Friday, July 24, 2015

Book Collectors Unite!

I'm easily distracted by books.

I've walked into someone's house whom I barely knew and quickly become so interested in their living room bookshelf that I forgot to engage in the appropriate introductory chit chat that's fitting when you visit someone for the first time ("...Oh  do you live here?"). And though my family knows that when we are traveling at highway speeds, I'm incapable of stopping for anything but the most dire emergencies, I have suddenly stopped and turned around on a highway because I passed an unexpected used book store ("...You can hold your pee until the next bookstore!"). But my wife, Fiona, is in on this too. We once planned a holiday in scenic England entirely around a search for used books ("...Castles? What are castles?"). But I've always taken it too far even for her. One winter day I left her waiting in an idling car with two small children in car seats in snow suits, parked for who knows how long because I "had to" investigate a used bookstore, and she didn't want to unpack the kids and bring them in ("...Can you keep the kids warm for the next hour or so?"). I seriously grovelled and apologized for that one!

The simple fact is, my one and only hobby is books. Collecting books. I know I'm not the most zealous collector out there, as I've met fanatical types whom I could never keep up with. But I'd like to think we could be in the same league. 

There are many types of book collectors.

There are the "Get as many books in my house as possible" book collectors. Genre or quality are not the issues; quantity is the issue. And quantity makes for great displays!

Then there are the "Nothing but New" book collectors who insist on books being in pristine condition, and whose shelves look immaculate and whose books are never lent out.

Then there are the "Only dusty old hardcovers will do" book collectors who swoon over the smell of old books, and have beautiful rows of vintage books of various colours which may have the occasional blemish, but it's all part of their character.

And finally, there are the "Don't bore me with that genre" book collectors who go for the old and the new, the hard covers and the soft covers, but are quite selective in the themes represented on their shelves. This one probably best describes myself, though most book collectors are likely a combination of different types.

But there's one thing that sets many book collectors apart from other lovers of the printed page: Libraries confuse us. Why take home a book that you have to return after you read it? I don't understand. If you want to read a book, buy the book. I don't want to give books back. I like them. I want them.

Book collectors don't always buy books to read them, but always to enjoy them.

When Fiona and I bought our first home, a little two-story house with a 450 sq.ft. footprint and a tiny living room (smaller than the family tent that we impulsively bought at Costco when we simply went for eggs - but that's another story (behold, the Behomoth)), we built a large room-dominating floor-to-ceiling bookshelf unit and attached it to the walls in the corner of the living room. As life went on, I added books to it with no thought as to when I might read them. Some people seemed to find this silly when they heard that I hadn't read so many of the books displayed in our living room. But I would simply shrug. I collect them, I'd explain. (Some of you understand).

The truth is, I've read a great many of the books I've bought over the years, and continue to do so. It's not unusual for me to pull a book off one of my shelves to read it many years after I bought it. But some of the best books I've found over the years have barely been opened since I put them on my shelf long ago. A few examples include...
  • A first U.S. edition of T.E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" (I also bought a soft cover to read so I wouldn't have to handle this old hardcover version too much).
  • An out-of-print copy of "The Gobi Desert" written by two intrepid woman missionaries in China's pre-communist years to add to my desert genre collection.
  • A rare nineteenth-century breast pocket-sized book containing a collection of John Wesley's writings.
  • A first edition of George Eldon Ladd's famous "Gospel of the Kingdom." (For this one, I also have a soft cover for reading purposes).
  • An obscure book with a beautiful cover that describes the missions history of the 2,000 years between the 12 Apostles and William Carey.
  • A small, gorgeously bound KJV Bible that we found in a bookstore in England that contained a long, slender, pressed leaf on which someone had beautifully written: "Gertie" South Africa 1877 on one side, and With Love on the other side. A romance preserved for over a century in God's book.

Eventually we moved from that little house, and Fiona didn't want to take those homemade book shelves with us. For our new home, we planned to buy new book cases. And when they were full, more book cases. And when they were full, more book cases.

Fiona and I have each bought each other book cases as gifts on special occasions. Why not? Isn't that normal? It has to be for a married couple whose favourite thing to do whenever we visit my parents in British Columbia is to go to two local bookstores that are both among the best of all the used bookstores we've ever visited (which is many). 

What makes a great used book store?

For starters, they have to be crowded with books in every nook and cranny you can possibly place them. Multiple floors is a plus.

And they must have a wide selection of genres available, with an obvious balance in their stock between hard cover and soft cover books, but biased toward hard covers in most genres. 

And the staff need to be knowledgeable but also unobtrusive so that you can feel on your own amidst the books until you need a question answered. 

Prices also shouldn't be so low that you wonder if you're shopping among the dregs of someone's garage sale leftovers, but nor should they be so high that you are robbed of the joy of discovering literary treasures at a discount! 

And there should be a bathroom. Definitely a bathroom.

A Bookstore Tour

When Fiona and I took our first holiday with our first child (when she was a highly literate three month old baby), we visited the official used book store capital of the United Kingdom – perhaps the world: Hay-on-Wye. It was amazing!

Now, 21½ years later, Fiona and I will soon be launching out on our first summer vacation with no children accompanying us since that trip to Hay-on-Wye. And surprise, surprise  we plan to visit 12 used bookstores between Chilliwack and Victoria, BC! Of course, we also plan to stay in a hotel right on Victoria's waterfront and re-visit Butchart Gardens for the first time since our honeymoon. But because we've been to British Columbia so many times over the years, it feels like we're done doing the touristy stuff, and we're not big-time hiker types. 

What we are is book collectors, and collect we shall. We may be needing another bookcase.

© 2015 by Ken Peters


Donna Dawe said...

I love books, paper between my fingers but alas I am not a great fan of reading; well maybe I would be if I didn't get so sleepy while reading. With that said, I enjoy books, a thrilling tale, testimonies of one's life adventures, allegorical books are my most favorite and if I hear of a great title or find one I think might be a gem, Like you, I shelf it for when I have the time. Lately, I find myself wanting to remove family photos to make room on our shelves for more books (our entire back wall is a built-in bookshelf). Move over kids mama found a new book she'll read one day! Books I've read that I had NOT enjoyed do not get to maintain the precious space on the shelf and get to adventure at the local thrift store. I love thrift store finds as book stores are pretty rare stops with my crew. We'd love you have you up to see the collection in our living room any time and I won't find it rude at all if you look silently from within your happy place. Flin Flon also has a really neat used book store & café called The Orange Toad. Only an our north of us. What do you do with the books you don't enjoy?

Ken said...

A built-in bookshelf on an entire wall sounds fantastic! It's fairly rare that I end up with a book that I don't want or enjoy, as I'm quite selective in the books I choose. But it has happened, and when it does, I usually donate it to the Children's Hospital Booksale.