The shop was located in a poorly maintained old brick building on Chicago’s south side. It housed the typical uneven dusty shelves overloaded with books that spilled over into various small alcoves.
To an antiquarian book collector it was the perfect spot, much like a trout fisherman finding just the right pool on a bedrock bottom of the North Fork. I asked the store owner the location of books on early American History published prior to 1900. She tried to appear interested in helping me but she wasn’t. Her gig was first edition modern literature and her brain cells were filled with Margaret Atwood.
This was actually a very good sign. It was an indication that the books I was interested in would be fairly priced. Purchasing her first edition signed copy of Atwood’s “Alias Grace,” which was located in the locked glass case behind her desk, would be painful. Likely the book had occupied that space undisturbed since shortly after it was published in 1996. Like most bibliophiles, she would be very generous with her knowledge of modern literature while at the same time secretive about the sources of her stock.
The time passed very quickly. After over two hours of fruitless searching, I noticed an attractive leather bound book entitled “Great Britain and Illinois Country,” which I had never seen before. The book probably arrived in a brown paper bag of someone cleaning out the attic. The price was $22, which meant the proprietor likely paid $3 or $4 at most for the book. The book was published in Washington, DC in 1910. The inside free fly page was stamped “Surplus-Library of Congress-Duplicate.” I do not usually buy ex-library books since you can often find the book later without the discard stamp and in better condition. However, below the stamp was the signature “O. W. Holmes.” It was worth $22 to investigate whether in fact this book came from the private library of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the very distinguished Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. After some due diligence, the signature authentication was a success.
Justice Holmes joined the court in 1902. He retired at age 90 and is considered one of the greatest justices of the last century. He caught pneumonia three years later and died. A copy of his will disclosed that he left all of his worldly possessions to the United States government. Despite the good fortune, I found it irritating that some government clerk had discarded a part or maybe all of his private library.
The opportunity of finding something by happenstance is a bonus that comes with endless hours of browsing. I do not understand the attraction of mass-manufactured retail mall or big box company books – everything from biographies to mysteries to self-help works – whatever will command at least $24.95 (with the remainder stock later sold off at $5.95 at SaleBooks.com).
While you can find recently printed popular classics in B and B&N, the likelihood of finding something unusual does not exist. Old books frequently offer up slips of paper, letters or newspaper articles that sometimes offer clues to what attracted the initial reader to the book in the first place. To an antiquarian book collector, the book’s previous owner, the signature and inscription, the craftsmanship, and the chain of ownership form a circle of knowledge as important as the contents of the book itself.
The Internet has become a popular place to acquire old books. However, there is a lack of excitement in finding books on eBay or elsewhere. Often disappointment follows when the book arrives in poorer condition than represented and the Web description contained omissions and errors. The Old Bookshop is a treasure hunt where book enthusiasts can occasionally save a valuable book from the junk pile.
Bookshop owners usually have such extensive knowledge of an area of interest that should warrant some PhD recognition. In Ann Arbor, Jay at the West Side Book Shop is extremely knowledgeable on polar exploration. Paul at Motte & Bailey is consumed by medieval history and in particular the Crusades. In times past, the proprietor’s mania for limited subject matter often led to bargains in valuable underpriced books in other fields of interest. This is less so today. ABE.com has greatly leveled the playing field by providing a listing of many out-of-print books, their condition and current asking prices. A bookshop owner is able to rather quickly determine the approximate value of most any book that comes in the brown bags and boxes. The knowledge of books that made the used and collectible book business profitable in the past is available to all.
Ann Arbor has many old bookshops, as have other urban and academic communities such as Chicago, Madison and Chapel Hill. Typically housed in old and quirky buildings, these meeting places are important to a vibrant community lifestyle. Like meeting new people, similar by-chance meetings like with Oliver Wendell Holmes in the Old Bookshop will hopefully continue to be a part of our new ” localism.”