I’ve come to consider used book stores and antique stores as depositories of our literary and social history. You can find just about anything you’re looking for on Amazon, but until you spend some time perusing and holding old books important in their day but largely forgotten now can you see a glimpse of American literary heritage.
I’ve found an old edition of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, a 1918 edition of Love Songs by Sara Teasdale (for a dollar!), The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke (1926), The Speeches of Daniel Webster (1854), Ida Tarbell’s Life of Lincoln (1907), and more.
We’ve lived in Kirkwood, our suburb of St. Louis, for more than 30 years. When we moved here, an antique shop in the downtown area had been in operation for a long time. It was called Dappled Gray Antiques, and it was filled with the valuable and the not-so-valuable.
In the back were the bookshelves, to which I was inevitably drawn. The store owner had excellent taste in books, and the price ranges reflected the range of prices of the antiques themselves. You could find old children’s books, sets, 19th century, 20th century, popular editions and rare book editions. The jumble of discovery was part of the fun.
Over the years, I likely bought more than I should have, but four finds hold a special place.
Theodore Mommsen (1817-1903) was a German historian who specialized in Roman history. I first made his acquaintance in a seminar I took for my master’s degree. He was one of the preeminent historians of the 19th century, and the first three volumes of his classic History of Rome was published in 1854. By 1868, the date for the edition I bought, a fourth volume had been added. For four books that are 150 years old this year, they’re in outstanding condition.
The Complete Memoirs of Ulyssess S. Grant was published in two volumes in 1885 by Mark Twain’s publishing company, Charles Webster. Grant was dying as he completed the works. He was essentially broke and he needed to provide for his wife Julia. Twain took this publishing project on as a personal effort, and the success of the books ensured resources for Mrs. Grant.
William Prescott (1796-1859) is considered the first American scientific historian. He focused on Spain and Spanish America, writing histories of the conquest of Mexico and Peru. His The History of Ferdinand and Isabella was first published in 1837; at Dappled Gray Antiques, I found a leather-bound 1841 edition in three volumes. They’re beautiful books and the pages look almost brand new.
My oldest books weren’t found at the antique store but at one of the annual St. Louis Book Fairs, held every April and considered one of the big used book events in the United States. I’ve found a number of gems at bargain prices, including a set that wasn’t in very good shape but that I couldn’t resist – a four-volume edition of Plutarch’s Lives published in 1821, for which I paid all of $5. The binding on two was slightly separated; the pages have some yellowing. But I hope I’m in as good shape when I’m almost 200 years old.
Something about these books makes me hopeful. They may not be well remembered today, but these old books are survivors. They’ve been in civil war, estate sales, and family upheavals. They’ve been transported all over the country, and a few from Europe. They’ve patiently sat on shelves and occasionally read. They’ve been prized and mistreated, valued and tossed out. They’ve been handed off to strangers and forgotten. They’ve lasted longer than the places I found them, like Dappled Gray Antiques, long closed and now a retail clothing shop.
And yet the books sit, waiting, lovingly touched and examined, reminders of the literary legacy we take for granted. They don’t seem to mind.
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The Complete Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (1885)
Mommsen’s History of Rome (1868)
Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1882)
The History of Ferdinand and Isabella by William Prescott