Over the years the ancient sport of mountaineering has inspired an outpouring of books—more than 10,000 in English alone. Working out of his spacious Manhattan apartment, Michael Chessler selects some 500 of these books for his 40-page catalog, Peaks, Passes and Glaciers, which he mails to regular customers four times a year. Within a matter of days, book orders arrive from all over North America and as far away as England, France and New Zealand.
Climbing is so physically demanding and dangerous that many climbers retire from the sport at a fairly young age. Because those who do find that they miss the fantastic sights and the thrill of the ascent, they buy books about the mountains they once climbed. For example, Chessler sells many books about Kilimanjaro, a mountain more fabled than difficult. Most climbers scale it without incident and later, inspired by the experience, want to read more about it.
The biggest sellers tend to be the new releases, although the perennial favorite is The Ascent of Rum Doodle, a satire of the sport that Chessler can't import quickly enough from England. He makes the most money from the rare books he sells to collectors, such as the Duke of the Abruzzi's story of his 1909 attempt on K2, which goes for $1,000 a copy—whenever one becomes available.
Chessler's fifth-floor New York apartment doubles as an unusual bookstore. He shares it with his friend Heinke Forfota and two cats, Duke (named for Abruzzi) and Fanny (named for Fanny Bullock Workman, the great feminist climber who dragged her husband around the world with her and carried a newspaper with a headline that read VOTES FOR WOMEN).
Both cats are terrific climbers, of course, and they practice their technique on the two large walls of bookshelves. Each shelf is crammed two-deep with books ranging from the glossy new releases to Chessler's prized corner of valuable leather-bound volumes. In addition to the maps, prints and photographs, which Chessler also sells, are desert plants from California, a Papua New Guinea tribal mask, a Tibetan calendar, sundry mountaineering paintings, a bike (hanging from the ceiling) and even some rusty crampons in a closet stuffed with hiking gear.
Chessler became interested in climbing when he joined the Open Road Club at Brooklyn College in the '60s. He scaled various walls around the campus to develop his techniques and still goes mountain climbing at least once a year. But most of the time he is in New York City and welcomes visitors to his bookstore. Or you can place an order by writing to him at 90 Hudson Street, New York, N.Y. 10013 or by calling him at (212) 219-1696. And yes, there is an elevator.