The No. 1 Rolling Ladder accounts for the company's name. Typically made of best-grade oak, it can be made of any hardwood - maple, ash, mahogany, birch, cherry, walnut, teak - and connects to a track installed around the top of a bookshelf. At the base, hardware of antique brass, oil-brushed bronze and brushed chrome, pewter, nickel or copper encases its wheels.
Gregg Monsees could recognize this ladder by scent. Most people, however, identify a Putnam by the little red and gold label affixed inside its rail, and these great and leggy beasts inspire considerable affection. Taped to a back wall curls a collection of quarter-century-old thank-you notes.
From Fred Fitchley of Hilton Head, S.C.: "I just had to write to tell you of the joy, happiness and satisfaction that your rolling ladder has given us. It was just what our great room, with ceiling-high bookshelves, needed - and has made my wife Dotty a new gal. She looks at it - she admires it - and she climbs up and down just for the hell of it - and then she calls the neighbor over to see it and enjoy it too."
From Lilli Elsas of Houston: "I have wanted one for so long but always thought you had to either be eccentric or very wealthy or both!"
There are also the Nos. 9, 19, and 29, low office ladders that can double as stools; and the No. 115, or Pulpit Ladder, which has a platform at the top on which one stands and another platform on which to rest things while stocking shelves. The No. 70, also called the Library Ladder, or Elephant Ladder, has rungs instead of steps, which can make it difficult to climb. A jointed oak construction, it can fold into itself to stand compactly in a corner like a single beam of wood. "People used to use these to get up on top of elephants," says Gregg, "hence the name." Some say Thomas Jefferson invented the Elephant Ladder to service a clock.
A ladder usually costs $1,000 to $2,000, and it takes 8 to 10 weeks to make. But to accommodate patrons rarer requests for African mahogany, anegre or zebrawood, the Monseeses have a different time scale. Anegre, for instance, is a "no time limit" wood.
"And so they ask what 'no time limit' means," says Gregg, "And I say it means exactly that. It can take up to a year. I'm sorry. There's nothing urgent about a custom-made rolling ladder."
Putnam receives orders by phone or fax and most recently via the Internet. In 1996, Gregg Monsees saw a program about it on PBS. "It said that a thousand people a day were getting on the Internet," he said, "so I thought we should put the catalog on there."
Nevertheless, the company does almost everything by fax. If a client sends an e-mail message with a request for information, the message is printed out and then answered by fax. Customers who don't have a fax machine will receive a letter by mail. It is the sole job of one woman to fax and mail back e-mail order confirmations.
Watching people ramble down Howard Street without noticing No. 32 makes it hard to imagine how anyone could find the place if they wanted to. The shutters are often partly closed and the hanging sign outside is now completely black, its letters faded off. It used to be attached to Putnam's horse-drawn buggy, but having gotten rid of the actual buggy, Gregg says, the Monseeses used its sign for their store. Cutting costs, after all, is what keeps a business strong.
Yet orders arrive, from Nevada, Oklahoma, California, Virginia, from Israel, Japan, Australia, Canada and Central Park West. An Alaskan salmon fisherman offered to barter with them: ladder for fish. Diane von Furstenberg bought a Putnam, so did Annie Leibovitz and Yoko Ono.
One morning in 2001, Gregg Monsees received a call from a Mr. Byron Bottoms in Waco, Texas, who told him that President and Laura Bush wanted to buy a ladder for the library at their Crawford ranch and would he please ship out some samples posthaste.
"Well, we don't ship samples," said Gregg Monsees. "And we made a very rare exception. But we did require a deposit." The Bushes settled on an unfinished black walnut with powder-coated black steel fixtures, and Mrs. Bush sent a thank-you note addressed to "Messrs. Monsees." When Morley Safer of CBS came in to inquire about a ladder for his Upper East Side home, Gregg Monsees recalled, he made a wry comment, upon hearing that the president had recently bought a ladder, as to the number of books Mr. Bush could possibly own.
"It was something like, 'What, for his one book?' " Gregg Monsees said. "And then he asked me what I thought was a particularly astute question. He asked, 'How many feet of track did he buy?' Because the track can be an indicator of how many books a person owns.
"Well, it seemed the president had more track than Morley Safer. I guess he forgot Laura Bush used to be a librarian."
In its main building, at No. 32, the company has a total of five floors and a basement, each faced with unfinished hardwood and topped by yawningly high tin ceilings. A deep staircase goes straight up to the second floor, swept, it seems, only by a century and a half of passing feet. Nests of dust the size of mice lurk at the corners.
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