Aug 18, 2007

On Unexpected Treasures and Bibliophilia

Left: My library grows, as my bookshelves look on with trepidation

A regular reader of this site, who shall remain anonymous, emailed me to let me know about an opportunity to peruse through some books in the basement of her mother's home. As someone who is dedicated to addressing the plight of unloved books, I was eager to learn more after reading the message:
When Toledo went through its flooding last year, the basement at my mom's house took in enough water to ruin the floors and make it very musty. Unfortunately, the basement houses thousands of books and the moisture is doing them no good.
Now, I get quite a few unusual emails, and I was at first skeptical of the use of the word "thousands" to describe the literary cache. The words "free" and "books" always catch my eyes, though, especially when they are paired together: "free books."

What I saw in the basement of this home is beyond description.

This was a multi-roomed basement filled from floor to ceiling with books on every possible topic. I was awestruck at the endless rows of shelves of texts, and regretted that I only allotted myself two hours for the task.

I found such historical gems as the 3-volume set of Napoleon's Memoirs, and a 2-volume biography on William Pitt the Younger. I took home Bulgarian, Hungarian, Hawaiian, and Polish language dictionaries, as well as quite a few local history narratives with which I was unfamiliar. All told, five shopping bags helped me transport over 90 books to add to my already burgeoning shelves.

There were books in this basement that likely have significant resale value, but I have never approached the written word with an eye toward profit. In fact, it is rare that I even part with a book, unless I give one away to a person I think is "destined" to have it.

Two books come to mind that I find myself giving away repeatedly: John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I occasionally run into people I feel must have one of these books for a particular reason, and I think I have given away each of these texts three times.

And yet another joy of coming into a trove of old books can be found in reading the inscriptions and bookplates that often accompany a nineteenth century or early twentieth century book. One book had the following pre-ZIP code address sticker:

Mrs. David F. Kalish
The Commodore Perry
Toledo 3, Ohio

For those of you too young to remember the introduction of the ZIP code, "Toledo 3" was what was known as a postal zone, and these postal zones were all the rage from 1943 until the late 1960s.

Pictured on the left is a character known as "Mr. Zip," who was supposed to help Americans feel better about switiching to the 5-digit ZIP code, and yes - I had a sudden pang of nostalgia when I saw this illustration.

But I digress, once again.

What started out as another busy-but-typical day has ended on a high note, thanks to my anonymous friend who so generously allowed me the opportunity to sift through the many thousands of books in a basement filled with textual wonder and limitless knowledge.

Once again, many thanks, friend. May your unselfish spirit bring forth equivalent karmic returns.


jshriver said...

Wonderful read. Agree there's something beautiful and immortal about print. Hope those books find a good home. When I was in high school, I'd always walk down to my favorite local used book store and look around, buy, read, and chitchat with the owners. Even developed a friendship with them, and they'd let me look around their restricted area/private stash in the basement of the store.

Finding treasures like the ones you mentioned are a lot of fun. :)

Are there any stores within a 50mile radius of Toledo that you recommend? The only store I've found (and frequent often) is "A Novel Idea" on Monroe street going toward Sylvania.

historymike said...

Hi JShriver:

Agreed about A Novel Idea, which is my favorite used bookstore in Toledo.

Frogtown Books has some quality merchandise, but I have had bad luck with their hours of operation. It seems like they are closed every time I am in that area.

I have yet to visit Encore Books on Hetherdowns. I might visit this week to check them out. I have also heard good things about Grounds for Thought in Bowling Green.

Ann Arbor has a ton of used bookstores, including Dawn Treader, David's Books, and the Shaman Drum. You won't find as many good deals as in places like A Novel Idea, but the selection of used books in a major college town like Ann Arbor is beyond belief.

microdot said...

I used to love going into the used bookstores along 4th Avenue in Manhattan, unfortunately, they are a dying specie and the really great ones are just memories.
I remember in 1980, I had a visitor from Portsmouth, England who was a truly well read scholar...but was sort of an unemployed literature teacher turned punk...He was discoverung America armed with lettrs of introduction from friends of his, that's how he ended up living in my rehearsal studio for over a month.
One day he came in beaming with a book he had found on 4th Avenue...he had just paid 2 dollars for a first edition by Oscar Wilde with an inscription from Wilde to his boyfriend! You had to know what you are looking for obviously, but what luck!

Now I want to read Confederacy of Dunces again!

Hooda Thunkit said...


I am particularly envious of the local history books and, of course, that Polish-English dictionary ;-)