Sometimes I find myself missing my old hometown even though I still live here.
My jaundiced opinion of Austin is that it used to be better, i.e. smaller, quieter, and with much smarter people walking along its much shadier streets. The weather even seemed cooler and wetter when I was a kid in the ‘50s, because my fondest, frequent recollection is of being taken to bookstores on rainy days. The particular bookstore that stands out in my memory was The Brick Row Book Shop, a loft on the musty second floor above Faulkner’s Drugs at the corner of Guadalupe and 24th Streets. The Brick Row was an antiquarian bookshop; it traded in used or rare books and prints to the sophisticated intellects who peopled Austin’s pre-“literary outlaw” past. The Brick Row was immortalized in the novel The Gay Place (second book of the trilogy, if you’re interested in literary sleuthing), and it was the first place I ever heard classical music and Fats Waller (played on an old phonograph in the proprietor’s office). It is also where I learned how to browse—a non-linear, imaginative, instinctive, and highly intelligent human activity that bears no resemblance at all to surfing the Web.
The occasion of this elliptical remembrance of things past was a friend calling to tell me some very sad news: Joe Watson had passed away. In case you missed it, a tiny photo of a strikingly handsome young Navy flyboy in aviator sunglasses appeared on a recent obituary page of our major daily; Joe Watson was one of Gen. Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers who “flew the Hump” over the China-Rangoon-Burma theater of WWII. When Joe returned from that war, he landed in San Francisco Bay (where his ashes are now scattered), and he settled there for a time with wife Trudi. Joe and Trudi became serious book collectors, joining that region’s rich underground of collectors, small presses, independent booksellers, literary journal editors and authors. Joe also taught school for many years, and in the 1980s, the Watsons retired to Austin where they added their sociable, erudite charm to our bookish subculture.
Joe loved to talk books and his impressive personal book collection now resides at Luke Bilberry’s 12th Street Books. Most people are unaware that Joe was, also, a secret business partner in Paul Foreman’s much-missed Brazos Book Shop, one of the finest and dustiest browsing parlors that ever existed (and another great place to take kids on rainy days). One other fact about Joe Watson that is even less well known (and which I feel compelled to reveal, as my personal memorial to Joe) is that sometime in the early ‘70s, Joe purchased an old footlocker from Franklin Gilliam, the proprietor of The Brick Row Book Shop; the footlocker was full of personal papers that had once belonged to a minor regional novelist by the name of Billy Lee Brammer.
You see, people who love books enough to collect them eventually all come to know each other. In 1971, Franklin Gilliam moved The Brick Row from Austin to the Bay area and he inevitably encountered Joe Watson. Gilliam was a happy-Buddha egghead from Cuero, Texas who wore horn-rimmed glasses and spoke with a wonderfully astute and condescending drawl on just about any subject, author, or book one could find in his crowded floor-to-ceiling stacks. His Austin customers included university students, earnest young lecturers, elbow-patched classics professors, beatniks, artists, activists, journalists, politicians—even old Harry Ransom depended on Gilliam’s finds. When a down-and-out Bill Brammer was hanging out in Bolinas and hit up his old Austin friend and favorite bookseller for a loan, Gilliam insisted on Brammer collateralizing the loan with his footlocker, knowing full well that Brammer would never pay him back. Gilliam, in his Buddha-like wisdom, also knew that someday, somehow, the contents of that footlocker would be important to somebody. So he sold it to Joe and Trudi Watson because he knew they were the kind of collectors who would never exploit the contents by separating and selling each piece individually—and what a treasure trove it was! The footlocker was filled with correspondence between Brammer and other authors (such as Warren Miller, David Halberstam, Larry L. King, Elizabeth Janeway, and Merle Miller), letters between Brammer and his editors and agent during his brief period of notoriety as an acclaimed new author (long before his decline), the original galley proofs of The Gay Place, and manuscript pages for Fustian Days, Brammer’s unfinished sequel to his novel—items that had long been assumed lost. Brammer had left very few personal papers in his disorderly wake when he died of a drug overdose in 1978. Thus, if not for Joe Watson and his Texana-loving Trudi, there would not be a well-preserved and intact Billy Lee Brammer archive now housed at the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University.
For every Brick Row Book Shop that fades from our memories, other home-grown enterprises step in to carry the torch—shops like Brazos Books, Grok Books (which evolved into BookPeople), Deep Eddy Books, 12th Street Books, and, of course, good old Half Price Books that has managed to weather several economic downturns and location moves. The survival of small, independent bookshops owes much to the thinking, reading public who buy and cherish books, as well as the peculiar entrepreneurship of some very literary, visionary individuals who collect and sell them. So this is a small tribute to one of those visionaries: Joe A. Watson. It’s also a tribute to those almost forgotten book lovers, booksellers and book collectors who handed me my first books as a young person, some with inscriptions that I still treasure to this day, because good books are kept and are valuable to us in a way that a Kindle will never be. They help us remember those “book people” who have made Austin an intellectual oasis within a know-nothing state—an intelligent and humanistic strain that is much more integral to our safe haven for thought than 75,000 ACL-Fest boogiers will ever be. So if you don’t want to be forgotten, then don’t forget… Franklin Gilliam, Charles Anthony Newnham, Elmo and Jenny Hegman, John Henry Faulk, Mary Sherrill, John Patrick Sullivan, Jean and Russell Lee, Willis W. Pratt, Robert Christian Eckhardt, Cecile Ragland Fischer, Marjorie Hershey, Sam and Virginia Whitten, Helen Handley, Maury Maverick, Jr., Phyllis Cartwright, et cetera … et cetera …
“Non omnis moriar.” --Horace, The Odes
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