Colts in BookstoreMartial Bliss: Harris and Margaretta Colt.

When the Military Bookman opened its door in 1976, in a small shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, I was following my husband into a male-dominated business—the out-of-print book trade.  Even more, our specialty was fiercely male-oriented: out-of-print and rare books on military, naval, and aviation history—“from rocks to rockets,” as we used to say.  There was a volume with illustrations of rocks and clubs; there were ancient treatises in Latin and old French and English and Italian on the Art of Warre; there were lavishly illustrated and bound books of uniform history and great battles; there were generals’ and privates’ memoirs.

Ninety-five percent of our customers were men—generally men of a right-wing, reactionary, old-fashioned mentality. And these customers were fanatical; local regulars came in every few weeks, sometimes more. Mail-order guys factored us into their business trips to the city, arriving bag and baggage on their way to or from the airport. They seized upon books on obscure wars (Chaco, Guano, Second Anglo-Sikh, Ashanti, Maori…) and they viewed with serious eye books bearing titles like Coup d’Etat, a Practical Handbook; How to Abandon Ship; The sword and Scabbard-Slide in Central Asia.  When a submarine aficionado spotted Lead Acid Storage Batteries, he said, passionately, “I have to have that book!”

So I was a woman in a very macho business.  Harris never made me feel less than a full partner, and when we incorporated, I became the president. It made sense in a number of ways, aside from giving us the obscure advantage of being a 51 percent woman-owned enterprise. Harris was the partner with the business background, but I was a willing learner, and it was as if after he had off-loaded a lot of business principles and practices onto me, he blanked out on that aspect, aside from the accounting.  It freed him to develop his extraordinary knowledge of the books and to be the amazing salesman he was. Harris had command of the inventory, with all the books in his head, to an astonishing degree. 

I did run the business, and he respected what I did. When he said I was the boss, he meant it, and I believe it amused him to surprise, test, and provoke people with it.

In the eighties, during the Japanese economic boom, many Japanese businessmen came in to the store.  One was so serious, even grim, that it was hard to approach him. He was a little fellow, so short that I did not want to stand up. (I am 5 feet 11 in bare feet.)  He made his determined way around the store and was in the back until the end of the day, when everyone else had left. Harris and I were sitting at the desks up front when he emerged. Despite his minimal English, he asked Harris about the possibility of a discount. Harris said, “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask the boss.”

“Who the boss?” he said. 

“She is,” nodding to me. 

The little man swiveled his head to me, then back to Harris, “You kidding?!”  

No, Harris shook his head.

Back to me. 

I just nodded.  We all laughed.

Who the boss, indeed?

It was hard for many male (and even female) customers to grasp that I was It. Regular customers were usually not a problem, once they got used to the idea, but some men did not even register the sound of a woman’s voice.  “Sir, I’m talking to you,” I said to one.

It was beyond the imagination of some that I could be in charge.  I helped one telephone customer to choose several books, and in his letter he was full of compliments: “Again, it was a pleasure dealing with a person with exceptional customer consideration and a clear-cut professional approach. I am sure your supervision [sic] must be very pleased with your work.”  He signed himself as “Director, Quality Control” for an aerospace company.  I had occasion to respond. I signed myself as “President.”

Through our wonderful store’s 27-year history, I could not help but bristle a little when customers would say, “Harris had such and such a book,” as if Harris had done all the buying and evaluating. There was a perception among some that I was “just” the manager. I was the manager, but I bought at least as many books as Harris did.  I usually chose which of the collections we were offered that we should pursue. It was I, on a courtesy call to an English dealer, who plunged into the shelves of the desirable  British Official Histories and started stacking them on the floor. As one of our longtime suppliers, Delaware dealer Mort Rosenblatt, said, approvingly, “Margaretta is a more aggressive buyer than Harris.”

Emily, who worked for us for several years, occasionally referred to me as “she who must be obeyed.” Other employees, mostly male, were attuned—well, if they weren’t, they didn’t get hired.  We did interview applicants who obviously didn’t get it that a woman was the boss.  One or two slipped through the cracks; they didn’t last, but there were usually several reasons. Gay men seemed to be more comfortable with a female boss. It is curious and amusing to think that our staff, in a macho business, was, over time largely gay, indeterminate, or female.

A seasoned employee was overheard briefing the new guy on certain aspects of working for the Colts. From time to time, Harris and I publicly and volubly disagreed on procedures or other minor decisions in the store, and the recruit was naturally perplexed when we contradicted each other on his instructions. The veteran, trying to clarify, told him, “If Margaretta tells you to burn the store, burn the store!”

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  • Adrian Strickland February 10, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    What a wonderful story, one needs brains to buy anything for resale, especially books. The only danger is becoming ones best customer, as one seldom finds more than one copy of a treasured second hand book. When I was fortunate to stay for a few days with the Colts, above the Military Bookman as a Maltese cousin of the second in command, I spent almost the whole of my stay below stairs, drinking in the wealth of material on the shelves, and especially those beautiful French military prints in extravagant bindings, they really were justifiably Harris’s pride and joy! Unforgettable perfect moments in ones life. Thank you for everything, Margareta Adrian

  • robert strickland February 10, 2013 at 4:41 am

    Good Article. Well done Margaretta. Robert Strickland in Malta

  • Judy Smith February 9, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    My husband, who has a middle-of-the-road conservative mentality, (smile)and a considerable collection of WW II books, enjoyed all his encounters with the Military Bookman and the Colts. It was a bookstore the likes of which will never be seen again. So glad Mrs. Colt has written its history. With her intelligence, wit, and radar for eccentricities, this book has got to be a as much fun as the movie, YOU’VE GOT MAIL. We all mourn the loss of a good book store but now we can look forward to having her book alive on our shelves.

  • S. Keegan February 9, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Can’t wait for the whole book, when is it due?

  • Ran Barton February 9, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    What a pleasure to read this, and what a terrific store you ran. I cannot wait to hear how this column came to be.

  • hillsmom February 9, 2013 at 10:02 am

    What a good read. Thanks for sharing.