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The Bookshop That Is Bertha Mahony | The Atlantic Monthly

Opening spread of a June 1929 article about Bertha Mahony (The Atlantic Monthly)

Opening spread of a June 1929 article about Bertha Mahony (The Atlantic Monthly)

by Alice Jordan

I.

Of all the factors influencing the selling of children’s books in the last dozen years, perhaps the most widely loved is the Bookshop for Boys and Girls in Boston. When you try to search out the reason for this, how it happens that a shop designed to sell books for children has built itself into the community life and even made its name known in other countries, you sense a subtle quality of atmosphere which can be traced only to the presence of a rich personality.

For the Bookshop is Bertha Mahony. Behind the inviting show windows on Boylston Street, planning attractive groupings of books on shelves and tables, promoting distinctive publications, helping uncertain purchasers, welcoming the children, and inspiring her staff, is a creative person with a strong belief that after all books do count tremendously in the sum total of life’s joys.

Miss Mahony had long dreamed of such a shop before the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union made it a reality. She brought to the task of organization an active and resourceful mind, quick to see relationships between children and books, between books and art and nature. But she brought much more than this when she proposed to the Union that it should enlarge its educational work to include a bookshop stocked with the best kinds of literature for children and prepared to aid customers in book selection.

Together with her other mental gifts came the grace of sympathy, abounding imagination, a zest for adventure always spurring to new achievement. Perhaps children feel at home with Bertha Mahony because she has also something of the quality we associate with Peter Pan — she hasn’t forgotten what it is like to be a child.

Cape Ann with its surf-worn rocks, its thickets of bayberry and wild roses, its wind-swept common strewn with giant boulders, was inspiriting playground for an imaginative child. Endow this child with a strain of Celtic mysticism nourished on the poetry and song of a rarely musical mother, and one would rightly expect to find a nature impressionable and sensitive to beauty.

It is impossible for an undertaking guided by such a nature to be either commonplace or dull.

II.

So the Bookshop for Boys and Girls has worn gay attire. Pictures and fabrics, flowers and dolls, have helped to make a colorful setting. Dolls, not toys, mark you, for dolls have the personality that fits them to associate with books and people. The Dolls’ Convention which has just been held in the shop with delegates from as far away as Texas is proof of this. Its whimsical make-believe was in keeping with the spirit of play which enters into many of the books children share with their elders. Perhaps it would be hard to say who enjoyed the Convention most, the children or the grown-ups.

For pictures that give color and have meaning Miss Mahony is always on the search. Above all she values sincerity. So, constantly, besides exhibitions of the work of modern artists and illustrators, there are designs and paintings executed by children themselves. The result is that the Bookshop exhibits are listed in the newspapers with the art displays of more pretentious galleries.

And rightly, for here from time to time is much of signal interest in the art of illustration. We recall the drawings by Leslie Brooke in color and black and white. These jolly pictures from the hand of one of the most beloved among the children’s illustrators came to the Boston Bookshop first on their American tour. Here, too, was shown an exhibition of the work of F. D. Bedford, another honored English artist, whose fine drawings adorn some of the most delightful children’s books we have. Pamela Bianco’s delicate and magical fancies have hung on the walls of the shop to charm the seeker for the unusual.

And for contrast, one remembers the versatile art of Elizabeth MacKinstry as shown in the robust humor of her pictures for Tales of Laughter and the suave beauty of those for The White Cat.

III.

Yet books, not pictures, are the centre around which the life of a bookshop revolves. This is not merely a room where books are sold, but a place for lingering to renew old acquaintances among authors and sample the newly arrived. Chosen from all the great mass of publications because of their excellence in some respect or other, the collection can be taken as a model library of children’s books.

The librarian who comes from the country to make her semiannual purchase of juveniles finds it a rewarding browsing ground. The mother anxious to start her family along lines of worthwhile reading comes to the Bookshop for Boys and Girls asking advice about first choices. More than anything else, Miss Mahony has aimed to place this advisory service on a high level of reliability. For this she has herself studied resolutely, to this end she has trained her staff with zeal and devotion.

Only personal knowledge of the contents of books can ensure the ready information which buyers seek, and such knowledge takes time to acquire. That it is so freely available at the Bookshop shows the high standard the organization has attained, a reputation with more than local fame.

With letters requesting help in the selection of children’s books coming from far-distant places, there is a cosmopolitan air about the Bookshop. It has outgrown provincial boundaries. To measure the reach of her dream now, Bertha Mahony must cross the continent on one side and the Atlantic on the other. She must look also into the future and let her lively imagination dwell upon the powerful forces inherently hidden in books she has made known.

IV.

From the first, the Bookshop for Boys and Girly has been a stimulating place where a child may find on the low tables and shelves new touchstones of thought and make free contacts with literature. The pleasure of discovery may be theirs in bringing to light an attractive edition of a classic as well as in happening upon an unusual book.

But there is no hard and fast line between writing for children and writing for grown-ups. The best narratives of travel, the most exciting histories, are tempting to both. Awakening books, they might be called. Even technical volumes appear at times to satisfy the demand, so general among young Americans, for informing material on aviation and boat building.

For the little children’s section the lists of foreign publishers have been scanned to advantage. Long before they were translated from the Swedish, Elsa Beskow’s captivating books were to be found here. But these need no translation, for the pictures tell their own story. Fairyland and the land of nature are happily combined with real child life in Elsa Beskow’s work.

Or, should you be looking for French picture books, here are Boutet de Monvel and Hansi, Job and Georges Delaw. Again, there are beautiful books from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Russia.

One of Miss Mahony’s pet theories is that boys and girls may safely take an active part in shaping the course of the Bookshop. Perhaps her confidence in them explains the results. This partnership began long ago by their choosing the name for the Bookshop doll, whom they voted to call Alice-Heidi after two famous book characters. It has gone on in many ways. Often, after a summer in the country, there is a display of nature notebooks and outdoor collections, blue prints of flowers, and other projects of young naturalists.

Lately there have been friendly contests when book reviews were submitted. Some of these notes show excellent judgment and discrimination, quite worth an author’s attention. A more formal contribution of children’s work is made now and again by some of the foremost progressive schools. To educators and parents these displays of handwork are of real moment, while the layman can only look with amazement at the accomplishments of the modern child.

V.

With characteristic energy, the Director of the Bookshop spares no pains to vitalize literature for her public by bringing before them the people most concerned in the business of making books. They would not come for everyone. But because it is Bertha Mahony who asks, the writers and illustrators and publishers are willing to share their secrets with a limited few of the Bookshop’s friends. So it has become a centre for those who choose to take children’s books seriously as a branch of literature.

And here enters mention of The Horn Book as a unique publication. As it announces itself, so in truth it is, ‘the only magazine existing anywhere which is devoted to fine books and reading for young people.’ For those who have watched the growth of this slender offshoot, its comely maturity is peculiarly gratifying.

Nowhere else can you find just the material relating to authors and illustrators that you will find in The Horn Book. Besides these are delightful cuts, reviews of current books, and informal and random contacts with their writers through letters and accounts of visits.

The field for such a periodical is unquestionable. In these initial years it has traveled far and made a name for itself from England to Alaska. Only lately, Leslie Brooke, writing from England to renew his subscription, addresses the secretary of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union: ‘Dear Madam: I have great need to be Industriously Educated.’ The Horn Book is now five years old. More and more its value is being recognized by book buyers, among whom are many children learning to choose their own books and eager to make their own decisions.

Realms of Gold in Children's BooksNeither Miss Mahony nor any of her friendly supporters could have foreseen the variety of activities into which the Bookshop for Boys and Girls was destined to enter. It has had a progressive growth. One step led to another. Now, with the appearance, of Realms of Gold, by Bertha E. Mahony and Elinor Whitney, published this spring by Doubleday, Doran and Company, the Bookshop becomes author in earnest. Full thirteen years ago in the beginning of its existence the first annotated catalogue, called a ‘suggestive purchase list,’ was issued by the shop. Kept up to date by fairly frequent revisions until 1922, this list has long been unobtainable, and Realms of Gold, its actual successor, is at the same time a wholly new book.

Like the earlier lists, this is fully annotated and enriched by apt quotations. Here, however, the resemblance ceases, as the book, with its abundance of illustrations, is many times the size of the simple pamphlet and includes a far greater store of information. It is a book that has grown in the making. Few are the important illustrators or writers about whom there is not some bit of biography related or critical appraisal given. Sources legendary and historical are recognized, and a brief sketch about the beginnings of children’s literature is added to give perspective and point of view.

Since the authors of Realms of Gold share their enthusiasms and discoveries with their readers, the book is an invitation to broaden one’s experience with books of value and meaning. How serviceable it will be to many a young mother who wants to encourage a love of reading in her family! It promises to be a trusted guide to anyone who can use a reference book in literature for children. Young assistants in libraries, teachers, and booksellers will undoubtedly turn to it again and again for first aid in emergencies.

But these practical applications for useful ends are not the only features by which Realms of Gold will be known. The writers will hardly be satisfied unless it reveals to boys and girls some glimpses into the world of beauty and romance opened through books. They desire to pass on the vision that has been granted to them.

To the officers of the Union, who have shown their confidence by making these and other experiments possible, the public owes a debt. We know they have sometimes been tempted to restrain a boundless imagination for the sake of limited physical capacities.

But it is very hard to resist the contagion of Bertha Mahony’s idealism and protect her from her own unworldliness and altruism. Of course she has had the valued assistance of an able staff in the upbuilding of her structure, and her generous recognition of this is never wanting. Yet, after all has been said and done — the Bookshop is Miss Mahony.


A Tribute from the Coast

On the Pacific Coast, far from the centre of book publishers, we estimate it takes 7.3 more kilowatts of energy to discover and capture the worth-while new books than for you who live in the centre of the book-making world where books drop in your pinafore without your even stretching forth a hand.

Recently our way has been easier and our eyes brighter with interest because of the appearance of The Horn Book. What a comfort to have it! The Horn Book is given entirely to the business of considering the best books for boys and girls. After the first issue, much to our astonishment, the second and next number continued to hold our attention. Not for a moment are we bored. Eagerly we look for the next date on which it is due. There are delectable bits of book information along with accounts of some of the new writers we have wondered about. Most important of all, there is real discrimination in the books selected for review.

Someone, somewhere in the background, is maintaining admirable standards of selection. That someone is Bertha Mahony. I have never seen her, yet I find frequent evidence of her influence in the world of children’s books extending across the nation; not prehistoric traces such as the scientist slowly disentangles to reconstruct the extinct dinosaur, but an active influence to-day as friendly and as important as Tinker Bell’s aid to Peter Pan — yet quite as illusive.

When it comes to putting a finger exactly upon that contribution, it cannot be done, for there are a half-dozen spots where it has unexpectedly cropped out. It is a beguiling, Celtic way she has of beckoning you to books. I surmise if a straw vote were taken of the people of the book world it would conclusively show that she is one of the most active forces in the country to-day in directing children’s reading, extending far beyond the boundaries of her shop; beyond Boston and the State of Massachusetts to the rest of the country, and advising not only librarians but, most important of all, mothers, devoted aunties, and the children themselves in the homes. She is helping to develop discrimination in books among our boys and girls.

JASMINE BRITTON
Supervising Librarian of the Board of Education, Los Angeles, California


From the June 1929 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Reprinted with permission.

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