By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
“Remember, Jews are the people of the Book.”
Amy Brent made that statement about her cultural and spiritual bent. But it probably never applied better than to three generations of her family, where Judaism and a passion for the longest form of literacy ever invented, be it holy or merely best-seller, always were intertwined.
Her paternal grandfather, Joseph Brodsky, freshly immigrated from the shtetls of Ukraine, read both the classics and Yiddish works. He passed that love down to son Samuel Brodsky, who’d eventually change his name to Stuart Brent. Decades later, Brent would promote and analyze the best of hard cover and paperback via two memorable bookstores – one on Rush Street and the bigger one on Michigan Avenue — and a TV show. He’d become one of the country’s top book advocates, a raconteur who’d pull a passer-by off Michigan Avenue into his bookstore or happily kibitzed with the heavyweight authors of the world.
Living a long, eventful life until his death at 98 in 2010, Brent passed along his family business in different ways to his large brood of kids. Two sons ran their own bookstores, one specializing in works about kabbalah. Two other sons were publishers in running university presses. Yet literally carrying on the family name in retail form is daughter Amy Brent, proprietor of the Stuart Brent Children’s Book Club in Winnetka.
She simply is her father’s daughter.
Set up in second-floor quarters in Hubbard Woods that could charitably be called comfortably cluttered, books stuffed into every shelf almost to the ceiling, Amy channels Stuart Brent in both environment and personality. The old man was emotionally volatile. Amy also is no shrinking violet. She is a conversationalist who accentuates her thoughts with gestures, like a maestro conducting an orchestra of intellectualism.
“I don’t know that I need to know how much I am his daughter,” Brent said. “I just am. I think my father’s imprint is profound in all my brothers and sisters. My father was a very, very dynamic, powerful man. Anyone who came into contact was touched by him, immediately. Usually in good ways, occasionally not in good ways. There are still people in Chicago who will tell you they crossed the street when they went past his block.
“He didn’t tolerate fools very easily. I would like to think I’m a kinder, gentler version of my father.”
Brent’s siblings could see how she carried over the best of Stuart Brent.
“Amy’s association in the store and working closely with my dad was a very special experience and gave her maybe a way of relating to all of that,” said brother Jonathan Brent.
All the kids took turns helping their father, particularly at the 670 N. Michigan Ave. location.
Amy has a wide-ranging description of her duties at Stuart Brent Books starting in high school. She commuted to the job from the family home in Highland Park.
“I ordered books, packed books, shipped books, sold books, cleaned books, reviewed books,” she wrote on StuartBrent.com. “I swept the floor, built window displays, ran book signings, calculated the payroll and taxes (before computers!), caught thieves, hired help, fired help, apologized, praised and prayed. I drove Nobel Prize winners around and fetched pens for Saul Bellow and Daniel Barenboim. When I called my father to ask if I should go to Paris for my junior year in college, he said, ‘Ask him,’ and handed the phone to Gore Vidal.”
Stuart Brent sired eight children. The majority caught the literary bug and carried it into adulthood.
Jonathan Brent ran both the Northwestern University and Yale University presses. Oldest son David Brent was editor of the University of Chicago Press for 30 years. Adam Brent opened a second downtown family bookstore, Brent Books and Cards, at Washington and Franklin streets. Youngest sibling Joshua Brent worked with Adam here before running a kabbalah bookstore in Los Angeles.
“My father’s relationship to books, his feelings for books, his understanding of books was a very special thing,” said Jonathan Brent. “Each of us got it in bits and pieces. Not just books, but the bookstore. Somehow the excitement of bringing books to a larger public and using the store to make a statement on literature, the world of ideas, this was my father. This is who he was. One cannot say every member of the family was affected the same way.”
The linkage of the father-daughter Brents just surfaced very publicly. The younger Brent just starred in “Amy’s Book Hunt,” a pilot half-hour program on WTTW-Channel 11. She was depicted traveling from garage sales to people’s living-room bookshelves to attics to discover valuable original book titles sometimes worth four figures.
In taping “Amy’s Book Hunt,” Brent became a second generation TV book-show host. Amid an era when TV shows were by necessity live and some stations had to be creative in filling air time, Stuart Brent hosted a daily half-hour “Books and Brent” at 8:30 a.m. weekdays starting March 17, 1958 on WBKB-Channel 7, now WLS. Leading into the show was erudite personality Norman Ross’ hour-long “Facsimile” show. Station general manager Red Quinlan, one of the most legendary broadcast executives in Chicago history, was a big backer.
Reading a book a night with his famed stamina, Brent could logically discuss books’ merit while interviewing authors. With time out for summer breaks, “Books and Brent” lasted three-plus years as a daily show. Ross’ lead-in show changed to “Clock-A-Doodle Day” in 1960. The cartoon show “Deputy Dawg” replaced the book show at 8:30 weekdays in the fall of 1961 while Brent switched to weekly production on Sunday afternoons and went into syndication through early 1965. Brent’s show went off the air soon after Quinlan departed WBKB. “Books and Brent” was a likely inspiration for Bob Cromie’s 1968-vintage, Peabody Award-winning “Book Beat” on WTTW.
Amy Brent paid homage to her father with several kinescope clips of “Books and Brent” on “Amy’s Book Hunt.” How could she not? One clip shows her kindergarten-vintage self, wearing her best dress for TV, hugging her father on the set. She is still embracing Dad.
But the motivations for bookselling and TV work are different between the generations.
Stuart Brent simply celebrated books at a time when they were the most prestigious example of mainstream media. Bookstores were the chief way of shopping for the world’s best writing.
Meanwhile, Amy Brent is pushing back one book at a time against a scourge of declining literacy, on-line giants cheapening the value of books and the sliming of overall culture.
“The book is on the ropes,” she said. “Reading is on the ropes. There are very few brick-and-mortar booksellers now who feel life is beautiful, let’s all go to the seashore. There are very few publishers making money hand-over-fist. There are very few people buying books who think it’s an easy purchase.
“The harder it gets, the cleverer you have to be in order to try to get people to read a book, think about a book, consider a book as a possibility, to bring a book into people’s lives.
Thus Amy Brent could be a generation too late to rub shoulders with any literary elite, such as it exists anymore. Either stopping at Stuart Brent bookstores or hobnobbing with the master kibitzer at some point were Ernest Hemingway, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Saul Bellow, Ben Hecht, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal and Katharine Hepburn.
Philip Roth visited Stuart Brent Books earlier in his career. Bookseller and eventual landmark best-selling Jewish author became friends. Roth thus did a rare signing at the bookstore.
Stuart Brent knew show-biz royalty. Louis Armstrong played at the closing party for The Seven Stairs, the original store on Rush Street, named for the seven stairs down to the front door. Actor Zero Mostel messed up the store, tossing around books he did not like.
Without such celebrities to boost the book club now, Amy Brent simply has to rely on the family intellectualism to keep the flame of literacy going. She is worried about society in the 21st century having declined from her earliest memories of her father’s prime in the mid-20th century.
“If you look around the world, we’re not doing well,” she said. “When I was young, when they passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, I thought, ‘Oh, great, now all that’s settled.’ Everyone figured it out. We should all be equal. All should have the same rights. Then as I grew up and realized that hadn’t happened, I couldn’t believe it. The pendulum started swinging toward equality when we elected a man who was half-black, half-white twice.
“But now I feel that rather than expanding our minds, the world is becoming increasingly more narrow-minded. Unfortunately, where I feel one of the principal roles of religion is to be a civilizing force, many people are using religion to upend civilization. They are doing the polar opposite.
“In the show, if I can appeal to people who did not think of a book as something in their lives…I might get them to open it. The only thing as civilizing as religion is (published) fiction.”
Indeed, one book at a time, she serves several thousand Stuart Brent Book Club members worldwide. Parents write in to describe their child’s interests and personality. In turn, Brent and an aide help select the book from their archives that best serves the subscriber.
Brent is an extension of her father’s Jewish sensibilities, expanded from an immigrant family in which his first language was Yiddish. And the very name Stuart Brent acquired a Jewish meaning.
“If you look at his signature from the early days of the bookstore,” said Jonathan Brent, “he signed his name ‘SBrent.’ In Yiddish, that mean ‘it burns.’ In changing his name to sounding like a British name, he actually transformed it into a Yiddish name, a meaning. A meaning only those cognoscenti know, the Jewish intellectuals knew. He had a very paradoxical way of dealing with it.”
For his daughter, the Jewish identity is very straightforward.
“I feel it permeates everything I do,” said Brent, who uses the family name in business and on the air. She is married to attorney Kenneth Wexler and has three children. And in Jewish tradition, her father comes alive spiritually because she talks about him frequently.
“Most of the Jewish people I know are pretty skeptical,” she said. “I don’t know too many Jews who will take something at face value and swallow it hook, line and sinker. Most people kind of sit back and analyze it.
“I think it was Plato who said the unexamined life is not worth living. I think that becomes a habit. My father’s feeling about life and books was pretty much they were one. There was never really a separation between your intellectual life and your life. Life was an exercise in thinking. It’s a way of looking at the world that he imparted to all his children. All of us are extremely introspective. All of us hold Jewish values as essential, as bedrock. This is not to say we’re so observant. Some of us are.”
The Jewish-intellectual merger stemmed from Joseph Brodsky’s earliest advice to his son. The first-generation American read Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain along with Yiddish texts.
‘‘Be a mensch, that’s all,” was a core dictum from Joseph to Samuel Brodsky. And when the younger man had to hustle up a scholarship to attend the University of Chicago during the Great Depression, Joseph Brodsky ladeled out more counsel: “Any fool can go to college with money — you, my son, go to college without money. Be a chochem (Yiddish for wise man).”
Armed with a master’s in education, Stuart Brent taught in the Chicago Public Schools. But he smelled anti-Semitism in teacher hiring prior to World War II. He wrote a letter of protest to the administration. Later he continued his writing during the war, enlisting and rising to master sergeant in the U.S. Army.
Jewish values were passed along to the next generation along with the love of books.
After his university press years, Jonathan Brent currently runs the New York-based YIVO Institute, an organization that preserves, studies, and teaches the cultural history of Jewish life throughout Eastern Europe, Germany and Russia. YIVO also specializes in orthography, lexicography and other studies related to Yiddish. He is an expert on Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and authored the recent book, “Stalin’s Last Crime: The War against the Jewish Doctors 1948-53.”
In addition to the kabbalah bookstore, Joshua Brent lived in Israel a number of years, married an Israeli and served in the Israel Defense Forces.
Still another Brent descendant went into books – from the pulpit’s point of view. Amy Brent’s nephew Daniel Millner is a Modern Orthodox rabbi in Austin, Tex.
Anyone who married into the Brent family quickly learned about Jewish commitment. Amy Brent’s mother, Hope Latta Brent, was raised Episcopalian. She converted to Judaism because she was madly in love with Stuart Brent. Her family disowned her as a result.
“She liked being Jewish,” Amy said. Hope Latta ran the children’s section of Stuart Brent Books until her death in 1984.
Now, helping parents and children with book selection isn’t just a calling. It’s a being for Amy Brent.
“It’s what I am,” she said. “I certainly didn’t have to keep going. I have children and a husband and a home. My husband makes a living. My father always said books is a love affair. This affords me a lot of independence, and I am a very independent person. This particular iteration of the book club and the book business – I don’t have to please anyone. There is no order to these books other than what pleases me. If I wanted a (conventional) book store, I’d have to please the public.”
Brent does not profess to be an expert at children’s books. In self-deprecating stance, she claims not to be an expert at anything. But for the umpteenth time, she is a chip off the old block, bringing “passion” to her work.
“I know there are people who know much, much more than I do. But there’s a difference between just knowing something and sharing something. This is my father’s gift, I think. There’s a difference between academia and excitement. There’s a difference between lassoing a total stranger walking down the street and saying, I’ve got the book for you, it’s going to change your life, and following through and doing it.
“What you don’t have all day long (elsewhere) is you don’t have sparkle. Do you know what I do with books here? I wrap them up and give them to you in the most beautiful, imaginative way I can think of to present it. The harder it gets, the harder I work at making it better. I really believe if you give me this much of a chance, I can lead you into a marvelous world. In order to get people to give me that chance, I have to turn myself inside-out.”
Brent assistant Holly Kallick Holleb, also Jewish, said her boss “truly cares about and frets about what book is going to what child. She comes to me and worries if they did not like that book. She has a lot of kids in the program and seems to know them, by just what they’re reading.”
The task thus becomes a one-on-one enterprise, even if bookseller and buyer never meet. Brent believes she can cater to anyone, no matter their philosophical bent.
“I have to please a particular person who is my customer,” she said. “There was a point where 30 percent of the book club was evangelical Christians. The reason they signed up with me is I did the same with them as I did for everyone. I tried to figure out what’s the best book for that exact person. And they have very, very strict parameters. They wanted their books vetted and curated. I think my father would have had a little trouble getting along with them.”
Dad always finds his way into the discussion. Stuart Brent Books and “Books and Brent” simply live on – like a good old tome the book man loved. Amy Brent turned out to be as good as anyone to carry the torch along with serving as family archivist.
Brent has packed the largest storage space she could find on Skokie Boulevard with thousands of her father’s books. Unlike the mint condition of some of the original editions she thumbed through on “Amy’s Book Hunt,” Stuart Brent almost beat to death his books, never mindful of their potential future value. Other books are at the book club or Brent’s home.
“Plus we gave a ton of them away,” she said.
Held in the family is the love of the written word and a person trained by the master to carry on an age-old tradition.
Stuart Brent Children’s Book Club is located at 1073 Gage St., No. 201, just off Green Bay Road in Winnetka. Phone is 847/441-9688. More information is at StuartBrent.com.