This book story begins with a dream.
I have proof.
In January 2016, I had a dream. Did I awaken in the middle of the night and write it down in my journal? Or did it stick with me in those moments when consciousness slowly comes forward and most or all of dreamland retreats to…wherever it goes?
I suppose I could dig into the stack of journals and check.
Somehow the memory stuck and did not disappear, as do so many vivid and important seeming nighttime fantasies.
I know when and how this happened because I sent out this email to friends, colleagues and some sometimes annoyed booksellers in the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America:
Date: January 20, 2016 at 7:19:27 PM EST
If it weren’t for books
There’d be no unicorns
Sent from my iPhone
That was the message in its entirety.
I imagined many or most of the booksellers receiving it were confused and just wrote it off as yet another strange Chuck/Wonder Book post.
I have a reputation for sometime obfuscating postings to the membership. It was once called enjoyable “stream of consciousness writing” by the brilliant and legendary bookseller, author and true Naturgenie John Gach. I took that as a great compliment but have since tried to be clearer in my prose and save the mental streaming for my verse.
I suppose I was reaching out—in my own sometimes obfuscating way—to see if anyone in that book community was familiar with the phrase.
I received no response. Not even a single “Are you ok?”
I believe I also asked a manager or two here at Wonder Book to check online to see if I somehow accidentally plagiarized the phrase.
The results were negative.
But dreams are untrustworthy, so I had lingering doubts.
The seed was planted on that day.
If there were no books…what would we all be missing? What iconic things would not exist?
I played with the phrasing a bit and:
“If it weren’t for Books
There’d be no Unicorns”
became in my mind:
“If there were no Books…
there would be no Unicorns”
At some point, I shared it internally here, seeing if anyone thought it would be a good sentiment for a t-shirt or phrase on the bookmarks we give away.
I was aware of course there were ancient paintings of unicorns, tapestries, perhaps the oral tradition. I ignored those historical inconveniences because if there were no books, the vast majority of humans through the last millennium would never know that there was such a thing as a unicorn.
I need to go back to the Cloister. It has been too long.
In magical or fairy stories, there are often coincidences and mistaken identities. Sometimes there are lost princes who have been bound in servitude by an evil spell.
Over a year before in January 2015, I began searching for the artist Alan James Robinson. It had been nearly a score of years since we’d last interacted. Long ago he had done some original art commissions for me. I had bought some of his letterpress books and prints.
We had developed a good friendship. Then we drifted apart. Likely I could not afford more of his works because I had two young children whom we thought should attend private school.
I could have had some great books if I hadn’t had kids and tuitions. (I’m kidding!)
When the younger boy was soon to graduate college, I looked around my house at the Robinsons on my walls and the Cheloniidae press books in my bookcases and decided I’d like more.
This is an “after” picture of some of my Robinson book collection.
I looked and Googled to no avail. Had he stopped doing art? Left the grid? Moved on?
I asked a book friend, Allen Ahearn, and he said: “Try the Map Guy.”
That was mysterious enough. An alias? Or would the Map Guy be the one to lead me to the elusive Alan?
So, I wrote the Map Guy a letter—old style—paper, envelope, stamps…
Some days later, I received this email:
From: Alan Robinson
Subject: Long time indeed!
Date: February 9, 2015 at 10:59:52 AM EST
To: Chuck Roberts
It has been a long time since I last visited your shop and had a wonderful pint or two with you at that Brewpub! I remember doing at least one author portrait for you. If you can send me a photo of the Poe and the size it will refresh my failing memory, a lot of drawings and watercolors over the dam!
I haven’t been publishing any new books for awhile but did my first giclee book WILDFLOWERS that I designed, printed the text and had hand bound. I put a prospectus below. If you want to peruse my book titles you can go to http://www.alanjamesrobinson.info [now http://themapguy.com/] and click on Publications.
I would love to do some author portraits for you. I mostly do watercolors but I still do pen and ink and pencil drawings as well. I attached a recent portrait sample of one I based on the first THE RAVEN 1980, I have done of late.
It was great to hear from you and that your Family has grown and your fertile mind has spawned another wonderful venture. I thought your books by the foot are genius! I know how hard it is to sell books. I recently moved and didn’t want to bring my pre-Google reference books with me but not even the local Library wants them. Crazy! I have over 2000!
Anyway, I look forward to talking to you. How old school of you to hand-write a letter, I thought that was against the law, but for you very appropriate and appreciated. New contact info below.
I am in Annapolis area doing Boat shows 4 times a year, 2 in the Spring and 2 in the Fall. I will keep you apprised so maybe we can meet.
All the best, Alan
Alan James Robinson
Post Office Box…
So through 2015 we were in frequent contact. He sent me images of old work he had on hand. He enhanced many of those for me. I commissioned a few small things. He would drive down this way when he set up at boat shows or other events where he displayed his work and sought commissions. Mostly they were depictions of peoples’ yachts or mansions or horses or pets. His bestsellers were official NOAA nautical charts that he would draw and paint someone’s watercraft upon.
Thus..the Map Guy.
He told me he had been crushed in the economic collapse of 2008. To make ends meet, he had to go out on the road and solicit work from individuals who wanted commemorate their possessions. He didn’t seem thrilled with it, but it paid the bills.
We brainstormed a project of his illuminating “The Ballad of Lord Franklin.” It is a folk tune about the lost Arctic Expedition that was sent to find a Northwest Passage in 1846. That project is still in the air. We were last thinking of a triptych with the verses and images spread over three boards. The poem, for that is what it is, seemed a perfect match for Alan’s artwork.
In Baffin’s Bay where the whale fishes blow
The fate of Franklin no man may know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin along with his sailors do dwell
He did create this heart-stopping ink and watercolor image of one the Franklin Expedition sailors whose frozen mummified body was discovered under the ice not that many years ago.
2015 became a deliriously happy year for me. Alan was coming down every few months to deliver a book or something delicious behind glass. He would then continue on to do a boat show or deliver a commission to someone.
Then came 2016 and my dream.
“[If there were no Books…what would the world be missing?]”
When did it connect in my mind that Alan had already created unicorns images for his beautiful limited edition OF UNICORNES HORNES 1984?
I don’t know. But I recall asking if he would create a unicorn image for the front and back of an “If there were no Books…there would be no Unicorns” t-shirt.
We worked out a deal.
So for many reasons 2016 began deliriously happy and creative.
When did the idea of creating more “If there were no…” subjects arise?
Sometime early in 2016.
We began a list of books and images. It was fun bantering about which books and what kind of images.
At some point we decided that we would do a total 12 “books.” We would create 2 images for each. One for the front of a t-shirt and one for the back.
I would pay Alan for the artwork and get use of the images for Wonder Book.
Then came the idea that these images were so wonderful that they should be made into a more permanent, enduring form.
Why not do letterpress limited editions prints of the images destined for the backs of Wonder Book t-shirts?
In my mind, Alan James Robinson and letterpress are synonyms.
Thus began the “If there were no Books…” letterpress series. A limitation of 100 numbered and signed copies of the 12 main “If there were no Books…” images was agreed upon.
2016 proceeded. I took a magical trip to the west of Ireland in May.
It was after that I flew too close to the sun. Like Icarus, I fell to earth.
Alan and I worked on a memory of that trip.
He came up with this large watercolor.
I came up with these words about traveling through Connemara:
That’s as far as we’ve gotten with this project. Should we do a letterpress of this?
Back to “If there were no Books…”
As so often happens, things take longer and cost more than one anticipates.
The second half of 2016 and all of 2017 became for me as deliriously unhappy as 2015-16 had been happy.
I termed 2017 my Annus Horribilis for reasons I won’t go into here. But as happens so often in life, adversity has a silver lining. In dire straits, I looked for something to take my mind off things. I wrote and posted my first public book story at the end July 2017. Last Friday, March 13th, was the 139th consecutive Friday that at least one story of mine has been published at WonderBookBlog.com.
Alan and I plugged along. Idea after idea. Image after image. Sometimes he slowed things down. As Alan says: “Sometimes life gets in the way of Art.” Sometimes I dragged my feet. Eventually the 12th set of images was completed, and I sighed with relief at a job well done in 2019.
We were done!
At some point after that, he contacted me.
I paraphrase: “We should really make a portfolio out of these. The twelve secondary images should be put into permanent form. I’m sure collectors would appreciate having them all in one place.”
I hemmed and hawed. I had “art fatigue.”
But eventually I gave in, and Alan organized the making of boxes and the printing of the 24 images and…everything else that goes into the creation of such a beast.
And now we are able to offer you the “If there were no Books…” letterpress portfolio limited to 30 copies.
And that is not the end of the story.
I love Alan and want him to continue to create. So, in a weak moment, I asked if he wanted to do another twelve.
I’m sure I won’t regret it.
When it is finished, I mean.
Now begins the process all over.
But we’ve paved the way. We’ve sailed the “whales’-roads.”
My first thought for the Second Series?
The first images of the Second Series will be from Beowulf. Grendel and his mom and the Firedragon will be featured. I can’t wait to see it!
Those folks would certainly not exist “If there were no Books…” For Beowulf survived only in a single manuscript preserved in the library of an antiquarian book collector. It survived, charred, in a fire that burnt that library long, long ago. “Imagine…no Beowulf!”
Until then, we still have signed limited edition copies of the first 12 “If there were no Books…” series available.
I have decided to create secret Alan Robinson art gallery. Even Alan doesn’t know this. I have all the originals of the 24 “If there were no Books…”
I also have a lot of his works original and limited editions he has parted with. All these need to be hung.
We need the floor space!
Where will this be? Well, it is a secret. But if you ever come visit, perhaps I’ll show you if you swear to secrecy. Until then—my lips are sealed.
And here’s a sneak peak of an image for the second series: