Porthole Building | Provincetown Bookshop | Galadriel’s Mirror
In an era when small-scale, independent bookselling seems to be as perilous a way to make a living as small-scale, independent fishing, it is a comfort in every way to walk into the Provincetown Bookshop, a general interest bookstore in congenially cramped quarters with smart selections in many fields. It has been in business for 78 years (as of 2010) — the last 47 of them under the same management and the last 70 of them exactly where you’ll find the store now: the Port-Hole Building, an Art Moderne commercial extension of Captain Philip Cook’s large, Greek Revival-style house, which was built around 1850. Look above the ocean-liner curves of the storefront, best from across the street, and you’ll see the old house clearly.
Capt. Philip Cook, a customs official, postmaster and representative, was “prominent in Cape affairs,” The Advocate recalled in 1939. The house passed to his son Elisha F. Cook and then to his wife and their daughter, Annie (Cook) Snow, who sold it in 1939 to Paul Smith. He was a great local booster. He wrote and published A Modern Pilgrim’s Guide to Provincetown, a nicely comprehensive handbook that came out in several editions during the 1930s.
In 1932, Smith opened the Provincetown Bookshop at 447 Commercial Street, where the Karilon Gallery currently does business. Smith’s store featured works by authors with a lower cape connection; John Dos Passos, Susan Glaspell, Inez Hogan, Harry Kemp, Norman Matson, George O’Neil, Eugene O’Neill, Lynn Riggs, Frank Shay, Wilbur Daniel Steele, Mary Heaton Vorse, Edmund Wilson — and himself — among them. Not only could you buy books here, you could rent them on a daily basis. “To my dismay,” Smith would later say, “the local authors gave their books away. Consequently, I sold books by other writers who did not live here.” The Provincetown Bookshop was, in effect, a commercial circulating library. In the late 30s, the shop was quartered at 265 Commercial Street. “Good books” cost 5 cents a day to borrow while “new books” commanded 5 cents a day (equal now roughly to 75 cents). If you decided to buy the book, you could deduct 3 cents from the price for every day you’d rented it.
In 1939, Smith made his critical move: he purchased the Philip Cook house at No. 246 and almost immediately planned to extend it across its deep front yard to the street line, with one or two one-story shops. He commissioned the architect Brit Bolton, whose initial scheme was described as “modified Colonial” style.
Happily, Smith and Bolton departed from that plan — would Provincetown really have needed another Ye Olde Shoppe facade? — and settled instead on a modernistic approach; “the first example in this town,” The Advocate said, and much talked about. “The one-story front is somehow reminiscent of the bridge of a ship, with a large port-hole window in one of the two shops, another in the entrance, and a large front and corner window in the book shop. And the whole is extremely neat, white and ship-shape in appearance. … It will be well lighted by means of the new flourescent lights.” Whether by design or through common town usage, the commercial portion of the Cook house came to be called the Port-Hole Building.
The bookshop opened in its new quarters in the summer of 1940, followed shortly by Davy Jones’ Locker next door, run by Mayme Claxton, which offered “ceramics, glass, plastics in attractive designs you won’t find elsewhere.” Other tenants in the porthole storefront have included the Shoe Port shoe store, run by Jean A. Malchman, a unit of the Malchman’s clothing store across Commercial Street. In recent years, it’s been a jewelry and gift store called Galadriel’s Mirror, referring to a magical water basin described in The Lord of the Rings.
The main house reopened in 1940 as the Priscilla Alden Club Residence for Women — and only for women — under the management of Mary Hoxie Ryder. It took its name from Priscilla (Mullins) Alden, who arrived on the Mayflower and later married John Alden, after a legendarily oblique courtship that was described — if not wholly invented — by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in The Courtship of Miles Standish. Ryder was said to have been a direct descendant of Priscilla Alden.
Its seven rooms, on the second and third floors of the house, were not numbered but named after other women, Alden’s sister pioneers, who came to the New World aboard the Mayflower: Remember Allerton, Dorothy Bradford, Mary Chilton, Humility Cooper, Desire Minter, Rose Standish and Susanna White. “The floors throughout have been painted a rich Cape Cod Wagon Blue and the walls and ceilings of the bedrooms are ivory, contrasting pleasantly with the maple furniture.” The Advocate‘s conclusion, as expressed in a headline on July 25, 1940, a few decades ahead of its time:
“Ladies Like Living Minus Gentlemen.”
In the late ’40s, the bookshop was being run by Smith; his wife, Isabel “Bunny” (Bouker) Smith; and their daughter, Shaw. The pennies-a-day rental policy continued at least through the 1950s. On a given July day in 1960, a visitor might have found sunburned tourists, beatniks, a lot of children and sailors from the U.S.S. Macon looking through the art books. “Oh, there’s Paul Klee. He’s from Kentucky.” “Yeah? Man, that’s queer stuff.” “That’s not so hard. All you got to do is paint what your unconscious thinks.” Throughout this time, the Smiths operated other book stores in Key West, New Orleans and Chapel Hill. It was the North Carolina business that compelled Smith to shed the old Provincetown business in 1963. “My book store in Chapel Hill needs more and more of my attention,” he explained. Smith once said that his warmest memories were of children in the bookstore, and the children’s books section remains the most prominent in the store.
Luckily for Provincetown, the store was acquired by proprietors who turned out to be even more devoted than the Smiths: Joel Newman and Elloyd Hanson, who were also partners in life. (For the first couple of years, beginning in 1963, Hanson’s partner in the Provincetown Bookshop was Terrill Schukraft.) Both played the woodwind known as the recorder. In 1963, Hanson was the editor of The American Recorder, the quarterly magazine of the American Recorder Society. Newman was an assistant professor of music history at Columbia University. And they both belonged to Morningside Recorder Consort in New York. Having bought Mr. Smith’s business, they purchased the Captain Cook house from him in 1967. Over their decades in Provincetown, they also published recorder ensemble music under the Provincetown Bookshop name. With one other musician, they played as the Band of Three in Christmas services at St. Mary of the Harbor. Hanson died in 2007.
Of all their employees, Paul Haines is probably the best known to current customers while the best known alumnus is surely John Waters, who worked there for about seven years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, after having been a clerk at Molly Malone Cook’s East End Bookshop at 349 Commercial Street. “They sought me out,” Waters recalled in his 1997 interview with Provincetown Arts. “Probably because I was passionate about books.” He credited Hanson with having introduced him to writers like Jane Bowles and Ronald Firbank.
“It was great because, as part of the job, you could have any book as long as you read it. I didn’t abuse the policy, but I did get free books that I’d never heard of in my life. I also got $100 a week, which was really a fortune then, more money than anyone I knew. … Every winter they closed up, and I could go anywhere in the country and collect unemployment, and some of my early movies were financed by that.”
Waters still patronizes the Provincetown Bookshop when he’s in town. “I could still work there,” he said in 1997. “When I go in now, I feel like walking behind the counter and saying, ‘Yes, we have The Outermost House!'”
A Personal Reminiscence by Jane Kogan
Bob Klein had the shop Galadriel’s Mirror for 42 summers. I worked beside him at Provincetown Bookshop for 40 of them. We started working at the adjacent shops the same summer, 1972, and I retired at the end of 2011. Cindy Coble is spot on that Bob knew a great deal about many things, and it’s true he was usually right, and let you know it — that was the annoying part.
But over the decades, after years of irritation with his attitudes, I came to appreciate and like him more and more, and rely on him for information on varied topics, and now find that I miss him more than I would have thought possible. Of course in the off-season, there was plenty of time to talk, and we did. But Bob was business first, always. He ran a good business, and I always brought friends and relatives in, as his prices were better than others’. As Cindy says, he was a great educator. It amazed me that a client he had seen perhaps just once before, several years earlier, he could greet by name, remember what that person had bought, and might even remember a spouse or kids, or something they’d told him.
Terrill Schukraft was Roslyn Garfield’s girlfriend in 1963 when Ros helped her and Elloyd to buy the bookshop from original owner Paul Smith who had started it as a summer business in 1932. Elloyd aside, I worked at the bookshop longer, and more hours than anyone else, coming in the year after John Waters left, and being there until two years ago. Though Joel paid the bills, for many years I was the rock on which the bookstore rested in terms of getting orders done, and books unpacked and on the shelves. People often thought I was the owner, and I worked there as if I was. One memorable time, I kept the store open without electricity in the aftermath of a hurricane, and found the books customers wanted with the use of a flashlight. After Elloyd’s death I worked yearround doing absolutely everything needed to keep the store going but paying the bills.
Most of the written signs photographed here were by me. Over the years I reorganized the shop, bringing in a gay section in the mid-’70s, dismayed that Elloyd and Joel had never thought, in this town, to have one; and of course it became one of our best-selling areas. Elloyd always kept classics in, and over the years we greatly expanded the poetry, cooking, essays and dictionaries, children’s, and bargain book sections. Elloyd — who had gone to seminary in New York City — always had a wonderful religion section. Because he and Joel were into music (Joel a full professor at Columbia University and Elloyd for years a recorder teacher at adult summer music camps, as well as giving private lessons to local Provincetown children and adults), there was a large music section with hundreds of Dover opera scores and instrumental music. Joel ran a mail-order business for recorder and other antique instruments’ sheet music, ordering the music from publishers here and in Europe, and with a clientele of individuals as well as music schools and music camps.