Excursus I: Reference Library —
Up on My Back,
and I Will Take You Thither

September 14 through December 11, 2011

Designer Andy Beach, known for his blog and curatorial interventions under the name Reference Library, inaugurates the series with “Up on My Back, and I Will Take You Thither”, a project that takes inspiration from the Centaur Book Shop, Philadelphia’s own Prohibition-era radical press, record store, and bohemian meeting place.

“The proprietor [of the Centaur Book Shop], Harold Mason, was a twenty-nine-year-old of independent means who was fascinated with books, particularly first editions by liberal intellectuals. His bookshop was a small, comfortable room in a three-hundred-year-old house outfitted with bookshelves, wicker chairs, candlesticks, Japanese prints, and a fireplace. Here one could find first editions of avant-garde books and current issues of the intellectual magazines of the day…

The bookshop’s name was taken from a line in the banned book Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell: ‘Up on my back,’ said the Centaur, ‘and I will take you thither.’ The association with Jurgen ‘lent a mild wickedness to the enterprise,’ Mason recalled. When importation of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, considered at the time to be as sinful as booze, was prohibited, Mason arranged for a shipment of a case of books, after the spines had been replaced with those of another book of the same size.

A room over the shop became an after-hours gathering place for select patrons, artists, people of letters, and other friends. It was, like a Greenwich Village salon, bohemian and arty. This was during Prohibition, and ‘in’ members had their own liquor lockers and keys to the room. The outgoing Wharton [Esherick] was quickly inducted into the club, and he made a sign to hang over the door, a modernist centaur of wood and bent iron straps (the ‘sign of the Centaur’).”

From Wharton Esherick: Journey of a Creative Mind,
by Mansfield Bascom, Abrams, 2010.