That you know to be useful and believe to be beautiful.
Its something I have said many times, yet it still bears repeating: Our greatest regrets are those pieces we did not buy.
I was going through one of my bookcases on Sunday, when I came across a set of books that unleashed some bittersweet memories dating back to the summer of 1975. I was a second-year high school English teacher in Hardin, Illinois, just up the Mississippi River from St. Louis. While I had not yet discovered Arts & Crafts, I had figured out that I enjoyed spending my free time down in the school woodshop.
This particular summer day found me on Cherokee Street in St. Louis, still known today for its great antiques shops. Back then I was still bedazzled by Golden Oak: pressed-back chairs, ornate sideboards, claw-foot recliners and serpentine-front dressers. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, especially when I was making $6750 dollars a year and living in a $75 a month drafty farmhouse. But it had an apple orchard, a herd of deer, a pond and a view of the Mississippi River, so I was happy.
Inside one of the shops on Cherokee Street I came face-to-face with one of those challenges that you never seem to forget. On a table to my left sat a complete set of the novels of Sinclair Lewis, with embossed covers bound by Colliers & Sons of New York. Though certainly not rare, first editions, the set was magnificent: Main Street, Babbitt, It Can’t Happen Here, Bethel Merriday, Prodigal Parents and Arrowsmith. They were beautiful, and useful.
A few steps away, standing in the middle of the shop, was something I had never seen before and never expected to fall in love with: a foot-powered treadle band saw. Heavy, yet sleek, its cast-iron frame and bed were in perfect condition. Just as beautiful as the books, and as useful.
Both the books and the band saw were $20 – which was all I had to spend that day. I could not go home with both, but I knew I was going to leave with one or the other.
I wrestled with it for several minutes, much to the growing annoyance of my companions anxious to move onto the next shop. My heart wanted the bandsaw, but my head wanted the books. And, as my head pointed out, I was an English teacher, not a woodworker; I had a damp basement, not a shop; and I was going to be moving in a year, most likely to an apartment in Iowa City.
I left that day with the Sinclair Lewis books, but I also left with the memories of that gleaming, antique bandsaw and dreams of all the projects I could make with it.
Those six books have stayed with me through more moves and miles than I can remember, not because I love reading Sinclair Lewis, but because if I ever let go of them, then that means I made the wrong decision that summer day back in St. Louis.
– Bruce Johnson
See you next Monday!