The Ones Who Live
Antiquarian, author, and activist Gregory Gibson on his journey out of “an unspeakable place of chaos and death.”
“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” —Parker Palmer
The close-knit Gloucester community of Lanesville is a town within a town, with some of its most notable clans dating back several generations. Not long ago, you could get all your needs met within one three-quarter-mile stretch of Langsford Street, where Gregory Gibson lives with his family. He points out his window to where there used to be a gas station, a butcher shop, a general market and a trolley that connected to the center of town — now mere memories of a simpler time.
Originally from Athol, Gibson first stumbled on Cape Ann during a college fishing trip with a friend in 1967. He explains: “We’re driving along Route 133 into Gloucester Harbor. As I’m looking out at the landscape, it’s like this religious experience, and I understand that this is where I’m going to spend the rest of my life.”
Gibson settled permanently in Gloucester in 1971 after a stint in the Navy. He would go on to meet his wife here, raise three children in the Gloucester school system and open an antiquarian bookstore in 1976 that survives to this day.
Ten Pound Island Book Company was named after the granite outcropping in the middle of Gloucester Harbor, home to little more than a lighthouse and a bevy of gulls. Gibson sells books about Cape Ann geography and history, but he specializes in “old, rare and out-of-print books, manuscripts and charts pertaining to the sea.” His principal clients are research libraries and academic institutions that have a vested interest in preserving and analyzing historical texts.
Gibson sums up his business model in one sentence: “I buy things that don’t exist and I sell them to people who don’t know they want them.”
He is sort of a literary archaeologist in this way, uncovering one-of-a kind compositions — war diaries, for example, or your great-grandfather’s journal of his voyage to the U.S. from Europe.
“But before I found it in your attic, for all intents and purposes, it didn’t exist,” he says. “Then I call up the librarian at the Schlesinger [Library at Radcliffe in Cambridge] and say, ‘I think I’ve got something you’re going to like.’ And before I called her, she didn’t know she wanted it.”
Among Gibson’s most notable acquisitions was a series of diaries written by a friend of Hannah Jumper, the woman associated with the Rockport temperance group in the mid 1800s. He also discovered an illustrated logbook of an American ship selling opium in China in the 1830s when the sale of opium was a highly discreet business. Gibson’s most valuable procurement to date was the travel writings of a cook working for Victorian artist Sir William Beechey during a round-the-world trip; it sold to a private institution in Great Britain for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Gibson is attracted to the singularity of his treasures, “written for a very specific purpose about a very specific thing at a very specific period in history.” His merchandise is virtually without competition. The current catalog includes a James Fenimore Cooper first printing of a book about the lives of naval officers, receipts for guano from the Pacific Guano Company and a poem by an American prisoner during the War of 1812.
After bouncing around to six different retail locations throughout Gloucester, Gibson gradually shuttered his storefront and moved his wares online. While still a regular exhibitor at antiquarian book fairs in America and Europe, what remains of Ten Pound Island Book Company is a few floor-to-ceiling shelves in a hallway in his Lanesville home.
But as his ambition in the rare book world diminishes, Gibson finds himself devoting more and more time to a cause that is near and dear to his heart: gun violence prevention.
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Gibson doesn’t consider himself a natural businessman, but is a self-proclaimed “gun murder specialist.” It is a badge attained through hardship and brandished with reluctance.
In 1992, when Gibson’s oldest son Galen was a sophomore at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, a shooter entered the campus and opened fire at random, killing him and a professor. The perpetrator was an eighteen-year-old student armed with ammunition he had ordered in the mail and a semi-automatic rifle he had purchased that same morning.
Gibson had always wanted to be a writer. He had fantasies about the interesting people who would take refuge in his bookstore as he puffed on his pipe, typing away at his latest novel. But fantasy surrendered to cold, hard reality when he lost his boy and was thrust headlong into “an unspeakable place of chaos and death.”
“The world in which I lived with him no longer exists,” he says. “That world has died, and the me that was when he was alive is dead too.”
But Gibson was determined not to let his child’s death be in vain. Refusing to give in to despair and hopelessness, he embarked on what would become a crusade against gun violence spanning nearly three decades.
“Ever since Galen died, it’s been my thought to get something useful out of that horrible situation,” he says in a 2017 interview with NPR, “to do something that might help another family not have to go through what my family went through.”
Gibson’s activism has taken many forms over the years, from letter-writing and signing petitions to making speeches and attending rallies. In 1998, he and his family established The Galen Gibson Fund, a non-profit that provides financial assistance to groups that work with the victims of gun violence and that push for sensible gun laws. The fund was made possible by the kindness and generosity of the local Gloucester community, which rallied around Gibson and his family in the wake of the tragedy.
“The whole town was there,” he says. “We got oceans of support.”
Gibson finally realized his dream of becoming a published writer in 1999, but under the unhappiest of circumstances. Gone Boy: A Walkabout is the heart-wrenching memoir of his probe into the events surrounding his son’s murder. In it, Gibson interviews lawyers and politicians, mental health professionals and college administrators as he attempts to make sense of the senseless. In some ways, decades of sifting through antique steamer trunks in search of “things that don’t exist” is a perfect metaphor for Gibson’s dogged search for the truth in Galen’s death.
Gibson has penned a number of other titles unrelated to the incident. He authored the non-fiction books Demon of the Waters: The True Story of the Mutiny of the Whaleship Globe (2002) and Hubert’s Freaks (2008), and the crime novel The Old Turk’s Load (2013).
But these days his writing has mostly been in the service of his mission. His withering opinion pieces on gun violence are standard fare in the New York Times in the aftermath of the latest shootings.
In addition to sharing his own story, Gibson is dedicated to creating safe spaces for other survivors to come together to talk about their experiences. He defines a survivor as “anyone who has been threatened with a gun, has been wounded by a gun, has had a loved one or family member wounded or killed by a gun, or has witnessed an act of gun violence.” It has been dubbed “the club no one wants to join.”
Gibson travels frequently to Dorchester, Roxbury, and other towns that experience higher levels of gun deaths than elsewhere in the state. He is active in a number of non-profit organizations such as Moms Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety, and the Lewis D. Brown Peace Institute, and is currently teaching organizations how to effectively integrate survivors and their stories into advocacy campaigns.
“Imagine the power of someone who comes back from that place where life and death have their origins, and has survived that experience with some kind of knowledge,” he says. “That’s what sharing a story is.”
Gibson makes a point to reach out to the survivors of recent shootings and has marched alongside other parents of slain children in protest marches like the March for Our Lives in D.C. He believes that real, lasting change in gun policy will begin at the grassroots level, when enough outraged survivors become mobilized to take action.
Strangely, Gibson is not anti-gun and is actually a gun owner himself. In an op-ed published in the New York Times in 2018, Gibson talks about how he purchased and learned to use a handgun:
“I discovered, to my surprise, that shooting was therapeutic,” he says. “I was mastering the instrument of my suffering.”
While Gibson has taken breaks from activism over the years — sometimes extended breaks to focus on his career and family — it’s something he’s always cycled back to, an obsession he could never shake.
Now, at 73 years young, he claims he is more energized than ever. “When I’m on my deathbed, I don’t want to be laying there saying, ‘I wish I’d done more about that gun thing.’”
While Gibson would enthusiastically devote all of his waking hours to his cause, he still has a family to support.
So every year for nearly a decade, the parking lot of 77 Langsford Street transforms into a pop-up Christmas tree shop where Gibson sells balsam firs from the wilderness of Quebec. It is a joyful endeavor for him, one that allows him to interact with people from the local community.
He describes how nearby families come to select trees and carry them home on their shoulders in the snow, “like a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting.”
And every Christmas, the Gibsons bring the scrawniest, most overlooked tree just around the corner to Seaside Cemetery where Galen Gibson is buried. There they decorate the tree and take family photos in honor of a loved one gone too soon.
“It’s fun,” he says. “It sounds like it should be sad, but at this point, it’s just something we can do including him.”
Galen would have turned 45 this year.
Forty-seven years ago, a ‘religious’ experience convinced Gregory Gibson that he would one day spend the rest of his life in Gloucester. Today, he reflects on that life — one characterized by unmatched love, unbelievable loss, and unexpected purpose.
▶︎ The Galen Gibson Fund contributes to local educational initiatives, community- and faith-based groups that work with victims of gun violence, and to organizations that promote commonsense gun laws. For more information, click here.