World War II Discovery Made in Alton Book Shop
John J. Dunphy
(Originally published in 4/3/20 edition of The Telegraph of Alton, IL)
During the 33 years I’ve owned my book shop, my daily priorities are in order of importance: (a) selling books; (2) writing; and (3) maintaining the place. To say that priority #3, which includes mundane tasks such as dusting, vacuuming and straightening up the premises, is a distant third doesn’t even begin to do it justice.
There’s always the occasional neatnik who points out a bit of cat hair on the carpet or a cobweb in a corner. I respond by noting that such imperfections merely serve to give my book shop character and ambiance. The overwhelming majority of my patrons take an unsorted pile of books or two in stride. I often welcome first-time customers with a facetious request. “Feel free to browse around, but please don’t muss up the place,” I tell them. “Try to leave my book shop as neat as you found it.” My plea never fails to get a laugh.
And then the coronavirus struck our nation. I knew it was just a matter of time before my book shop would be ordered to close, so I warned my regulars to stock up. “If you’re suppose to avoid crowds,” I told them as they browsed my shelves, “this book shop is about as safe a place as you can hang out. Crowds have always been just a rumor here.” My patrons and I agreed that the government’s decision to regard grocery stores as essential but book shops as non-essential is shortsighted. Of course people need to feed their bodies, but what about feeding their minds? E-reading can do only so much.
I can still be found in my book shop these days. Although the shop is closed for business, it’s still ideal for writing. And I’m also using this period of forced closure to clean up the place. I just finished sorting through the piles of debris that stood behind my checkout counter.
Some of the finds were nothing less than astonishing. I discovered a mint — condition copy of the Raymond Chandler Mystery Map of Los Angeles, which depicts the real-life locations of events that occur in Chandler’s novels. I haven’t carried such literary maps since my book store was at its original location: 117 Market Street on Lincoln-Douglas Square. I moved from that address in 1992!
Other finds saddened my heart. Wedged in a corner was a photo of Mr. Otts, Briskette and Bewitched, three of my book shop’s most beloved felines. Mr. Otts, once so hearty and robust, is obviously emaciated from kidney failure. I regularly took him to the vet to be given intravenous fluids and even acupuncture. We both fought for his life but to no avail. Mr. Otts died on Jan. 5, 2007. Briskette died in 2015 and, as readers of The Telegraph surely recall, Bewitched died last autumn at age 24.
The most poignant discovery was a photocopy of “Continental History of the 987 Field Artillery Battalion, 6 June 1944–8 May 1945.” My late father, John “Jack” Dunphy, served in this battalion during World War II. Dad’s original copy, which is kept at my home, was written on a manual typewriter and features a black and white photo of a self-propelled 155mm M12 glued to the cover. According to War History Online, the M12 was nicknamed “doorknocker” because its shells “could punch through seven feet of concrete even when firing from 2,000 yards!” It was also nicknamed Bunker Buster and King Kong.
A choppy sea prevented Dad’s battalion from landing on Normandy until June 7, but it “went directly into firing position to support the British 50th Division.” This history summarizes the battalion’s role in five major campaigns: Normandy; northern France, Rhineland; Ardennes, which includes the Battle of the Bulge; and central Europe. The history concludes, “The War In Europe is officially over — 8 May 1945. When do we go home?????”
Dad disliked discussing his wartime experiences. Reading this history helps me to understand why.
John J. Dunphy is the author of Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials: The Investigative Work of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group, 1945–1947. He owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL.