“Charlie”

Note: This article is reprinted with permission from As I See It, a monthly electronic magazine compiled and edited by Doug Kutilek. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com.

by Doug Kutilek

I can’t recall exactly when I first met Charlie, but it was sometime in the 1980s, likely the early 1980s. For years, he was the owner and proprietor of various used bookstores in and around Wichita (with the last brief manifestation in Hutchinson, 795689_old_books.jpgnearly an hour away). These various bookstore locations and incarnations were all called “The Green Dragon,” and a jade-colored ceramic dragon some two feet long always graced a shelf in the store.

Charlie was a native of Kansas and of Wichita, I believe. Sometime after high school graduation in 1947 or 1948, if I figure right, he entered the Marine Corps and served as an official photographer (as did political and social commentator Thomas Sowell, albeit a couple of years earlier than Charlie). After his time in the corps, Charlie worked as a photographer in and around Washington, D.C., during the Johnson years, and was a great admirer of Lyndon Johnson (a fact I discovered when roundly denouncing LBJ in a bookstore chat early in our acquaintance; it was a subject on which neither of us was likely to change his mind, and so we judiciously left that subject alone).

Used bookstore owners are notorious for their eccentricities, though Charlie had very few. He was well-respected by others in the trade and justifiably so. When another local used book dealer, Jack, who was a bundle of eccentricities, fell on financially hard times to the point of having his water shut off, Charlie and his wife regularly took jugs of water and occasionally groceries over to the man’s residence for some weeks until he got things back in order.

Charlie, somewhat unusual for used book dealers, would not knowingly purchase pilfered books (whether stolen from public libraries or retail stores), and on at least one occasion notified a local retailer that some rather expensive art books from his store had been offered to him cheap by a suspicious and seedy character. And he was more than happy to direct a customer to other bookstores in town if he did not have what the customer was looking for.

Charlie was not overly “proud” of the books he stocked, by which I mean he didn’t try to squeeze the last possible nickel out of every book but sought rather to keep a good turnover of books, with old stock regularly heading out the door and fresh stuff appearing on the shelves. Nothing kills customer “traffic” in a used bookstore like stale stock. (Another contemporary Wichita bookstore could always be counted on to have virtually nothing new, whether I stopped by at intervals of one month, one year, or even one decade; I once commented to Charlie that the deceased owner of that store had turned over more during five years in the grave than had the stock in the store over a like period!)

My book interests—theology and the Bible, history, biography, nature and agriculture, languages and linguistics, and more—were soon known, and Charlie was always on the lookout for things that would interest me. In more than 20 years, I bought many hundreds of volumes and invested (my wife would say “spent” or maybe even “wasted”) surely $3,000, perhaps even $4,000 and more, on his wares. I got Hastings’ Dictionary of Religion and Ethics in 12 volumes (a set Charlie purchased from a retiring Wichita State University professor) for just $100 when the going price was $250 to 300 (it is double that now). The 10-volume Ante-Nicene Fathers set cost me just $75 (about a third of the retail). I once placed a standing order for a recent set of Encyclopedia Britannica, which took several months to fill. I paid $600 for a set that was going new for not less than $2,200. I was actually in the store when this set came over the counter—Charlie offered a woman $350 for the set, which she readily took; I could perhaps have undercut him and saved myself a couple hundred bucks by offering her $400 on the spot, but I would have thereby ruined a friendship. Besides, no one but a fool unnecessarily offends his book dealer! I was glad to give him a $250 profit for having the books in his store just over 10 minutes. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament in 10 volumes cost me just $105, a fraction of retail. For the nine-volume Collected Works of Lincoln, I gave just $45.

Our Marine son, Matthew, has always had a great interest in the Civil War. When he was preparing to deploy for six months on ship in 2003, among his planned reading was the four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman. Since he lacked the set, I went to the Green Dragon, where I knew one was to be had, and asked Charlie what kind of deal he could make to provide a Marine second lieutenant with some good reading material while on deployment. He gave me a very good price, the set was shipped off, and was soon read through.

Time (and especially money) spent in the Green Dragon has probably resulted in more “frank discussions” with my wife than anything else in our marriage, but that is a matter we will gladly let alone for now.

And while it is true that I have over the years and even in the Green Dragon purchased some books that I sooner or later regretted buying as a waste of money, I far more often have regretted books I didn’t buy. Charlie once had the exceedingly rare 10-volume biography of Lincoln by his two secretaries, Nicolay and Hay. Just $40 was asked (on the Internet, an asking price of $900 for a pristine leather-bound set is not unusual; these were hardback). I hesitated just one day and came back the next to acquire it, but it was gone. And I passed up a set of The Cambridge Medieval History in some 10 volumes—again for just $40—because the paper was really poor and badly yellowed. In retrospect, for the price, I could have endured the lousy paper. And I had for several months the opportunity to buy the famous ninth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica for just $100, but tight shelf space and a tighter book budget made me refrain, reluctantly.

At least once, Charlie actually gave me a book or rather two. I had discovered among the new treasures on the shelves two volumes of a projected five on the comparative grammar of the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, etc.). I was more than ready to pay the $8 or so he had priced each volume. When I set them on the counter at the register, he picked them up, looked them over, and said, “Just take them. I don’t have a single other customer who would be interested in them.”

Probably the three subjects Charlie and I talked about most were anecdotes and quips from the lives of English lexicographer and conversationalist Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), his biographer James Boswell (1740-1795), and Baltimore newspaper man and social critic H.L. Mencken (1880-1956). The mere mention of the incident in which Johnson felled a man with a folio Septuagint for insulting him and stood triumphantly with his foot on the man’s neck would convulse us with laughter (see the account in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, Modern Library edition, p. 87).

One conversation I never had with Charlie, though not for lack of trying, was a frank discussion about Christ, the Bible, and eternity. I often prayed for an opportunity and openness on his part, but it never came. He was always very reluctant to discuss the matter for whatever reason. I suspect that Charlie had grown up in some mainline Protestant denomination that had undermined and destroyed any confidence in the Bible as a divine revelation. Once, in hope of opening the door just a crack, I gave him a copy of Frank Morison’s famous Who Moved the Stone?, a classic apologetic regarding Jesus’ resurrection. Charlie seemed considerably impressed when I told him that a surgeon friend in town had described the book as among the best he had ever read. But whether Charlie ever read the book in whole or in part, he never did say (this was a full decade and more before his death). He wouldn’t let the subject be explored, even when just he and I were in the store. I shall regret as long as I live that we never had that frank and open conversation about Christ that I had hoped—and prayed—to have. Alas, it is now forever too late!

I hadn’t seen Charlie for a couple of years when I read the notice in the paper of his death. Declining health, knee surgeries, and other matters had compelled him to close the Green Dragon for the last time. In my subsequent visits to other bookstores in town, I invariably missed him by a couple of hours or a couple of days as he from time to time visited old friends in the trade. I do miss him.

kutilek.jpgDoug Kutilek is editor of www.kjvonly.org, a website dedicated to exposing and refuting the many errors of KJVOism, and has been researching and writing about Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a B.A. in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College (Cincinnati), and a Th.M. in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). A professor in several Bible institutes, college, graduate schools, and seminaries, he edits a monthly cyber-journal, As I See It. The father of four grown children and four granddaughters, he and his wife, Naomi, live near Wichita, Kansas.
411 reads

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.