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Folger Story

For every stage of life, the Folger offers inspiration

Owner of Fredericksburg bookstore found his path through Folger programs

I grew up around the corner from the Folger. The bas reliefs on the front facade were a part of afternoon walks with my grandfather while I was still in a stroller and Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

My earliest memory inside the building was seeing a production of Hamlet featuring Michael Tolaydo as Hamlet’s ghost, prowling with sponge-soled shoes to muffle the sound of his movements. To this day, the smell of dry ice takes me back to my first Shakespeare on that stage. I attended whatever I could through middle school and high school, either with my parents in their good seats or like-minded friends in whatever seats (or standing room) we could manage, seeing Stacey Keach as Richard III, Avery Brooks and Andre Braugher in Othello, Kelly McGillis, Sabrina La Beauf.

Making Shakespeare ours in high school

In 1992 I joined a dozen other high school students from all around DC to share in the magic of the library side of the Folger as a high school fellow. Within moments of arriving we were whisked down a level to a carpeted conference room, where with little ado, a First Folio was wheeled out for our perusal. We flipped through to famous passages and giggled to ourselves at the long S in Hamlet’s soliloquy—“To fleep, perchance to Dreame…” —we thought it was hilarious and it became a private punchline. It was precisely this personal interaction with the Folio and the play that the whole program was set up to instill in us; it was a complete and instantaneous demystification. From that moment on, Shakespeare was ours—not an unreachable icon, but a writer we could touch with our own hands, giggle about, and form friendships over.

Shakespeare was ours—not an unreachable icon, but a writer we could touch with our own hands, giggle about, and form friendships over.

Louisa Newlin and Peggy O’Brien introduced us to everything: Peter Blayney imitating the sounds of the printing press in Shakespeare’s England, showing us the characteristic discrepancies of the various compositors, and tracing in excruciating detail just how many days Shakespeare might have intended for poor Kent to get himself safely out of Lear’s England, depending on whether you are reading a quarto, the Folio, or Barbara Mowat’s Folger Shakespeare Edition; Stephen Booth opening our eyes to the experience of theater in the wings, on the margins, and in the lobby, not just under the lights, all equally valid for study.

Returning to the Folger again and again

I returned to the Folger as an intern for the Teaching Shakespeare Institute twice during college, alongside a group of English teachers from around the country. I was introduced to stage combat, deep textual research, and breaking down Shakespeare for high school classrooms. What stays with me from that experience were the visiting high school teachers themselves who came to Washington, DC, uncertain and over the course of the month shed their doubts, energized each other, and laughed as hard as they worked. Peggy and her team opened the door and let them in and transformed lives.

The constant in all this is Shakespeare, of course, and the realization that the study of Shakespeare would reward every effort, that the return on the investment of diving deep was repaid with interest.

Today, I live my life among books—my bookstore in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is in its 27th year—and there is no question in my mind that my experiences at the Folger showed me this path, showed me the wonderful people who were already on it, and made it attainable and attractive to me.

Now I take my own children to the Folger. Still my neighborhood theater, fully 40 years on.