There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.
-Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.
Try them, try them, and you may! Try them and you may, I say.
When I was a little girl, my parents encouraged us to live in our house entirely. We upended chairs, stripped cushions off couches, and pulled all of the blankets out of the linen closet to build forts in the living room. We rode tricycles on shag carpet from our bedrooms to our parents’, and gave concerts with bowls and spoons on the kitchen linoleum. In the basement, my dad built us a sandbox on legs, a sailing ship out of wood scraps, and a car from giant wire distribution spools with steering wheels at both ends. He regularly brought home salvaged refrigerator boxes, which we used as little houses, cutting out doors and windows and moving in our prized possessions. But perhaps best of all, he built bookshelves that spanned an entire wall of the main living space so that our picture books could face out and we could see all of the covers at once. We lived for stories. Dad read aloud The Wizard of Oz while we acted it out with Legos, and mom put us to sleep with the Berenstein Bears. Sprawled on the floor, we wiled away many a rainy summer afternoon coloring pictures and listening to audio books on the record player: The Trumpeter of Krakow and The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
What a pleasure it will be if my son loves books the way my brother and I did. And what a pleasure if he can know others who also love books. Marc Ramsey is one of those people. I knew we were going to get along when he said this about his favorite authors: “When you’re at work during the day, you can’t wait to get home to the book. You walk through the door, kiss the wife, feed the cat, and head for your chair. Then all of a sudden, it’s hours later, and you’ve really been listening more than reading, because they’re telling you the story.”
Marc Ramsey and his wife Jill own Owens and Ramsey Historical Booksellers. The shop is in Bon Air, a Richmond suburb and a reprieve from the unmediated sprawl of chain stores and restaurants like those in much of Southside. Ramsey explained that Bon Air used to be the first stop on the railroad out of Richmond, developed as an area with vacation homes for people seeking fresh air and an escape from city life. Today, many lovely Victorian homes remain on Buford Road.
The Ramseys’ shop is tucked away in a corner of a small commercial building off Tinsley Drive. Several rows of shoulder-height wooden shelves run down the center of the store, and more shelves line the walls. The majority of their collection consists of books about the Civil War, or written during that time period, from battles and leaders, to memoirs and biographies. “There’s nothing more interesting than a firsthand account,” Ramsay said.
The couple started their business 20 years ago. Ramsey and his wife were running a radio station in Louisa, but it changed ownership and they came to Richmond for work. Ramsey began working as a newscaster for WRVA, and one evening, just before the five o’clock news, he saw an ad in the paper announcing a military bookshop for sale. “With about five minutes to go before airtime, I called Jill up and said, ‘Hey, how about a military bookshop?’ And she said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The original owner started the shop eight years prior to the Ramsey’s purchase. Ramsey said the store came with a lot of debt, and had been neglected. He and his wife came up with a business plan that included a monthly direct mailing. Gesturing to the bookshelves in his shop, Ramsey said, “What you see here is really an operations center. We maintain an open shop when we’re in town, but this is really where we launch from.” Ramsey explained that they produce a catalog in the shop that gets mailed all over the United States and wins them the majority of their sales. A third of their business comes from going to Civil War shows or conferences up and down the eastern seaboard, packing up the portable wooden crates they use for shelving and driving to Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Maryland.
Although he doesn’t like the driving itself, Ramsey said he enjoys seeing new places and meeting people. He is particularly fond of the Heritage Conference in Middleburg, VA, where he and his wife are the primary booksellers during a few days of lectures and battlefield tours. He said they take two vehicles and set up 1200 books. When they’re not selling, they get to meet authors and attend lectures. “Middleburg in October is just as beautiful as God’s creation gets. It’s Loudon County, rolling hills, stone houses, stone walls, horse country, historic homes all over the place,” he said.
When asked about building the store’s collection, Ramsey said that on a good day, someone will walk in with some very interesting books to sell, but they generally buy whole collections. They also work with a network of dealers. Ramsey said he is working on building collections for some buyers. “There are some people who just buy to speculate; a book is an antique to them, so they’ll be hoping to sell it for a profit. Those are the kind of people I’m not as crazy about dealing with. I like dealing with people who actually read the books.” Ramsey said that one client buys five or ten books at a time, and calls him up to talk about them once he’s finished. “He’s a joy to deal with.”
One of the most interesting books Ramsey said he has in the store right now is The Personal Reminiscences of Ulysses S. Grant. “Mark Twain helped put this publishing venture together. Grant was in a race with death, dying of cancer, and wanted to write his account and get it out there.” Ramsey said the book is an honest and objective account of the war’s final year, and Grant was “at the eye of the storm.” The Autobiography of Eppa Hunton is another gem Ramsey had in the store, until he sold it for $5,000. Hunton was a colonel in the Confederate Army, and published this one book for his family after the war. Only 100 were ever printed, and Ramsey called it the “crown jewel” of Civil War collecting: “Only about 25 are accounted for in collections around the country.” Ramsey said that some of the best books written during the
Civil War were books by women who lived through the period. According to Ramsey, Diary from Dixie by Mary Chestnut is a standard, but the one he likes best is Recollections Grave and Gay by Constance Carrie Harrison. “It’s just the most vivid account of Richmond during the war that you’re ever going to read. She was also a novelist, so she really knew how to put words together.” Ramsey said that he prefers historians who are also storytellers to writers who simply string facts together.
Ramsey has a lifelong interest in history. Originally from Pennsylvania, he grew up visiting battlefields and learning about the Civil War with his family. He came to Richmond to study theater and history at VCU. Today, he participates in reenactments and gives guided tours of battlefields and other historical sites. Ramsey is passionate about sharing his love of history with others; recently, he achieved his dream of writing a book, The Seventh South Carolina Cavalry: To the Defense of Richmond, published by Broadfoot Publishing Company. “They’re South Carolina troops, but it’s a Richmond story,” he said. “They were the last troops out of Richmond. These guys were the very last Confederate troops over Mayo’s Bridge, and after they crossed it, they burned it so the Yankees couldn’t follow.”
Ramsey said he worked on his book for three years, writing, researching, and soliciting information at conferences by placing a sign on his table: ‘Seeking information about the Seventh South Carolina Cavalry.’ Recently, two women bought his book and found their ancestors in it. Excited to share the information, they rented a bus and hired Ramsey to take their whole family to sites where the Seventh South Carolina camped, fought, or passed through. Ramsey said, “There were some bored teenagers on the ride, but once we got to the earthworks their ancestors had helped construct, they started exploring and asking questions, and I could see that the buzz had begun. The family keeps in touch from time to time, and they tell me the kids still haven’t stopped talking about it.”
In addition to being a bookseller and reenactor, Ramsey is a board member with the Richmond Battlefield Association. The Association purchases and preserves land in the Richmond area, with the intent of giving it to the national park service. Ramsey said they just gave 18 acres to the park in Cold Harbor, the site of the Seven Days’ Battles of 1862, a battlefield where he enjoys giving tours. “I talk about history and the preservation of land, hopefully to encourage that. Saving the greenspace of Virginia is just a good thing to do. These parks are islands of serenity.”
When asked why a neophyte should pick up a historical book, Ramsey said that it’s hard to make people take an interest in history. He said people with a strong interest in history often had the good fortune of being taught by a great history teacher at some point in their lives. “People miss an awful lot when they only focus on the present. You can’t understand things nearly as well without reading history. History shows us what people did, and why, and how it led to where we are today.”
After the interview, Ramsey commented on how well-behaved Squeakers was for such a young baby. I agreed. He’d spent the first half of the interview studying his monkey toy and fitting first one, then the other hand into his mouth, and the second half asleep. At the very end, he woke up and decided to show off his best toothless smile. I’m pretty sure he understands more than he lets on.
When we got home, the beginning of a thunderstorm was darkening the sky, so I took him to his room to read books and listen to thunder. Usually I read the same stack of short, sing-songy board books that double as chew toys if the need for a chewing break arises, but with the sky rumbling and rain drops starting to pelt the window, I reached for a longer book from the shelf and found myself holding The Story of Ferdinand. Although this copy of the book was shiny and new and yet to be loved, I remembered my mom reading the story of the little bull who didn’t want to fight like other bulls. I remembered the pen-and-ink illustrations, especially the men with the funny hats from Madrid, and Ferdinand’s shocked face when he sat on the bumblebee. I realized there will be countless moments like these, when I will share my favorite books with my son, and for him, they will all be new. With Squeakers snuggled into the crook of my arm, I opened the book, turned to the first page, and read: “Once upon a time in Spain, there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand.”