Over the years, many many people have asked why the bookstore I founded fifteen years ago in Madison, Connecticut, is named R.J. Julia. The short answer is that it is named after my father's mother. But this year, I've been telling people the long story, because this is the year my beloved, exuberant, wise, hard-working, curious, complicated, loving father died.
My father was born and lived in Hungary. As World War II approached, my grandmother — recently widowed — resolved that her son would finish high school. This was not easy at that place and time for a Jewish family without resources. But my grandmother was determined. She made the humbling decision to ask for help — to accept charity for my dad to finish school. Her commitment to my dad's education, and her respect and awe for books and learning were her motivations.
She accomplished her dream. My dad finished high school in 1942, despite the odds. His life-long love of books and his insatiable desire to read were launched. But within a year he was imprisoned in a labor camp and was a minesweeper for the Germans. My grandmother was deported to Bergen-Belsen and killed. My dad's life was shaped by her love, and by her loss.
Thanks to her fierce love and resilience, he survived and made his way to America, had six kids, opened a string of bakeries, and realized his version of the American dream. I've always wished that I'd had the chance to meet my grandmother, and to tell her that her son — my dad — had achieved so much. I think I was always looking for a way to honor her accomplishments, her strength and her indomitable spirit.
So when the time came to find a name for a building filled with books, I had no doubt where to look. The small gift I could give to my dad was to name the store after my grandmother Juliska — Julia in English — to honor her dedication to learning and love, and to symbolize the enormous power of books and how they can change lives.
Sometimes you look back on the past and feel amazed at how your experiences seem as though they were designed to lead to a specific goal — even if you weren't aware of it at the time. For me, the publication of The Book That Changed My Life feels like the inevitable objective of my years as a bookseller. In recognition of the power of books to literally change lives — my father's being a dramatic illustration — we asked 71 authors who have visited the store over the years to write about the books that changed their lives. The result is this beautiful collection of essays that my friend, Joy Johannessen, and I edited.
And to complete the circle, the royalties from The Book That Changed My Life will go to Read to Grow, a nonprofit organization committed to bringing books and the power of early literacy to all of our children and their families — because everyone should have the opportunity to find the book that will change their life.
Over the next four days, I'll be introducing contributions from authors generous enough to participate in the project. Readers, I invite you to share titles and stories of your own by posting comments here on the blog. May next year be full of life-changing books for us all.
With love and thanks to my grandmother Julia and my father Emerich — who changed my life,
Roxanne J. Coady
Books mentioned in this post
Roxanne Coady is the author of The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them