Classic books rediscovered

Allison Remcheck

Bill McCullam, owner of Cattermole 20th Century Children’s Books in Newbury, sells books people “fondly remember from their childhood.” By appointment only, one can browse the shelves and purchase books. ALLIEY BENDER | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

Once upon a time, in a town not far away from your own, lived a man and woman named Bill and Jane McCullam, who had an attic stuffed full of hundreds of books.

Tall books and small books, books with pictures and books full of words, books with lots and lots of pages and some with very few pages. But all of the books were unique, most of them vintage, many of them rare and first editions.

This one-of-a-kind bookshop, called Cattermole 20th Century Children’s Books, was founded in 1987 in Newbury, and took its name from the Orlando, the Marmalade Cat books by Kathleen Hale. In the children’s books, Mr. Cattermole is the character who keeps the Cats’ Shop. The McCullams said this name provided a useful alias, as they both wanted to keep their identity a secret when they started out in the book-selling business.

Cattermole Books doesn’t sell what is most popular, but “We sell books to people who fondly remember them from their childhood,” Bill McCullam said. “We try to have only books that we know are good for kids. We don’t put any book in the catalogue unless we’ve read it.”

“That’s why we’re not very rich,” Jane McCullam said, laughing.

The McCullams only sell high-quality books that can be read over and over again painlessly.

“The quality of text is very important,” Jane McCullam said. “There’s so many books that you don’t want to read more than once to children.”

Some of Jane McCullam’s favorite books for children are Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series.

“It’s interesting how those books evolved,” she said. “It’s one of those examples of the characters taking over the story.”

And because Cattermole Books is so unique, it’s attracted a rather unusual clientele.

Bill McCullam refers to his wife as the “Country Mouse,” who likes to stay at home, and himself as the “Town Mouse,” who keeps up with popular culture.

The day after Bill McCullam saw the movie Schindler’s List, he said his wife asked him, “Do we have a client in Hollywood who’s called Steven Spielberg?”

Spielberg was looking for a book called John Henry for Michelle Pfeiffer, “who was going to have a baby called John Henry,” Bill McCullam said.

“We actually had the copy of the book that he wanted,” he said.

When Spielberg called, Jane McCullam was unaware of who he, or Pfeiffer, was.

“She said, ‘oh my gosh, I made a mistake,'” Bill McCullam remembered. ” ‘I asked Steven Spielberg whether her name was spelled with a ‘P’ or an ‘F’.'”

And then she charged him the small price of $11 and told him she would send him the book after he sent his check.

“‘Yes, we’ll send the book when we get your check, Mr. Spielberg,'” she said.

“God, that was really funny,” Bill McCullam said. “That was a riot.”

In 1990, the McCullams received a FedEx letter, requesting the book Struwwelpeter to be sent to Hollywood immediately.

“(Struwwelpeter) features children who had been bad and they get horrible punishments,” Bill McCullam said.

After one of the characters misbehaves, his fingernails grow three feet long and his fingers need to be chopped off.

“He was not trying to scare kids,” Bill McCullam said, “but he was trying to amuse them.”

The McCullams found the first American edition of the book, translated into English by Mark Twain when he lived in Germany, charged $50 and sent it to Hollywood.

When they got the check back, it was signed by Johnny Depp.

“We found out later that he was making a Tim Burton movie at the time,” Bill McCullam said. “And the movie was, of course, Edward Scissorhands.”

Although Cattermole Books isn’t open to the public on a daily basis, Cattermole creates catalogues of unique children’s books and sends it to buyers. This spring, the McCullams are featuring PŠre Castor, a famous French children’s book creator, in preparation for a book fair in Paris.

This is why Bill McCullam, a non-traditional Kent State student, is taking elementary French this semester. He said he wants to be able to communicate in France, to avoid looking the part of an American tourist.

“I went on a severe diet two weeks ago,” he said. “Because I don’t want to look like an American.”

Bill McCullam, who used to be an architect, said it’s a bit unusual to be back in college.

“I’m like the old guy,” he said. This really, really old guy who goes to classes. It’s hard. It’s really hard. It’s so easy for the young people to remember things.”

He is also in the process of becoming an author.

“I’m working on a book and we’re going to self-publish it,” he said. “It’s called ABC, a Bookseller’s Catalogue. It is based off the catalogues Cattermole Books has compiled in the past.”

The McCullams are also children’s books literary agents, and their most famous book was Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps for Sale, a book about a cap peddler who keeps getting his caps snatched by monkeys in a tree.

Caps for Sale has the greatest sale of any children’s book, Bill McCullam said, and it was out of print when the McCullams met Slobodkina.

“When we met her,” he said, “we acted as her agent and got a lot of books republished that were out of print.”

The McCullams started Cattermole Books when Jane McCullam lost her job as a technical editor.

“We had two books and $14,” Bill McCullam said. “It was a joke. It was a hobby. It was a lark.”

And back in the days before the Internet, Jane McCullam used to send out postcards to book catalogues, listing the books she had and waiting to hear replies on her sales.

Even the earliest Cattermole Books sales are recorded in a database that keeps track of who bought what book and when the person bought it.

Now the McCullams travel the United States and the world, taking their collection to book fairs and accumulating more and more books to fill the attic shelves, while they wait for another new home.

Contact features correspondent Allison Remcheck at [email protected].