Building a Galleon in the Desert

February 14th, 2014, 4pm

I almost skipped Front Street Books in Alpine, Texas. My trip through West Texas was nearly over and I was tired and eager to get another thirty miles down the highway to my hotel room in the next town. I’d thought it more interesting to spend a night in the near ghost town of Marathon instead of comparatively bustling Alpine.

The town of Marathon, named by a railroad surveyor and former sea captain after the Greek city of antiquity, has an end of the world remoteness not quite felt in Alpine. Though I had not planned on stopping at all in Alpine, my curiosity of what might be inside a used bookstore in this dusty little town prevailed. I pulled over and I went in.

The store had a nice selection of new and used books. Right away I spotted a second hand Everyman’s Library edition of Blood Meridian. I’d been listening to an unabridged audio edition of No Country for Old Men, another brightly lit, nightmarish Cormac McCarthy novel about borderlands of Northern Mexico and West Texas.

I was not surprised to see Cormac McCarthy novels here; any used bookstore in West Texas should and would have his books in stock. Though I was slightly disappointed they’d shelved it under Literary Fiction instead of Westerns. And when was the last time I’d seen so many books of that obsolete genre fiction? I was tempted to buy them all and rather regret my restraint. Instead, like a good reader, I ignored the pulp and kept to literary fiction.

But none of these books were unexpected in Alpine, Texas. What was surprising was the shelves of books labeled “Maritime/Nautical.”

Here were books about the age of sail, whaling, shipwrecks, voyages around the world, castaways in Polynesia, knots, jibs, all the unimaginable detail of the ocean so far away from this high plain desert.

I bought a few books on model ships. I have a modest collection of model ship related books. Why, I don’t know. I have never built a model ship nor have any particular interest in sailing or the sea. What I like is this funny and particular little genre of books. Like all hobby books, they alternate between gleeful enthusiasm and somber minutiae. A book about model ships is a sort of contradiction, a choke point between fantasy and reality.

I chatted a while with Front Street’s owner. She was delighted that I’d bought so many of the weird old books in the back of the store. In addition to the model ship books, I’d also picked up a strange spiral bound paper sampler from a Hong Kong printing company, circa 1970. This book of neon colors and psychedelic designs is another West Texas mystery, another story.

Of course I asked about the outsized nautical selection. She said the section was a shadow of what it had been a few years prior. They’d once all belonged to a rancher and daydreamer. Somewhere between Alpine and Fort Davis, this man had spent his days ranching cattle and his nights building model ships and thinking about the sea. I imagine him studying catalogs, ordering these books from nautical publishers in Boston, London, New York. When he died, his widow brought his library into town to be sold again second hand at Front Street. And from there, they’ve been blowing away again, scattering all across the globe.

David Wade, Christine, Greg, Adrian and 1 more said thanks.

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Nelson Harst

Rare book dealer, medium artist. @nelsonharst

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