Campus & Community

The Big Picture: Jimmy Randall

4 min read

Runs a rare books store

Jimmy Randall

Photo by Rose Lincoln

“You can see it’s more like a junk store here,” says Jimmy Randall of Ahab Books, the rare books store a few flights up from Curious George. “See, we used to have this sofa where people could sit, but it’s all filled up with books now.”

It’s all filled up, indeed – nearly buried, in fact, just like every other surface, from floor to ceiling, in the tiny shop. Books are stacked horizontally, vertically, and at every angle in between. They rest more or less neatly on the wooden shelving that lines the walls, but they also jut out from underneath maps and scrapbooks and the occasional print. They lean precariously against one another in yard-high heaps. They slant this way and that on the desk beside the window, and slope toward the arms of the guest chair that shares the sofa’s papery grave.

But despite the shop’s, er, lived-in quality, Randall knows the whereabouts – at least approximately – of every item.

“This is a first edition of Voltaire,” he says, walking across the room to pick up a volume. “But the strange thing is, it was written in English by Voltaire, when he was in exile from France. So he’s a little down on the French.

“We get all kinds of things, you know,” Randall continues, moving back toward his low-slung leather chair in the corner, the only place in the room that has not been overtaken. “That’s actually a check made out by James Fenimore Cooper. Do you know him? Just like a regular check, but he just took a regular piece of paper and made it out.”

Randall, 75, has a prodigious memory for facts. He thrives on the history of every obscure name he comes across, picking up and retaining random bits of scholarly trivia, and he seems to recall the provenance of each book in his store. To Randall, knowledge is not just power, it is passion.

“Books are all different,” he says, “and they’re fascinating. You don’t get tired of it.”

Randall started his learned life with a Ph.D. in literature from Boston University. He and his college sweetheart, Joanne, married and moved to Harvard Street in Cambridge, where they went on to form their own publishing company, Pym-Randall (“Randall, that’s me,” he says, “and Pym was our cat at the time. We thought that gives it a nice cachet. Makes it sound like there’s an Englishman involved.”). They printed the early works of writers like Jim Harrison, Thomas Lux, James Tate, and Martha Fritz. Randall was also on hand for the birth of the literary magazine Ploughshares, but it was as founder and chair of Emerson College’s writing program, back in 1967, that he entered the inner circle.

“I love good writing,” he says. “In the ’60s you couldn’t walk down a block [in Cambridge] without bumping into a poet of some reputation.” Name a writer, and Randall has probably met him or her: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, the list goes on.

“We used to have a bar that we’d go to, the Toga,” Randall says in a characteristic reminiscence. “And one night we had a long session. Robert Creeley is a very nice person. But he did get drunk this one night at the Toga. … So, these people were there that were normal citizens of the community, and Creeley was up there stomping away. They didn’t know what to make of him.”

Today, Randall contents himself mainly with the personalities that make their way into his shop in the form of books, journals, cartes de visite, and miscellaneous fragments: a collection of FDR’s letters in French; a single edition printed and bound especially for Douglas MacArthur; the calling cards of Darwin and Thackeray; a small photograph of a statue of a man known as “The Children Eater”; a broadside about a woman who served in drag during the Civil War.

“It’s not a dull job, being a bookseller,” he says. “Every now and then you get something really interesting. But every day there’s something, something wondrous and new that you’ve never seen before. There’s never a day where you don’t learn something. It keeps you alive and alert.”

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