Mrs. Zamansky’s Bookcase

You know you’ve been collecting Arts & Crafts for a long time when you can no longer pick out any piece in your home and remember precisely when, where and how you bought it.

Did that tabouret come from Crazy Eddie’s barn, or was it from Brunk’s Auctions?

Is that the Roycroft vase Ray Groll sold me out of his van in the parking lot at Skinner’s in 1987, or is it the one I bought sight unseen from a dealer in Maryland who “forgot” to mention the dent in the top and the drilled lamp cord hole in the side?

That’s not the case, however, with Mrs. Zamansky’s bookcase.

It was 1977 and I was living in Iowa City, struggling to get my first business, Knock On Wood Antique Repair & Restoration, to show even a meager profit. I had just discovered Arts & Crafts, having previously been enamored with Golden Oak pressed back chairs, fancy sideboards and curved glass china cabinets. Jim Mall, a Chicago Arts & Crafts dealer, had come by my shop with a truck loaded with straight, brown furniture to introduce himself and to leave me with one of his flyers outlined with drawings of shopmarks I had never seen: Limbert, Roycroft, Stickley Brothers, L. & J.G. Stickley, and, of course, the famous red joiner’s compass above the words Als ik kan.

As we stood on my asphalt parking lot, Jim pulled a petite, armless sewing rocker down from his load, tilted it sideways in the sunlight and pointed to a small red smudge inside the rear stretcher. He might as well have rolled up my sleeve and shot me up with straight heroin, because I was hooked.

And, like any addict, I began spending any money I could get on straight, brown furniture. Most of it, as it turned out, being junk. But, boy, did I make some antiques dealers happy as I drove away with their dusty mission oak dining chairs and library tables.

But then Mrs. Zamansky called.

She was a widow living in a cute little Cape Cod house off Morningside Drive. Her husband had been a professor at the University of Iowa before passing away a few years earlier. She was sweet, but direct. “I have some pieces you will be interested in,” she announced. “Come by this afternoon.” Then she added, “And bring a helper.”

We arrived precisely at one and were met by Mrs. Zamansky, dressed as if she were hosting an afternoon tea for a ladies’ society instead of two scruffy refinishers smelling of lacquer and methylene chloride stripper. Unperturbed by our appearance, she led us through her immaculate house into a first floor room that had been her husband’s study. Packing boxes brimming with biology textbooks surrounded his metal, university-issued desk. But, there, behind me, was what she had brought me out to see.

A 60-inch wide, two-door, 24-pane Gustav Stickley bookcase in original, mint condition.

To a beginning collector in Iowa City, it was like finding the Holy Grail.

But, then, my heart sank.

Even though I had no idea how much it was worth, I knew I couldn’t afford it. Not just because of the price, but because I knew I could never let it go.

“My husband and I bought it when we lived in New York,” Mrs. Zamansky proudly explained. “It has the red decal on the back.” She paused to let that tidbit soak in, afraid, perhaps, that in my semi-hypnotic state my brain could not process any sounds other than my heart threatening to break my ribs.

“It’s beautiful, Mrs. Zamansky,” I finally stammered, “but I’m afraid I have no idea what it’s worth.”

She brushed off my apology as if it were a fly buzzing around her face.

“Not to worry,” she stated. “Mr. Boyd has already taken care of that.”

Mr. Boyd? I asked myself.

As if she were listening, Mrs. Zamansky explained, quite matter-of-factly.

“He’s my carpenter.”

As if that would suddenly lift the fog encasing my brain.

“I’m turning this room into my bedroom,” she continued, pointing to the wall behind the magnificent, but over-sized and now empty bookcase, “but, as you can see, there is no closet in here.”

A quick glance around the study revealed she was correct.

“Mr. Boyd has told me that he can build me a closet in that wall, right behind the bookcase, for one thousand dollars. So, Mr. Johnson,” she added with a smile, “that is the price of your Stickley bookcase. One thousand dollars.”

Let me remind those of you who are now chuckling that it was the year 1977. Jimmy Carter was President, gas was 62 cents a gallon, and I had just walked away from a teaching job that paid me $11,787 a year to start a business that had no guarantee of coming close to making that amount of money. Yet here I was writing out a check that had no chance of clearing the bank until I cleaned out my meager savings account on the way back to the shop.

But I did not hesitate.

And today, while Mrs. Zamansky has long since joined her husband on their next journey together, her wonderful Stickley bookcase, like her story and our ensuing friendship, is still here with me, reminding me daily of all the reasons why we love Arts & Crafts.

Until next Monday,

Here’s hoping there was – or will be – a Mrs. Zamansky in your life.