Despite two decades of unusual challenges, independent booksellers seem to be holding their own and keeping true to their mission. But it never hurts to have a source of inspiration, and who could be more inspiring than Henry Knox—one of our nation’s Founding Fathers who began his career as a bookseller?

Born in 1750, Knox attended Boston Latin School. When the family shipbuilding business collapsed in 1759, Knox was pulled from school and apprenticed to Wharton & Bowes, Booksellers. He learned how to arrange inventory, wait on customers, and how to bind and repair books—services provided by most 18th-century bookstores.

After completing his apprenticeship in 1768, Knox continued working for Wharton & Bowes, with the goal of eventually opening his own establishment. But it wasn’t easy to open a bookstore in old Boston. The American publishing industry had yet to get on its feet, so booksellers had to rely on London for most of their inventory. When Parliament imposed a variety of taxes on the colonists, the latter protested violently. After Parliament responded with punitive measures, the colonists boycotted British goods, and, as a patriot, Knox couldn’t open a new bookstore without breaking the boycott.

In the interim, Knox joined the artillery division of the Massachusetts militia, studied geometry and calculus to learn how to hit distant targets, and engineering to learn how to transport cannons and build effective artillery emplacements.

When the boycott ended in 1770, Knox purchased a store name, backlist titles, stationery, and fixtures from a retiring bookseller and established a relationship with a British wholesaler. Knox opened the London Book-Store in 1771. He was an immediate success. In September 1772, he moved to a new, larger location, where he continued to thrive, selling books, magazines, and sidelines like wallpaper, tea, and patent medicine. In addition to his retail business, he sold books to libraries and, at a discount, to small-town general stores that provided a shelf or two of titles for their communities.

But his growing prosperity stopped dead when the British seized control of the city following the Boston Tea Party. After “the shot heard round the world” in April 1775, Knox offered his services to a rebel army in desperate need of initiative and ability. When George Washington was selected to lead the Continental Army, Knox soon became one of his closest advisors.

As the war progressed, Knox proved worthy of Washington’s trust. He used sleds to drag 60 cannons and ammunition from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston—a full 300 miles. The artillery emplacements he designed helped break the siege of Boston. When Washington set out to cross the Delaware, Knox found the necessary boats and recruited fishermen to row them. As the war progressed, he oversaw the establishment of arsenals and foundries for casting cannons and other weapons, and the training of most of the Continental Army’s artillery officers. And finally, Knox’s big guns proved decisive at the Battle of Yorktown, providing a nonstop bombardment that ended with Cornwallis’s surrender.

After Washington was elected President, Knox served as secretary of war and laid the groundwork for the modern Army and Navy. A memo he wrote to Congress eventually led to the establishment of the Military Academy at West Point. Knox’s advocacy of a plan to deal fairly with Indian nations during his term in Washington’s cabinet has been eloquently presented in Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis.

Knox retired in 1796 after 20-plus years of public service. Closing down his bookstore for good, Knox moved to Maine, where he built a home and started a farm. After his death in 1806, cities and counties around the country were named in his honor, including Knoxville, Tenn. His most visible monument is Fort Knox, a military base best known for its gold bullion depository—which is somewhat ironic, considering his financial struggles as a bookseller and later as a gentleman farmer.

Today everyone quotes the Founding Fathers, using their words to justify all sorts of views. Well, in Henry Knox, booksellers have their own founding father—one who eventually achieved the rank of general in the War for Independence. That’s why I believe he should be adopted as the unofficial Patron Saint of America’s independent booksellers. Talk it over during the regionals this fall. Consider nominating him at the next BEA. Knox loved the book business and this country. To be recognized by the booksellers of his country’s future would make his spirit proud.