I recently spoke with poet and fiction writer Fred Chappell about Ben Matthews and his Greensboro institution. “All bookstores should be eccentric,” said Fred, “and the Browsery was the most so, particularly because of the clientele. And then you have Ben himself, the good shepherd of all us aardvarks.”
Soon, probably in July, the crown prince of caustic bibliophilia will be closing his doors, although he intends to sell as many used books as he can before then. When I posted about Ben’s sale on Facebook, some expressed surprise he’s still open.
Ben attributes that misconception to his 2003 move from his old location at 504 Elm Street to his present space at 516 Elm. “The Greensboro paper had a big headline on the first page of the local sections, The Browsery Turns a Page, and folks thought we were closing rather than moving. We’ve never had the traffic we had at the old place. Every so often over the past fourteen years, somebody wanders in and acts surprised we’re still here. Soon we won’t be. Once the payment is made, we’ll have sixty days to vacate. It’s been a good run.”
It has indeed. Ben was born in Fort Valley, Georgia, and came to UNCG in 1967, two years after they first admitted men. “I wanted to study with Dr. Joseph Bryant, the Chairman of the English Department, with whom I’d taken Freshman English at Sewanee. But he left for Syracuse, and then my father was murdered and I had to drop out. I always kept thinking I would get back to school but somehow I never did. A shame I didn’t — it would have only been two or three more years and thousands of dollars wasted.”
Before Greensboro, Ben had managed a retail bookstand and newsstand in Georgia. In April of 1976, he opened the first Browsery at 547 South Mendenhall, where Firehouse Grocery is now. “I came here and couldn’t find a damn bookstore, not for miles around. Finally found the Book Corner in Durham. They arranged by publisher. Used books. By publisher. I cussed that man out and never went back. His name was Marley. I’ve always said that if I wrote my memoirs of bookselling, I’d paraphrase Dickens and say ‘To begin with: Marley was still alive.’”
Greensboro was different in those days. “Adult bookstores were a big thing. I used to have people call and say, do you have adult books? I would reply, but of course! It took a while to realize they were making an inquiry I wasn’t answering. Many times late in the evening I would have squirrely fellows in coats and ties and hats browse the shelves, looking like they thought they might get contaminated if they touched anything. That was the vice squad looking for pornography.”
A few years later, he had a second location downtown. “By about 1984, I opened on 504-506 Elm. The Mendenhall location closed around 2000. Maybe earlier. It got to the point where I couldn’t operate everything. But I’ve never sold as many books or had as much fun as when I was in College Hill. There was friendliness and a casualness about that that was just perfect.”
Ben seems disinclined to name the most valuable collectibles that have passed through his stores over the years. “I’ve not sought treasures, but I’ve found a few. One was a book called Tactics of Calvary, a 1793 NC imprint with folding charts showing the movements of military horse corps.” I ask him if he still has it. “Lordy no, it paid for many, many lunches. One of the things I most enjoyed finding was a true first edition of Catcher in the Rye, which I sold when it was worth about a thousand.” Now he reckons it would go for twenty times that.
“The treasures to me are not the things that are monetarily valuable, but that meant something personally, like finding a signed Robert Frost first printing, or a Robert Penn Warren or Randall Jarrell. Those just went to my house and never came out.”
Ben has thought of retirement before. “I dreamed of turning sixty and doing a limited printing of the Benjy sections of The Sound in the Fury with differently colored text to indicate different time levels, as Faulkner had talked about doing, instead of italics. But a few years ago, the Folio Society did that and it’s $350 and I can’t even afford the damned thing. I’m 77, so I’ve gone 12 years beyond what would have been retirement age, and Jill Faulkner Summers, whose permission I would have needed, has died. And Cleanth Brooks whom I wanted to write a preface for it, he’s died, too.”
So what does the future hold? “The obvious,” says Ben, with a typically mordant chuckle. “But before then, I’m not going to beg on the street. I will do some selling, I guess, on the internet. And I have a booth at Golden Antiques and Treasures on 341 Ram Loop off 220 North in Stokesdale. When I was young, I wanted to become a bookseller, and now it looks like I’ve become a bookkeeper. One of the great joys of having been in business is that college kids used to come in on dates. Over the years I’ve seen them come in and marry and become parents and seen what joys they can bring forth in the way of wonderfully educated children. There is no business you can go into in which you will meet a finer caliber of client.”
Prove Ben right. Before he closes for good, and whether to take advantage of his sale or just say hi, come visit the Browsery at 516 North Elm Street in Greensboro from 11:30 to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday (336-274-3231).