Joel C. Turner, May 26, 1951-Dec. 8, 2009

On this anniversary of what would have been my late brother Joel’s 61st birthday, my sister Pamela and I remember him with all the force of memory and familial affection, as well as our departed parents, Earl and Sylvia. On May 4, 1978, the five us founded Undercover Books, the bookstore that would give all three of us siblings our adult careers. For those who didn’t know Joel–or who did and want to be reminded of his personality and accomplishments, which included a run for Congress in 2000 and earlier being among the very first online booksellers, several years before–you may read an obituary in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the remembrance I wrote that was excerpted in Shelf Awareness and Bookweb. The entire piece is pasted in below, set in the Comic Sans font to which Joel was partial (for readers able to view it that way) along with photos of him.

December 9, 2009

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

It was with great regret and sadness that we write to inform you of the recent, sudden passing of our dear brother, Joel C. Turner, 58 years old. 

Many of you will recall that we three siblings together opened Undercover Books, in Shaker Heights, Ohio in 1978, on May 4 of that year, with the hard-working assistance of our parents, Earl (deceased, 1992) and Sylvia (deceased, 2006). From the original location at Van Aken Shopping Center, our family-run independent chain grew to occupy a location in the historic Old Arcade of downtown Cleveland, and a shop that also featured the sale of record albums and the then-new format of CD-ROMs, in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Joel’s role in the bookstores’ success and the good reputation we enjoyed in the book world was vital and indispensable. He was always generating exciting new ideas that drove our growth. Joel was a constant reader, a passionate believer in books and the power of the printed word. He derived tremendous satisfaction from selling books to the devoted readers whose trade we cultivated in our bookstores. 

We were fortunate to open our business at a moment when throughout the country and particularly the midwest, much book retailing was migrating from older downtowns to suburban locales, as the book departments of long-established department stores and old-line independents gave way to new indies like us. Soon, we were being regularly called upon by publishers’ sales reps from all parts of the industry, as Undercover Books became a go-to store for houses eager to break out books on the national scene. Notable authors who launched books at our stores included Mark Helprin (“Winter’s Tale”), Richard North Patterson (“The Lasko Tangent”), and Walter Tevis (“Queen’s Gambit”).  

The stores, indeed the Turner family home, helmed by Sylvia’s extraordinary cooking and hospitality and Earl’s gregarious nature, and Joel’s energetic raconteurship, also became a favorite stop for sales reps and authors.

By the early 1990s, competitive and economic pressures had mounted, and Joel had the vision to reduce the brick & mortar concentration of our enterprise and transform it into an operation that served businesses, corporate libraries, schools, and public institutions. As this shift occurred, the name of the business became Undercover Book Service, which soon also had an online presence, surely one of the first online booksellers. He also developed a sideline in the antiquarian and second-hand side of the trade. Joel was a true bookseller, and also served the book industry through active participation as an officer and board member of the American Booksellers Association.  

In this decade, he and Sylvia moved to a lovely part of North Carolina, where he helped her live very comfortably for the remaining years of her life. After Sylvia’s death, he built for himself a beautiful home on a scenic mountaintop in the town of Bostic,  Rutherford County, North Carolina, where he died in his sleep this past weekend.  In addition to the two of us–his younger brother and older sister–Joel is survived by nephew and niece Benjamin and Emma Taylor; nephew Ewan Gallup Turner; brother-in law Ev Taylor; sister-in-law Kyle Gallup; cousins Stephanie Shiff Cooper and Brian Shiff; and Uncle Myer Shiff and Aunt Linda Shiff. 

Plans for memorializing Joel are being considered as we write this to you. For those wishing to mark Joel’s life with a charitable donation we urge you to make contributions to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE, or for medical research in search of a cure for diabetes.  

We write in sadness, but with fondness and appreciation for all the years that we three Turner siblings and our parents were recipients of your generous affection, respect, and consideration.  The bookstores gave all of us, and especially Joel, great enjoyment and satisfaction, along with so many wonderful friends. Feel free to send this message on to any of your contacts in the book world. 


Philip Turner ( and Pamela Turner (

// more. . . Please click through to the full post to see all photos.


A Renovated Digital Home for the CBC Archives

Cool stuff on the Web from the CBC Archives is now accessible to virtually all computer users. The national broadcaster of Canada goes back to 1936 but until now their Internet archive was more frustrating than enlightening. Now, however a post on the CBC’s in-house blog explains that the old site has been updated, with a side benefit that MAC users–formerly shut out–should now have as full access as folks on Windows machines. It does look much better now and you can savor TV and radio clips of musicians Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Glenn Gould, writers Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Farley Mowat, and Pierre Berton, comedians Bruce McCullough and Scott Thompson from Kids in the Hall and Catherine O’Hara of SCTV and Patrick Watson* (the longtime broadcaster, not the current day musician), to name only a handful. I should add it’s not all about the artistic luminaries–the correspondents and journalists who’ve long made up the CBC, such as Patrick Watson* (the longtime broadcaster, not the current day musician) and the late Barbara Frum, co-host for many years of “As it Happens,” Canada’s “All Things Considered,” represent great broadcast talent. This archive is a veritable youtube for Canuckaphiles and honorary Canadians like me. For a taste of one artist, enjoy this 2 1/2 minute clip on stellar rapper Cadence Weapon, celebrating his selection in 2009 as Poet Laureate of Edmonton, Alberta.

*In 1979, one year after my family bookstore Undercover Books opened for business, Patrick Watson published an excellent suspense novel titled Alter Ego. My brother Joel read it and wrote to Patrick inviting him to visit our store. With the participation of his publisher, Viking, Patrick visited our store for an autographing and a great book party that moved from the store to my family’s nearby home. I recall that Patrick, an accomplished pilot, flew his own small plane from Toronto to Cleveland. I bumped into him in 2003 on the convention floor at Book Expo Canada. We had a pleasant reunion. He’s a grand fellow and has had a fascinating career as broadcaster, actor, author, and engaged citizen. Apart from the thriller Alter Ego, Patrick is also the author of a book in my art book library, Fasanella’s City, on the American painter known for his colorful canvases that depict May Day celebrations and demonstrations of workers’ rights amid clamorous scenes of urban density.

Savoring Great Books with a Dying Parent

Longtime book world friend Will Schwalbe published a lovely Op-Ed on Mother’s Day, drawn from his forthcoming The End of Your Life Book Club. It opens with Will and his ailing mother in a medical office awaiting a chemotherapy appointment. He asks her what she’s reading–it’s Wallace Stegner’s aptly titled Crossing To Safety. “It was a book that I’d always pretended to have read, but never actually had. That day, I promised her I’d read it.” Soon, over the months of treatment and convalescence until her passing, they find mutual comfort in discussing the books they are reading in a kind personal book club all their own.

It’s touching story, and as I read the column I found myself in Will’s place, glad for the solace provided by these books and the opportunity for closeness shared reading offered them.

Having operated a family-owned bookstore–Undercover Books in Cleveland, Ohio–and later losing both my parents, Earl and Sylvia, and my brother Joel, I look back on all the books we shared and enjoyed over the years. I just have to look at my home library and dozens of memories and conversations come cascading forth, from the novels alone: Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale; Peter Rushforth’s, Kindergarten; Jack Finney’s Time and Again; Mary Tirone-Smith’s The Book of Phoebe; James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss; Howard Frank Mosher’s Disappearances; Philip Kerr’s March Violets; Ernest Hebert’s Dogs of March. This list could go on indefinitely.

Will’s new book will be out in the fall. I’m eager to read it.

Warding off a Zealous Censor of Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen”

With the news of  Maurice Sendak’s sad passing today, I’ve been reminded of a brush with intolerance that I experienced many years ago, when one of his most popular books unexpectedly became an issue with a censorious customer.

When I worked in my family’s Cleveland bookstore, Undercover Books, the childrens’ book section was not my strong suit. I was responsible for ordering our adult books and shelving and merchandising them in their separate sections of the bookstore.

While I looked after the adult books, my sister Pamela ordered all our kids books and worked on the best ways to display them, including the merchandise that I regarded skeptically—board books, plush books, sticker books, scratch & sniff books, etc. Pam knew these titles and their authors best, and had a far better knack than I of finding a particular thin-spined book when a customer came in asking for a specific title, as they often did. She had it all over me in this department, and also on our brother Joel—whose chief responsibilities included future business planning and working on the main sales floor, waiting on customers face to face–and our parents Earl and Sylvia, who handled myriad duties such as bank deposits and bill-paying, as well as minding the cash register and waiting on regulars and walk-ins. But when it came to helping a grandmother, relative, or family friend seeking a book for a little one, or a middle-grader, the call often went out for Pam. But she couldn’t be there at all times and I recall she sometimes just tired of being summoned for this often challenging duty. Grown-ups were so often unsure what a child might like they could take a really long time deciding on a gift book to buy, even after many offerings had been shown them. So, every now and then I would be pressed into duty to take care of a customer who simply had to buy a childrens’ book.

One such occasion arose one day in the early 1980s, when a  somewhat elderly woman customer who I recognized from a previous visit to our store, a Mrs. Stewart, came in and without hesitation asked if we had Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen. She was emphatic in saying she wanted to purchase it, in fact, she said, “I want to buy all the copies you have.” I blanched, worrying if I’d be able to find a copy, or multiple copies if we had them—we always hated to miss a multiple copy sale if we could avoid doing so. There was something weird about Mrs. Stewart’s nervous energy, but it didn’t stop me from feeling satisfaction when I quickly put my hands on a copy, and established with certainty that it was our last one. Mrs. Stewart had come back to the childrens’ section with me and I eagerly presented it to her, adding that it was unfortunately our only copy, though I added, we would certainly be ordering more. She grabbed it from me, a bit aggressively, and said, “I’m going to buy it so no one else can. You should not be selling this book. It shows a naked boy and his private parts. I want you to stop selling this book. You must not reorder it or sell it any longer!”

Suddenly recalling that on the earlier occasion Mrs. Stewart had been in the store she had asked for a fundamentalist tract that we didn’t carry, I realized that I had a kind of religious fanatic on my hands, with some essential right suddenly at stake. I was highly exercised, and a bit angry at her high-handed claim to tell me what books our inventory should include. Wanting to get her out of the store as quickly as possible and before she made a scene in front of other customers, as smoothly as I could manage I took the book from her hands—as if I were simply walking her back up to the cash wrap where she could complete her transaction—mumbling some indistinct nicety about the naked boy in the book. Reaching the register, which was almost at the front door, I changed my tone and said as forcefully as I could without actually yelling, “I won’t sell you this book, Mrs. Stewart, and I won’t allow you to tell me what books we should be selling, or what is proper for customers to buy. You’ll have to leave now, please.”

Realizing that in my gambit had removed from her hands, what she considered to be this very offensive book, she reached to regain possession of it but by now it was behind the counter, as I had handed it to my mother. Angry and frustrated, Mrs Stewart began yelling, repeating with horror in her tone, “The boy in that book is naked and you should not be it selling it. I must buy that book so no one else can!”

Again, trying to avoid yelling over her, I said, “I will not sell you this book. Our customers have a right to buy any of our books, and we will not stop carrying this book just because you don’t approve of it.” She took a long time to decide to leave, though eventually she saw that I wasn’t going to sell her the book under any circumstances. She never came in our store again.

Over the years that have followed–as a bookseller, and later as an editor and publisher and engaged literary citizen–I alway take note of Banned Books Week as it comes around on the calendar (this year it will be held September 30-October 6), when libraries and bookstores are encouraged to make displays of books that intolerant people have insisted be removed from library stacks and bookstore shelves. I wonder about the sort of person who would do this, and then think of Mrs. Stewart with her strident voice and straining neck muscles—determined to convince me why we must not allow anyone else to buy Maurice Sendak’s picture book, lest they see little Mickey’s nakedness—the very face of intolerance.

Alan Lomax, Song Collector

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I’ve lived for 20 years I used to see this big man with a scratchy looking goatee. He seemed somehow familiar, and interesting, like if each of us hadn’t been hurrying we could’ve had a good conversation at a neighborhood diner. Eventually, a neighbor pointed to me who he was–“That’s Alan Lomax, the song collector.” Of course, that’s why I recognized him.

Before I moved to New York, I ran Undercover Books, a Cleveland, Ohio bookstore that also sold recorded music. We used to handle albums from such venerable labels as Folkways, Nonesuch, and Rounder. I had seen Lomax’s picture on the liner notes, as he had for decades been recording field hands, convicts, laborers, and other bearers and keepers of musical traditions. Leadbelly was only one of his great discoveries. I admired Lomax, just as I admired the Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams, who earlier in the 20th century, even before he would become a brilliant composer of orchestral music, had ventured into the fields, docks, and sheep-shearing paddocks with early recording equipment to hear and record the tunes of local folk.

I never did get to have that sit-down with Alan Lomax, who died in 2002. But I was delighted to read tonight, via this article in the New York Times, that the vast archive he left behind is soon going to be accessible in a digital storehouse that will be widely accessible to scholars, musicians, and the public. Hooray for Alan Lomax, and the Association for Cultural Equity, the project under the hands of his daughter Anna Lomax Wood that is making these treasures available. When you read the Times article, don’t miss the interactive feature with recordings of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bessie Jones, and other greats.

Farewell to Scottish Friend, Architect Isi Metzstein

I was saddened recently to learn that Isi Metzstein, a longtime friend and the father in a family I’ve been close with for many years, died at his home in Glasgow, Scotland on January 10. Isi lived a remarkable life and was a well-regarded architect and teacher, as the obituaries that have run all over Britain attest, including prominent notices in the Independent (“Architect Hailed for Modernist Vision and Inspirational Teaching”) and the Guardian(“Innovative Architect Designed Remarkable Postwar Buildings”). //more . . .

400 Years Later, More Room for Books at Oxford University

Memories came flooding back this morning when I found online an article originating in the Oxford Times, headlined “Bodleian Library Gets an Upgrade.” Andrew Ffrench reports,
“Just over a year ago, library staff began transporting books to the South Marston site from Oxford, from its store in Nuneham Courtenay, and from a Cheshire salt mine, which was also being used to store part of its vast collection. The book move, the biggest since the library opened in 1602, was completed on schedule. One milestone was December 23, when the seventh million volume was shelved. The library, one of the oldest in Europe, and known to scholars as the ‘Bodley’ or ‘the Bod’, has 11 million volumes and is only second in size to the British Library. It is one of a handful of legal deposit libraries, which are required to keep a copy of every new book published. The completion of the move is part of the Bodleian’s plan to free up space and make its treasures more accessible for the public by providing larger display areas. Earlier this year, a collection of Franz Kafka’s letters to his sister went on display. The Treasures of the Bodleian exhibition included part of Jane Austen’s first draft of her unpublished novel The Watsons, which went on show for the first time since it was bought at auction earlier this year. Marco Polo’s travel manuscript from the 14th century, the Codex Mendoza, and a handwritten draft of war poet Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ also went on display. ” // more . . .