Tribune reporter Colleen Mastony had a delightful piece on page 2 of last Thursday’s paper about the sale of Leon Despres’ library at O’Gara’s Bookstore on 57th Street. The late former alderman and longtime Hyde Park firebrand, who died earlier this year at 101, was known for his progressive activism and fervent opposition to Mayor Daley the Elder, but less well known was that Len was also an omnivorous reader and polymath.
As Mastony reports, his books bear witness to his phenomenal life, enshrining inscriptions from fellow Chicago greats such as Studs Terkel, Lois Weisberg, and Mike Royko. She writes:
“In some ways, bookshelves are like mirrors; they reflect a person's life, revealing a mosaic of thoughts and ideals. ‘There is a certain intimacy, a view into very private things about a person that you get by looking at their books,’ said Douglas Wilson, the owner of O'Gara & Wilson. . . .That student ended up buying a copy of Chicago: City on the Make. It cost him $125, but considering it was inscribed to Len by author Nelson Algren himself, he must have thought it was worth it.
“Despres was meticulous with his library. He tucked articles and correspondence into dust jackets. He never dog-eared pages and rarely wrote in his books, except to make a small dash in a margin with a pencil. When he took notes, he put them on loose leaf.
“‘He just loved his books,’ said Despres' son, Robert. ‘Among the reasons he said he didn't want to move out of the apartment was that he loved being surrounded by his books.’
“At the end of the summer, a small sign went up in the window at O'Gara & Wilson: ‘We are honored to sell fine books from the personal library of the late 5th Ward Alderman Leon Despres (1908-2009).’
“On a recent afternoon, a young law student came into the shop. The student greatly admired Despres and marveled at the stories of his life: the time that Despres was dispatched to Mexico to deliver a suitcase to Leon Trotsky, the labor protest that Despres had helped organize in 1937, the single-minded way Despres had stood up against Mayor Richard J. Daley -- who often retaliated at City Council meetings by having Despres' microphone switched off.”
It’s a fine Hyde Park tale: books, O’Gara’s, and Leon Despres. Consume these stories while ye may: there’ll be none of them in Age of Kindle.