Collecting Delaware Books
Gertrude Kruse dominated the world of books in Delaware decade after decade, though she was just a modest retail merchant.
The story begins in 1920. Printer Fred Steinlein died of tuberculosis. His wife, Alice, had developed a business of her own, selling magazine subscriptions and operating a book club. She decided to open a full-service book store and rented shop and living space at 223 W. 11 th St., Wilmington. It was called the Greenwood Book Shop.
There seem to be two stories about the name. One says the store was named for the song "Under the Greenwood Tree" in Shakespeare's As You Like It. The other says it was in honor of Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree.
During her first year, Alice Steinlein hired 20-year-old GertrudeKruse (crew-zee) as a clerk. Kruse said she had never been to school, but was tutored by a neighborhood woman and read voraciously.
The store flourished under the two women. It moved to 307 Delaware Ave. In 1936, it moved again to 912 Market St. in the Delaware Trust Building.
It is said that Mrs. Steinlein financed the venture by the sale of stock at $50 a share to Delaware's literary elite. One of these stock certificates would make a wonderful Delaware collectible.
However, when Steinlein retired in 1945, Kruse could not afford to buy the business. W. W. "Chick" Laird, Jr., a frequent patron of the literary arts in Delaware, bought the Greenwood and made Kruse manager. Under her leadership, the store began its most prosperous period, and she was able to buy out Laird within five years. The shop moved to 110 W. 9th St. in 1958.
The Greenwood was primarily a new book store. For many years Kruse would not carry paperbacks. She also stocked art, antiques, and prints. One former employee says each antique was bought for a specific customer, however.
The shop sponsored many Delaware literary projects and published a number of books. A complete list of Greenwood Book Shop editions is not available and would make a grand project for a researcher.
Some books carry the identification "Greenwood Bookshop Edition," with "bookshop" as one word. However the business was legally "The Greenwood Book Shop Inc." and is so listed in Wilmington telephone directories.
Old books about Delaware were stocked on the second floor balcony of the 9th St. location. Many a Delaware book collection started or ended there. The late Bill Frank quoted Kruse as saying, "The supply of Delaware books is drying up, but the demand is still keen. And of course, the prices vary according to what I have to pay for the books."
It is said Kruse had uncanny judgment about the reading tastes of her customers. And those customers ranged from the book-loving high school student to the wealthy residents of chateau country. One of the few times she was wrong was her evaluation of Gone With the Wind. She knew it would be a best seller, but the magnitude of its success was a surprise. She had to raise her order quantities several times.
She was an imaginative marketer, putting on special events and seeing that her employees (she had as many as ten) each developed skills in special areas.
She used to say that printer Ben Cohen gave her the idea of a cart in front of the store containing specially priced books. This became a Greenwood "trademark." Of course, the idea was hardly new and was regular practice in book districts in New York, Boston, and London.
There are many stories that can not be confirmed. One says she was forced out of the Delaware Trust Building by the "financial powers." On the other hand, it is said she relied on Delaware Trust for capital, since it was the only bank that would lend money to a businesswoman.
Several writers insist she would not allow anything in the shop that was even slightly pornographic, yet one lady who knew her thought Kruse purchased racy material on special order for certain customers.
Kruse retired in 1972, and sold the Greenwood to Colwyn Krussman. Kruse died in 1981. The shop closed in 1983, victim of the new book world of paperbacks and mass marketing.
Much of the above history was gleaned from articles in the Wilmington News Journal and is well known by long-time Delaware residents. Several months ago, Collecting Delaware Books asked for readers' anecdotes and reminiscences about Gertrude Kruse. The following are from some of the responses.
Most employees and customers called her "Gertie." However one customer who responded referred to her more formally. "Miss Kruse was not grouchy, but she had no sense of humor.
"She helped me find Delaware books so often and seldom charged me market price for them, that I bought her a box of Govatos chocolates every Christmas." (Govatos, of course, is another old Wilmington retailer.)
One former employee reports, "I worked for Gertie the summer before my junior year in college (1945) and the next two summers. I worked for her for one-and-a-half years after graduation.
"My second summer the shop was closed a week for redecoration. When it reopened, I was ill and couldn't go to see people's reaction. I was very disappointed.
"She would often send a clerk like me to an art exhibit in Washington or a book and author luncheon in Philadelphia. She gave employees a 25% discount on books so we could be well read.
"One of my first customers was a distinguished Wilmingtonian. I asked if I could help him. 'Have you read every book in this shop?' he glared. 'No,' I said. 'Then you can't possibly help me.'
"When I was garden book clerk, she gave me my head. When I proposed a garden book promotion week with flowers and plants in the shop, she approved heartily. She even gave the woman hired for cleaning and running errands a chance to arrange the window decorations from time to time.
"She knew the needs of all her customers. One wealthy client expected to be kept supplied with mystery stories.
"During lunch hour, the shop was full of readers.
"I don't ever remember her brother, Albert Kruse, coming in the shop. [Albert was a prominant Wilmington architect, who supervised the restoration of the old court house in New Castle and Mount Harmon plantation in Maryland. ]
"There were about ten employees when I was there, including John in the cellar who unpacked shipments and wrapped mail orders.
"She was always joking. We called her "mama mouse" because of her collection of stuffed and ceramic mice on her desk. People were always giving them to her. Those were fun days. It was a nice group of people.
"One time Gertie came in fuming. An interior decorator had asked for enough books with fine leather bindings to fill 24 feet of shelves. She didn't approve, but she filled the order.
"She had a price code to mark the purchase price of used books and antiques. It was the word "decorating," in which no letters are repeated. "D" meant one, "E" meant two, and so on.
"Gertie knew everybody in Delaware, but her best friend was Gertrude Brinckle. They often had tea together."
One Greenwood customer says, "Marian Mullins, who worked for David Stockwell was her sidekick in later years. I would often see them together at Delaware and Philadelphia antiques shows.
"When I was drafted during the war , we were marched down Market Street to the train station. We passed the Greenwood in the Delaware Trust Building and I glanced over to see if any of the ladies of the shop were watching. They were all there waving and calling my name. That did wonderful things for my drooping morale.
"Gertie and I used to have dinner together at the Hob Tea Room in the Delaware Trust Building, her treat, as I was just out of the Army then. When I became gainfully employed, I was delighted to become one of the Greenwood's best customers.
"She was such a sweetheart. Though she had hundreds of devoted friends, especially in the Delaware 'establishment,' she always made everyone feel like a special friend.
"Gerts preferred the book end rather than the nuts and bolts of business, but she did both well.
"For relief, she used to stay at a Philadelphia hotel on some weekends, taking along her knitting and needlework. She would sit in Old St. Peter's at 3rd and Pine and relish the peacefulness.
"In her younger years, she would take the open-air trolley to Brandywine Springs. The tracks took a dip through Tatum's Woods near Elsmere. As the car approached the decline, everyone would shout, 'Let her roll, conductor!' and the trolley would barrel down the track at the shocking speed of 40 miles per hour.
"There was a dining pavilion at the center of the trolley circle at Brandywine Springs. A waiter, newly arrived from Italy, took responsibility for knowing all the departure times. Gertrude was always 'elected' by her friends to ask about the times, because they knew she would render it in a hilarious Italian accent.
"Gertrude's interest in books began when she worked at the old Wilmington Institute Library at 8th and Market.
"After World War II, I worked in Wilmington and Washington, D.C., for a while, but finally in Philadelphia until my retirement. During all this time I bought every Delaware book as soon as Gertie could send it to me.
A book and magazine wholesaler says, "The old New York Herald-Tribune used to have a list of shops it used as a new book gauge. If those shops ordered a book in quantity it was destined to be a best seller. The Greenwood was one of the shops.
"I called on Miss Kruse. She was a stern and imposing lady. When I suggested she carry paperbacks and buy them from me, she came down on me hard. 'No indeed, she would not stock paperbacks.'
"Once that was settled we developed a nice relationship over the years. She eventually gave in on the paperbacks."
Another former employee writes, "I worked at the Greenwood Book Shop from 1946 to 1948. Gertrude Kruse introduced this green college graduate to the worlds of aesthetic taste and business acumen.
"We wore name tags encased in sterling silver. "Gertie taught efficiency. Devotion to a single customer's needs, she explained, could result in lengthy waiting for other customers. She demonstrated how to accommodate several customers at one time.
"The monetary rewards were minuscule, but there were perks that were priceless. On day she assured the Random House salesman he would brighten my life by offering me a sample copy of the first printing of the St. Nicholas Anthology.
"And she looked with benevolence on the young DuPont chemist who courted me in her bookshop and spent much of his paycheck on her wares. Her wedding gift to us was a leatherbound copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse. We cherish it still.
"Gertie chose her family of associates with care, and created a well-run organization from a variety of ages and economic backgrounds. Each member had a special loyalty to her. It was a privilege to be associated with this team under Gertrude Kruse's leadership."
Some of the historical material was drawn from the writings of Lee Reese, Bill Frank, and W. Emerson Wilson, all of whom were customers of the Greenwood Book Shop. Some of the readers offering reminiscences were Emily Sanders, Charles S. Haas, Charles G. Dorman, Eleanor R. Miller, and Stanley Budner.