Islanders and the Books They Collect


Piret and Ivo Meisner of Book Den East in Oak Bluffs. – Sam Moore

In recent years, more poets and writers have been spotted on the Island than seabirds, but what about readers? In the age of Kindles and downloads, there remain those who love actual books, their heft and design, their history and variations, their words on the page. Here are some Island readers and the books they love to collect.

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Ivo and Piret Meisner, owners of Book Den East, Oak Bluffs

How many books do you have in your shop?

Ivo: Thirty thousand. That’s by measurement, not specific count.

When did you start collecting books?

Ivo: Oh, heavens. On my way home from grammar school in New Haven, I would stop off at Elliott Bookshop on Broadway. In high school, that’s when I bought my first antiquarian books.

What was the subject of the first books you collected?

Ivo: They dealt with the American Civil War. What got me going was I had a paper to do. I loved old leather bindings. And that’s when I got my first autograph manuscript, signed by Ambrose Everett Burnside. He was a Civil War general. I was sort of a history buff from the time I started.

Are all your books for sale?

Ivo: Anything in the shop we sell, but I’m not selling off my personal collection of polar books. As a teenager, I read a book about Robert Falcon Scott’s discovery expedition to Antarctica. I was quite taken with the heroic aspects of their survival in extreme circumstances, and one book led to another. I have a couple of thousand polar books in the house. I also collect virtually anything about Estonia. Piret and I were born there.

You’re an artist, Piret; do you collect books as well?

Piret: I collect art books, mostly for inspiration. I like the representations and ideas I can get from art books. I’m also interested in collecting different editions of Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild, especially for the art on the covers. If I like the cover, I buy it.

Your bookstore is for sale. Do you still buy books?

Piret: Always. We keep buying books even though we’re selling. Wherever we go, we say, “Ah, there’s a bookshop, let’s go in.”

Ivo: I really enjoy shopping for books. I love to go to other people’s bookshops and see what they’re doing, all over the world. “We’re here for three days,” we say, “let’s go find a bookshop.” We’re selling because we’re committed to running a guesthouse we built in Estonia.

How have things changed with the book trade and the Internet?

Ivo: “The book business is OK and it’s fun, but we’ve had a big cultural shift,

which has taken place in the past 30 years, with the Internet, Kindle, and

people more interested in looking at electronic screens than the printed

word. I would not say that it’s been for the best. But there it is. We’ve

got it.”


Leroy Hazelton, bibliophile and former Vineyard teacher

What books do you like to collect?

My immediate interests keep changing. Right now I’m interested in the medieval world, the history of Christian origins up to the Nicene Creed, the Kennedy assassination from the first pamphlets to the present, Germany between the World Wars, anything with a different view of U.S. history between 1900 and 1930, and Nova Scotia, where my family was from.

I understand you collect both classic literature and popular paperbacks.

Yes, at the moment I’m interested in the early Black Lizard editions of Jim Thompson and the colorful IPL crime classic publications of Margaret Millar, who’s getting some recognition. Both have covers that knock me out. Of contemporaries, I’m interested in the poetry of Sharon Olds, and all of Joyce Carol Oates and her pseudonyms.

When I moved to the Vineyard in 1967, I left behind a collection of Ballantine’s science fiction. I won’t look for them again, but I’m open to finding them. I have Western paperbacks from the 1950s, with interesting covers and clichés that aren’t overwhelming. They have a naiveté, and I may not read them, but they’re an art. The same with Mickey Spillane and detective fiction.

How do you have room for your books?

I’ve never had enough room. We finally built a barn with a ceiling 11 feet high. When I put my American writers on shelves — my Melville, Twain, O’Neill, Wolfe —my Faulkner was missing. After a week I found his novels in a box behind some luggage I was storing for my daughter. What a relief!

Where do you find books?

I found a nice first edition of Melville’s Pierre at a Boston yard sale. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t look at it in the car until I got home. Last Wednesday I went to the thrift shop and found an unread, pristine biography of Erskine Caldwell. I knew he’d written Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre, but now I’m interested in his other 40-some books.

What books have you kept the longest?

When I was about 5, my mother would give me 25 cents to go downtown, with 10 cents of it for a funny book. I then discovered that for 15 cents I could buy Classics Illustrated. I still have them. They gave me the experience of reading combined with the visual aspect of a book.

I can’t remember when I wasn’t reading, but I didn’t discover literature until I was a freshman in high school. A short-order cook at a diner took my friend and me to his house filled with books from floor to ceiling. “I’m going to pick a book for you,” he said. He gave me Voltaire’s Candide. I still have it. He probably changed my life. I read it and discovered a whole different world.

In my 20s, Conrad’s Victory knocked me over. I’ve found at least a dozen different editions of it with every possible cover. Like the cook, I also learned the pleasure of giving books away.

What are some books you give away?

Many copies of Evan Connell’s The Connoisseur, Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, Anita Shreve’s Fortune’s Rocks, and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. I have many different translations because no single one satisfies me. At the peak, I had 16,000 to 18,000 books, but now I’ve made a real dent and am down to 8,000 or 9,000, not counting those in storage off-Island.

What’s gratifying about giving away books?

It’s terrible to be a nonreader, to live without books. There’s nothing more beautiful than finding a book for someone based on their likes, and having them come back and say, “That’s the best book I ever read.” It’s like getting rid of a person’s flip-flops and fitting them with a nice Italian shoe. It makes a difference. It expands consciousness. And it’s a way of keeping a book alive. I can say, “That book’s going to live.”

You certainly have a range of books to keep alive.

But we haven’t talked about my poetry collection.


Emma Young, printmaker and West Tisbury poet laureate

What are some of the first poetry books you owned?

I came from a family of readers, and the first poets I encountered as a child were Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. So as a 10-year-old girl, I was reading nature poems by older men, but I loved nature, I grew up in the West Tisbury woods, I had a dog, and I’d be outside all day. It wasn’t until high school that I developed my own taste in literature. I had great teachers, and one taught a unit on the Beats. I still have those books by Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, and others. I later added every book published by Richard Brautigan. From there I got excited about the original French surrealists, Apollinaire and André Breton.

Where do you keep your books?

Most are stored in boxes. I’ve been collecting since I was a teenager, but haven’t found a place to put them all on shelves. I partake of the “Island Shuffle.” I’m a born and raised Islander, and as an adult, I have not yet found a place to spend more than nine months at a time. When I move, I bring one box of books I can’t live without. I then cull some, put that box in storage, and build up another for the next move.

What are some of the books in your box now?

I keep favorite books I can’t lose. I’ll always have nearby poems by two female writers who were formative in my adult life, Annie Dillard’s Tickets for a Prayer Wheel and Grace Paley’s Begin Again. They’re better known for their prose, but I also treasure their poems. A book personally meaningful to me is Book of Ruth by Robert Seydel, an amazing artist and teacher of mine. The beauty of this book just makes me cry for its writing. Certain books may have only one poem that I want to be able to reference whenever it comes to mind. A great example would be “Free Union” by André Breton, my favorite poem of all time, and pretty much the only love poem I can read.

What contemporary poets do you have in your box?

I tend to navigate the big and varied world of new poetry through smaller presses, that may publish only a hundred chapbooks at a time by people doing unbelievable writing, like Callie Garnett’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum with Ugly Duckling Presse. Really playful, intelligent poems. I devoured Eileen Myles’s Snowflake/different streets, which came out from Wave Books. It’s like the world stops when I’m reading it. A past Islander who is a mentor to me is Jennifer Tseng, and even if I didn’t know her, the writing in her new chapbook, Not so dear Jenny, would shock me with its beauty.

What about all your other books in storage?

It is in my future one day to have them in one place, and I can’t wait.


Eric Peters, lawyer, tai chi instructor, and collector of Vineyard books

How did you begin collecting Vineyard books?

When I was at Colorado College in the 1970s, I wrote my thesis on the history of my family’s property by Oyster Pond in Edgartown that my great-grandfather bought over a hundred years ago. That’s when I started going into used bookstores to look for Vineyard-related books.

What kinds of Vineyard books did you look for?

Mostly anything that was historical or anything old. That’s when I first read Nathaniel Southgate Shaler’s 1885 report on the geology of Martha’s Vineyard for the U.S. Geological Survey. Shaler bought property here, and created Seven Gates Farm. The appendix to his report is by Henry Whiting, who was concerned about Island beach erosion. He’s the ancestor to all the Whitings in West Tisbury and Chilmark.

What Vineyard book was your most exciting discovery?

After college I took a road trip with friends to Oregon and California, and we went around to all the used bookstores. At Moe’s Books in Berkeley I found Charles Banks’ three-volume History of Martha’s Vineyard. What made it special was that it turned out to be the personal copy of Lloyd Custer Mayhew Hare, who wrote Thomas Mayhew, Patriarch to the Indians. That was an exciting find.

Which of your Vineyard books are most rare?

I have Experience Mayhew’s Indian Converts from 1727. He was a great-grandson of Thomas Mayhew, who bought Martha’s Vineyard and made it an English colony. Thomas Mayhew was born in Tisbury, England, near Chilmark, where I have visited. The early Mayhews were famous for their good relationship with the Wampanoag Indians.

If you study Wampanoag history, there are many government reports on the condition of Indian settlements in Massachusetts, and I found one from 1861 by John Milton Earle that includes the Christiantown Indians, Gay Head Indians, and Deep Bottom Indians along the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road. It had a paper cover and pages you had to cut. I had it rebound. That’s pretty hard to find.

What Vineyard book have you owned the longest?

I have three sets of great-grandparents who started coming to the Vineyard in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I came every summer when I was young, and when I was around 10, my grandmother gave me a children’s book, Great Days of Whaling, by Henry Beetle Hough, because he was a family friend and it was about the Vineyard. If one wants to collect everything Hough ever wrote, which I think I’ve accomplished, a fine copy of that book might also be hard to find.

What Vineyard books are particularly beautiful?

One of the most beautiful is Vineyard Poems and Prints from the early 1930s. Joseph Chase Allen wrote the poems, and Sidney Noyes Riggs did the prints. There are lovely woodblock prints of the old West Tisbury mill, the Chilmark brickyard, a hay wagon from the old days. I also have a nice Riggs print not in the book, of a waterside dock scene with a catboat and large fishing-net reel.

What single Vineyard history would you recommend to Islanders?

Arthur Railton’s The History of Martha’s Vineyard: How We Got to Where We Are is one of the better ones. He wrote a lot for the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society and museum quarterly that he edited.

How many books do you have?

I did some anthropological work in New Mexico, and have a fair amount of books about Spanish land grants, and the settlement and ethnohistory of the Southwest. I have a number of books related to Taoist meditation and tai chi, which I’ve been doing for more than 30 years. With my Vineyard books and what’s not on the shelves, my wife will tell you she’s counted 65 boxes.

What pleasure do you get from collecting?

It’s finding things. I’ve never bought a book on eBay. When I did most of my collecting in the ’80s and ’90s, I would go into a bookstore and never know what I was going to find. I might see a particular book and think, That looks interesting. Or, in my mind, I had a number of books that I wanted. Would I ever find any of them? It’s like discovering treasure.

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