The Secret Lives of Used Books (Passages from the Diary of Samuel Pepys)

Jon Zobenica
4 min readDec 2, 2022


Passages from the Diary of Samuel Pepys (New York: Modern Library, 1923)

Edward W. Johnson was born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1894 or 1895, to a father from Norway and a mother from the Grand Duchy of Finland (then a part of the Russian empire). The June 1915 issue of Northwestern Druggist: A Progressive Journal for Retail Druggists has Johnson relocated just over the state line, in Superior, Wisconsin, and mentions that he “has been attending the Minnesota Institute of Pharmacy for three months and has recently passed his examination at Madison and is now back home with a pharmacist’s certificate and a very broad smile.”

Johnson’s first draft card, circa 1917, lists his employer as the Louis K. Liggett Co. in Detroit, Michigan, though his home address is back in Duluth. Whether he was only temporarily employed in Detroit or working out of Detroit as a regional salesman of sorts is unknown.

Liggett, a Massachusetts-based drugstore magnate, operated hundreds of pharmacies in numerous states and went on to help establish and promote the Rexall franchise nationwide in the interwar years. From March to November of 1936, Liggett took the Rexall Train — a streamlined confection consisting of twelve climate-controlled exhibition, dining, and convention cars — on a circuitous journey of nearly thirty-thousand miles, across the country and back, stopping in forty-seven of the then forty-eight states (everywhere but Nevada), with stops in Canada as well. The train was considered a “billboard on wheels,” a way of bringing a national convention to America’s Depression-era pharmacists, rather than expecting them to incur the costs of traveling to such a convention.

Louis K. Liggett Co., Providence, Rhode Island, early twentieth century. Photo courtesy Providence Public Library.

By the 1930s, Edward W. Johnson had gotten married and taken a job as a wage-earning druggist in Floodwood, Minnesota (1930 population: 343). In June of ’36, the Rexall Train cut a southeasterly diagonal across Minnesota, not too far west and south of Floodwood. One only hopes Johnson managed to go see it. Regardless, by 1940 Johnson was a pharmacist with a drugstore of his own in Floodwood (1940 population: 571). He was now an employer rather than an employee. That year’s census also indicates that high school was his highest level of educational attainment (not counting, of course, his three months at the Minnesota Institute of Pharmacy).

It’s not obvious how a person like Johnson would be moved to acquire Passages from the Diary of Samuel Pepys. A seventeenth-century Tory, Pepys kept a diary for roughly a decade (1660–1669), in which he chronicled events of great consequence and those of utter inconsequence, and everything in between. In its pages he takes an ancillary part in the Restoration. He alternately economizes and indulges. He dallies with other men’s wives (while married himself). He occasionally beats or fondles the servants, depending. He attends plays and public executions with equal gusto. He swears off wine, and then occasionally suspends his teetotalling. He attempts to put the Royal Navy on a more reliable, professional basis. He lusts bitterly after the mistress of Charles II, Lady Castlemaine. He holds an annual feast to celebrate the day he had a bladder stone removed. He observes the street-level reality of both the Great Plague of London (1665–1666) and the Great Fire of London (1666). And so on.

It’s strangely captivating — as unmediated a glimpse into seventeenth-century England as is now possible; by turns weird, disgusting, and ribald; all of it cumulatively winning, even to a small-town, high-school-educated American pharmacist born of Scandinavian parents.

A word about name origins: Roughly eighty miles to the northeast of Floodwood is Embarrass, Minnesota. And although one could hardly guess it, the two towns basically share the same name, as George R. Stewart incidentally pointed out in his minor classic from 1945, Names on the Land. The lakes, rivers, and streams of that part of Minnesota were once worked by French-Canadian trappers and by fur traders known as “voyageurs,” who would resupply remote stations and get the pelts to market from those stations, following sometimes arduous canoe and portage routes. As Stewart elaborates:

The early French traveled much by boat. Sometimes trees uprooted in freshets jammed together at some narrow or shallow place farther downstream, forming a dense tangle and blocking the passage as completely as a waterfall. The French called such a place an embarras, “obstruction,” and many streams were distinguished as “aux embarras.” This name proved almost as much a difficulty to speakers of English as the original tangle of trees had to the boatmen. One became merely Embarrass River; others were translated as Floodwood and Driftwood . . .

Embarrass Township sits along the aforementioned Embarrass River, whereas Floodwood sits along what was once the Savanna Portage used by voyageurs running furs from the Mississippi River basin over to Lake Superior. Floodwood is near the confluence of the St. Louis and East Savanna Rivers, a confluence that was presumably “aux embarras” at some point, giving the town its name.