Remembering MRT

Written for the memorial of Michael Rolly Thompson, held 8/25/18 at the Clark Library in Los Angeles.

Hello, and thank you all for coming.

My father loved coming to the Clark Library, as many of you know, and he would be happy to see you gathered here. He’d probably bluster and pretend that he’d rather us not talk about him, but secretly, he would have loved being the center of attention. He liked holding court, not necessarily to talk about himself, mind you, but instead to talk about various topics like books, music, books, art, books and… the book trade.

I never knew my father to be anything other than a bookseller. Some of my earliest memories are of playing behind the book cases at the very back of the store on Melrose Ave. Those memories are quickly followed by recollections of wandering through various book fairs, convincing dealers, some of you who are in this room, that your glass cases were dirty and needed to be cleaned for the very reasonable rate of a dollar.  Or two, if they were especially dirty.

I spent many a weekend at book fairs, and many more at Michael R Thompson Rare Books in each of its various locations: on Melrose, on Fairfax, on 3rd. I’d bemoan the lack of children’s books (which I could never understand why he didn’t sell), draw pictures on legal pads, rearrange the banker’s boxes into planes or trains and read books from the only section that appealed to me—the celebrity biography. I’m not sure that 8-year-olds are supposed to know that much about Rock Hudson or Lana Turner, but it was educational and entertaining at the time.

As I grew older, I resisted the idea of working in the store in the same way that I resisted working for my mother in her letterpress printing studio, maybe with less messy results. After all, it’s a lot harder to mis-shelve books than it is to dump a composing stick full of type willy-nilly into the type drawer. For a period of time though, I had two friends who did work with him, and he, Carol, and Kathleen continued to ask about “The M’s”, as they called them, for years.

For as much time as I spent at the store or at fairs, I had a very limited understanding of the important role my father played in the antiquarian book world. I was used to hearing his stories from the perspective of being his child, preferably when they centered around or concerned me: when were we going to go home, was he talking about someone I knew, was it a book that had pretty pictures in it. It has been so moving for me to hear the stories and remembrances from other people who worked with him, who learned from him, who loved him. He considered you to be family.

Family was important to my father. He was the oldest of seven brothers, although he only grew up in the same household as four of them. Several of his younger brothers had children before I was born, all boys, and the joke around the family was that they didn’t have girls, they married them. My father loved his brothers very much, and while they didn’t always see eye to eye on everything (who does?), he relished his relationship with them and their children, many of whom were able to be with us today.

And although I never lived with him in the same city once I was married and had children, meaning that he didn’t often have the opportunity for hands-on spoiling, he loved my children, his grandchildren very much. He was so proud of them: he printed out every picture I shared of them and I recently discovered, in going through his affairs, multiple envelopes of children’s drawings that I had sent to Grandpa’s Art Archival service. I think I sent them to him as a guilt free way to get them out of my own house without throwing them away, but of course he hung on to each scribbled line drawing and messy finger painting. He delighted in hearing stories about Jonah, Owen and Kate, and spending time with them and wished only that it could have been more. For many years we lived in France, and, while he would have preferred that I had married an English man, he loved coming to visit us and getting to see France from an insider’s perspective.

Of course, France could never compare to England, in his eyes, and London was one of his favorite places to visit. He was an anglophile through and through and I know that, had he ever won the lottery, he would have moved to the UK in a heartbeat. London might have been one of his favorite far flung places to go to, but he loved to travel in North America too: Toronto, New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Seattle, whether for work or pleasure, or both. He sent many postcards to me from some of these exotic locations (did I mention Pocatello, Idaho?) and once he started adopting email as a newfangled means of correspondence, he kept in touch with people worldwide on a regular basis. He couldn’t completely separate himself from paper, however, and in going through things at the office, I discovered that he had printed out many of his email exchanges. Reading these emails has been a delight and again, has helped me discover and rediscover his life.

Sadly, my father’s health had been declining over the past few years. The pictures that people have been sharing on Facebook and email have highlighted what it was sometimes hard to fully recognize in person. Given his many ailments over the year, and the loss of his parents and two of his brothers relatively young, I think that he, especially, was surprised to reach the ripe old age of 78.

One of the sad blessings of a long illness is that it gives people more of a chance to say goodbye. Although he had an indomitable will and knack for pulling through each new crisis, I was certainly aware that each goodbye could be the last. My husband, kids and I had the chance to spend several days with him in March, and although he was mostly unconscious the last few days of his life, he was aware of mine, his brother Steve and Steve’s wife Elaine’s, and, of course, Carol’s visits to him.

I know that he was making plans for and dreaming of just one last trip, or rather several of them: to Seattle for the October fair, to Salt Lake City, for one last library visit, to Idaho, to put flowers on the graves. He will be taking that last trip with us sometime next Spring, once the snow melts in Pocatello, to rejoin Kathleen, who we buried last May, his parents and his brothers Steve Pat and Danny, and too many of his relatives to count (the Mormons being a fruitful people).

I learned so much from my father: my love of animals (he always had at least one cat or dog at home), an appreciation for London as one of the finest places on earth (with apologies to my French husband), the conviction that museums and bookstores are a necessary and worthy place for children to spend time (as I drag my own children to one every chance I get), that we answer “finished”, not “done” when we are asked if we have completed our meal, that Latin is a fine and worthy language…for other people to speak.

Perhaps more than anything though, I knew that my father loved me, and that family and community were important to him. I want to thank you all for being here for us, for each other, and for him.

Thank you.

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