I learned with sadness this week that my former employer, Dike Blair, had died. I had visited him on his 90th birthday several months earlier at his home in Middlebury where, in 1949, he started The Vermont Book Shop. Though he looked frail, with a small throw blanket on his lap, he sat upright in his chair. A tall goose-neck reading lamp peered over his left shoulder and a pile of books teetered on the small table next to him by a glass of water. There was the usual sparkle in his eye and a wry smile would light up his face when something amusing was about to enter his conversation.
He reminded me that in the late 60s when I worked as his record buyer and clerk he could never get me to dress appropriately or to cut my hair to a suitable length, and how the store inventory reflected my own personal taste in music and not necessarily that of his customers. He laughed as he detailed my disdain for stocking the white bread selections most of his clientele wanted. He’d overhear me trying to convince a patron seeking the latest Lettermen or Pat Boone compilation that they should really “get into” Lightning Hopkins or Muddy Waters. Two decades later my son Bill held the same position and the inventory of arcane folk and blues LP’s that I had tried to promote to puzzled Moody Blues fans at Middlebury was replaced with a deep collection of traditional and modern jazz which was much closer to Dike’s heart. The store, always a destination for booklovers, soon became a haven for jazz aficionados as well.
Dike was the classic bookseller in the English tradition. He knew his customers, he knew and catered to their tastes, he educated those who sought his advice. Robert Frost was a regular customer and booster. He liked to say that Dike could read his mind and knew just what book he had come for. Dike’s love of books led him to develop his own imprint, Vermont Books, under which he published books by Vermonters Alice Brainerd Nelson, Walter Hard, and William Hazlett Upson among others. He was also active nationally as an officer in the American Booksellers Assoc.
Though he sold the shop after 44 years, he continued to amble in and to shop and to scan the shelves to make sure that the new owners were adhering to the traditions of good bookselling, though, shrewdly, he withheld his advice and confined himself to questions about whether such and such a book was in stock. Perhaps it was his enthusiasm for and practice of magic tricks that made him the intuitive and personal bookseller we rarely see today. He was a model for intelligent book and music retailing.
Our last conversation was peppered with his knowledge of the Kindle, e-books, on-demand printing and other publishing innovations, all of which he followed.
Dike loved books, book people and readers of all kinds. I’ll miss him.