Cheryl Needle, an antiquarian bookseller from Pepperell, MA, died in January. Born in 1948, she is survived by children and grandchildren, her partner of 25+ years, Frank Infante, her former husband and sometime business partner, Matthew Needle of Newburyport, MA, and her many friends and colleagues in the trade. Although she was not a member of the ABAA, she had all the qualities one looks for in a great antiquarian dealer: a fine eye for unusual material, reasonable prices, the highest ethical standards, and on top of that, she was friendly, decent, and caring.
Greg Gibson: A veteran of more than four decades as a used book dealer, Cheryl was an active participant in what many regard as the final phase of the Golden Age of book selling in New England. Good material was available and cheap, and giants like Benny Tighe and Sam Murray still roamed the earth. Attics groaned with rare books, and an adroit dealer could hop from country auction to country auction the way, it is said, that squirrels were able to travel by tree from the east coast to the Mississippi without once touching the ground.
We did our business by postcard and telephone, and we waited eagerly for each week’s issue of AB Magazine – not just for the treasures on offer there, but for the information it imparted and the sense of community it gave us. There were many more of us back then, working out of our houses or rented cubbyholes, scouting each others stock and prowling back roads and antique shops. We lived by our wits and we made our livings by what we knew, not by our ability to interrogate a computer. We were a community – albeit a rather scruffy one – and Cheryl was at the center of it, from her first days at Bogside Bookshop to her final hours in Pepperell.
In her earliest scouting adventures she and her husband Matthew, it seemed, went everywhere and knew everyone. And everyone came to her. She fed us, she gave us shelter, she sold us books. We laughed with her, we got into deals with her, and we sat with her as she wept. There was reason enough, occasionally, for weeping. Raising two kids on a book dealer’s dole was no picnic.
Still, she transcended the rough spots; the image we all have of her, the one that endures, is her radiant smile, her soft chuckle. The tilt of her head, the gleam of her glasses, and those lovely hands, wrapping our purchase in its brown bag, applying the sticker to the package, and sending us on to the next booth.
Sometime in the late 1970s book fairs came into vogue, and Cheryl was one of the first to integrate them wholly into her business. We’d shop fairs in Concord or Cambridge, and there would be Cheryl and Matty, on the floor already, Cheryl having set up her booth and Matty having scouted the fair before we even got in the door. Eventually we saw the light and started doing fairs ourselves. Book fairs boomed through the 1980s and then the computer came along. Ah, well…
Cheryl adapted. But she never gave up on book fairs. She was a constant fixture, and we could easily have taken her for granted, except that her stock always commanded our attention. If we dealt in any aspect of Americana, her book shelves were a mandatory stop. In fact they were often a mandatory first stop.
She had a great eye for antiquarian material, and before we let her go, let us pause to consider that she was doing a brisk trade in ephemera long before most of us realized its importance. Now that “paper” has risen to the top in the book selling world, we should recall Cheryl’s booths of yore. Always a handsome stock of books, and always boxes and boxes of… paper.
Bob Rubin and Matty and I went to visit her shortly before she died. She was in that profound discomfort of those near death, in which the very state of being alive is a trial. We talked about her pain – she said she’d been lucky, that it had only recently come upon her – and we talked about hospitals, and about hospice. And then, like the sun coming out, we began to talk about books, and by the time we were finished, Cheryl had sold something to Bob and something else to me. And it felt just right. Her career ended as it began.
Charles Wood: Cheryl Needle was a treasure in the antiquarian book world. She was a person who was kind and generous and loved by all. She was a fixture at several book fairs in the New England area -- Papermania in Hartford, MARIAB in Wilmington, MA and Northampton MA, the Boston ABAA "Shadow Show", the Ephemera Fair in Greenwich and in earlier years the Albany book fair, close to where she grew up. She learned much from her former husband, Matty Needle, but she was bright and taught herself much more. She was good at internet research. Her knowledge of nineteenth century American culture and history was remarkable and the two catalogues which she issued over her long career are collector's items.
I remember the first time I met her; it was about 1969 or '70 when she and Matty were living in Littleton, MA. They must have had a "For Sale" ad in AB Bookman's Weekly, and I answered it as there was something I wanted. She sent me back a postcard inviting me up and promising "cookies and milk" in case the books did not work out. In those days Matty would go off on two- or three-day buying trips to upstate New York and come home with treasures not to be imagined today. Cheryl would hang in the background but she took in everything that went on. Time passed and they separated and then divorced but always remained friends. She started doing book fairs on her own and Matty would give her books to sell, the proceeds to go to her and their kids (who always lived with her). Slowly she began to gain confidence and developed areas of expertise -- the Trancendentalists, women's issues, geology, manuscripts, etc. Much of it was and still is far from my own areas of interest and expertise but she gave of her knowledge in quiet and gentle ways and developed some very serious and high placed customers. In more recent years she would buy on her own, often from local homes and estates in the area of northeastern Massachusetts. She found amazing things.
Of the many tributes I’ve read in the last few days one in particular stood out to me. Kevin MacDonnell wrote: "I always thought that all of those New England book fairs would have approached perfection if every booth and bookseller were more like hers, and her, and told her so." I never really thought about it in those terms, but Kevin is absolutely right. Of course I too thought the same thing. It’s just that I never told her so. I wish I did.
Her talents did not go unrecognized. Several years ago she was elected to membership in the American Antiquarian Society, an honor not accorded to many members of our trade. She was without any doubt one of the brightest and most capable booksellers in New England. It is very sad to lose her.
Taylor Bowie: When I made regular trips to New England, one of the regular stops and highlights for me was visiting Cheryl at her home, where I would spend hours combing through a stock of older and to me always curious books... not the kind of stock I was ever going to see out here in the west.
And the book scouting would always be followed (or sometimes interrupted) by a tasty home-cooked lunch, always with some kind of freshly baked pie, pastry or cake. We would sit the the table and relax, and conversation might be on anything and everything.
I recall one visit in particular, not for the books or even the wonderful meal, but for a phone call Cheryl received from her daughter while we were eating. During the course of their conversation, the daughter mentioned that she and her friends were going to be attending a concert by a group called "Jesus Jones" and for some reason both Cheryl and I found that hilarious and could hardly stop laughing about it for the rest of my visit... one of us could just say the name out loud... "Jesus Jones"... and the laughter would start all over again.
Although she wasn't much older than I, there was something very motherly and nurturing about Cheryl, which just made you feel so warm and welcome. She was kind and good... that's how I would describe her.
And as with so many of my colleagues in the trade, her interesting books were just a bonus... the real prize was just knowing her and calling her a friend.
Peter Stern: While knowing her for decades, I can’t claim to have been close, however the opinions and feelings for her were universal, and while it would have been embarrassing to her to describe her in this fundamentally immodest way, she was as close as anyone in our trade has come to sainthood.
While my own record of participating in fairs is often cited as an example of hard work and dedication (but to me, such choices have often been no better than foolish, or the product of wishful thinking), compared to Cheryl I’ve been a slacker. I doubt if any colleague has ever matched her energy and constant motion; the sheer number of fairs and shows she exhibited at was daunting. And she brought a lot of books too.
A humorous recollection of Cheryl was at a fair in Brattleboro Vermont. Her booth appeared unattended one Saturday-morning, but all of a sudden she popped out from under the table where she had been napping.
I’ve often been tempted to do that.
Michael Hollander: A friend for 45 years. I spoke to her two weeks ago and we had a nice lengthy conversation. Raising two daughters and running a book business alone was not a lot of fun but she was always cheerful. She laughed at my jokes, fed me, and was one of the people we occasionally meet in life that one gives thanks for knowing them.
John Spencer: Even though Cheryl was a vegetarian, we always managed to eat a good Indian meal whenever we exhibited at the same fairs. I will miss her serious, kind hearted approach to life and book selling. May she rest in peace!
Sheryl Jaeger: Cheryl Needle was one of a kind, an Earth Mother by nature. She was beloved by all who knew her. She refused to sell anything “cute” and only sold what she loved. Each visit to her booth brought surprises and special buys. A knowledgeable and caring individual. Rest in peace Cheryl.
Lisa Unger Baskin: I adored Cheryl. I think I must have nearly every receipt of purchases from her. I just checked. 78 entries in my database. Some for collections. One most precious little anti-slavery manuscript.
Books, manuscripts, ephemera, pamphlets.... but we shared politics. A lot. Sympathetic and smart. I miss her and am grateful to have shared shows and days of visiting, and sharing stories of loss and joy.