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Mother's Gift

05/09/02 12:00AM By Edith Hunter
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(Host) This Sunday is Mother's Day and it's reminded commentator Edith Hunter of her own mother - and a priceless gift.

You may have tangible wealth untold:
Caskets of jewels & coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be -
I had a mother who read to me. S. Gillilan

(Hunter) I grew up during the Great Depression in Roxbury, Massachusetts. My father, an MIT graduate, was in the textile business which had pretty much gone south. He found what work he could in an increasingly depressed economy. By the time I, the youngest of three, was ten, Mother decided to go to work. She had been a public school teacher, but in the 1930s the Boston public schools did not hire married women as teachers.

Then she discovered "My Book House." These books were not sold in stores but by representatives who went door to door - educated women who attended special training classes, and only then were considered qualified to represent the company. Mother had always loved books and always read to us. She quickly became an enthusiastic member of the Book House sales force. I can hear her now, giving her sales pitch "The world's best literature arranged by Olive Beaupre Miller, a Smith College graduate, appropriate to children at every age level, and illustrated by outstanding artists of the past."

The company advertised in family magazines. An interested person would fill out the ad, and send it in to the company who would send it to the representative in the territory of the prospective buyer. Mother's territory was Roxbury, West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, Rosalindale, and Brookline. By the 1930s, we no longer could afford a car and Mother road the trolley cars, carrying a heavy prospectus with sample pages of the books. Armed with her leads she went knocking on doors.

My Book House was expensive. The cost of the set ranged from $100 to $200, but was usually sold on the installment plan, about $3.50 a month. Making a sale was not easy, but she had a missionary's zeal. Mother was proud of her "Book House children, " children who grew up in homes where she had placed Book House. Her customers became her friends. Most were either Jewish or black. Many became leaders in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, embodying the Book House motto: "The child who reads is the child who leads."

When my parents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary we three children gave a chowder party for them at the Parish House of the First Church in Roxbury. We invited their former white neighbors who had long since moved to the suburbs, their black neighbors who were increasingly moving into our part of Roxbury, and as many of mother's Book House children as we could contact. It is with gratitude I remember my mother, the "Book House Lady", who cared enough about her own children and a generation of other people's children to go out and sell those books in the depth of the Great Depression.

This is Edith Hunter on the Center Road.

Writer and historian Edith Hunter lives in Weathersfield Center, Vermont.
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