand, but at other times he was more congenially employed as a singing waiter, elevator boy, or bartender. These journeys also served a higher purpose for Frank Rosengren: "... to see and know my country, know its people and institutions and to understand the general layout of our universities and libraries and the bookstores that served them." Second-hand and rare books were of special interest to Frank, so one year he got a job with Powner's Book Store, at that time the largest second-hand bookseller in Chicago. In less than a year, he learned all he needed to know to begin buying and selling old books and decided to become a freelance "book scout."
During the same period — the years before the first World War — when he was in his early 20s, he adopted the stage name of "Frank Rose" and attained a certain amount of success as a pop singer. One summer, he took his banjo and his big baritone voice to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island where he performed until the fall closing. He was also featured at the Fox Lake Casino, just north of Chicago. The date there must have been 1913 or 1914; the most money he ever made before going into the book business came to him one night when he introduced a new song by the young Irving Berlin, "Take Me Back," which has a copyright date of 1913. "Big Jim" Colosimo, Chicago's crime boss prior to Al Capone, came into the club with a few bodyguards and sat down in front of the stage. "Big Jim" had just broken up with one of his numerous lady loves and was upset by the matter. He liked the song so much that he tossed Frank ten dollars and told him to sing it again. In all, Frank Rose sang "Take Me Back" thirty times in a row and made $10 each time — and $300 was an epic sum in 1913. His passion for collecting books now conjoined with his passion for collecting sheet music. He built a collection of 19 and early 20 century sheet music — more than a thousand songs — ranging from first issues of Sigmund Romberg to Stephen Foster and Irving Berlin.
Near the end of World War I, his number came up and he was drafted into the military. The first day when the recruits lined up, the sergeant asked, "Can anybody type?" Frank held up his hand and was put in the orderly room typing orders. This he did for two months until he also got orders for European duty. His ship departed — then turned around and returned to port. The Great War was over.
Frank's First Store
Following the declaration of Armistice in 1918, Frank Rosengren determined to open a retail bookstore of his own. With his experience as a freelance scout — where "he learned fast because he was spending his own money" — he felt he had learned all he needed to know about buying and selling old books. And where better than Chicago? The city had already gained fame for its contributions to the development of an "American literature."
The term "Chicago Renaissance" applies to the period between 1910 and the mid-1920s, during which writers like Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsey, Ben Hecht and Ring Lardner forged a style that came to be known as Chicago realism, an original national literature. It was a city where books mattered.
Frank borrowed $100 and rented a first-floor apartment — actually one tremendous room with a kitchenette arrangement in the corner. In the center of the room, a table-bed contraption served as a book display counter by day and as his bed at night. With windows at eye-level to the street and signage, the space was identifiable as a place of business. Soon after he opened the shop, he stopped in at a warehouse and discovered they were preparing a fine library for sale. He offered the owner $300 for the lot, and that same day, found a bookseller friend who agreed to take the collection for $550. With this $250 quick profit, he had a little working capital. Then and there, he determined to keep a ready cash reserve so that he would not have to share his best deals with other booksellers.
Frank's stock grew rapidly and in a year or so, he rented an upscale retail space at 609-611 North State Street in the Tree Studio Building. With a pleasant-sized room curtained off at the rear as before, he was soon comfortably installed in his shop-cum-living quarters — but his ambitions now reached far beyond making a living. He determined to become an expert on first editions and would study incessantly to reach that goal.
After World War I, Frank observed that bibliography as well as book collecting were developing as a "science," but that considerations of what actually constituted rarity were often carried to unreasonable extremes. He wrote: "In my examination of libraries for sale, I realized the need for a handbook that would give information regarding desirable, rare and otherwise sought-after books. As nothing of the sort had been done, I determined to write such a book myself." The book on which he would work until the end of his life would be called "The Americana," or the alternative, "A Bookhunter's Guide," and dealt mostly with first editions, but also with American music, documents and stamps.
In working on the bibliography, he studied the catalogues of the better dealers the world over and observed that "studying such catalogues was the quickest way to become familiar with what the modern book collector or University librarian is most interested in." The catalogues which he now issued, mainly in the form of mimeographed bulletins, soon generated a flourishing mail-order business for Rosengren's. Among his most loyal clients was Fred Allen, the popular humorist. Although Allen lived in Manhattan, when he desired a particular item, he requested that Rosengren search for a copy. Public and institutional libraries, however, were now the bookstore's main clients and required Frank to fill their needs in current books — dictionaries and fast-selling popular novels.
The success of the business posed dilemmas but a miracle was on its way. A guardian angel must have been assigned to look after the Rosengren family of booksellers well into the unforeseeable future.CHAPTER 2
The Lady in the Bookstore
One day, a young woman came into the bookstore in the Tree Studio Building. She was a student at the University of Chicago named Florence Kednay, and by all accounts was a very intelligent, elegant, auburn-haired young flapper. The near north side of Chicago was an exciting place in the 1920s, very much "the art scene," and it is remembered that Florence was always open to experience. It may be that she inherited a venturesome spirit from her mother.
Florence Kednay was born in 1905. Her father, John Vincent Kednay, was a foreman with Standard Oil of Indiana — a stable position even during the Depression years. Her mother, Blanche Kednay, was a small town girl, not formally educated but a voracious reader blessed with an avid curiosity. In order to care for her younger brothers, Will and Ben, Blanche had dropped out of school in the sixth grade after the death of their mother. She never traveled farther from home than Milwaukee, but she was a "mind traveler" and her destinations were literally the ends of the earth. She collected books about polar exploration to both the North and South Pole, preferring the first-hand accounts found in journals and diaries. John and Blanche Kednay also attended lectures by famed explorers Admiral Richard Byrd, Frederick Albert Cook, and others at Chicago's Field Museum. And she would have her books autographed by their authors. Explorer and artist Rockwell Kent had never heard of a woman interested in arctic exploration and he presented her with a series of engraved book plates.
The Kednays lived in a house, built ca. 1910, at 1613 Cleveland Avenue in Whiting, Indiana, an industrial town on Lake Michigan (now part of Hammond). Florence and her brothers, Jack and Joe, were educated in the Catholic schools of Whiting — a devastating experience that drove all three out of the church by the time of their graduation from high school. Their mother joined the exodus, although their father remained a staunch Catholic. Although bookish, Florence was exceedingly pretty, but she claimed that her social life was ruined by the fact that she could play the piano by ear. From the eighth grade on, she played for all the dances and was unable to join in the fun. She was "embarrassed" by this skill and yet disappointed that she would never learn to play classically.
She was also ambidextrous and a speed typist. In her senior year, she won a state-wide speed typing championship in Indianapolis. The prize — a working scholarship to the University of Chicago. As her work-study assignment, she became typist and secretary to a professor in the chemistry department, Dr. Winford Lee Lewis, who had invented Lewisite Gas, a blister gas used in World War I. She disapproved of Dr. Lewis's accomplishments but loved being at the university.
As the Fates decreed, Florence Kednay and Frank Rosengren were married. She was his third wife and 13 years his junior. The match was not what her Catholic father had in mind for his lovely daughter, but when the first grandchild was born — Frank Duane — on August 8, 1926, all was well.
Blanche also accepted Frank quickly. The two were a good pair with only seven years difference in their ages. Frank was really a Pied Piper for the whole family. It was not only the charm of the man but the charm of the life of freedom and independence he represented. John Kednay, a solid working man and also a great reader, often talked about the fact that Frank was in business for himself and did not work for a boss. Frank also had the resources to locate polar exploration treasures. His birthday present for Blanche one year was a map from the Moses Pitt Atlas printed in London in 1680.
The newlyweds now made their residence in a basement apartment on Orchard Street and Florence became a valuable assistant in the bookshop. During the workday, baby Frank Duane was often cared for by his grandmother Kednay. There was also a nursemaid who — according to family legend — had once served as secretary to the famed British stage actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, during one of her tours of the U.S. Because he was blessed with a happy disposition, the baby was nicknamed Felix by his nanny, which in baby talk he translated into "Figgi." [Felix is the Latin word for "happy" or "lucky." He would be called "Figgi" by family and friends until the day he died.] When need be, he would also spend the day at the shop with his parents. He remembered that his playpen was the store window: "When I was one-and-a-half, my blocks were books. I was the window display and would play with stacks of old books, amusing passersby."
But there were dilemmas other than child care and slow-paying library accounts, and Frank now sought Florence's opinion. As noted in "My Education As A Bookseller," Frank wrote:
As the business grew, the store itself had grown in size. It was now a double store with two basements with more basements leased from merchants along the block — all jam-packed with tens of thousands of books. ... What did I really want? A small bookshop with every book in stock hand-picked ... the best store in town. ... We decided to sell out and move to a smaller and better location. The nucleus of the new shop I would find on my own shelves, each book, as approved, would be taken out of stock and packed away.
One day while winnowing his stock, he came across a volume of miscellaneous old pamphlets, bound together and priced at twenty dollars. He had no recollection of how or why he originally acquired this item, but he did remember that three or four years earlier, it had been removed from the upstairs bookshelves and buried in the basement as unsalable.
In the years since he had acquired this oddity, Frank's knowledge of American first editions had increased tremendously. This time he recognized what he had overlooked before. One of the pamphlets turned out to be a 39-page item which included two titles by Edgar Allan Poe: The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Man That Was Used Up. He realized that he had in his hands one of the rarest and most desirable items in all of American literature. It was a classic example of "the romance of book collecting."CHAPTER 3
The Poe Discovery
Questons in need of authoritative answers were raised by the Poe before it could be resold. The gathering of pamphlets in which it was included had been bound together in a "half-calf" leather binding and titled simply "Miscellany" — a curious collection of orations, prison reports and the like. Some covers had been removed — such was the case with the Poe — and since the cover was also the title page, it would be difficult to identify it as the genuine first edition. Only three other copies were then known to exist and one of these was in the Morgan Library in New York. Frank determined to compare his pamphlet with the Morgan copy. But first things first. The State Street shop was selling out and the sale must go on. It took six months but the closeout was a tremendous success. The public flocked into the shop and toward the end, job lots went to other booksellers, followed by a final auction. Rosengren Booksellers now moved to 500 North Michigan Avenue next door to the Wrigley Building and directly across from the Chicago Tribune Tower. The ramshackle old building, built in 1880, was due for demolition and the roof leaked, but there was a sidewalk-level window and the rent was two hundred dollars a month. And it was a great location.
Excerpted from Rosengren's Books by Mary Carolyn Hollers George. Copyright © 2015 Wings Press, for Mary Carolyn Hollers George. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Phil Hardberger ix
1 The Rosengrens: A Family of Booksellers 3
2 The Lady in the Bookstore 11
3 The Poe Discovery 17
4 San Antonio: "Skyscraping and Ancient" 23
5 The Florence Phenomenon 41
6 Parnassus Weekends in Time of War 49
7 Evictions and Propitious Moves 62
8 Common Cause 74
9 Small Spaces, Expansive Ideas 82
10 The Final Chapter 88
11 Onward 99
Appendix 1 Florence's Legacy in Texas Publishing 103
Appendix 2 Concerning the Rosengren Papers 111
Appendix 3 Frank Duane Rosengren, 1926-2010 113
Sources Consulted 129