Column: Book Fare

Find a local bookshop, buy someone a book – and scribble in it

Tis the season to spend money. And I say, buy books.

Book inscription

Inscription from the author's grandmother on the book

Real books, made of paper and ink. From real stores, made of bricks and mortar: Nicola’s Books. Common Language. Crazy Wisdom. Falling Water. There are real treasures at Dawn Treader, Motte & Bailey, West Side Book Shop and the other used bookstores in our area. Yes, yes, Amazon is easy and “cheaper.” But at the local Barnes and Noble or Borders stores, you might find a neighbor behind the sales desk, or in the aisles.

Among the great bargains to be found at used bookstores are the deals you get when you reach for an interesting title and discover an inscription on the flyleaf. Two stories in one!

Dawn Treader Book Shop is great for this kind of hunt – especially its children’s section, which has a wonderful collection of old books hidden here and there amid the piles of multicolored, ‘80s-era paperback dross. Age adds charm and mystery to many of the inscriptions, which are more often than not written in fountain pen with the elegant sweep of fine and intent penmanship.

And people had great names back in the day: To Alver & Daffield, Christmas 1928, Grandma J. – “Don Sturdy In the Tombs of Gold,” by Victor Appleton. Or Petter from Willet, Christmas 1930. – “The Last Dragon,” by Dan Totheroh.

Inscriptions for adults are often more pointed:

To my beloved – just for dreamin’ – Lee, 1942. – “Vagabond House,” by Don Blanding

To Frank, the man with the medieval mind. Charles, May 1992, Ann Arbor – “The Making of the Middle Ages,” by R.W. Southern

Christmas ’78: To make you a better “pitcher-taker!” Richard & Anna – “On Photography,” by Susan Sontag

On the upper left of the flyleaf of a Grosset & Dunlap edition of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” To John + Sara Wolferd. From Aunt Anne Herron, Christmas 1945 is penned with a flourish in violet ink. There’s more at the bottom right corner of the page: For happy hours. And still more, this time in ballpoint, smack-dab in the center in a rounded hand: Passed down to Chantel.

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Some inscriptions aren’t as interesting as the books they’re in: “From Avery to Neil. 1916.” – “The Boy Allies at Liege,” by Clair W. Hayes, copyright 1915.

Maybe in 1915, or at least in America in 1915, the Great War could still be marketed as a glorious adventure – “the greatest war in all history,” as Hayes ends the book. He produced a series that saw “The Boy Allies” (18-year-old Hal Paine and his chum Chester Crawford) “In the Trenches,” “With the Cossacks” and “On the Firing Line; or Twelve Days’ Battle on the Marne.” You don’t need a hundred years’ hindsight (four years were more than enough) to cringe at the very idea of stories like these. Hey, why not “The Bobbsey Twins at Passchendaele?” (“This mud is jolly!” chuckled Freddie with a playful shake of his matted yellow curls. “Look there!” cried dark-eyed Bert. “Let’s join that fellow in the swimming hole! He’s waving us over!”)

Presumably Neil was too young to join up even by 1917, and saw his combat in the pages of this very strange book. Did his age keep him out of combat in the “greater” war that followed? Did he ever feel disappointment at “missing out”? At what age did he fully appreciate his double stroke of luck?

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Inscriptions from my grandmother started early in my life: Happy Birthday From Grams, With Love 1961 – “Custard the Dragon,” by Ogden Nash, and Love From Grams, Christmas 1961 – “Custard the Dragon and the Wicked Knight,” by Ogden Nash.

Did she want us to call her “Grams?” We called her Grandma Sylvia. She raised three kids by herself during the Depression and didn’t have much money later, either, but she never let Christmas or the birthdays of her seven grandchildren pass without a gift. Sometimes she’d send a check. (Money!) We’d carefully endorse it over to our banker – Dad – and he’d hand out the cash.

Last summer I discovered one of Grandma Sylvia’s checks in my father’s desk – a check for three dollars. I think of the pleasure my decently pensioned mother has taken in showering her two grandchildren with Christmas gifts. And how, in the spring of 1961, Grandma Sylvia bought a pair of “Custard the Dragon” books, wrapped up one for the third birthday of her then-only granddaughter, and put the other away until December.

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Sometimes an inscription doubles as a literary review. My Everyman’s Library edition of Thoreau’s “Walden” is inscribed by my oldest friend. We met in seventh grade when we thought we had little in common, and have spent 40 years discovering to our joy – and, sometimes, sorrow – how much we share. Her simple inscription, a farewell as I left home for college, reads “Domenica – from Lisa, August 1976.” It makes me laugh because I remember her assessment of Thoreau and of me, deep in my Transcendentalist period the summer before senior year: “What are you, crazy? Thoreau was a lazy-ass loser. He needed to shut up and get a job.”

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“May 1981 – To Ann – our first grandchild – We hope you will enjoy these poems as much as we have – Your Benton grandparents.”

This note appears in a copy Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses” that I found in the children’s section at Dawn Treader. I have copy of my own – it was a wedding shower gift. It is inscribed on the page where the poem “At the Seaside” appears:

“Always remember

And never forget:

Don’t be afraid

To get your feet wet.

You can put your shoes in my clothes dryer anytime.

Love, Cathy”

My cousin Cathy taught me how to read. My primer was a copy of “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” Cathy was also my first best friend, and among the many reasons I adored her was because she, my much older cousin (five years!) had chosen me as her companion; we grew up around the block from each other.

The shoes? We were under a standing order from our mothers not to play near The Creek – rarely more than The Trickle back then, but still. So early one morning Cathy and I walked across the neighborhood park to play near The Creek. And, inevitably, I fell in. The Trickle barely covered my 6-year-old ankles, but still. Cathy was a quick thinker (another reason I adored her). Squish-squash-squish, I followed her back to her house, where my aunt and uncle miraculously slept through the clunkity-bang of my red PF Flyers taking a spin in their dryer.

Cathy died more than a decade ago. The Creek is much deeper now. And every time I visit my mother in the house I grew up in, I take a walk across the neighborhood park. If I ever fall in, I guess I’m on my own.

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For my nephew’s 9th birthday, I gave him copies of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (and many thanks to the clerk at Nicola’s who led me right to the editions designed for young readers). I kept my inscriptions simple: To Frankie, Happy Birthday 2010, Love, Aunt Domenica. Maybe he’ll read Tom Sawyer sooner and Huck later. Like the Benton grandparents, I so hope he will enjoy them as much as I have.

A title on my list this Christmas is Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.” The rock musician’s memoir of the boho New York years spent with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe won this year’s National Book Award for nonfiction. In her acceptance speech earlier this month, she said: “Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book – there is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.”

Make a note of that.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor and has been known to write on many things, including books.


  1. By Sarah Prince
    November 27, 2010 at 10:30 am | permalink

    Nice story, Domenica. It made me want to find the book of Robert Browning’s poems I have that belonged to my great-grandfather. It’s totally falling apart and not even readable, but I keep it for the inscription (and because it belonged to my great-grandfather, of course):

    To Rev. Wm Stuart
    in memory of much
    buttermilk, etc.,
    from J & J Bramy

    (I’m not sure if the last name is correct – the handwriting is a little hard to read.)

  2. By Brad T.
    November 30, 2010 at 2:41 pm | permalink

    Great thought. I never give a book without adding an inscription to personalize it.
    I’ve inherited my family’s book collection and it’s fascinating to read to the inscriptions to determine what the different relatives thought and enjoyed. My grandmother used to cut out articles from the New Yorker and other magazines regarding the author, etc. and tuck those inside the book also.