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Florence Shay, a Literary Luminary, Dies at 90

Shay's rare books shop, which has been open in Highland Park for 40 years, will close at the end of this year. The Deerfield resident died Aug. 22.

The following obituary was provided by the family of the late Florence Shay.

Florence Shay, a rare-book dealer whose shop in Highland Park, , served for four decades as a salon for bibliophiles, died Aug. 22. She was 90 years old and until her recent illness was a constant presence in her store, at book fairs and as a leader of local and national associations of antiquarian book dealers.

Born in New York City on Valentine's Day in 1922 as Florence Gerson, the future book dealer graduated from Brooklyn College where she studied psychology. Married to an Army aviator, Art Shay, who became a writer and photographer, Florence moved with her husband as his career at Life magazine sent them first to San Francisco and then, in 1950, to the Chicago area.

As she settled in Deerfield and raised five children — Jane, Harmon, Richard, Lauren and Steven — Florence Shay also became active in a used book sale that supported ORT, the Jewish organization committed to "educating people against all odds and obstacles." Together with a partner, Shay turned that experience into Titles, Inc., a store that for four decades has specialized in first editions, Chicago-related topics, illustrated and art books, leather sets, and other rare volumes.

A passionate advocate for books, authors and booksellers, Shay treasured her correspondence with Joseph Heller, David Mamet and local collectors, including Chicago Bulls point guard B. J. Armstrong. Inscribed photos of these and other luminaries line the walls of her shop. Many of the books she sold were also inscribed by the authors, ranging from photography books by her husband to the Hollywood autobiography of Gloria Swanson, Swanson on Swanson.

As a board member of the Midwest Antiquarian Booksellers Association (MWABA), and a prominent figure within the national group, the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America, Shay was instrumental in bringing the prestigious international antiquarian book show to Chicago.

Shay, a longtime resident of Deerfield, also focused her attention on her local community, remaining active in the the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce, which recently recognized her for running one of the oldest continuing operating stores in town.

As the grand dame of her own salon at Titles, Shay found that her early academic work in pyschology was often useful when regular customers, famous and otherwise, sought her advice, empathy and wise words.

A prolific writer, she served as a contributing editor of The Caxtonian, the regular publication of the Caxton Club. In her 80’s, Shay started a blog at www.florenceshay.com and recounted the best stories of those Titles discussions for readers around the world. A recent entry quoted a customer who found the very book once treasured by her own sister:  “My sister screamed when I gave her the book.  She pushed it in my face, and said See, see, it’s MY book, here’s my name!” Shay ended the item with a warning to e-book readers: “You can’t get this with a Kindle. God bless books.”

One son, Harmon, and a sister, Ruth, pre-deceased her. Shay is survived by her husband, Art; their other children; six grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and a brother, Donald.

Services were held Sunday at in Highland Park.

Memorials may be made in her memory to Congregation B’nai Torah, to Planned Parenthood or to a charity of your choice.

As Florence Shay directed, the store will close by the end of the year. The highlights of her 40 years of acquisitions will be sold at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in an auction set for Wednesday, Nov. 7. The store will be open as usual through that period, with substantial discounts on other items including books, figurines and prints.

This month, her friend, the Smashing Pumpkins star Billy Corgan, wrote an essay for the Ravinia program about the local area that called Titles "a Highland Park mainstay."

"Run affectionately and decisively by Florence Shay," Corgan wrote, "it's a small bookstore with a big heart: hosting a deep well of off-the-beaten-path tomes that would make even the stingiest bibliophile happy. I've never failed to leave Titles without either a new old book under my arm, or at least the trailing echoes of a vigorous conversation by which to further contemplate my ongoing existential crisis."

Goddard Graves August 28, 2012 at 03:29 PM
Just read this from far away. There really are no words for this great lover of words, and great lover of all that matters in this world. Thanks to Art and family for sharing us with her all these wondrous years. -- Goddard and Suzy Graves
J.S. Hoffman August 29, 2012 at 09:13 PM
I will miss her, I will miss the shop, and I will miss the wonderful atmosphere the minute I was inside.
kelly milani September 05, 2012 at 03:41 PM
Dicky and family , We were all so sorry to hear about your mom .Florence was such a groovy , hip lady that never showed her age ! She will be missed . With heartfelt sympathy , Kelly , Robert , and Jeanette
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