IMMERSED IN A TREASURE TROVE OF BOOKS

MONADNOCK PROFILE
Published: Saturday, October 31, 2009

KEENE SENTINEL - Keene, New Hampshire
By Anika Clark

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Ray Boas of Walpole peeks out from behind a row of books

Raymond A. Boas’ life is a study in abundance. His home bookshop on Walpole’s town common is more like a book museum, with shelves of non-fiction works covering everything from the decorative arts to Americana. There are stacks of books on his desk and books on the stairs leading to another room packed with row upon row of the slightly musty-smelling volumes. Meanwhile, piled well above eye level in his garage are cardboard boxes stuffed with books near a hand truck topped with more of the same.

Through his business, Ray Boas, Bookseller, one can find titles on Chinese art, Frank Lloyd Wright and several different editions of “A Christmas Carol.” A history of labor in the South sits near a work called “La Villa Della Regina,” a stone’s throw away from a chronicle of Poland’s Lodz Ghetto.

The owner of 20,000 antique and out-of-print books dating back to the 16th century, Boas is a lover of history. He also has an interesting background of his own, as the great-grandson of Franz Boas — the German-born father of American anthropology — and the grandson of famed New York City physician Ernest P. Boas, who developed a machine used in electrocardiograms.

Raymond Boas’ own professional path took a unique turn in 1968, when he was commissioned to serve in the U.S. Navy Supply Corps. “I was the fuels officer for the continent of Antarctica for the United States for a number of years,” he said, describing how this took him on two trips to the South Pole. Boas’ jobs in the military included working as a purchase officer at a shipyard and at an aviation supply office, and he also ran a chain of grocery stores around the world for the Navy for three years.

Now, nearly two decades into his retirement from the Navy, the widowed Boas spends these days serving as a “purveyor of information,” who gets a thrill out of getting the right book into the right hands.  Sometimes it’s selling a book to an author who has run out of copies. Other times it’s selling someone a book they’d always heard a distant family member had penned but they’d never known actually existed.  “It’s like bringing part of their family heritage back home,” Boas said.

Spending an estimated 60 to 80 hours per week buying, cataloguing, filling orders and shipping books to as many as eight countries in one day, Boas’ reality as a bookseller is a far cry from some people’s romanticized notion of the profession.  Rather than lounging in a chair with a book in his hand and a dog at his feet, he explained, “it’s a rare treat for me to be able to sit down and read a whole book.” Still, he asked, “How many people really can sit down and do something they enjoy? I mean, I love this.”

Fellow out-of-print bookseller Charles “Gus” McLeavy of AardBooks in Troy came to know Boas through the book business and called him a friend. Like Boas, McLeavy described bookselling’s addictive allure. “There’s always something different to it. You get to meet a lot of neat people,” McLeavy said. “If you’re inclined towards it, it’s a bit of a disease – bibliomania.”

Even more enjoyable than selling books, according to Boas, is the “fun and adventure” of purchasing them.  “I need nothing material in my life ... but the actual function of buying books satisfies that human need to buy and to acquire,” he said.

Spend five minutes in Boas’ world and it becomes clear he collects much more than the written word.  Tucked within a shop made to look like an old country store — complete with a 1914 cash register — are troves of trinkets and treasures.  A small squadron of Planters Peanuts memorabilia gives way to vintage popcorn paraphernalia and a sprinkling of slightly faded pendants advertising the World’s Fair. Boas has amassed numerous pieces of ruby glass, owns at least 30,000 postcards and has decorated the side of his garage with license plates next to a bona fide 1930 Ford Model A.

“I have a collection of books on collecting,” he said, laughing. And then there’s the room in his house — the “Book-a-Like room” — filled with what aren’t really books at all. Instead, they’re quirky disguises for still other collectibles, such as a row of faux books that open to reveal a vintage radio, several old postcard boxes and a nylons container with gilded edges.

An ardor for accumulation is something Boas shared with his father.  Donald Boas collected “everything,” according to Raymond Boas’ stepmother, Shirley L. Boas of Florida, who recalled her husband’s fleet of antique automobiles, model cars, political buttons and tin windup toys.  Donald Boas “was such a collector that he had his first (driver’s) license and his last one until the time he died,” she said.

Raymond Boas recognizes the impact of his father’s example.  “I was always surrounded by old things,” he said. “I’m sure (the influence) was rather strong.”

One of Boas’ latest kicks is decorative bottle openers, which he displays en masse on his kitchen windowsill.  But even “silly” items that he’s collected in smaller quantities — book presses, dictionary stands and country store post office fixtures — Boas said he prefers to have in duplicate.  Why?  “I don’t know. It’s more fun to have two.”

In a car crash on May 13, 2008, Raymond Boas lost a woman who was one of a kind.  “Our lives worked and intermeshed beautifully,” he said.  He met Mary “Cathy” Boas, his wife of 13 years, when she walked into a book shop he owned in New Jersey.  An avid collector in her own right, Cathy Boas helped her husband catalogue books from a computer that’s still set up on a desk near his.  A well-loved, compassionate woman, “She not only lit up a room,” he said, “the room stayed lit after she left.”  

Gus McLeavy called Cathy a “saint” and said, “You’ll hear most people say that about Ray, too.”  McLeavy recalled the time Cathy and Raymond Boas sheltered a man whose Alstead home had been washed away in the 2005 floods.  Shirley Boas also spoke of her stepson and daughter-in-law’s special relationship.  “They adored each other,” she said, adding that when Cathy Boas died, “they were so close, I thought, ‘My gosh. What is he going to do without her?’”  

It didn’t take Raymond Boas long to decide.  “You go off the deep end or you go on. And I chose to go on very, very strongly,” he said, while describing his business, the support of friends and his faith in God as pivotal.  Shortly after his wife’s death, Boas decided to continue in his role as Grandpa Martin Vanderhof in the Walpole Players’ production of “You Can’t Take It With You.”  “I had to do it to keep myself busy,” he said. “And also, the role that I was playing is my personality and my outlook on life, which is pretty much to just relax and take it easy. And whatever happens, happens. You make the best of it.”

In the meantime, he says he accepts God’s plan.

He also continues to pour himself into his work, although he said he can only catalogue his books at about a third of the rate as when he had his wife’s help.  “Even though I don’t have her physically,” he said, “I’m not as alone as I would have been if I didn’t (meet) her, because she’s with me all the time anyway.”

As for his book purchasing and peddling, Boas shows no signs of letting up.  “Booksellers,” he said, “don’t stop.”

Anika Clark can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1432, or aclark@keenesentinel.com.  Copyright © 2009 - The Keene Sentinel

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