Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Theodore Dalrymple lovingly describes the joys of second-hand bookstores. A sample:
But serendipity is the greatest pleasure of browsing, and there is no substitute for being able to hold the physical book in one’s hand. Among other things to be found in books are the markings of previous readers. When I first started buying antiquarian books I rejected those that had been marked, but now I find the markings sometimes more interesting than the books, and certainly revealing of the byways of human psychology.

There are, for example, those who seem to read hundreds of pages with the express purpose of finding the single spelling mistake or misprint contained in them and underlining it, putting a triumphant exclamation mark in the margin, as though finding the error established their intellectual superiority to the author. (Of course, they attribute all errors to the author and none to the printer.)

Then there are the underliners. The majority of these rarely get past the first chapter or two; some underline things so banal – Smith then went to London, for example, or The snow fell in flakes – that one wonders what kind of mind wants to commit such things to memory. Philosophy books of the Forties and Fifties, meanwhile, tend to smell strongly of tobacco.
As a bibliomaniac, I found the article wonderfully evocative of my own experiences as a life-long browser in second-hand bookstores. The thrill of discovery, the incidences of patience rewarded, the agony of putting off a purchase until “next time”, only to find the desired volume gone upon my return. For example, I recollect my long search for the second volume in José Maria Gironella’s trilogy of novels about the Spanish Civil War. I had read, and greatly enjoyed, the first (the Cypresses Believe in God), and had found the third (Peace After War), but searched unsuccessfully for 12 years for the second (One Million Dead). It finally turned up at one of my favorite old bookshops, and my arm shot out so fast to grab it that I picked up a splinter under a fingernail. Hurt like hell, but it was a small price to pay for finding, at long last, one of the objects of my bibliophile dreams. I remember clasping the thing tightly to my chest, as if it were in danger of being hijacked.

I’m also an avid collector of 18th century English literature, and the joy of stumbling upon various books in the Yale series of Boswell’s diaries over the years (some of them now fairly valuable) has always given me a jolt of serendipitous excitement. On one of my regular trips to a small Coral Gables bookshop that I had frequented for a couple of years, the owner, who knew my interests, proudly pointed at a stack of green volumes which turned out to be the Parfraets Press edition of the collected works of Samuel Johnson. Stopping just long enough to check out the price, I made a mad dash to my bank’s ATM, only to find it temporarily out of service. What a ridiculous figure I made, standing there on the sidewalk, shaking my fist at the machine, and cursing the mental defective who had had the brilliant idea of pulling the ATM out of service during my lunch hour!

In another shop in Coral Gables, I found numerous anti-communist classics from the Cold War period that turned out to have belonged to Louis Budenz, a former top official in the Communist Party USA, and a Soviet espionage agent, who ultimately broke with, and denounced, the Party. Some of the books were gifts from his new friend, Henry Regnery.

Perhaps most interesting of all my experiences have been the experiments, the flyers taken on authors previously unknown to me, or only known by virtue of their having been mentioned in an essay or magazine article somewhere. It was in this way that I was introduced to Arthur Train’s amusing stories featuring the fictional lawyer, Ephraim Tutt. Just picked up a volume and decided to give it a try. I spent the next couple of years scouring bookstores for any Tutt stories I could find, so fond did I become of them. It was also mere curiosity that caused me to pick up John Masters’ Bugles and a Tiger, the first of his three autobiographical books; it is the story of Masters’ army life while stationed on the northwestern frontier of India on the eve of WWII, and is one of the finest, and certainly one of the funniest, military memoirs I have ever read (I wrote a brief piece about the book on this blog quite a long while ago; see here, if you missed it).

Ah, the old, simple pleasures! These young folks coming up today don't know what they're missing.


Yojimbo said...

There was a small "used" bookstore on my way home from high school. I would invariably go window shopping on my way home. Yes Virginia, I did walk the few miles to and from school. One day they exhibited the bound volumes of the entire The Strand magazine featuring the Holmes serials. 80 bucks! Of course, might just as well hae been 80 million-you could by a 2-door 55 Chevy for five hundred. I still remember that window to this day many decades later.

Question: Would that Regnery have any connection to the Regnery Press?

Marica said...

Ah. Crappy old stuff.

My personal favorite find was a small leather bound edition of The Rubaiyat for $2 at a yard sale. 2nd edition. At the time, I hadn't a clue who Omar Khayyam was.

Years later, my then husband, my OBGYN, a nurse and I were playing Trivial Pursuit why we waited for my second daughter to make her debut. Persian poet and astronomer of the 11-12th century? But of course.

Years later, I read these words to my now husband:

"Ah Love! could you and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire
Would we not shatter it to bits--and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!"

Would that we could.

Perhaps the closest we can come is to preserve crappy old books for our children.

Michael Lonie said...

I spent years looking for a copy of Yigael Yadin's "The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeology" but never finding a copy. One day I walked into a used bookstore and there it was, behind the counter. I asked to look at it, paged through both volumes to make sure it was not defective in any way, then asked the owner "How much?" "One hundred and fifty dollars," was the answer. I said, "Will you take a check?"

"Bugles and a Tiger" is a great book. One part I particularly liked was his description of the battalion Quartermaster sending a report to higher ups to explain the loss of a piece of equipment. He put in grammar mistakes, spelling errors, left spaces unfilled on the form, etc. Each time the bureaucrats (I think Masters called the Stuffed Baboons) sent the report back for correction, but they never objected to the explanation for the loss: that the crowbar had been eaten by termites. The second volume, covering WWII, "The Road Past Mandalay," is also very good. I never found a copy of the third, which included his experiences in the runup to Indian independence.

It is pleasurable to browse such bookstores, but nowadays I do most of my book shopping online. For used books, Amazon now provides a service to order them, and I've gotten some nice ones that way. Advanced Book Exchange is a site that connects to used book dealers all over the world.

Paco said...

YoJ: The founder, himself.

Jonah said...

I would visit the Human Sexuality section at Tin Can Mailman, Arcata Ca., after careful browsing to ensure a clear coast, and peruse the textbook.

Ah, to be 28 again.

Anonymous said...

Serendipity: a wonderful word to use in an essay on second-hand bookstore perusings.

Another first-class blog entry, Paco.

Paco, I would say you are incredibly talented but if I did, your head might no longer fit into your favourite fedora.

Btw, Paco, I have received no royalty cheque yet for sales of the Paco Industries Foreign Correspondent Chest Wig™, which was my idea, if memory serves.


Paco said...

Mike: My fedoras are expandable. And the check's in the mail!

Deadman said...

Coincidentally, in 1861 DG Rossetti found FitzGerald’s neglected The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1st ed. 1859) in a penny box on the bookstalls and praised the work to his friends, such as AC Swinburne; that led to the popularity of the little work and, subsequently, to FitzGerald’s revised second edition (in 1868) and its enduring fame so that readers can now find lovely editions in second-hand bookshops.

bruce said...

My grandfather (1887-1959) was named Walter Kenilworth P...

Family must have loved Scott.

He also changed his surname while signing up for WWI, to the one I carry now, we may never know why!

Yes I love second-hand books too Paco. Got a 1st edition Huxley Eyeless in Gaza for a dollar once - no dustjacket badly dented but fully intact. Thanx for Arthur Train hedzup.

Robert of Ottawa said...

First, let me post the link to this great article.

Yes, I too am a bibliophile. I want to recount just two of the many episodes of rapture I have found in used bookstores.

1. I had just returned from my first visit to Australia, completely blown away by the harsh, magnificent place, when I entered my favorite used book store. There, RIGHT THERE! was an original (OK 3rd edition, 18th. Century) copy of Captain Phillips' account of the First Fleet and his two years as governor of Australia. It was rather expensive and I agonized for two months whether to purchase or not. Hmmm. I consider it an investment.

2. While on a visit to my university town of Brighton, England, I quite naturally ambled into a used book store. Bang Kazam! It wasn't an old book, but pulsating before my very eyes was a book on the history of modern reservoirs, water distribution and sanitation. I had long been curious how it arose in England during the 18th. Century industrial revolution. These three inventions are more responsible for our improved health (oh yes, and shipping out the Ozzies :-) and longevity than almost anything else. Here was the answer to my queries!

I try to limit my visits as I am at over 2000 books but the evil Amazon beckons to this biblionaut. But the book as a thing, with a history... Oh wow, a FIRST edition!! Such things are simple pleasures made of.

Robert of Ottawa said...

Marica, The Rubaiyat as known by the English world is a a joint work by Omar Kayam and his English translator Fitzgerald. The latter was in the "translate the gist" school of translation and he added a lot of poetese.

This poem in English is the result of a quite unique cooperation between two authors centuries apart.

Robert of Ottawa said...

Deadman, would that be Dante Gabriel Rosetti of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?

Deadman said...

Robert of O., yes, the poet and painter.