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Bookshop or museum?

A small bookshop started in 1938 is more of a museum devoted to the 16th president of the USA.

india Updated: Feb 24, 2006 18:25 IST
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About a decade ago, as she was starting to research Abraham Lincoln, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin stepped into a small bookshop she had heard about here devoted to the nation's 16th president.

She expected a dusty little store, but what she found was practically a museum, filled with books, documents, photographs and other historical gems that for decades have been making collectors, history buffs and the nation's leading historians fans of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop.

Goodwin made several pilgrimages to the bookstore- during which she bought several dozen books that helped her write her best-selling Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

"It really stands by itself," said Goodwin, who thanks the store's owner, Daniel Weinberg, in her book and returned there in November for a book signing. "I certainly don't know of any other like it."

The store, founded in 1938, stands as a monument to a man who more than 140 years after his death continues to make headlines as scholars and others put forth theories about everything from his physical and mental health to his sexuality.

Poet Carl Sandburg, whose six-volume book on Lincoln is considered by many one of the greatest biographies ever written, was a regular visitor and even designed the store's hat and umbrella logo. "The Civil War" documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas visited. Historians Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote were customers, and their work is sprinkled around the store.

"I've dropped a bundle there," said Frank Williams, sounding more like a gambler talking about a trip to Las Vegas than the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. He has been a collector of what is called "Lincolniana" since he was 11. Along with 8,000 books (more are in storage) there are all sorts of framed documents and photographs and other memorabilia lining the walls and in display cases.

"I try to make this a museum in a way," said Weinberg, who became the business partner of shop founder Ralph Newman in 1971 and has owned the store outright since 1984.

Sharing space are the signatures of Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. There is Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. There are signatures of presidents from George Washington to Gerald Ford, as well as writer Mark Twain, Napoleon, and American founding fathers Patrick Henry and John Hancock.

There is what Weinberg said is the second-earliest photograph of Lincoln, taken in 1854 when he was 45 years old- a photograph that is interesting not just because it shows a clean-shaven Lincoln, but also because he is holding an anti-slavery newspaper. "If anyone would have noticed, that would have sunk him," said Weinberg, explaining that any connection with abolitionism would have been political suicide.

The significance of some items is self-evident, like the $9,500 (€8,000) first edition of "Gone With The Wind," open to the page autographed by its author, Margaret Mitchell.

But across the room, a military commission signed by Lincoln promoting a Union soldier named Francis Brownell requires a little explanation.

"Lincoln signed 25,000 of these," Weinberg said, but Brownell was in the regiment of Elmer Ellsworth, whom Lincoln came to view almost as a son.

In 1861 Ellsworth led the regiment to Alexandria, Virginia, where he spotted a secessionist flag flying from an inn. After Ellsworth ordered the flag cut down, he was fatally shot by the innkeeper, thus becoming the first officer killed in the Civil War, Weinberg said. Brownell then shot and killed the innkeeper, earning the nickname "Ellsworth's Avenger."

"Think of Lincoln's emotional state when he signed this," Weinberg said.

Weinberg will not come closer than "hundreds of thousands of dollars" when asked the price of the most expensive items he has sold, like a desk from the room at Appomattox Court House in Virginia when Lee surrendered to Grant at the end of the Civil War. Hanging in Weinberg's office is the one thing he said is not for sale: A letter dated Sept. 14, 1863, in which the author of the Gettysburg Address commits a memorable error.

"There was not much going on that day (and) he signed it 'A. Linclon,"' said Weinberg, pointing to a signature that has been crossed out above one in which the name is spelled correctly. "His mind got lost."