His tendency to be crotchety, opinionated and even grouchy were easily offset by his obvious intellect, quick wit and sarcasm that John P. Towle employed in his love and expertise in selling books.
A voracious reader throughout life, Mr. Towle was knowledgeable about all genres as a bookstore employee then bookstore owner. He made his reputation by telling customers which books to read while preventing them from buying ones that would waste their time.
“I can remember picking up a book in his shop and him saying, ‘You don’t want to touch that,’ ” said Melinda Beard, a friend of his from Fox Chapel. “If I had a suggestion from somebody to read a certain book, I would go into his store and tell him I wanted such and such a book, and he’d say, ‘No you don’t. I’m not selling that to you.’ ”
“When it came to good literature,” said her son, Philip Beard, the noted Aspinwall novelist, “that’s what really lit his fire.” Mr. Beard’s acclaimed first novel “Dear Zoe” was published by Penguin books with the help of Mr. Towle and “that’s the shame of the whole thing” in terms of his untimely passing.
Mr. Towle, 52, of Aspinwall, died Tuesday when he was struck by an eastbound Norfolk Southern Railway train at an Aspinwall crossing. The circumstances of his death remain unclear.
“He was the guy people in our area went to find out what they should be reading,” Mr. Beard added. “He was a man of very few words. But if he told me something was good, I knew it was good. The fact he thought enough of my ‘Dear Zoe’ manuscript to hand it to the sales representative from Penguin books meant a lot to me.”
That’s how his book was published.
Mr. Towle was raised in the North Hills and was a 17-year-old student at North Allegheny High School when his father, John G. Towle, who survives, was transferred in his job to Nazareth, Northampton County. Mr. Towle graduated instead from Nazareth Area High School in 1982.
“He just loved books,” said his mother, Jo-Anne Smatlak Towle of Bethlehem, Pa. “Even as a teenager, he stayed up half the night reading books, and I’d be yelling at him to go to bed and then he’d have a hard time getting up to go to school. He liked books and cooking. He hardly ever watched TV and always had a book in his hand.”
After high school, Mr. Towle attended the University of Pittsburgh but didn’t graduate.
In 1983, he took a job at Jay’s Bookstall on Fifth Avenue in Oakland, where Mr. Beard, now a lawyer, had regular conversations with him about literature while attending Pitt Law School. Coincidentally, they followed each other, first to Fox Chapel, with Mr. Beard returning to live with his parents and Mr. Towle taking a job in 1987 at Bookworks in the Fox Chapel Plaza, where he would serve as manager until its closing in 2000. Soon he would open his own Aspinwall Bookshop.
For about 10 years, he was married to Judy Talerico-Towle, who survives, along with their son, James Towle, and daughter, Mary L. Towle, both of Aspinwall. The marriage ended in divorce.
In 2010, Mr. Towle finally was forced to close his book shop and at the time told the Post-Gazette he was proud to say, “I never made a sale that I couldn’t personally guarantee or warn against.” He admitted sadness but not bitterness.
“He loved that bookstore and still wished the rest of his life to open bookstores but he couldn’t make a living at it,” his mother said. At the time of his death he was unemployed and it “was pretty sad,” she said.
“We just saw him a few weeks ago right after Thanksgiving, and we had a nice visit, then he called me on Christmas Eve, then we called him on Christmas Day, and the last thing I remember him saying was, ‘Merry Christmas. I love you.’”
Beside his children and parents, Mr. Towle is survived by two sisters, Jodi McKinney of Cranberry and Jennifer Rubery of Bethlehem; one niece and four nephews.
A funeral Mass was held Friday at the St. Scholastica Church in Aspinwall with arrangements handled by the Weddell-Ajak Funeral Home, also in Aspinwall. The family suggests memorial contributions to the Cooper-Siegel Community Library, 403 Fox Chapel Road, Pittsburgh 15238.
David Templeton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1578.