Obituary and Eulogies

G. R. Allen, 79, a buyer and seller of rare books

The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 25, 1998
By Andy Wallace, Inquirer staff writer

George R. Allen, 79, of Center City, the dean of Philadelphia booksellers, who spent nearly 60 years collecting, cataloging and selling rare and out-of-print books, died Friday at Graduate Hospital. Mr. Allen, who had asthma and congestive heart disease, died of cardiac arrest.

Mr. Allen had been the president of William H. Allen, Bookseller, at 2031 Walnut St., dealing in specialized and rare books. The business was founded in 1918 in Temple, a community north of Reading, by Mr. Allen's father and brought to Philadelphia two years later.

Mr. Allen went to work in the store in 1940 after graduating from Haverford College. Except for the years he spent in the Army during World War II, he remained with the business until his health forced him to retire a year ago.

The store was best known for its stock of rare Greek and Latin texts. In addition, Mr. Allen prepared several catalogs a year on American or European literature, Romance languages and other topics and distributed them to book collectors, libraries and universities around the world. He also traveled all over the country to appraise and buy libraries.

While his life's work brought Mr. Allen the regard of scholars, it did not bring him general renown, but two events earlier in his life brought a brief period of fame.

The first came at the end of the war. While serving as a staff sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division in Europe, he became the first member of military intelligence to enter Adolf Hitler's hideout at Berchtesgaden.

There, he found the few surviving transcripts from the Military Situation Conferences that Hitler held twice a day during the war. Though only a fragment of what had been an extensive stenographic record of the meetings, the transcripts revealed Hitler's dealing with his staff and his attempts to regain the upper hand on the battlefield. They also described his boasting, his towering rages, and his hour-long rants.

The notes, some of which were put on display at the University of Pennsylvania library in 1947, provided the basis of a 1950 book, Hitler Directs His War, which was edited by Felix Gilbert, then a history professor at Swarthmore College, and published by Oxford University Press.

Mr. Allen, who had studied ancient and modern languages in college, also was the first soldier to interrogate Hitler's sister, his secretary and his chauffeur. Mr. Allen learned how Hitler died and what had been done with his body from the chauffeur.

Mr. Allen was awarded a Bronze Star and was discharged from the service in November 1945. He went back to work in the bookstore, then run by his mother, Anna.

He was back in the news again in 1952, when he married an Indian princess, Margaret Lyngdoh Smith, who gained her title when she became the ward of the late Maharajah Bahadur Ram Ran Bijay Prasad Singh of Dumraon in the Indian state of Bihar. The couple met in London in 1950 and were married two years later in Montreal while she was awaiting admission to the United States.

Besides dealing in books, Mr. Allen did some writing. In 1994, he published a monograph on the Spanish painter El Greco. He also wrote a history of his own firm, another on the Philadelphia book trade, and a biography of Moe Berg, a Princeton-educated baseball player who was a spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II.

Mr. Allen is survived by his wife of 47 years, Margaret Allen; sons, Ernest and George 3d; daughter, Eleanor; and a sister. His twin brother, Ernest, died in 1989.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Trinity Memorial Church, 2212 Spruce St.

In place of flowers, contributions may be made to the Wintershelter Program at Trinity Memorial Church at the above address (zip code 19103).

Copyright 1998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

Remarks at a Memorial Service, held at Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church,
2212 Spruce Street, Philadelphia

Sunday, November 29, 1998

Eulogists, in order, included the Reverend Louis H. Temme, Rector, Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church, Daniel Traister, and Steven D. Rothman.

by Reverend Louis H. Temme, Rector
Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church

All will be made alive in Christ. . . . death has been swallowed up in victory. . . . Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (I Corinthians 15: 22b, 54b, 58).

George Allen has been an active member of the Episcopal Church for a long time. As a boy he sang in the choir at the Church of the Savior in West Philadelphia. For decades he has been a member of Trinity Memorial Church and functioned as a leader and supporter of the church's religious ministries and community partnerships. He had many wonderful qualities that endeared him to us and which I am sure, he also exhibited in other venues of his life. I particularly recall his matter of factness about life and the people great and small who populate it, his dry and often self-deprecating sense of humor, and his concern to support organizations that serve humanitarian values.

George was one of the solid citizens of this congregation, a role he played with the utmost seriousness, earning the respect of even those who disagreed with his views on what the congregation should do. They say Episcopalians prefer to sit in the back pew. George always chose a seat at worship that told you he was involved -- first row, aisle seat on the right. He sang his favorite hymns with energy, he knelt and bowed his head deeply each Sunday in prayer. He could be counted on to support all worthwhile congregational ventures and a few hair-brained ones I have thought up along the way.

One of our few personal similarities is that we both graduated from Central High School, a school and an educational experience that was obviously very meaningful to him. He was fond of reminding me in recent years that he felt that he was in good hands professionally, because Dr. Katz, who he described as his "primary health care provider," and me, whom he christened his "sky pilot," were both Central grads.

On a more visual note, George will always be remembered for wearing his bright red socks and red plaid vest to the Christmas Eve service each year at Trinity. He knew it would draw comment, and Christmas here in the future won't be the same without George's display.

Our other speakers today will share other insights about George's life, but certainly if you have read one of his favorite essays by Robert Louis Stevenson entitled Aes Triplex or seen, read about, or been aware of the many personal accomplishments of George Allen, you know that his whole life was focused on living and responding to the small, medium, and big challenges that came his way. He was exhilarated in the dramatic parts -- like helping to discover important facts about how the second World War ended in Europe; he enjoyed comfortable family rituals in the low points -- like having regular quality time with his parents while growing up during the Great Depression; and, in the year in, year out round of life, he was a happy man as he accumulated new learnings and adjusted to the gradual changes that were part of his business life.

In the last 10 years or so, I visited George frequently in a hospital room. His catalog of various ailments and operations would have been the grist for a depressive view of life in the minds of many other individuals. But with George, he always laughed off his grave circumstances, and took the inconvenience of his hospital stays as the price for being the occupant of an aging body. He always had some wry observation to make about the food, the staff, or the decor, but he never felt sorry for himself. During one visit, he flung off his sheet to expose to me the latest surgical technique -- "Look," he boasted, "they don't sew you up anymore, they staple you up!" While he sat through many recuperations from this or that, he always passed the time by reading a pile of daily newspapers and his favorite Greek and Latin texts.

In the last year George was unable to work at his store, or to read or to even get out of the house much. Maybe it was these losses coupled with the loss of energy to bounce back from multiple medical situations that brought to George's voice the first tone of discouragement that I had ever heard him utter.

On one occasion during this low period, when I called to offer to bring him Holy Communion, perhaps thinking that this was an offer of "The Last Rites of the Church," he told me he had no need of this, because he had "lived a decent life" and had "no fear of dying." I think this is true on both scores. Though he didn't like being too weak to enjoy the pleasure of responsible living, he wasn't afraid of where he was headed.

In his final instruction to his family about his medical care he wrote of his philosophy: "Death is as much a part of reality as birth, growth, maturity and old age -- it is the one certainty of life." "I do not fear death itself."

I suspect that George's confidence stemmed from the fact that he had lived a good and full life, and he was not worried in the least about appearing before his God.

Last Friday, George died peacefully and passed on quietly into the next life in the presence of his family and of me -- his sky pilot. There was no fear on his face. We all could see that nearly eighty years of living had come to a decent and dignified end.

And knowing what I know about George's life and his last years -- his own speech (quoting the words of S. Weir Mitchell) written just a year and a half ago to the Philobiblon Club says it for me --

I know the night is near at hand
The mists lie low on hill and bay,
The autumn sheaves are dewless, dry.
But I have had the day.

by Daniel Traister

In May of 1976, somewhat more than twenty-two years ago, and as part of a two-day trip to Philadelphia, I paid what must have been my first visit to 2031 Walnut Street, the shop of William H. Allen, Bookseller. There I met a person who was, then, about as old as I am now, George Allen. Did I buy a book on that occasion? I think so -- I hope so! The chances I bought something are pretty good. It's always been hard for me to enter even a crummy bookstore and not walk out of it with a book -- and Allen's was not a crummy bookstore, not by a long shot. Moreover, I was there with a group of people all of whom were, like me, deeply interested in books. I do remember feeling that the shop was, somehow, small, especially in its books-on-the-book section, which Terry Belanger -- the professor who was, on those two days, leading me, along with a class full of other Columbia University students, including Jim Green, now of The Library Company of Philadelphia, and Jennifer Lee, once of The Library Company -- made both the first and the last stop on our tour of the wonders of this exotic and distant city. The store seemed, to my New York-trained sensibilities, not only small but also cramped.

I'd grown up in a different book world from Philadelphia's -- in fact, a different world from Philadelphia. I'd begun coming to this city more or less regularly during what I remember as a bitingly cold 1976 winter for once-a-week sessions as an intern at The Library Company, then under the aegis of Edwin Wolf, where I was supposed to learn something about working with rare books. Phil Lapsansky and Marie Korey watched over my meager progress, overseen themselves by Edwin, who was, of course, very nearly terminally idiosyncratic. Encountering Edwin by himself, however, I didn't understand that he was not only unique in his idiosyncrasies -- although he was that, too -- but also, if I'd only had the wit to read him rightly, a tip-off that Philadelphia was alive with the sound of prima donnas singing: enough prima donnas, in fact, eventually to make even a New Yorker feel right at home.

It would be a while before I learned this lesson. At the time, I had no notion that I'd ever actually live and work here myself -- my visits seemed merely a part of training for other jobs in other places. It wasn't until 1982 that, finding myself back in Philadelphia for what looked even then as if it might be a long haul, I again found myself looking now and again into William H. Allen, Bookseller, and running into its proprietor, George Allen. This time, I was not quite so slow to notice that I was in the presence of yet another Philadelphia prima donna -- although learning to hear his particular song took me a while.

I learned about George in various ways. First of all, of course, I came to know him as a bookseller.

Occasionally buying books for myself, more than occasionally buying books for my library, I came to realize what unbelievable joy it means to have, ready to hand, a bookseller whom one could call upon for an odd, old, out-of-print book with some confidence that the bookseller might actually have a copy of it kicking around -- or, if he didn't, might actually have some idea of where and how to get it. What is more, George kept records of what you wanted, awaiting the day, always foreseeable, when another copy might show up, and then would get in touch with you about it. In addition, and perhaps most miraculously, he was a bookseller who might himself know the book, not just its outside but also, and surprisingly often, its inside, too, and who would therefore know why you wanted it and what it was good for.

A friend now in the midwest wrote me, a day after George's obituary notice had gone out over the internet, that he could remember buying, when still a student, an anthology of Latin poetry he had just, and with great joy, found on George's shelves. Just before he was about to write his check for it, he recalled, George -- who hadn't opened the book but who knew the young man's interests -- suddenly looked up at him and said, "Now, you do know there's no Juvenal in here?"

That's a bookseller?

Yes. That's a bookseller.

George learned continuously about his customers -- how else could he have known his young customer's interest in Juvenal? Once, relatively early in our dealings, I asked him for a copy of Mark Pattison's Essays. Pattison, a nineteenth-century Oxford don, was a historian of the study of classical literature. Seeking his nineteenth-century book at George's shop, known for its emphasis on classical letters, did not require me to be the sharpest tack in the box. And, in fact, it took George remarkably little time to get hold of the two-volume book -- and at a price I could afford.

Emboldened by this success, I asked him if he could find a copy of Pattison's book about Isaac Casaubon, a late-Renaissance classical scholar and someone whom some of you will remember as a kind of model for a character named "Casaubon" in George Eliot's Middlemarch. We didn't yet know one another very well at this point, but, about a year or so later, when he had found a copy of the first edition of Pattison's study, he was quick to offer it to me. I had thought I'd mentioned to him that I was looking for this book not as a "collector" but as a "reader," and therefore what I really wanted was Pattison's revised second edition. But maybe I hadn't. No matter. George knew he'd have another customer for the first edition and, if the second was what I wanted, for reasons he understood and appreciated, then the second was what I should have. It took about another year or two before he found that edition coming through his door, and -- again at a price I could afford -- it was mine.

I flatter myself, perhaps, by thinking that -- even though it was belated -- my insistence on the second, not the first edition, made a difference in the way he thought about me. No mere collector of "first editions," but someone who also read his books, and at least gave the illusion of caring about what was inside them, I had now passed some sort of test I hadn't even known was being administered.

If George learned about his customers, then he also cared about getting them the books they needed, whether personally or institutionally. Those of you who don't work in this field might be surprised to hear that not all booksellers do. It is now many years since I bought from George, for Penn, a copy of a 1521 Boccaccio -- bought it, by the way, at a price which, even then, I thought simply scandalous -- and "scandalous" here means "scandalously LOW." The pleasure we both shared, whenever we spoke about it during the following years, that this book had come to a collection where it belonged is a pleasure I continue to treasure, along with the book itself.

I also got to know George through the book club we were both members of, Philadelphia's Philobiblon Club. "Both members of," I say glibly, and that is a correct locution, to be sure -- but, when I moved here and joined Philobiblon, in 1982, George had, even then, already been its President for about a decade. (I imagine him as having become a member of Philobiblon at some time before I entered kindergarten.)

As President, George was a fixture at Club meetings, and I think it fair to guess that he was best known, publicly, for his introductions of its speakers at monthly meeting after monthly meeting for a quarter-of-a-century. Invariably presented as if they were informal, although in fact very carefully prepared; often very witty; and always deflating: George's introductions reflected a view that books might very well be a reasonable way in which a normally healthy and intellectually curious human being could profitably and enjoyably spend a lifetime -- but they were not therefore also a means to gratify ego and self-importance. In fact, long service to the Club as its President was not, I felt, a vehicle for George's own ego, as for others it might easily have become. It was service. For all the joy he took in his own deflationary but good-humored introductions of others at the Club's monthly meetings, Philobiblon seemed for George something that needed service to keep it going; and his own services for the Club were performed best not in his introductions but rather in behind-the-scenes meetings of the Club's Board, at the Franklin Inn, or in his own living room. In public view, I always felt he managed to perform his introductory -- and even his not frequent enough speaking -- functions not, of course, without enjoyment of his own wit and ability to turn a phrase, but also with a visibly modest demeanor. In simple truth, for a person so often on display -- at Philobiblon, in his shop, at the Franklin Inn, and in many other venues, as well -- George was, to an astonishing degree, selfless, almost faceless, in his devotion to duty.

The third arena in which I got to know George was as an old soldier -- and thus, as you will see, as a donor to Penn, as well. "Duty" was, I feel, the key to this aspect of his past, as it was to his service in organizations like Philobiblon.

George had experienced an "interesting" war, as it used to be called, but he never allowed the experience of the European fighting or the immediate postwar occupation to define him. On the other hand, he knew very well indeed that he had taken part in, and was in fact personally involved with, matters that illuminated or affected how World War II would be remembered by people who could have no first-hand experience of it themselves: George had the instincts of a genuine historian. He spoke at Philobiblon, at Penn, and at many other places, and wrote about his own wartime experiences, and did so with wit, modesty, and style. He saw to the placement of some of his materials at Penn. These included manuscript notes from conversations between the Fuhrer and his General Staff captured -- some of them captured (indeed, rescued from Nazi efforts to destroy them) by George himself -- in Austria; George's own published writings about the War; and -- just last month -- his own unpublished book-length memoir of his wartime experience.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht -- was this date an accident? George always claimed it was, although I am not sure -- a package I was not expecting reached me at work by mail. I opened it and out popped, among other things, Ribbentrop's party membership card, a couple of books with Goering and Hitler provenances, a good many Nazi medals . . . and a note from George saying, in effect, "Dan, you wouldn't believe how many people want to buy these things from me, nor what they want to pay me for them. I don't want to sell them to anyone who wants them. Do with them what you will."

George romanticized nothing about the war, its causes, or his own service in it. It was something nasty that had needed to be done as well as it could be done. Now it had become something that needed to be remembered as well as it could be remembered. He gave Penn materials that would enable that part of the War he had known himself to be remembered -- to be remembered as a human experience, however nasty -- and, when we last spoke about his materials, just before his unpublished manuscript reached me last month, he was pleased to hear that students and scholars were looking at them. He didn't know that he himself was going to be asked to come speak about his wartime experiences to a class on war literature about to be taught this spring, if his health held out -- as, alas, it didn't.

Some of you have had the pleasure of reading George's own history of William H. Allen, Bookseller. I think the sense of duty I've been speaking about with respect to service -- organizational and military -- also shines through that slender volume, originally presented to members of Philobiblon and later printed as a splendid chapbook by Lehigh University's Library. But if all I have managed to convey this afternoon is a sense of a man consumed by duty, then I have failed completely to remind us of why we remember George -- not because of our own sense of the duty we owe to his dutifully-lived life but rather because of the pleasure and joy we have taken from the gifts of his life and work, and the pleasure he took in both.

I remember George in part for his acerbic wit -- dry, drier, driest -- and modest demeanor. I remember the fun of poking around his shop. I remember the growing fun of being around, of listening to, him -- and to the peculiar music of his own speech patterns ("How are you?" "Oh, about the same.").

I began by recalling my own first visit to the man and his store some twenty-two years ago, and commenting about how "small," how "cramped," the shop seemed to me then. I can even tell you, to this day, exactly where the feeling of being cramped came upon me: standing with Terry Belanger, Jennie Lee, and Jim Green in the narrow corridor at the rear of the shop where many of the books about books were shelved.

But that memory of smallness, of being cramped, doesn't really suit anyone's sense of George, certainly not mine. In a post-classical work I know -- George might better have appreciated a classical allusion here, but that isn't, as academics say, "my field" -- an English poet, writing (I must admit) about a different topic, also talks (inadvertently) about what a good bookstore is, even when it may happen to exist in a small, somewhat cramped space. Thus the poet talks (however inadvertently) about what George Allen did in his good bookstore.

By the way in which George stocked William H. Allen, Bookseller, and, by extension, by the way in which he stocked his life, George Allen made "one little room an every where." Our world will be smaller and more cramped without him.

by Steven D. Rothman

It was love at first sight. Yes, the first time I spotted Allen's bookshop, I wanted to go in. But I was a kid from the suburbs and riding in my parents' car. It was to be a few months until I was able both to reconstruct where I had spotted this wonderful place and to talk them into taking me there. But sometime in the mid-sixties, I first entered 2031 Walnut Street. I told the man, who I now realize was about the age I am now, what I was interested in and he led me into a long narrow room in the back where, up a ladder, he showed me books by the author I was searching for. I hadn't much money (I was twelve), but a little looking revealed a title I had never heard of for $2.50. I was soon on my way. Little did I guess how many trips would follow that first one.

Even with the changes that have been rung over the years, Allen's bookshop remains amazingly enticing to the booklover. It looks like a bookshop should. More than that, it looks like Hollywood thinks a bookshop should. With its railed mezzanine giving a glimpse of books up to the sky, and its warren of backrooms all hiding surprises, it is hard to imagine one would not find a book there.

Over the years I bought many, many books at Allen's, and we went from Mr. Allen and Mr. Rothman to George and Steve. George always impressed me with his curious mixture of courtesy and disdain. I would talk to him of Sherlock Holmes and he would carefully indicate that anyone who read mysteries was weak in the head. George told me that the last mystery he had read, excepting, I am sure, Edwin Drood, was on the ship returning from the War -- when he realized whodunit halfway through he put it down and never picked up another. But of course I was a collector and all collectors were a little simple-minded in George's view. Nice folks who helped keep bread on his table, but perhaps not the type who should really be walking the streets unattended.

George was never shy about sharing his opinions with those he knew. Who can forget "What tree did you fall out of?" his most common comment on the inane or ridiculous. George was also not one for trivial commonplaces. If, in the course of a telephone call, one were to inquire, politely, after his health, the reply would usually be "breathing regular." It wasn't that George ever meant to be discourteous; rather, it was that George believed that life was serious business and one had to get on with the living of it. This could make George seem rude or aloof to those who didn't know him. Many was the time I heard George give an offhand but completely accurate answer to a potential customer's unwary question. Some of these customers were discouraged, others persevered and were rewarded.

For about ten years I was a regular in the bookshop every Saturday morning, bringing doughnuts, several of them chocolate for George, and opinions. I would carefully scan the shelves and take away a great many books. Week by week I would come and spend my time seeing what was new, reviewing what was old, and buying books. Along the way, George and I traded news and views on a great many subjects. Both of us being Philadelphia gentlemen, we rarely touched on religion or politics, neither of which we held in common. Politicians were an unlikely crowd to earn George's commendations. They often have to prevaricate to survive in their world and George had no time for liars.

A lot of people came and went through the shop on those Saturday mornings. George brought in a number of neophyte booksellers to help him, many of whom have gone out on their own: Bruce McKittrick, David Szewcyzk, Kadie Barnes, Cynthie Buffington, Keith Arbour, Wayne Radke, and others. George continued to run the bookstore the way it had always been run, but slowly changes came in. The rolltop desk disappeared; the jumble of card catalogue cases was replaced by uniform cases; under the influence of David and Cynthie, a computer entered his life; and George proudly (?) showed off his certificate of completion of the course in using the electronic brain. Indeed, I believe Allen's was the first bookshop in the city to computerize. George used the computer as a tool and not as a crutch. His attitude towards the cyberization of America is one we could all follow with profit.

I didn't find all the books I bought from George myself; he often quoted me books. This took the form of postcards typed in George's peculiar style. I am not sure if it was the typewriter or the typist that made George's typing as unique as his handwriting. I suspect it was the typist, for the typewriter was replaced many times over the years. I firmly believe that I could identify any document he typed. George's handwriting was unbelievably crabbed and peculiar, and I say this as a man who cannot read his own hand. More than a few times I would stare attempting to decipher the notes on condition that George had penciled into the upper right-hand corner of the front free endpaper along with the price. The numbers I could always read, but the notes were sometimes a little cryptic and not clear until I had finished the book. George not only sold books, he gave them away. He always had his t.o.'s, his toss-out pile of books, which he either felt he couldn't make a buck with, or simply didn't deign to sell. I often carried away books from this group. There were mysteries, of course, since I was simple-minded enough to read them. There were cookbooks and children's books--lots of strange stuff that I was happy to find a home for. I remember making one friend quite pleased with a box of opera liberetti, including some very strange and obscure ones. These reside in Budapest now, still a proud part of her working library.

George also gave some books to institutions. Much of his war memorabilia he gave to Penn. He had seen too many people coming into the shop asking for stuff about Nazis and didn't want any genuine Nazi artifacts ending up in the hands of anyone to whom they would be more than the stuff of history.

George may have often reminisced about the War but he never romanticized it. He had a pair of thick hand-knit ski socks that he wore when the weather was unusually cold and snowy. These were Goering's socks, or more particularly, socks liberated by George from Goering's rooms at Berchtesgaden. Some men might have felt squeamish or horrified walking about in Goering's socks, but George just felt warm.

George had no time to be impressed by the famous and infamous; he had read his classics and knew that there have always been such men, and today's fame is tomorrow's footnote. I have seen him be offhand with well-known actors and journalists who came into the shop in search of books. (To my delight, and perhaps just for my delectation, Christopher Morley was always held out as the most famous visitor to the shop.) If the visitors knew what they were talking about, George had time for them. But he wasn't going to fawn or ask for autographs. If bestsellers had no place on his shelves neither did their gossip column equivalents.

Once, at lunch at the Franklin Inn, the late John Marion was engaged in a long and entertaining story about himself. This story was full of names that were largely unknown to me, and, apparently, to George. As John went along he would tell us of say, Bill Brewer. "Ping" -- George had struck his water glass with his knife. John continued, "Jan Strewer." "Ping" -- George struck again.

John: Peter Gurney, Peter Davy.

George: Ping, Ping.

John: What are you doing, George?

George: Every time you drop a name, I'm ringing my glass.

Chuckles from the assembled table.

John: Oh. Dan'l Whidder.

George: Ping.

John: Harry Hawke.

George: Ping.

John: Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all.

George: Ping, ping, ping.

And so it went through the meal, neither of them giving an inch. George's wit was as sharp as his tongue, but on this occasion he didn't even need words.

(George DID indulge in one form of snobbery: he often judged others by whether they, like he, were graduates of Central High. I wasn't. But fortunately my father was, so I passed, barely.)

George loved chocolate. I think I hinted at that earlier. George loved chocolate. You would often see a Hershey bar near his desk waiting for the moment when he would allow himself to consume it. One Christmas I gave him a giant Hershey bar. I mean big, ten pounds, the size of an attaché case. George seemed flummoxed by this outsized confection. He ended up taking it home and leaving a hammer nearby so that any who wished could chisel off a bit and partake of its sweetness. It wasn't easy to put George off his guard, but I did it with a candy bar the size of the Ritz. It was a pleasure to give George chocolate. It seemed so unlikely that this drywitted man had such a sweet tooth. Perhaps the chocolate became more pronounced after he had given up the pipe. For though part of my mental image of George is pipe in mouth or in hand, it is George Allen, chocoholic, that remains uppermost.

George looked forward every year to his vacation on the farm, the family home near Reading. He would sit on the front porch and read his way through one of his favorite authors: Dickens or Trollope or Stevenson. It was usually one of the Victorians. The process did seem to refresh him, for he would return to the shop and his cataloging ready to spend the seemingly endless hours. Often I would walk down Walnut Street after hours and see a light in the window. If it was late enough and I saw George I would knock on the glass and gesture for him to go home. I was answered by a pitying shake of the head. Didn't I realize that there was work to be done? It was all very well for me to be off making merry in my grasshopper fashion, but George the prudent ant knew that the books wouldn't catalogue themselves.

I became a member of the Philobiblon Club, Philadelphia's group of book collectors, booksellers, and librarians, in the Spring of '75. George had already been president for a while. Bruce McKittrick prophesized that he would hold the job for life as he was the first president to make humorous introductions, and the club wouldn't let him relinquish the role.

The prospect of being introduced by George left many slightly weak at the knees. It wasn't that he actually insulted those he was introducing so much as he so misdirected them as to confuse them entirely. George's introductions were an art form all to themselves. Humorous they were in the way the man was: dry to the point of aridity. They would occasionally be laden with puns so outrageous that only George, completely poker-faced, could have gotten away with them. These introductions usually followed a pattern that the Club learned to accept as normal, but one I have never seen used by anyone else.

George would begin with some reminiscences of his War years. These were interesting but rarely particularly relevant to the speaker's topic. He would then segue into a bit of information on the topic often lifted, with credit, from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was George's vade mecum. Of course sometimes the speaker's topic had something to do with whatever had occurred in the 60 years since George's reference had been published. In such cases he sometimes allowed his imagination to fly and would create a connection to something that was in the encyclopaedia. (In case you are wondering, I went to a great deal of trouble to insert the diphthong into that word in honor of George as classicist.) This was then followed by a sentence or two about the speaker and then, quite abruptly, the title of the talk.

Generally this worked quite well. Some speakers, particularly those who had never met George before, would seem a bit disconcerted and begin with the look of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. In fact, they had already been hit. Of course, there was the time when George, having given the potted abstract of the subject of the evening, introduced the speaker who said, almost in tears, that he had given her whole talk and she had nothing to say.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to introduce George on several occasions. Turnabout is fair play. Indeed, I have used George's style as the model for my own introductions.

I heard George introduce speakers not only at the Philobiblon Club, of which he was President for about twenty-five years, but also at the Franklin Inn Club and at the Library Associates of Haverford College, where he served several terms as president. When George attempted to resign from the board last year, after having served for close to fifty years, we unanimously rejected his resignation, while excusing his absence. George was also on the board of the Friends of the Library at what he always referred to as "that Hicksite school," Swarthmore College. These presidencies were an important part of who George was, I think. George was a man who wasn't seeking personal aggrandizement. He didn't covet being Mr. President. Rather, he felt that he enjoyed or valued these organizations and if they were to continue and to flourish he had to contribute to the best of his ability. If these contributions led to the responsibility of leadership, so be it. George's style of leadership was, unsurprisingly, low key. All that mattered was that the job get done. He wasn't going to check on those who had agreed to do work. After all, these were all volunteer organizations, so the workers were there willingly.

George's introductions were not his only literary contributions. He often gave talks himself. These talks were entertaining and informative in a deceptively simple and straight-forward style that requires quite a lot of work. There were talks about bookselling, of course. He covered both the history of Philadelphia bookselling and his own reminiscences of bookselling as well as the history of his own firm. There were several talks about his adventures in the War. Unlike many who tell old war stories, George never let his tales grow more elaborate and unbelievable with time. They just seemed to be unvarnished stories of mud and boredom and getting the job done. The job, in his case, included unearthing some very exciting secrets from the defeated Nazis, including the details of the Fuhrer's death. There was also a talk about Moe Berg, the baseball player. George, who knew him as a customer, decided that his life story was largely fake. Others, including Berg, have disagreed.

George had several of these talks printed into pamphlet form for distribution to friends. Re-reading them is to hear George's voice: clear and detached.

He also wrote a monograph on El Greco which was published by John Warren in the early '80s. The Spanish painter had long been a favorite of George's and he was glad to pay back his delight in the art with this slim work of scholarship.

Another thing that impressed me about George was his quiet charity. I knew he was very involved in this church, of course. And when his friend and neighbor, Edwin Wolf, the longtime head of the Library Company, was ill, George began work to honor him; this eventually took the form of a memorial committee that raised funds to preserve oral histories by those who knew Wolf. When the Philobiblon Club celebrated its centenary in '93, George not only pushed to make sure there was a celebration, but underwrote many of the expenses so that it would be a true celebration.

George's illness started to get the better of him in the last couple years, and though he never complained, he began to look and sound weaker. Last year he stopped going into the shop altogether. It continues under the helm of Wayne Radke.

The earliest of George's talks that I know is one that he gave at the Free Library in the Winter of '57, "The Booksellers of Philadelphia," which was collected with talks by three others in a handsome little book. In this talk George traces the history of local bookselling and then concentrates on a curious book written and published by William Brotherhead in 1891, Forty Years among the Old Booksellers of Philadelphia. Brotherhead set new standards of crankiness as he listed the booksellers of his day. George dealt with this in his dry, entertaining style.

He began his talk saying: "You may think it isn't proper for one of Philadelphia's youngest booksellers to talk on the Old Booksellers of Philadelphia. I can say nothing in my defense and can only add that I am not looking forward to the day when I, too, will be called an 'Old Bookseller,' however inevitable it may be."

Despite George's reservations, his friends and customers across the globe are grateful that he did become an old bookseller. He sold books for almost 60 years. He bought and sold them honestly and honorably. He did the jobs that needed being done in every part of his life. He was a private man of quiet pleasures who believed in community. He gave to that community his whole life, and I believe that giving was for him its own reward.

I know I said I was a collector; I am and I'm proud of it. But I am also a reader of books. It was this, not the collecting, that earned me some respect from George. George liked people to read books. I don't know if he agreed with me that a book doesn't live until it's read, but his disagreement would be more because of my anthropomorphism than my sentiment.

George always seemed to have a book in his hand, whether he was cataloguing a new acquisition, shelving a priced book, or pulling a book off the shelf for a customer. And at home and at rest, George was a reader. When I heard that he was too tired and ill to read any more, it was clear the end was near. I hope that George has found himself a porch to read on, well stocked with his favorite authors from Homer to Thackeray. I hope that the books and the conversation are up to his standards.

Remarks at a Celebration of George Allen, held at The Philobiblon Club, Tuesday, December 8, 1998.

At its regularly-scheduled 8 December 1998 meeting, The Philobiblon Club opened the floor to memories of its recently-deceased President. As speakers's remarks arrive in electronic format they will be added here. The occasion was celebratory, occasional, and oral; people occasionally addressed not only the entire Club but also individual members then in the room. No effort has been made to eliminate the reflections of this condition of their delivery that survive in remarks below.

by Keith Arbour
The Haydn Foundation, Ardsley, New York

Many of George's friends learned of his death while they were attending a book fair in the place he frequently called "The Windy City." During the past fifty years, how many innocent customers, catching the epithet in one ear as they pored over the Greek and Latin shelves, assumed he was referring to Chicago!

George's favorite phrase for Bean-town was as vulgar as George got -- except perhaps for one notable Franklin Inn lunch. A number of Philadelphia's oldest boys were striving too hard to impress a foreign literary luminary. George listened long, then delivered a brief line that sent artificiality scurrying. "That reminds me," he said, "of a friend who told me he was going to the A & P. I told him I was going to the Y and shit." Wisdom, I suppose, knows when to stoop. Or when to ping, as Steve Rothman has reminded us.

George usually kept above the Windy City level. This was the least of many reasons why his shop was one of the most civilized places any of us can name. But civilized places are relatively common. George's shop was something rare: one of the most civilized, least artificial retail shops in the world. In part this was because Allen's was anything but pretentious -- and anything but prestigious, George might have added. Unlike, say, the University Museum or Sotheby's -- striking structures housing costly artifacts -- Allen's housed neither loot nor baubles and wasn't built on anyone's back except the proprietors'. It was all the more civilized, I think, for its genesis -- and for George's constant awareness of the double meaning of prestigious.

George's Allen's was what it was because George himself was as unpretentious a gentleman as one could meet. His very presence -- well, sometimes his words! -- drove pretentiousness from the space around him. This, in turn, had a deadening effect on counter-pretentiousness, which George's humor, despite one of its effects, was not. What all this meant was that George's being kept the space around him cleared for his mission.

Another reason -- but not the essential one -- George's shop was so delightful was that he seldom silently ignored the small assaults on decency that too often creep into our daily lives. One of the few times I saw George flash angry followed an unfortunate young bookwrapper's use of the words "God" and "damn" in a single breath. It never happened again. George, as he said, had heard enough cursing in the army to last a lifetime. I also saw George grow angry once when some thoughtless off-the-sidewalker persisted far too long in importuning him to buy an album of Nazi tobacco cards. George never allowed such odious junk to contaminate his precincts.

Once more I saw him grow warm: a very well-tailored first-time customer, having selected around eightly dollars worth of books priced sixty dollars, inquired of George about "a professional discount." George asked a question. The customer identified himself as a lawyer. Ouch! And of course woe to the unfortunate assistant who mispronounced the surname of the greatest French novelist, Honoré de B . . . I'd still rather not risk it.

I sympathize with the customer who never wrote George a check with the word "forty" in it.

George was the hardest working, most businesslike, but least commercial, bookman there has ever been. This is because he had sterling talents to invest, the return was sufficiently rewarding, and he was remarkably generous. In his life as a bookseller, his generosity manifested itself in his commitment to conveying worthwhile books between people he imagined used them well. Allen's catalogues -- George's typing, 2000 or more titles, four times a year, plus jokes -- were the proto-internet for scholars all over the world. George never worked up catalogue copy during business hours. So for decades his late-night typing facilitated the studies of academics everywhere, but most particularly in states with weak research libraries: states like Idaho, Nevada, Alabama, and -- still the least civilized place on the continent, despite three-quarters of a century of Allen's shipments, and one particularly discerning classics customer -- New Hampshire.

One of George's customers once pointed out to me that he (the customer) had just purchased from George a second stupendously underpriced copy of the limited, large-paper edition of Whistler's Gentle Art of Making Enemies. But let me back up a bit. Three years before this incident, I was an Allen's customer of one year's standing. I had ten dollars a week to spend on books. I expect that during that year George had observed that each week I purchased one $7.50 book, or two $6.00. (Six bucks got you Bertrand Bronson's Johnson Agonistes, or Tucker Brooke's Essays on Shakespeare -- nineteen of them, of which the essay on King Lear alone is worth, by my estimate, $3,478.32). Anyway, that year, when I was only a customer, George had also observed that almost every book I bought came from his eighteenth-century English lit. section in "the annex" -- the narrowest, if not the dustiest, dukedom in the world. One Saturday morning I walked past George and into the annex. (Many of you can hear the hollow door sliding behind the warm radiator. And smell the cherry-tobacco pipe-smoke lingering from George's pervious night's work.) In the annex I found, half-way down on the left-hand side, a set of the 1891 American printing of Hill's Boswell: six volumes for fifteen dollars. It is not a fifteen-dollar book, and was not then.

(I haven't wandered: the underpriced Whistler.) Brian Stillwell: about the time you found the second underpriced copy of the limited Whistler, several Philadelphia booksellers, including George, were in danger of losing you as a lunch-hour regular. You were suddenly devoting every noon hour to catching the mistakes of a single shop. (MacManus -- just kidding Clarence. Someone bet me I couldn't make you jump. Tell Sharon she owes me ten bucks!) Brian, when you found George's second under-priced Whistler you should have realized how much he enjoyed your informative visits. What was he to do? He was a dedicated book-s-e-l-l-e-r. He couldn't just give you the stuff! In any case: you kept visiting. And sometime later you left with Walton's Polyglot. George made mistakes: but they weren't mistakes when they accomplished some intended good.

George was also generous with praise for those he learned from. What Rudy Hirsch didn't know about books was hardly worth knowing. When it came to books, Edwin Wolf was God. (I never heard George say this, but one of our common friends did.) Risking impiety, I think the same of George. Regarding what he always called "book-books" -- which is to say, the lion's share of the universe -- George was omniscient. And somehow he communicated more worthwhile information about these books -- and their contents -- than I would have thought possible from someone generally so quiet. Not just facts either. I never reread Dickens -- any Dickens -- without being thrilled afresh by George's impromtu remarks about the opening of Great Expectations. The little lecture comprised two sentences; but dropped as they were before me in the middle of a typical, nearly silent morning of alphabetizing cards and looking up titles in the CBI (and that doesn't mean China-Burma-India, as he would add), the phrases with which George praised Dickens's artistry electrified me at my desk. As to Trollope, I first read him because George admired him. It was long before I had read enough to sense how profoundly Trollope's Autobiography must have resonated within him.

Allen's is the place it is because George was concerned first and foremost with the arts that painted life as it is, however it is -- particularly writing, of course, but by no means only writing. He allowed nothing distracting or artificial into Allen's to obscure this focus. (The high-heeled lady snapshot seems to break the rule. But George explained her place in his history of the firm. I look forward to extending the analysis on another evening.) George's is the perfect bookshop: shelves upon shelves, catalogue cards (now electronic records), a couple of desks for booksellers, a wrapping table, a bust of Homer. Where but at George Allen's shop could a bust of Homer function as a sign for a shop that deliveres more than such a sign suggests?

The hours I spent as George's student when I was an undergraduate set a standard for interest and enjoyment and honesty against which I still measure my every working hour. He was, as I wrote him when I graduated from Penn, my finest professor.

It might be a fun exercise to imagine where George would best fit amidst the plots and characters created by his favorite novelists. I'm not sure the answers would matter, so long as they did not obscure what strikes me as a fundamental point: George was a wonderful person whose being heightened in our lives something of the atmosphere we love in the novels he loved. To put it differently: in many, many ways, George was the Samuel Johnson of our circle -- not, of course, because he was like Samuel Johnson (though in some ways he was), but because he was wholly, truly, wonderfully himself.

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