The War at Home: Carl Nancken’s “Normandie” Binder

The post was written by intern Elise Plyler.

During September and October of 1945, the German Imperial Navy made repeated and brutal attempts to overtake the British base in Laurentic. Over the course of four battles, the British forces were devastated by the German fleet, resulting in a surrender agreement on October 2. This agreement called for the surrender of not only Laurentic, but Mohawk Island and all remaining sea units controlled by Great Britain and her ally, Canada. Left with no other option, the terms were agreed to by Surrenderthe commander of the British navy, Admiral Ronald La Rocca. A note at the corner of the document coldly states, “Failure to comply with these terms means total destruction of everything British.”

If this seems completely bizarre, it is because these battles never really happened. They took place only in the minds of fifteen-year-old Carl Nancken and his friends. Between the years 1942 and 1945, while World War II raged on in Europe, across the Atlantic a group of teenage boys were playing out fictional naval battles in a suburban home on Long Island.

NormandieThe documentation of these battles is found in a black binder titled “Normandie.” Also archived within this binder are pages of detailed backstory, fleet lists, tactical maps and treaties dictating the rules of engagement. They are written out in pencil and ballpoint pen in a schoolboy’s immature cursive script and riddled with spelling errors, but the whole project shows remarkable imagination. Many of the pages are topped with a hand-drawn letterhead and there is a particularly comprehensive diagram of a disguised warship called “USS Wolf” which, as its name suggests, was meant to serve as a wolf in sheep’s clothing and pose as a merchant ship. At one point in the games chronology, Germany and Holland make an agreement that Germany, in exchange for the oil to power their fleets and their country, will provide 8 cents per month to the “Netherlands” along with naval protection. These transactions are performed with the use of “checks” written out on strips of notebook paper.GermanCheck

In addition to props like the German “checks,” the binder contains drawn maps of the play area. The earliest map, kept in a section titled “Naval Museam” (sic) clearly shows the upper floor of a home. The rooms are given names such as “Hall Sea” and “Tile Sea” for the bathroom. Bases are marked with common household objects and called “Shoe Island” and “Book Island.”  Continue reading The War at Home: Carl Nancken’s “Normandie” Binder

The Man of Myth and Legend: Lincoln Kirstein, Private First Class

This post was written by intern Jessica Zaccagnini.

It is an unusual occurrence when a movie can spark interest in an actual historical event. Often, people are content with the Hollywood version of a time or event in history and do not seek any further information about the factors that made the event Hollywood-worthy. Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney, is a movie that triggers further curiosity into how such a story made it onto the silver screen. Monuments Men depicts a group of middle-aged art connoisseurs sent on a special mission during World War II to collect art from around Europe that was stolen by the Nazis. Though it is clearly stated that the movie was based on true events, it is surprising to learn just how true the movie is.

As it turns out, there truly was a branch of the military specifically dedicated to collecting the most historical and valuable art that was pilfered by the Nazis via orders from Hitler. The U.S Arts and Monuments Commission was established in 1943 during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. The commission was largely founded by David Finley and Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts. About 345 men and women made up this branch of the military and over the years following the end of the war, they collected over five million pieces of artwork.

Borrowed from
Borrowed from

The John Bale Book Company has a collection of writing from one Monuments Man, Lincoln Kirstein, who also happens to be portrayed in the movie. In the Hollywood movie, Bob Balaban plays the character Preston Savitz who is largely based on Kirstein, an art-culture icon. As the movie suggests, all of the men that made up the branch in real life had a job or an intense personal investment in the art world and their credentials made them experts in the war effort to get the stolen art back to its proper place and Kirstein was no different. Continue reading The Man of Myth and Legend: Lincoln Kirstein, Private First Class

JoBa Cafe: Embracing Change

This post was written by Ede Reynolds. To see her other posts, click here.

Downtown Waterbury is always in flux. Consequently, so are we at the John Bale Book Company. The current changes include the leaving of People’s Bank this summer. We’ll be losing many old friends (and customers) with this change. Recently, the morning paper announced Peter Abare-Brown will be leaving his post as Director of Human Resources for the city. Pete’s been a stalwart customer and close friend (and our de facto marketing director on the side). Yesterday, another old friend and customer from out of town stopped by after interviewing for a downtown job.

Change happens.

The retail profession is not for the timid. You have to love challenges and be a bit of a gambler to boot. So why do it?

For Dan and me it was to construct a way of life that we both enjoy. We wanted independence; we wanted to see if we could succeed in building something; and we wanted a quiet life with strong community ties. We have that and more. We have a network of friends we see everyday who share the good times and bad and who are as committed to having a good, friendly city.

On Wednesday, April 22, our bookstore café hosted the Feast, an international grassroots event that links participating communities across the world. Participants sit down to a meal and pose creative solutions to community challenges. It is a chance to do good, share the results with other communities and get ideas for ways to make your environment better. Local laundromat owner Paul Tillotson suggested we try it and Waterbury was accepted into the Feast network.

That same night the city was hosting an open meeting for the public to share ideas on how to improve downtown.

Being a local business, we can’t help but want to improve the city and its economy. It’s been a core of our mission. We don’t just sell books or coffee, we participate. The bookstore has been a wonderful vehicle for helping us find like-minded people who share this outlook.

Arri Sendzimier recently announced she was moving to Montana to live close to her family. She said she’d miss the “gang” at John Bale, of which she’s a member. And we will miss her. This past Mardi Gross she helped manage the crafts tent with the Brass City Charter School volunteers. My favorite photo of her is where she is walking around wearing a giant pumpkin costume. How can you not be happy to spend your days with people like that?

Flux, a challenge. We are meeting the current changes with new ideas like our Saturday afternoon lyceum programs. We host a high tea on that day as well. On Thursdays our great friend Marty Q performs live during lunch.

We crafted a life and found it to be good.

“Damned to Everlasting Fame:” Historical Gossip in William Combe’s “Diabo-Lady”

This post was written by intern Elise Plyler.

When I was first introduced to “The Diabo-Lady” by William Combe, the title immediately caught my eye. Its full title reads, “The Diabo-Lady: or, A Match in Hell. A Poem. Dedicated to the Worst Woman in Her Majesty’s Dominion,” and seemed to be the product of a jilted lover lashing out at a woman who slighted him. What lies behind the dramatic title, though, is much juicier.

Diabo CoverThe poem, printed in 1777, follows a simple narrative: The worst man in His Majesty’s Dominion, has just been crowned Satan in Combe’s earlier poem, “The Diaboliad.” The new King of Hell decides that he should marry, and sends his minions across the world to find the most sinful women and bring them back to compete for a position as Queen of Hell (Combe 1-3). Conveniently, they find quite a selection of such women from the common gossip of eighteenth-century England. Each woman presents herself and tells Satan about her sins and misdeeds in order to convince him that she is the most evil woman in the world.

One of the fascinating aspects of this poem is that the women presenting themselves as potential brides for Satan were real women. None of the women are named in the poem except with single initials and dashes or asterisks, ostensibly to protect the reputation of the women who were featured in the poem. However, the identities of these high profile women would have been easily determined by its contemporary audience. Horace Bleackley, who put together a convenient identification key for “Diabo-Lady,” found that “most of the… names appear in the ‘Tete-a-Tete Histories’ of The Town and Country Magazine” (Bleakley). During the same time “The Diabo-Lady” was printed, “scandal sheets” such as “Town and Country” documented the stories of badly behaved, high profile men and women in much the same way as modern tabloids (Grose). The “Tete a Tete” stories in particular covered recent affairs between members of high society and made the stories common knowledge among the public.

Continue reading “Damned to Everlasting Fame:” Historical Gossip in William Combe’s “Diabo-Lady”


This post was written by intern Jess Zaccagnini. To see the first part of her post, click here.

Eva’s train to Switzerland included a hefty meal of “fish, roast veal, potato, string beans, cheese, pastry, and a fresh peach.” The customs check-point in Basel, Switzerland seems to have been more lax than in Paris; the officer asked if the girls had Mountainany cigars or cigarettes and let them pass when they said no—“that’s all there was to it.” The mountain ranges seemed to have impressed Eva the most as she describes “how wonderful [it was] to look out and see those great touring peaks outlined against the sky.” The scenery and the quiet soothed Eva as she began to write and reflect on how noisy it was in Paris.

The girls took an Alpine tour on their first full day in Switzerland, which circled around the mountain closest to their hotel, on the Lucerne Lake. The tour bus ascended four thousand feet around the steep, narrow cliff sides. As they approached the infamous Devil’s Bridge, Eva describes how “we could hardly brace ourselves against the wind to walk. And girl at flaciercold! Just about froze.” Soon they rode above the snow line to see “great fields of daises, buttercups, and many others… the sight of all the colors against the snow was spectacular.” An attractive destination spot for this particular part of Montreux, Switzerland is the Rhone Glacier, the largest in the Alps contributing to several surrounding rivers and lakes including Lake Geneva. Eva describes the glacier as “a huge jagged mass of blue ice.” The other girls got the chance to go down through the glacier but Eva chose to stay behind because she “[didn’t] like to feel trapped.”

Small Alpine towns dot the mountainsides that over-look the glacier forglacier sight-seers to stay. The girls stayed at a hotel in one such town— Gotthard-Furka-Grimsel. Eva describes the loud “roar of the melting snow as it started to form the Rhone River.” Her night at the glacier was cold; she needed to sleep with all her clothes on and in the morning she woke up with her “neck as stiff as a board.” Eva also learned that she dislikes Swiss coffee, and their hot chocolate “was made out of goat’s milk, and it tasted like a stewed bransack” (a simmered bag of grain).

On their decent down the 5,000 foot mountain, the girls stopped in the town that circled Lake Geneva and visited the Castle of Chillon. The Castkecastle dates back to at least 1005 where it was used as a Roman guarding post and later as a sixteenth century prison. Eva did not go inside the castle because “that night club scared [her] so [she] dared not go in anywhere again.”

At this point in her trip, Eva is two weeks from being “out on the Atlantic on the way home” and she almost cannot wait to be there as she “hopes there will be peas and radishes” when she arrives home.
The last leg of their journey starts with arriving in Germany on July 20th. The train ride to Germany was “hot and dirty, not much like the Swiss trains.” The girls had a good laugh over what they were served for supper aboard the train: “soup, steak, potato, vegetable salad, a big piece of cheese (for which [they] needed a gas mask), a pretzel, and a bottle of beer.” What else could one expect of a German meal in the 1930s?


Eva and her Scrapbook: A 1932 Trans-Atlantic Vacation (Part 1)

The post was written by intern Jess Zaccagnini.

20150317_170410Scrapbooking is a hobby that dates back to the early fifteenth century and has gone through several transitions in popularity. Though the art of scrapbooking has been modified with the rise of social media, crafters would argue that scrapbooking is making a come-back, reflected in an increase in popularity and sales over the last few years. Nowadays, it is so easy to snap a picture and caption it on Instagram, to be saved forever in the “cloud” of the All Mighty Internet.

While virtual scrapbooking saves a lot of space, there is something to be said for the physical artifacts saved from another time and place far removed from one’s own. Upon finding a scrapbook from a Ms. Eva D. Lother, we are taken back to the summer of 1932 as she embarks on a trans-Atlantic journey with her friends while they explore six European countries in about one month.20150317_170438

Eva Lother comes from Lakeport, New Hampshire. Though her age is never specifically mentioned in her scrapbook, it is likely she is a young woman perhaps in her mid to late twenties. At the time of Eva’s departure in 1932, the Great Depression was devastating the country; Eva’s ability to go on such a trip may means she came from a wealthy family. In fact, she makes no mention of the Depression in any of her letters.

First Boat PicEva begins her journey by arriving to New York on July 1, 1932 to board the tourist steamer S. S Westward for a ten day excursion across the Atlantic, obtaining a ticket for about $250.00 (according to Dave Manuel’s inflation calculator, this would be about $4,300 in 2015). In her first letter to her mother, Eva describes the mob of people boarding the ship and family members waving goodbye in the steaming heat of a July afternoon, “The lady on the statue of Liberty waved bye to us and we were off!”

Continue reading Eva and her Scrapbook: A 1932 Trans-Atlantic Vacation (Part 1)

JoBa Cafe: Rethinking Our Mission

This post was written by Ede Reynolds. To see her other posts, click here.

Bookstores used to be a place where you went to discover something new or something that would entertain you– much like a library except you got to pay for the book and keep it forever. That’s what it was like when we opened our doors 22 years ago. In the ensuing years the Internet changed all that. Now, much of what you read is online, and in the case of Google Books, it is for free. This has forced bookstores and libraries to rethink their purpose in the community.

Our company has more than 80,000 books listed for sale online, books that sit in boxes on shelves in a warehouse. When one sells, we retrieve it and ship it out to every part of the world (even Antarctica). But people still, on occasion, come into the store to buy books the old-fashioned way and that is why our first floor maintains a selection of general knowledge titles. For collectors and scholars, the second floor contains older, more specialized titles and bindings. And there is a third component, those things that sell at trade shows to serious collectors.

So, if most people buy books online, what is the role of the bookstore? Economic development people like bookstores because it hearkens to a more genteel time. Bookstores announce, “This is a literate town, one that appreciates learning”‘ But bookstores aren’t just “window dressing.” We have a role in the new computer-connected world.

Continue reading JoBa Cafe: Rethinking Our Mission

Medical vs Artistic: A Choice of Imagery in the 19th Century

This post was written by intern Elise Plyler.

SofGMedical texts have a long history as substitutes for pornography. Books describing anatomy and reproduction have been lifted from bookshelves by curious young people and featured as the subjects of controversy for centuries. From this tradition comes the 1844 pocket edition of Michael Ryan’s The Secrets of Generation: Comprising the Art of Procreating the Sexes at Will. This book is an abridged and illustrated version of Ryan’s 1837 work, “Philosophy of Marriage.” It begins with an impressive frontispiece depicting two nude women stretched out on either side of a man in his bedclothes and the text is punctuated with four additional images of nude women.

These images are a far cry from those in the edition held by the National Library of Health, which depict the symptoms of venereal disease on men. While less appealing, the images in that copy are much more fitting; five of the book’s ten chapters cover the recognition and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. The nudes have no relation to the text. They are, however, lovely classical images of women posing by lakes and forests.SofG2

The publisher of the copy in the John Bale Book Company’s collection appears to have taken a dry medical text, peppered it with mildly obscene illustrations and slapped on a “click-bait” style title that would not be out of place on a Facebook newsfeed. Despite its sensational title, The Secrets of Generation gives little practical information in its single chapter on influencing the sex of a child. However, it is strangely comforting to see that the practice of bolstering readership with misleading titles and pictures of beautiful women is not a modern aberration; the same techniques are seen in this book published one hundred and seventy years ago.

This book is not in the best of condition. Only a few remnants of the paperback cover can be seen on the spine, and the pages are spotted and folded at the corners. Despite this, the piece remains a wonderful document of nineteenth century theories of reproduction and an intriguing curiosity to explore.

“The Abuse of Plants:” Shen Shaomin’s “Grafting Operation Diagram”

FullCover This post was written by intern Elise Plyler.

“Grafting Operation Diagram,” by Shen Shaomin (1956- ), a contemporary and controversial Chinese artist, is a stark white tome. Its only exterior marking is the title reverse-etched on its thick, hinged plexiglass cover in English and Chinese characters. If the John Bale Book Company sold books by the pound, this piece would be a treasure based on weight alone. However, the real significance of the book is found on its 125 thick vellum pages. The book is a manual for the training of bonsai trees, but this is not your typical gardening handbook.

The “Grafting Operation Diagram” is a twisted parody of a bonsai manual. This book contains 38 pages of detailed illustrations of methods which push the boundaries of normal bonsai arts. Many of the techniques, such as skinning the bark from the trees and cauterization, are perfectly ordinary bonsai practices AntNibblingMethod(Deadwood). However, the naturally human-like form of trees allows these methods to mirror human torture; the clamps look like thumbscrews and shackles while the process of “ant-nibbling,” where the tree is smeared with honey in order to attract ants to bite it, is similar to the ancient torture known as “Scaphismus” (Gallonio 11).

While I looked through “Grafting Operation Manual,” I began to question the ethics of treating a living organism in this way. The trees are cut, burned and flayed. Even as I cringed at the mutilation of the bonsai, I recognized the hypocrisy in selective sympathy towards living organisms, an ideal underlying Shaomin’s book. Continue reading “The Abuse of Plants:” Shen Shaomin’s “Grafting Operation Diagram”

JoBa Cafe: At One With the Community

This post was written by Ede Reynolds. To see more of her posts, click here:

Dan and I recently unearthed a 2003 photo of Gov. John Rowland’s visit to our new shop.  He was on a downtown campaign tour to promote Republican mayoral candidate Mark Forte, a longtime friend of ours.  When Governor mentioned that his wife, Patty, had written a children’s book, “Marvelous Max the Mansion Mouse,”  I decided to host a booksigning in time for the Christmas buying season.

From left to right: Gov. John Rowland, Mark (a friend of the shop), and Danny Gaeta.
From left to right: Gov. John Rowland, Mark Forte (mayoral candidate & a friend of the shop), and Danny Gaeta.

We looked forward to the publicity her appearance would afford but it turned out to have afforded more attention than we anticipated.

Prior to the signing the press began questioning some of the Governor’s expenditures, citing that work done for his private benefit was performed at the state’s expense.  Adding fuel to the fire, Patty Rowland rebuked the press in writing by way of a Christmas poem.  On the morning she was to appear at John Bale I received an early morning call from John Murray who publishes the Waterbury Observer.

“I don’t think she’ll show,” he told me.  I waited to see what would happen and, a few minutes before the signing was scheduled to begin, Patty and her driver showed up.  When the press arrived I kept them at bay.  As a guest of the bookstore, she was there to do one thing–sign books.  Good manners dictated her visit with us should be civilized and focused. I insisted the press wait outside. The book was well received and we quickly ran through two cartons of copies.

When the signing was done, she retired to our second floor and called her husband.  A few minutes later Patty asked if she could invite the reporters for a private interview.

Continue reading JoBa Cafe: At One With the Community

Antiquarian, Rare, and Out-of-Print Books