In 1976 a young writer named John Baskin published his first book, an exploration of an Ohio hamlet doomed by a new dam. The New Yorker gave it the highest imaginable praise. Robert Coles, the eminent children's psychiatrist and author, called New Burlington: The Life and Death of an American Village a "gift" to readers, a book "which resembles James Agee's 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men' in spirit and in grace of writing as well as in subject matter." Coles went on to teach the book at Harvard. Baskin feels he owes him everything.
Yet over time Baskin lost his 35-year-old copies of that New Yorker, and this summer he set out to replace them. Searching the Internet for dealers in old magazines, Baskin, who lives in Wilmington, Ohio, came across the name of the Magazine Museum in Skokie and e-mailed the owner, Bob Katzman. "I was in my office on Sunday when the phone rings," Baskin says. "It's Bob, who prefers using the actual human voice before it disappears, replaced by electronics."
Baskin told Katzman what he was after and Katzman called back the next morning to say he didn't have that issue himself but he'd keep looking. "I made a dozen calls around the USA in search of it," Katzman tells me. "No one had it. Then finally, I was able to nail down three copies." He bought them sight unseen, and when they arrived in decent condition he put them in a package he sent to Baskin priority mail, with tracking. "When he didn't receive them by Friday that week, I called his local small-town post office, got ahold of the postmaster, described the package, and told him to go find it. Because I already knew he had it and what time he got it. Within five minutes, he had it in his hand."
Says Baskin, "From Chicago, Bob did what we in Wilmington had been unable to do. Next time I'm in Chicago I hope to buy him lunch. Amazon should hire him to do customer relations."
I tell this story to establish that all of human history is not yet at Google's fingertips; there is still a role for humans to play in retrieving the past. The legend boldly asserted on Katzman's store window—"Where Print Still Lives!"—puts him on the right side of any old-school journalist; likewise his disdain for electronic commerce. Katzman performs a still useful service and gets results that can seem little short of miraculous. When he came to me several weeks ago and asked for a story, his line of work is one reason I eventually decided to write one.
Another reason was guilt. Katzman, 61, with a daughter in school and a wife who's chronically ill, told me he's on the edge of ruin. He suggested, if I heard correctly what was not quite spoken, that the Reader had almost a moral duty to help: because we'd written about Katzman several times over the years, we'd made a commitment to him we could not now shirk.
A 1977 cover story, "A Newsboy's Improbable Dream," hailed Katzman's chutzpah. Back then, in addition to a string of newsstands (a business he entered in 1965 at the age of 15), the feisty young entrepreneur ran a little distribution company, Gulliver's Periodicals Ltd, that got its start because he wanted his newsstands to carry a gay magazine, Blue Boy, that the giant Charles Levy Circulating Company wouldn't handle. Push came to shove and eventually an antitrust suit Katzman filed against the giant. He reminisces, "It was a fight worth having and I have always admired the Reader's guts in taking a chance on me."
In 1980 Levy "agreed to distribute all the formerly undistributed gay magazines I'd gathered together" and paid him to shut down. After settling accounts with the publishers he represented, "I ended up with nothing." On the other hand, getting those gay pubs to their readers had been a "civil rights issue . . . one of the most important things I'd ever done in my life." Even though today "no one, especially the existing gay community, remembers me for doing that."
Another of our stories, in 1993, focused on the Grand Tour World Travel Bookstore Katzman was running at the time in Lakeview. When the Reader looked in again in 2001, Katzman was peddling vintage magazines and posters in Morton Grove. In 2005 Katzman told our culture columnist, Deanna Isaacs, that his business was "evolving precariously." His wife was ill and had lost her job; because of his own salivary gland cancer, he'd been through one surgery after another and there were more ahead; he'd had to put his house on the market. The one bright spot meant more to his ego than his pocketbook: in his sideline as a self-published author he'd sold some 700 copies of his multivolume life story, Fighting Words.