Silas Orrin Howes by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

There died in New York, on February 11, 1918, one who perhaps as worthily as any man in any age represented the peculiar traits and charms of the book-lover, a man whose personal loveliness was only equalled by his unassuming modesty, a man who was an honour to the fine old profession of bookselling.

There will be some who frequent Brentano’s bookstore in New York who will long remember the quiet little gentleman who held the post nearest the front door, whose face lit with such a gentle and gracious smile when he saw a friend approach, who endured with patience and courtesy the thousand small annoyances that every salesman knows. There were encounters with the bourgeois customer, there were the exhausting fatigues of the rush season, there were the day-long calls on the slender and none too robust frame. But through it all he kept the perfect and unassuming grace of the high-born gentleman he was. An old-fashioned courtesy and gallantry moved in his blood.

It was an honour to know Silas Orrin Howes, and some have been fortunate to have disclosed to them the richness and simple bravery of that lover of truth and beauty. The present writer was one of the least and latest of these. Twice, during the last months of his life, it was my very good fortune to spend an evening with him at his room on Lexington Avenue, to drink the delicious coffee he brewed in his percolator given him by William Marion Reedy, to mull with him over the remarkable scrap-books he had compiled out of the richness of his varied reading, and to hear him talk about books and life.

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Silas Orrin Howes was born in Macon, Georgia, October 15, 1867. He attended school in Macon and Atlanta, and then in Franklin, Indiana. He never went to college.

When he was born, a passion for books was born with him. His niece tells me that by the time he was twenty-one he had collected a considerable library. He began life as a newspaper man, on the Macon Telegraph. About the age of twenty-four he went to Galveston where he was first a copy-reader, and then for seven years telegraph editor of the Galveston News.

I do not know all the details of his life in Galveston, where he lived for about twenty years. He told me that at the time of the disastrous storm and flood he was working in a drug store near the Gulf front. He gave me a thrilling description of the night he spent standing on the prescription counter with the water swirling about his waist. He slept in a little room at the back of the store, where he had a shelf of books which were particularly dear to him. Among them was a volume of Henley’s poems. When the flood subsided all the books were gone, but the next day as he was looking over the wreckage of neighbouring houses he found his Henley washed up on a doorstep–covered with slime and filth but still intact. He sent it to Brentano’s in New York to be rebound in vellum, instructing them not to clean it in any way. He wrote to Henley about the incident, who sent him a very friendly autographed card which he pasted in the volume. That was one of the books which he held most dear, and rightly.

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I do not know just when he came to New York; about 1910, I believe. He took a position as salesman at Brentano’s. After a couple of years there he became anxious to try the book business on his own account. He and his nephew opened a shop in San Antonio. Neither of them had much real business experience. Certainly Howes himself was far too devoted a book-lover to be a good business man! After a few months the venture ended in failure, and all the personal library which he had collected through patient years was swallowed up in the disaster. After this he returned to Brentano’s, where he remained until his death. About a year before his death he was run over by a taxicab, which shook his nerves a great deal.

At some time during his career he came into intimate friendly contact with Ambrose Bierce, and used to tell many entertaining anecdotes about that erratic venturer in letters. He edited one of Bierce’s volumes, adding a pleasant and scholarly little introduction. He was an occasional contributor to Reedy’s Mirror, where he enjoyed indulging in his original vein of satire and shrewd comment. He was a great lover of quaint and exotic restaurants, and was particularly fond of the Turkish cafe, the Constantinople, just off Madison Square. It was a treat to go there with him, see him summon the waiter by clapping his hands (in the eastern fashion), and enjoy the strangely compounded dishes of that queer menu. He had sampled every Bulgar, Turkish, Balkan, French, and Scandinavian restaurant on Lexington Avenue. His taste in unusual and savoury dishes was as characteristic as his love for the finer flavours of literature. I remember last November I elicited from him that he had never tasted gooseberry jam, and had a jolly time hunting for a jar, which I found at last at Park and Tilford’s, although the sales-girl protested there was no such thing. I took it to him and made him promise to eat it at his breakfasts.

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He had the true passions of the book-lover, which are not allotted to many. He had read hungrily, enjoying chiefly those magical draughts of prose which linger in the mind: Bacon, Sir Thomas Browne, Pater, Thoreau, Conrad. He was much of a recluse, a little saddened and sharpened perhaps by some of his experiences; and he loved, above all, those writers who can present truth with a faint tang of acid flavour, the gooseberry jam of literature as it were. One of my last satisfactions was to convert him (in some measure) to an enthusiasm for Pearsall Smith’s “Trivia.”

As one looks back at that quiet, honourable life, one is aware of a high, noble spirit shining through it: a spirit that sought but little for itself, welcomed love and comradeship that came its way, and was content with a modest round of routine duty because it afforded inner contact with what was beautiful and true. One remembers an innate gentleness, and a loyalty to a high and chivalrous ideal.

Such a life might be a lesson, if anything could, to the bumptious and “efficient” and smug. Time after time I have watched him serving some furred and jewelled customer who was not fit to exchange words with him; I have seen him jostled in a crowded aisle by some parvenu ignoramus who knew not that this quiet little man was one of the immortal spirits of gentleness and breeding who associate in quiet hours with the unburied dead of English letters. That corner of the store, near the front door, can never be the same.

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Such a life could only fittingly be described by the gentle, inseeing pen of an E. V. Lucas.

My greatest regret and disappointment, when I heard of his sudden death, was that he would never know of a little tribute I had paid him in a forthcoming book. I had been saving it as a surprise for him, for I knew it would please him. And now he will never know.

February, 1918.

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