Sip Swallow And King JamesTuesday, August 15, 2006
This morning we leave Morelia for Houston. We are sad that our stay in Michoacán seemed so short. One comfort is that a plane trip always gives one the opportunity to read.
A highbrow is the kind of person who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso.
Sir Allan Patrick Herbert
In 1965 I was earning one dollar a month as a conscript in the Argentine Navy. When my father George W. Hayward collapsed and died of a heart attack in Buenos Aires, he had enough cash in his pocket so that I was able to pay for a cheap funeral at the Chacarita cemetery. He bequeathed me:
1. A King James Bible with its front title page torn so that only half of his signature showed.
2. Sip! Swallow! a 1938 Doubleday edition of essays by English author and Punch contributor A.P. Herbert.
Those books were the only intimate and tangible remembrance of my father that remained with me. Books have been very important to me since. I was saddened in 1968 when in a house move, a box containing Sip! Swallow! disappeared. It was then that acquiring books became a passion.
Last September I went to New Westminster in a mist-of-rain morning that made the going the more depressing. I find New Westminster gray. Robert Blackwood, purveyor of fine used books at Booktown on Columbia Street, says I have it all reversed. He gets the blues when he drives to Vancouver. In New Westminster he always makes me smile. He is a droll and funny man. My spirits picked up when he placed a 1938 Doubleday edition of Sip! Swallow! in my hands. It was exactly as I remembered it down to the Hindu snake charmer and his cobra on the cover!
I realized that all the good fun I have been having of late in buying books started as a result of an event in March 1999. That’s when Celia Duthie filed for bankruptcy and the 10-store chain was reduced to one. Getting a book in 1999 was simple. If you lived in Vancouver you went to a Duthie’s. If they didn’t have the book you wanted, your order took a month. Celia Duthie’s on-line virtual bookstore, Literascape, as pioneering as it was in Canada then, came too late.
In February 1987 I was biding my time in a fogged in Terrace, B.C. I had gone there to teach a weekend photography course. The fog was so thick that my flights out weren’t landing. With time to kill I browsed in the local bookstores. They lacked the Duthie Books inventories and only offered cheap paperbacks and used books. But gems could be found and I found two. One was Bunny Yeager’s Art of Glamour Photography and the other a very funny I Owe Russia $1200 by Bob Hope. I paid $6 for both. Not long after I got to photograph Bob Hope who was delighted to autograph my find.
It was in 1995 that two Victoria database analysts working on contract for the BC government came up with an idea that would crystallize as an on-line bookstore offering 40 million plus titles. Keith Waters and Rick Pura (and their spouses) launched, in May 1996, Advanced Book Exchange, better known as Abebooks. With two web sites in English, one in French and one in German they list more than 60 million used, out-of–print and rare books. This makes them the largest source of books in the world and they represent over 10,000 booksellers around the globe. Abebooks offers an ancillary service in that the prices of their books, their condition of wear described in great detail, reflect an accurate world-pricing for any book you can think of. You can think of them as an at-home book appraiser. My 1984 British first edition of William Gibson’s Neuromancer is listed at upwards of $1500 US while I Owe Russia $1200 will only fetch me $1.00. The Bunny Yeager book is now worth $50 US. A first edition of the Reverend Joseph Pemberton’s 1908 Roses – Their History and Development brings over $100 US. I paid $40 for it at McLeod’s Books in Vancouver.
Just about any other book I may want I can surely find at Abebooks. But there is more to just finding a book. The process is part of the fun.
And that process has become more fun as I have had to change my book purchasing habits. Chapter’s satisfies my ever-frequent cravings for good new novels at reasonable prices. All I have to do is remember the book reviews from the New York Times and soon enough many show up as remainders for under $10.
At Booktown I have the most fun. I also even get a cup of tea if I call ahead. When I have a hunch that a pristine first edition might be an investment, Blackwood will wade through his sources and find the right first edition for me. Because Blackwood (his curriculum is impressive, suffice to say that he was CBC Radio executive for 25 years and is in the board of many national arts organizations) has a fondness for good mystery books he has found me books by difficult authors like Charles Palliser and Arthur W. Upfield. Booktown has over 45,000 book titles in 60 sections labeled and alphabetized by author shelves with more books in countless storage areas. But Blackwood will tell you that he does not specialize in anything and that the largest part of Booktown is finding books he doesn’t have on his shelves.
I left Booktown with my treasured Sip! Swallow! and a smile. Blackwood (as much of a highbrow as my father ever was), who thinks of Picasso in every hot dog he never eats, confessed he liked it. He had told me, “After having lived with your book for some 48 hours I liked it well enough to get my own.”