A Memorial Tribute to Bill French
(18 February 1943 - 14 January 1997)

by Ralph Dumain

The intellectual life of society grows rootlike out of social networks in combination with unexpected serendipitous encounters, forming connections below the visibility of the public eye. Before anything becomes known to the broader public via the structures and institutions that collect and disseminate information, somebody has to do the grunt work at the most fundamental level to make things happen. So it behooves us to delve into the unsung intellectual infrastructures of society and pay tribute from time to their lesser known heroes.

This is a general principle, but it also has some poignant specific historical instantiations. "Black Studies" could never have come into being if it were not for those brave souls back in the dark days of total segregation and cultural rejection who performed the most basic tasks of collecting information relegated to society's underground. Aside from the efforts of researchers, writers, editors, and publishers who produce the material, and apart from the reviewers and librarians that help to institutionalize some published work in fortuitous instances, there is an essential, unique role played by book dealers and bibliophiles, which is compounded in those cases in which works or whole subjects are neglected by official society . There is a huge story behind this, which is not my story here, but some of the sources can be found in the section of my bibliography on black intellectual life.

This is a belated tribute to bookseller Bill French, who took over the University Place Bookshop at 821 Broadway, in Greenwich Village, New York City, from Walter Goldwater. For a general portrait of the New York scene, see "New York City Bookshops in the 1930s and 1940s: The Recollections of Walter Goldwater" on this site. However, the biggest claim to fame of the University Place Bookshop is its specialization in publications pertaining to the black world, which attracted noted scholars and literary figures over the decades in search of rare and otherwise hard-to-find material. Biographies of some famous patrons such as Richard Wright include this bookshop as part of their stories. Because of its continuing centrality to primary scholarship, the bookstore is acknowledged in countless prefaces to books in the area of Black Studies. Unfortunately, I did not keep records of all my sightings, but the bookstore's last proprietor, Bill French, is acknowledged in a number of books I've seen. But what about documentation of Bill French's life itself? I lost contact with him following his eviction at the end of 1995, and I only heard of his death long after the fact, and when I searched for an obituary over a long period of time, I could not find one.

The only public record of Bill's death that I have seen is in the memoir of pioneer black bibliophile Charles Blockson, whom I had the privilege of meeting on 19 February 1999. Blockson is another one of those heroic historic figures, like Arthur Schomburg. Blockson pays tribute to a few white people who were dedicated to the cause of preserving the documented history and achievement of black people. He includes his memories of Bill French (pp. 269-270), including the closing of the shop in December 1995, and mentions that Bill died in January 1997. Blockson also devotes a chapter of his autobiography to a scholarly dispute involving the priority of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s alleged discovery of the lost novel Our Nig acquired from the bookshop (pp. 288-293). (An article on this controversy can be found on the web.)

See my references below for further information and research. All I can do now is to document my own memories of Bill French, as a belated obituary.

I can't recall who first pointed me in the direction of the University Place Bookshop in the early 1990s. It was not a great hardship to put on my itinerary, as it was located just a few doors down the block from the Strand Bookstore at Broadway and 12th. I used to visit the shop both on my own and with my colleague Jim Murray. In order to reach the shop, one had to take a freight elevator up from the ground floor. The first thing one saw was the prodigious dust and disorder of the place. And then there was Bill, sitting behind his desk, looking as unkempt, decrepit, and seedy as any aging leftist, exuding cigarette smoke. I never ever saw him busy, yet apparently he could find no time to organize all the books and other publications strewn in piles all over the floor, or ever clean anything. The place always looked like a godawful, disorganized, filthy mess. The books that were actually on the shelves were organized by category. I remember the shelves of Marxist literature, black poetry, and black American history. I don't think I spent much time with Africa or the Caribbean. I think that Bill worked from memory, recognizing whether some title could be found upon request. My memory is rather hazy after all these years. I believe he had some books in most categories, but his two great specialties were black and radical literature. I didn't often venture into the virtually abandoned back rooms, but there was tons of stuff there. I think in one of those rooms there were ancient pamphlets from the Communist Party piled up high in stacks on steel shelves. Who even knew what lay in those abandoned piles?

Things got more interesting when I visited with Jim. Then we were on a specific mission, and we also got to have more conversation with Bill. Bill was, to say the least, unassuming, not only in appearance, but in demeanor. One would not be able to discern his historical significance from his lackadaisical manner. Yet it was obvious what a treasure trove of history Bill was, and not from his books alone. He had memories of noted people he had met over the decades. I vaguely recall asking about his meetings with a few of them. With my fetish for documentation, I remember discussing with Jim the need for sitting down some day with a tape recorder and doing an in-depth oral history with Bill before all this information disappears. Perhaps this was Jim's idea. In any case, it was one project we kept in the backs of our minds.

About Bill's current situation, I recall only that his wife had a terminal disease, and that he was in arrears of thousands and thousands of dollars in his rent, a situation that would one day catch up with him. He didn't seem to be organized to do anything about his situation other than to collect dust. I can't say I know anything at all about how the book trade was going for him, but seeing as his overdue rent exceeded $60,000, perhaps that speaks for itself. I certainly did not know him well, but he did not give the impression of being aware of himself as a priceless historical resource. It was as if he had been so accustomed to his role and his current rut that he just took himself for granted.

The last exciting times we had at the shop resulted from our concerted effort to purchase valuable rare items from his collection. He didn't keep everything out in the open for people to see. He had quite a stash of rare material by C.L.R. James and his circle, the Johnson-Forest Tendency. Before going on our buying spree, we took the first step of going through his stock, upon which I cataloged by hand the James-related material Bill had sequestered. Perhaps there was even more than I saw at the time, but I had a field day going through his stuff. Eventually we made our purchases. The most exciting part of this experience for me was going through James's own annotated copies of books — old and raggedy copies of the Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels, and even more importantly, The German Ideology. Retrieving those marginalia was a priceless experience. Who else but James had ever seen them? I made notes of the more interesting marginalia for future reference. I was interested in learning what could be learned about James's own intellectual development. That is a subject for another discussion. Who can know why James marked certain passages without comment? The USA made quite an impact on James, but who knows what he was thinking when he marked a passage from a letter from Engels to Sorge on the intellectual underdevelopment of Americans?

I don't remember visiting the shop anymore after we had purchased all the material we could. We heard somewhere that Bill's wife died, and eventually we heard and read the news of his impending eviction for nonpayment of rent. We were quite alarmed about this, but obviously we were not the only ones. Some people organized to save the book store's collection — I think Amiri Baraka was one person who intervened in the situation — and eventually a home was found for the collection at New York University. At least the collection was saved, but what about Bill? I can't remember when and how we learned of his death, but I searched various databases in vain for any obituary or even a death notice. Our dream of doing an oral history was dead, but I vowed that we must find some way to commemorate Bill one day. Now, thanks to the world wide web, it is possible at least to take this first small step.

ADDENDUM

As a result of this tribute, I was contacted by Bill's sister, Bettina French. Indeed, Bill has not been forgotten, and there is a whole network of people who will get involved in the further documentation and celebration of Bill's life. New people who find this tribute on the web keep contacting me. Much more material will be added to this site, so please do check back from time to time. (See the references below.) The C.L.R. James Institute will be actively engaged in these documentary and organizational efforts. (10 Oct. 2001, rev. 1 Dec. 2001, 21 Dec. 2001)

REFERENCES & LINKS

Blockson, Charles L. "Damn Rare": The Memoirs of an African-American Bibliophile. Tracy, CA: Quantum Leap Publisher, Inc., 1998.

Crossey, Moore. Moore Crossey on Walter Goldwater, Bill French, & Onitsha Market Literature, 16 December 2002.

Day, Wyatt Houston. "Henry Louis Gates Takes Some More Heat", The Black World Today, 12-15-99.

Farolino, Audrey. "Booked for Two More Years, This Shop Continues a Tradition", New York Post, December 2, 1987, with photo of William French in his bookshop.

French, Bettina. "Bill French—A Sister's View". 19 October 2001. Written for this web site.

French, William P. "Black Studies: Getting Started in a Specialty", AB Bookman's Weekly, February 22, 1988, pp. 737-739.

Goetz, Thomas. "Closing the Books", The Village Voice, vol. 40, no. 49, Dec. 5, 1995, p. 9.

Lee, Felicia R. "A Trove of History Shuts its Doors", New York Times, Dec. 31, 1995, p. 127.

Lipman, Samuel. "Walter Goldwater: A Memoir." The New Criterion, January, 1991, 8 pp.

Litwack, Leon. "The Unmatched Excitement of Anticipation and Discovery", Chronicle of Higher Education, October 18, 1989, with photo of Bill French in the University Place Book Shop.

McBlain Books, PO Box 185062, Hamden, CT 06518. Phone: 203-281-0400. Phil and Sharon McBlain dedicated their Catalog 139 (1998) of African-Americana to the memory of Bill French; the first page of the catalog is a tribute to Bill (not online).

 "New York City Bookshops in the 1930s and 1940s: The Recollections of Walter Goldwater" [interview], DLB Yearbook, 1993, pp. 139-172.

Powell, Alvin. "The Passion and Perils of Book Collecting", The Harvard University Gazette, April 29, 1999. [Mentions the William Plummer French Prize.]

Sengupta, Somini. "The End for an Oasis of Africana", New York Times, Nov. 26, 1995, p. CY8. 

Strausbaugh, John. "High Life & Mad English", New York Press, Volume 14, Issue 48, Nov. 28-Dec. 4, 2001.

Thometz, Kurt. Bill French & Onitsha Market Literature: Afterword to Life Turns Man Up and Down: High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), pp. 339-347.

Thometz, Kurt. Life Turns Man Up and Down: High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English. New York: Pantheon Books, 2001. See review by John Strausbaugh.

The University of Delaware Library, Special Collections Department, Manuscripts and Archival Resources. Finding Aid: University Place Book Shop Papers, 1968-1988.

The William Plummer French Prize [description of Harvard University prize on "The Autodidact Project" Site]

The William Plummer French Prize [Harvard University]

(21-22 May 2001, rev. 10 Oct. 2001, 16 Oct. 2001, 17 Oct. 2001, 1 Dec. 2001, 21 Dec. 2001, 31 Dec. 2002, 17 January 2003)


The Bill French Center
An information center for the documentation
of bookseller Bill French and the University Place Bookshop,
co-sponsored by The C.L.R. James Institute
(duplicates references on this page)


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