A chance encounter -- and a literary delight

By Dennis Drabelle

Here's why bookstores will always be important to me.

Last week, on a visit to Philadelphia, I stopped in at the Book Trader, a roomy secondhand store on Second Street, looking for something to read, wanting to be surprised. While browsing the fiction shelves, I noticed "Chad Hanna" (1940), by Walter D. Edmonds, and a bell rang in my head: The book was made into a movie (also 1940) with Henry Fonda. Not a movie I'd seen, but one of whose existence I was aware.

I picked up the volume, an old Bantam Pathfinder paperback, saw that the eponymous Chad is a circus roustabout circa 1836, and that was all I needed to know -- I made the purchase.

"Chad Hanna" may not be an incandescent masterpiece, but it's nicely paced and evocative, not to mention intelligent, informative, diverting, frank (but not lewd) about sex. Its author, Walter D. Edmonds (1903-98) wrote it in a period when he could hardly make a wrong move. Both "Chad Hanna" and an earlier novel by him, "Drums Along the Mohawk," were bestsellers (according to the Wikipedia article on Edmonds, "Drums" placed second to "Gone with the Wind" on the fiction list for a while); and along with a third novel, they were made into Hollywood films, with "Drums" being directed by John Ford, no less.

But it took a bookstore to bring the two of us together. It took that dreamy process of roaming though the aisles, considering and rejecting other candidates, and finally meeting the book you didn't realize was the very one you wanted -- an experience that seems unlikely, and perhaps impossible, to have on the Internet.

In an ideal world, "Chad Hanna" would be in print, but in today's publishing climate it's hard to imagine anyone founding a line of worthy but forgotten bestsellers from decades past. So libraries (also browsable, of course) and secondhand stores are the only places where these books can be approached. Patronize your local used bookstore (if you are lucky to have one: It can perform the valuable function of taking you down offbeat literary paths.

By Steven E. Levingston |  November 19, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Dennis Drabelle , Fiction , Steven Levingston
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The popular NYRB Classics does have categories "bestsellers" and "great worstsellers" among their many wonderful recent reprintings.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | November 19, 2009 10:54 AM

Made into a movie the same year it was published? If that was done today, Henry Fonda and Dorothy Lamour would be on the cover.

Posted by: prokaryote | November 20, 2009 1:50 PM

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