Above: A few of Maida Tilchen's finds over the years. Photographs by Bob O'Connor.

IN 1879, WHEN SUSAN WALLACE, wife of New Mexico Territorial Governor Lew Wallace (better known as the author of Ben-Hur), lived in the Palace of the Governors, the 1610 building was decrepit from centuries of neglect. One restless day, she pushed open a mysterious door. “It slowly swung on rusty hinges,” she later wrote in her memoir, The Land of the Pueblos. “I paused at the entrance to let the ghosts fly out. … Tumbled into barrels and boxes, tossed on the floor in moist piles, lay the written records of events stretching over a period of more than three hundred years. … I groped among the musty annals … and in the shadowy history wandered back two centuries.” She had stumbled upon an extraordinary cache of books, maps, and hundreds of forgotten documents from the years of Spanish colonial rule. Among them was a love letter sent in 1692 by a “Rosita of Castile” to “my own true love and faithful knight” in Santa Fe.

I envy Susan Wallace’s discovery. When something interests me, I will soon accumulate many books about it. My passion for reading and collecting New Mexico books began with the first of 20 vacations I have spent there since 1993. My first trip was to visit a friend who had moved to Taos. As a lifelong Easterner, I knew nothing about New Mexico, so she suggested I read Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir, Edge of Taos Desert, written in 1937, before visiting the house of the legendary doyenne of Taos’s creative society. I happily agreed. Reading a book and then visiting where it takes place makes me feel that I am living in the story. As I traveled around the state that first time, I wanted to read about every place I saw and all of the people I learned about. I purchased as many books as I could cram into my suitcase. Back home, I kept reading and also started writing historical novels set in New Mexico. On every return trip since, I have struggled with a dilemma: whether to spend my limited time seeing new sites or looking for new literary treasures. 

Read more: The books touched our hearts, built our brains, and inspired us to hit the hiking trail. Best of all: They're super easy to wrap.

Books about New Mexico can be found anywhere—not just in New Mexico. They are often supplemented with beautiful maps, unique photos, signatures, bookplates, and other historical relics. A few years ago, at a bookshop in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, I opened a copy of Claire Morrill’s A Taos Mosaic: Portrait of a New Mexico Village to discover that it was signed by the book’s photographer, Laura Gilpin, whose pictures of Diné people and Southwestern landscapes are highly prized. But there was also an inscription: “To Fay and Lawrence, looking forward to many more pleasant Taos visits. Claire.” Fay and Lawrence! That had to be the rare-book librarian and writer Lawrence Clark Powell, the most knowledgeable champion of New Mexico books and authors, and his wife. I can picture that day in 1973 when, with her friends celebrating her book launch, Morrill signed this copy of her own memoir in her own bookshop. The Taos Book Shop was the first of its kind in Taos, opened by Morrill and her life partner, Genevieve, in 1947. They had grown to be middle-aged and bored with their professional jobs. “How about setting up a book shop, we asked ourselves, in some place with verve and color, a spot where we really wanted to live?” Morrill wrote. “But where? About this time we began to hear of Taos.”

Today, I own not only Morrill’s signed book but also a ceramic Taos Book Shop coffee mug that proclaims “The Oldest Bookshop in New Mexico,” although, sadly, the store closed in 2002.

Tilchen in the "shrine of New Mexico" she created in her home in Boston.
Above: Tilchen in the "shrine of New Mexico" she created in her home in Boston.

The prize of my collection is Introduction to American Indian Art, the catalog from a 1931 art exhibit titled The Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts, which toured New York, Boston, and 13 other cities. It marked the first time that objects made by Native people were presented as art, not crafts or souvenirs, as had been the case before. After thousands of people crowded the shows, art museums began—slowly—to display American Indian works as art. Purchase prices rose, private art collectors started buying, and Native artists received a more appropriate value for their talents. The exhibition, the catalog, and its essays were the work of prominent members of the Santa Fe Art Colony and their friends, particularly writers Oliver La Farge and Mary Austin and artist John Sloan. All were attempting to position Native art as the only fundamentally American art in the U.S.—or art that did not have any European influence.

I found this wonderful catalog under a table at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, library book sale 20 or so years ago, in a carton of discarded, damaged books. I immediately recognized it, because I had read about this exhibition in many memoirs, biographies, and histories of Santa Fe artists and Southwestern Indian art. When I handed it to the cashier, she grabbed it from me and began to thoughtlessly roll it in her hands, as many people will do with a magazine-like object. I believe I screamed in panic, thinking, Protect this precious and fragile item! She then sold it to me for 10 cents.

Read more: We’ve picked easy-to-wrap presents for the art lovers, history buffs, outdoor adventurers, and young readers on your gift list.

At a Taos flea market, I found Allow Me to Present 18 Ladies and Gentlemen and Taos, N.M. 1885–1939, signed by the author, Rebecca Salsbury James. Her father was the producer and manager of the legendary Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In 1929, when she was married to the renowned photographer Paul Strand, she accompanied her close friend Georgia O’Keeffe on the artist’s first visit to the Southwest. James later settled in Taos and made reverse paintings of flowers on glass. In 1947, she interviewed 18 less publicized residents, not just the famous artists or writers, along with impressive women who were community leaders, for the Taos newspaper El Taoseño. All were of an era that was passing, with the earliest born before or having arrived in Taos in 1885. The individual profiles tell a larger story of how the people of this small and remote community worked together to develop the modern services they needed. For example, Maggie Simpson Gusdorf, whose mother was from one of Taos’s oldest Hispanic families, organized 50 women to start a vocational school. She supervised its construction through the winter. “Wrapped in a heavy coat, wearing galoshes, through rain, snow, sleet, and bitter cold she stood watch: The building finally became a reality.” Pascual Martínez, a great-nephew of legendary priest and educator Padre Antonio José Martínez, was Taos’s first postmaster, later a forest ranger, and a very busy citizen. James wrote that he “traveled in all kinds of weather in the Bookmobile over bad roads, showing movies, educating his people.”

James’s research included materials and photographs in “long buried boxes, trunks, and old scrapbooks.” That was one of my dreams, too—to find such a cache—but I didn’t expect to have access to any forgotten storerooms or attics. Then, one wintry day in 2007 at the Southwest Research Center, an archive in Taos, I was picking through a sales bin of donations and duplicate books and magazines when a little envelope fell out of a 1910 magazine. It had a 1906 cancellation mark, and when I saw that it was addressed to Mr. and Mrs. A. Gusdorf, I gasped loudly and the librarian came running over. The Gusdorfs were Taos’s most prominent Jewish family. They owned a store on the plaza and other early-20th-century businesses. The letter was from their daughter Corinne, complaining that the apples in Colorado Springs, where she was living, were not as good as the great Taos apples she remembered. For all the hundreds of thousands of books I have opened in my life, this was my first historical artifact! The librarian happily added the letter to the archive’s collection.

The next day, I visited Corinne’s grave in Kit Carson Cemetery. It was next to that of her father, Alexander Gusdorf. His nephew, Albert Gusdorf, was the husband of Maggie Simpson Gusdorf, whom I had read about in James’s book.

Treasures within the shrine includes a Willard Clark ad for La Fonda.Above: One book includes delightful Willard Clark ads for Santa Fe businesses.

These days, I’m always watching for books—at bookstores, of course, but also at library book sales, thrift stores, Little Free Libraries, and those neglected bookshelves sometimes found in grocery stores or waiting rooms. Sometimes I’m surprised to find the author’s signature, an inscription to friends, or more. That’s when a book turns into a little museum of New Mexico history. When I opened With a Quiet Heart, a memoir by Eva Le Gallienne, I found this bookplate: “Presented by Mabel Dodge Luhan. Harwood Foundation Library, University of New Mexico, Taos, Oct. 1953.” Morrill had written of Luhan, “She was that comparative rarity among writers, a buyer of other people’s books. She bought them in quantity, read them with lightning speed, and turned them over to the community library of the Harwood Foundation. … Her gifts to Taos [included] thousands of dollars in library books.” Researching deeper, I learned that Eva Le Gallienne was a stage actress and producer prominent in Greenwich Village during the pre-1920 years when Luhan ran a famous salon for politicos and artists there. The same year she donated the book, Luhan had a cataract operation that left her nearly blind. Perhaps she struggled to read about her old friend and then donated it.

Read more: Author Rudolfo Anaya talks about "Bless Me, Ultima" and new stories to come.

A sticker on the Le Gallienne book cover reads “Villagra Book Shop Santa Fe, N.M.” Luhan must have purchased the book at the Villagra, Santa Fe’s first bookstore, which opened in 1921 and moved to Sena Plaza, near the Palace of the Governors, in 1927. The store “occupied a modest room heated by a little corner fireplace that offered the unmistakable aroma of a piñon wood fire in the wintertime,” reports a biography of artist Willard Clark, who designed and printed the bookshop’s advertising. The local literati gathered there every afternoon at four for “gossip and martinis.” Until it closed, sometime in the 1980s, the store had a series of women owners who also published books. The sticker is illustrated with the 1610 engraved image of Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, the early Spanish explorer who wrote the first epic poem of North America. Other books in my collection have labels from long-gone bookstores such as “Santa Fe Book and Stationary Co., Inc. Phone 58 Santa Fe New Mexico.”

After the 1994 Guadalajara Book Fair presented New Mexico as a “featured nation,” the New Mexico Book Publishers Association was established, and it continues today as the New Mexico Book Association. An earlier booklovers’ group, the New Mexico Book League, created In Celebration of the Book in 1982, edited by Dwight and Carol Myers, with essays by publishers, printers, book historians, and others. Upon opening my copy, one of only 500 of this handcrafted limited edition (amazingly still available online at an affordable price), I was delighted to discover a page of signatures by the eight people who made the book—even those who crafted the marbled endpapers and handmade paper.

Treasures within the shrine includes a copy of Taos Mosaic.
Above: Treasures within the shrine includes a copy of Taos Mosaic.

While researching those names, I discovered the enviable history of the book’s publisher and copy editor. Jetta Carleton Lyon’s first and, as it turned out, only novel, The Moonflower Vine, had rocked the New York Times bestseller list for four months in 1962. Jetta and her husband, Jene, thereupon bought 50 acres near Santa Fe and in 1972 started their own publishing house, the Lightning Tree. They put to use some artifacts from the 1920s: Spud Johnson’s printing press from Taos, along with D.H. Lawrence’s woodcutting tools.

My shelves of New Mexico books are only part of my collecting habit. My small home near Boston is filled with so many New Mexico crafts and souvenirs that my friends call it “a shrine to New Mexico.” Collecting New Mexico books mostly in New England means I’m not facing the competition I might have in New Mexico. However, I already have so many books that the hunt has become increasingly challenging, and a “hit” more exciting. There isn’t a single Holy Grail book I would like to find, although I’m always watching for an affordable copy of any of the 17 books published by Writers’ Editions, a short-lived cooperative effort by impoverished Taos writers during the Depression. I happen to know that one is in a book barn in New Hampshire, waiting until I feel rich enough to buy it—unless someone else gets there first.

Story Sidebar

We asked editors at two of New Mexico’s most lauded publishing houses to suggest books they’ve produced that belong on every collector’s shelves—and make for good reading.

Museum of New Mexico Press picks:

University of New Mexico Press picks: