Dalton Delan | The Unspin Room: Tribute to Irene and joy of books

The Unspin Room

WESTPORT, Conn.— The gusts of April in a 21st century spring carry a hint of honeysuckle in the air as I turn down Prince Street in Alexandria's Old Town. That sweet southern scent acts like a bite of Proust's madeleine. The tap-tap of my leather soles on the brick sidewalk is my knocking on the door in 1977.

I look up at the entrance, and the simple sign "Irene Rouse Bookseller" is gone. As she is now. She lived to see the internet, Kindle and all the other electrobabble that consumes our lives today. When her ashes merge with the sod of her native Virginia, the dwindling ranks of rare book dealers will absorb her loss like water as a stone sinks below. The surface will not reveal her passage.

The association of antiquarian booksellers, in words one might expect of so quirky a breed, ranks among its members "lighthouse keepers, poets, helicopter pilots and professional musicians." Characters all, and in Irene, larger than life.

As I stepped through that doorway on Prince Street two score and one years ago, little did I know that the shop's proprietor and her inimitable husband Bill would become lifelong friends. In time, books would come to possess me. But just starting out then in my bibliophilia, when the Rouses would return from a book hunt in England with a first edition of Dickens, it was always Christmas in July with pages of snow falling all around me.

It wasn't long after the bookseller's house became a second home to me that I caught the editor's and impressario's bug. Though my own gifts were small and my achievements scant — contributions to continuity books from a nearby outpost of the Time-Life empire — I could use my skills to help bring out the best in others. Thus were the `Positively Prince Street' readings born. With the youngest of the Rouse daughters at the door taking donations, and Irene in back pouring wine, laughter and applause flowed from audiences and customers who came to hear the latest local and itinerant talent.

That was a time, dear reader, when young people might still aspire to be poets and singer-songwriters, and joining a proud literary tradition was to walk in the steps of the 19th and 20th century greats. Little did we know that our great expectations would surrender to time and technology. Poets could still be heroes, not just permanently out of work. We were standard-bearers for the humanities, back when English degrees were prized, at least by some foolishly romantic souls.

Mecca for writers

Such an evening of word and song was a page of heaven on earth. Like the "basket" bistros around Bleecker and MacDougal in Greenwich Village, the little shop on Prince Street became a mecca for area writers. We were the lost boys and girls of books, panning for literary gold.

Today, if you get lucky spinning Amazon's wheel, you may yet find a scarce copy of an anthology sampling those readings, painstakingly assembled with donated scraps of Time Inc. paper, bespoke edges of a larger commerce. If you do, and you open the pages of Positively Prince Street, you might just hear coins jingling in the basket, voices filling the evening air, glasses tinkling, laughter and hands clapping, the warmth of hugs and goodbyes as footsteps echo out into the night.

Our youth and ambition traveled outward as well into a world not yet rendered virtual and immaterial, leather and cloth-bound more rarely today. Now, in a digital century in which my record albums languish in the basement by a disused turntable, if I look too closely at my shelved shrine of signed books, most of the authors I once knew are dead and gone. Their pages are all that is left of them.

In the wayback machine of the '60s, Bob Dylan sang "I wish, I wish, I wish in vain, that we could sit simply in that room again; ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat, I'd give it all gladly, if our lives could be like that." The bard of Hibbing has grown long in the tooth, his voice a smokestack shambles, croaking Sinatra tunes meant to be crooned. The last echoes of a postwar boom.

I recall the "aha!" moment for a fireman summoned to a used bookstore I once haunted. It turned out to be a false alarm and, upon looking around, he notated the "old book smell" that had been mistaken for an electrical fire. One day I'll take my place upon a shelf reduced to ash, and the parade will move on. "Don't Stop the Carnival," wrote Herman Wouk, and later Jimmy Buffett ascribed an album to that sentiment. Somewhere in Margaritaville a bygone bookseller par excellence is smiling down. It's only a paper moon after all.

Goodnight, Irene.

Dalton Delan has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.


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