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May 5th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

Indie Musical Instrument Store Flourishing 100s of Miles from a Big City

I was delighted to see this article in the New Hampshire Union-Leader, reporting on Northern Lights, in Littleton, NH, where my singer-songwriter son Ewan Turner has gotten one of his favorite guitars, a Fender acoustic. The store was founded by Dan and Moochco Salomon, two friends and classmates from Franconia College, where we all went to school in the 1970s. It’s a good-news article by John Koziol emphasizing how the couple have managed, since 1978, to make the store in to a destination for musicians and avid players. They carry keyboards, drums, and other instruments, and really specialize with a fabulous guitar selection, with instrument prices that range from $100 to $95,000, the latter for a 1957 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop. They operate from a rustic wooden building they own that was erected in 1833, on Main Street of one of the most livable small towns in the eastern U.S., roughly equidistant from Boston, Portland, ME, Burlington, VT, and Montreal, Quebec. They carry many fine guitar brands, including Martin, Taylor and Santa Cruz, which has only sixty authorized dealers in the whole country, and benefit from what Koziol reports is, “according to the April 2014 issue of Music Trades magazine…a ‘golden age’ for acoustic guitars with the market for acoustics costing more than $1,500 up 40 percent in 2013 over 2012.” I would add it seems to me a phenomenon similar to that which is fueling the renewal of vinyl’s popularity as a format for recorded sound.

I’m very happy that this store operated by my friends Dan and Moochco is doing well, thirty-six years after they first opened their doors. It reminds me that yesterday, May 4th, was the thirty-sixth anniversary of the opening of Undercover Books, the indie bookstore chain that I operated from 1978-85 with my sibling and parents, and which still ran as an online book ordering service until my brother Joel’s death in 2009. Congrats to Dan and Moochco, I hope to see them at Northern Lights sometime soon! Meantime, I invite you to see a picture of them in this screenshot from the article, and read it all via this link. Northern Lights

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October 23rd, 2013

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Publishing & Bookselling

Ernest Hebert, for Many Years Among my Favorite Novelists

Ernest Hebert blogLast summer I wrote a #FridayReads essay that recalled a 1979 visit to my bookstore Undercover Books by a young novelist named Stephen King–then only in the early years of what would become his decades-long career as a bestselling novelist. While discussing his new book Dead Zone he excitedly recommended to me a novel from his publisher, The Dogs of March by Ernest Hebert. I eagerly told King that I had already read Hebert’s book and that I would from then on tell my customers about his endorsement of it, and recommend it even more energetically. Soon after King’s visit to my bookstore, I wrote a letter to Hebert c/o his editor, the late and much-missed Alan Williams at the Viking Press (who was also King’s editor then). I let Hebert know that I’d enjoyed The Dogs of March, and that he and his novel had boosters in Stephen King and at my bookstore. After, that Ernie, as I came to know him, and I carried on a correspondence that continued for several years. I also visited him and his family on trips I made from Cleveland back to New Hampshire, where I had attended Franconia College earlier in the ’70s. One of the things that Ernie did with great skill in The Dogs of March was to juxtapose longtime residents in New England towns with incomers, or as he puts it, “natives vs. newcomers.” He wrote compelling fiction about all kinds of characters, and did it with a sharp edge of social observation.

While Ernie and I later fell out of touch, I kept an eye out for his work, noting that he had moved on from working as a newspaper reporter when I first met him, to teaching writing at Dartmouth College, all while he continued to write and publish novels. In fact, The Dogs of March was followed by a string of related books, collectively known as the Darby Chronicles, named after the town where he had set them, as well as a historical novel and a piece of speculative fiction. After I wrote about Stephen King and The Dogs of March last July, Ernie and I got back in touch, a happy reunion. He writes a superb blog of his own filled with writerly craft, which I subscribe to and visit regularly. This week Ernie published a new post informing readers that in Fall 2014 the University Press of New England will publish Howard Elman’s Farewell, the seventh book in the Darby series.* I recommend that new post, where he also writes about a guide to the Darby Chronicles he’ll be publishing online. His blog is filled with keen reflections showing how a career novelist thinks about his books–before they’re written, while they’re being composed, and once they are completed and out in the world. I also recommend his books of course, and suggest if you’re just starting on them you begin with The Dogs of March. Here’s a picture gallery of all my editions of Ernest Hebert’s books, with author photos, many of them taken by his wife Medora Hebert:

* The seven books in the Darby Chronicles are The Dogs of March; A Little More Than Kin; Whisper My Name; The Passion of Estelle Jordan; Live Free or Die; Spoonwood; and (forthcoming) Howard Elman’s Farewell.



January 29th, 2013

By Philip Turner in: Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

How I Came to Have as a Companion a Black Lab Named Noah

— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) January 29, 2013


I’ve had a gratifying response from readers who are enjoying this personal essay of mine, first on Facebook, and this morning on Twitter, as seen above. In part, the essay chronicles how as a teenager I came to have as a longtime companion the black Lab Noah pictured here. It’s a longer sketch than most blog posts, so when you have a few minutes, I hope you’ll enjoy reading this personal chronicle.

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July 21st, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Canada; Music, Bands & Radio; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Sports

This Week at The Great Gray Bridge

In the past week at this blog, I’ve written about the best TV ad of the presidential campaign thus far; a brave woman in Alaska who fended off an aggressive grizzly bear; the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema of Austin, TX, which is entering the NYC market only a couple blocks from my office; the great Canadian band Library Voices; Sarah Silverman’s bawdy video that pokes fun at right-wing casino magnate Sheldon Adelson; a new album from Bob Dylan; the award-winning CBC radio host, Jian Ghomeshi; Greenland’s worryingly shrinking Petermann Glacier; a young chess master and Franconia College classmate of mine who vanished in 1978 under mysterious circumstances; the late, great baseball writer, Robert Creamer, who chronicled the life of Babe Ruth; the sweet severance deal Mitt Romney arranged for himself from Bain Capital; the moving book I’ve been reading by Rob Sheffield, my #FridayReads yesterday; and my own personal history, including the story of how during a teenage road trip my brother Joel and I happened to adopt our longtime black lab Noah, pictured here with me.


July 19th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

A Vanished Young Chess Master

Last winter, publishing reporter Sarah Weinman–who works for and who writes for a number of other publications–asked me if I would try to help her with a story she was working on. Having learned that I attended Franconia College in the 70s, Sarah wondered if I had ever known fellow FC student, Peter Winston. he began in ’75, I began in ’73. His name didn’t ring a bell for me, but Sarah continued and told me about more him, ultimately asking if I would put the word out among the old College community for anyone who might’ve known him. I agreed readily. Sadly, there was a dark and tragic background to her queries, and to the story. She explained that Winston, for a time a promising talent in competitive chess, burdened with a history of mental health problems, had in 1978 simply vanished, never to have been seen since. Foul play or misadventure were of course suspected by his family and authorities, but no trace or record of him has ever been found. He was a kind of modern-day Judge Crater.

I put the word out on the Franconia College Facebook page, a 366-member strong group of former students, faculty and extended community members. Unfortunately, my request for information yielded not a single lead, which I told Sarah last March. She thanked me for trying to help, and went back to reporting the story through other means, and I made a mental note to watch her byline for the piece on Peter Winston. Yesterday, the result of her efforts appeared in the New York Observer, a fascinating 3,000 word article that was the last thing I read before falling asleep last night. Sarah also’s blogged about the writing of the piece on her excellent tumblr, Off On a Tangent. The Observer article is haunting and sad–kind of a nonfiction counterpart to Queen’s Gambit, the novel by Walter Tevis*, whose protagonist is a troubled female chess prodigy. Though Sarah’s piece can answer few questions about Winston’s disappearance, it asks many and is compelling reading, folding in a portrait of the chess scene in NY in the 70s, the milieu that produced Winston, and a character sketch of him. Publication of the piece may also produce some leads for Sarah, so I’m recommending that you read her story and share it widely among your contacts. Any Franconia College people who may not have seen my earlier call for information, please take note. If you knew Peter, or remember him, please let me know and I will put you in touch with Sarah.

I must say now as I keep looking at this photo, I believe I must have seen him at the College, his face and demeanor are somehow familiar, but I know I never spoke with him.

* Tevis clearly had a gift for writing about troubled, alienated protagonists, sometimes young. In addition to the chess novel, his last book, he also wrote the SF novels, The Man Who Fell to Earth (a classic film with David Bowie) and The Steps of the Sun (which I happened to publish in 1989), and the pool hall novels The Hustler and The Color of Money, also great movies with Paul Newman in both, and Jackie Gleason in the first. In 1983, when Tevis was on tour for Queen’s Gambit he happened to stop in my Cleveland bookstore, Undercover Books and my brother and sister and I talked with him for an hour, on a blizzardy day. He died just a year later, in 1984. The Peter Winston mystery is one to which he would have definitely related–had it been reported in local news outlets, but according to Sarah Weinman, Winston’s disappearance barely registered in local media, or even with NYPD, who she writes have “no record of anyone by his name disappearing from the city.” Records for her piece were very sparse, with open requests to police and city authorities officially unanswered at this point.

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May 18th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing

#FridayReads, May 18–“Atlantic Fever”, “Anatomy of Injustice,” and “Bad Blood”

#FridayReads, May 18–Joe Jackson’s Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His Competitors, and the Race to Cross the Atlantic, with a cast of obsessed and scheming aviators who all wanted to make Paris first. Among the schemers is Admiral Richard E. Byrd, whose machinations and manipulations on the stage of world-class feat-making would make him almost as legendary as Lindbergh. In the 1990s and early 2000s I published Jackson’s first three books, including the co-authored Dead Run, with an Introduction by William Styron. Jackson’s a very gifted writer of narrative nonfiction. Kirkus Reviews says of his latest: “With stirring detail and perceptive insight about the pilots and the public, Jackson recaptures the tone and tenor of a frantic era’s national obsession.”

Also reading and finishing two powerful true-crime narratives: Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong, Raymond Bonner’s masterful dissection of a flawed and corrupt prosecution of an innocent man; and Casey Sherman’s Bad Blood: Freedom and Death in the White Mountains, a compelling tick-tock of a deadly case I know too well, the violent 2007 episode in New Hampshire, near where I attended Franconia College, when a cop and and a young man he had stopped both ended up shot dead.

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November 23rd, 2011

By Philip Turner in: Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

Striking a Blow for Justice, Abolitionists Favored Maple Syrup over White Sugar

Fascinating article about how early Americans regarded the sweeteners they craved in their diet. I had no idea that, as explained here, “The pure, white, crystallized product of sugar cane was still an expensive luxury, imported from plantations in the West Indies. Maple sugar offered an accessible and affordable substitute. These colonists, out on the imperial periphery, wanted to demonstrate that their fledgling society was just as sophisticated and elegant as that of the metropole. They took the concentrated maple sap and poured it into conical molds, refining it into white sugar-loaves like those produced in Britain from cane syrup. Maple sugar, a distinctively American product, was touted as the equal of the sugar served in the most elegant Old World salons. The clearest syrups and whitest sugars, which betrayed the least hint of their rustic origins, commanded premium prices.” In “an odd inversion,” the Atlantic’s Yoni Applebaum traces this history all the way down to today, where the more lightly tinted syrup, generally classed as Grade A, often still commands the highest prices. Since my days as a student at Franconia College in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, where we had a sugar house and a biology teacher taught students how to boil down maple sap as part of our science curriculum, I’ve preferred the darker, more flavorful product, classed as Grade B. It puzzled me then, and since, that Grade A was more expensive, and the only kind served in restaurants.** Still, when it comes time to buy a jug for my household, we’re always on the lookout for B, or a Dark Amber A, also a designation used by the US Dept. of Agriculture, which regulates maple products. I must add though, that B is no longer always less expensive than A–folks are catching on to its superiority.

Applebaum makes two more striking observations here, the first connected with the West Indian origins of refined sugar. Abolitionists, noting the slave labor that harvested sugar cane, relished the creation of a product untainted by these corrupt origins. He cites “Philadelphia patriot and physician Benjamin Rush,” who believed “maple sugar” was “perfectly tailored to the new republic. Here was a commodity that could compete in a global market, bolstering the independence of yeoman farmers, and demonstrating the superiority of free labor. It tapped an abundant resource, required only a small amount of labor, and used supplies most farmers already owned. Best of all, it would destroy the market for Caribbean sugar cane, produced by slaves laboring in horrifying conditions. Rush set down his reflections in the form of a letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson, which he presented publicly in 1791, concluding: ‘I cannot help contemplating a sugar maple tree with a species of affection and even veneration, for I have persuaded myself, to behold in it the happy means of rendering the commerce and slavery of our African brethren, in the sugar islands as unnecessary, as it has always been inhuman and unjust.‘”

Regrettably, slavery would remain a blight on our republic for another seven decades, but how perceptive of Rush and his contemporaries to diagnosis accurately–and in their selfsame era–that the diabolical trade triangle connecting West Africa, the Americas, and Britain was a baleful influence that warranted as swift an eradication as possible. The fact that they aimed to do so with a superior product was a market solution that ought to make latter-day economic conservatives quite proud.

Applebaum’s third major revelation in his article so chock-full of surprises is that soon the government, in cooperation with maple syrup producers, is finally going to alter the bogus grading system and replace it with one that more accurately recognizes the authentic merits of the diverse varieties of maple syrup: “The industry has proposed that all syrup sold at retail be relabeled Grade A, and then sorted into four colors: Golden, Amber, Dark, and Very Dark. No longer will the weakest syrup be assigned a higher mark for approaching the perfect purity of utter blandness, or the most intensely flavorful syrup get graded down for daring to taste like maple. The new system, the leading trade group explains, will eliminate ‘the current discrimination against darker syrup.’ By 2013, the new international standard should be fully adopted.”

Finally, I didn’t know, as is pointed out here, that the Log Cabin brand, which first became available in 1887, was then an “adulterated maple syrup;” at least it had some of the real stuff in it then.

So, before you tuck into some pumpkin pie during the coming holidays, read this illuminating article and take some time to reflect on the enterprising American colonists who believed they had at hand a homegrown, local product, superior in every way to any imported confection, and one that didn’t require the subjugation of human beings to bring it to their bountiful tables.

**Two notes of relevance: 1) I have to say it’s pretty amazing that genuine maple syrup of any kind was then put on local restaurant tables gratis; 2) During sugaring, with the sweet, vaporous fumes swirling all around us in the sugar house, our professor, Jon Cassista, instructed his students to eat dill pickles to allay the sugar shock that would otherwise make us quite lightheaded. It seemed to work!)


November 22nd, 2011

By Philip Turner in: Media, Blogging, Internet; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

#OWS & Muhammad Ali in New Hampshire’s North Country

Heartened to see that the North Country, where I went to Franconia College, has its own Occupy contingent, seen here in a moving video from Mother Jones, filmed in Littleton, near Bethlehem, Sugar Hill, Easton, and Franconia, where my college was located. Such moving statements here, especially by the man who laments the lack of educational opportunity in the region. He mentions Plymouth State as the nearest college, and it’s south of Franconia Notch, 40 miles over the mountains. Lyndonville State College in Vermont is almost as far.

When Franconia College was still hangin’ on, before it folded in January ’78, we started a program called the FRED (Franconia External Degree). It awarded associates’ degrees to people for significant life and work experience–to folks who’d never til then had a shot at any higher education. To draw attention to the FRED, we conferred one on Muhammad Ali and invited him up to receive it. The cool thing was he accepted! We wanted to honor him because of the persecution he’d endured, being prosecuted for claiming conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, losing his title, being condescended to by columnists like Dave Anderson in the New York Times. He came up to the College in October  ’77, as I remember it. Biggest thrill of my life to that point, along with meeting Neil Young in 1969, was meeting Ali that day. He’d driven up the night before from New Haven, where he resided then, came with 20-30 people on a bus he drove himself. There were women, other big men, and kids who hung off him like he was the Pied Piper. It felt very much like a large extended family. Shaking his hand was something else–like shaking hands with a pillow–his hand was so big and soft, it enveloped mine. He was very gentle and spoke in a sweet, high voice. I gave a speech that day, and can still see Muhammad up on the riser with me and others. In my address I thanked him for coming all the way up from New Haven to join us. His visit made newspapers the next day, via this AP dispatch that ran nationally.

Muhammad Ali with Erin, daughter of FC student B Elwin Sherman. (thanks to BES for use of both these pictures)

Erin climbed on Ali’s lap during the commencement.

Franconia College was an avowedly experimental institution and one thing we had were student members on the Board of Trustees. I was one of them. At this point in the late 70s, the Board was far along in aligning the College formally with the fledgling Elderhostel program. Like FRED, this initiative was designed so students of a wide age divide and diverse background could have access to higher degrees, and to create the opportunity for students in their 20s to mix with those in their 50s, 60s, 70s, all being in classes and on campus together. This would have been a true union of the Sixties’ promise of experimental education coupled with lunch-bucket commonsense equal opportunity.

So College staff had written a grant application to the Dept. of Aging in the old federal cabinet department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) for funds to support the joint program; we’d received verbal assurance from people in the Carter Admininstration that they wanted to fund it. Alas, it was not to be. The Manchester Union-Leader, whose arch-conservative publisher William Loeb** had always despised the ‘hippie college in the White Mts.’ printed a false story about the grant. It was during the long winter break at the beginning of 1978. The campus was empty as classes wouldn’t resume until late January, and I was back at my family home in Cleveland. In December, our enrollment, always so low as to imperil the College’s solvency, was even lower than usual, but we believed the infusion of new students in the coming spring was going to insure the College’s future. However, the same newspaper that had torpedoed Edmund Muskie’s presidential candidacy in 1972 somehow reported that our grant was a ruse to fund a sham program, that it would go right into our general fund. (We never did learn how the newspaper even learned about our grant application, though somewhat wiser now in the ways of Washington, I suspect a Republican holdover from the Nixon or Ford administration who shared Loeb’s resentment of the College.) The story painted a dark picture of a scheme that would divert money into the College’s general fund, with no noble program being mounted.  The Carter administration backed away, the grant died, and the college never reopened for its next term.

Given Franconia College’s perennially parlous state, we might have folded later anyhow, though I’ve always thought the College would finally have reached stability. Seeing this video from Littleton, it saddens me to think how Franconia College could have really become an educational force in the North Country. All this is a testament to why we need a movement like #OWS more than ever.

** Loeb was a full-blown renegade, and also pretty careless about printing potentially libelous material. At this time in the late 70s he’d had so many lawsuits filed against him in the state of New Hampshire that he was compelled to live across the border in Massachusetts. If he crossed the state line, he’d invariably be served with liens and summonses to appear in court.