Thoughts of what was once famously known as The Grand Tour of Europe stirs many a romantic soul. Sail to London, then train to Paris, Berlin, Zurich, Florence, Rome. and Vienna, among other magical European cities. These glamorous places drew wealthy travelers for hundreds of years as a rite of passage, a show of wealth, and/or the ultimate honeymoon adventure.
The Grand Tour came alive for me recently when an old lady in our Grandview neighborhood called me to come and buy her books in First Community Village retirement center.
Patricia White was a 90-year-old widow whose husband Sidney had been a Professor of Geology at the Ohio State University, as she informed me during her call. When she said she had some of his academic books, I got quite interested, as advanced academic books can do very well, if the professor has restrained from marking them up.
When I arrived at her attractive apartment overlooking a tree-decorated swatch of greenery between her building and the one which paralleled hers, the pleasant surroundings impressed me.
Pat White was a cheerful, sharp woman, easy to like. Though her voice was tremulous and sometimes difficult to understand, she wasn’t frail. She told me as I arrived at her first-floor apartment that she’d just come in from uprooting and bagging all her annuals. “Look at those turned-over beds out there,” she said proudly, pointing through the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling window. “I’m not only cleaning up before winter, I’m already getting ready for spring!”
Glancing around her apartment, I could see that when she told me she had “a lot of books” to sell, she wasn’t using the same judgment on quantity that dealers use. She had four small bookcases around the long, well-lit living area. She walked me from case to case, pointing out an occasional shelf of books which she wanted to keep.
“My eyes are still pretty good, and I love to read of an evening,” she said, gazing fondly at some gardening books that she had declared off-limits to me.
She also informed me that her children had already taken whatever they wanted, which meant that I was being offered the family’s rejects. As I was hoping for professional books – which are not usually coveted by kids and cousins, that news didn’t phase me.
However, the professor’s books, which had been the draw to come out, were non-existent, a big disappointment. She had a few of his geology texts set aside to keep, but nothing that appeared to be commercially significant. “I thought I had more of his books,” she said, understanding my disappointment.
I asked how long her husband had been at OSU.
“We came here in ’51, and never left,” she said with a grin, “but we were always leaving.”
As I scanned the available books, I realized what she meant. The books being offered reflected the couple’s traveling experience more than his scientific focus. Most of the travel books were from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
“We were married for 51 years,” she bragged, “and we had great adventures all over the world!”
When you’re out buying peoples’ books, you learn a lot about them. Not just because you get a peek into someone’s house, but more because you get to see their book collection as representational of their owners. I’ll write more about that concept some day, but for this store-y, I’ll mention that books may tell you where the owners have traveled. And since it’s usually an elderly person selling their books, their travel guides are mostly from the ‘60s to the ‘80s.
For academic couples like the Whites, the books’ era indicated the prime-time of their owners’ careers, when their children were young, when articles were being written from their research and soon to be incorporated into forthcoming books – published sometimes out of the joy of research and writing, and some published only to keep them from perishing in the academic Petri dish.
Before, during, and after their travels, knick-knacks and books were bought relating to the places they visited. The eye-catching souvenirs are hung and scattered about, waiting for fresh eyes to appreciate their sources and connected stories.
There were always a few Fodor’s or Frommer’s guidebooks in such collections, along with a few coffee-table titles, several maps, and the inevitable collection of tourist brochures to famous cathedrals, charming countryside towns, and places of interest, like Windsor Castle.
The books’ photographs from that time are usually of Romanian-like quality, washed-out on low-quality paper. The guides are uselessly out of date – we don’t carry travel guides older than two years, because the data changes so fast on the their Internet listings. The maps are usually too common and too recent to merit historical value. The tourist brochures are worthless until they have antiquarian value, fifty years or so down the road. Usually these are passover shelves.
Common collections like these do have value beyond the commercial – they’re a great conversation starter with the book owner that won’t leave me alone when I’m doing my job. Talkers always slow me down that way, but if they’re going to see us as Huntley and Brinkley, trading personal news tidbits, I’ve got to make nice with them. Truly I’ve met some very interesting people that way. But still, they slow me down.
I have yet to find the person whose books I’m buying not light up when I say something like, “I see from your books that you’ve traveled a bit.” Folks love to talk about where they’ve been, and so seldom get asked for their stories from the past. And in the case of a widow or widower, my inquiry gives them a chance to bring back their spouse as cities are re-visited, continents are crossed, memories are savored.
On a few occasions I’ve been asked for a travel story or two in return, and our year-long adventures in Romania and Slovakia, as well as our voyage around the world on Semester at Sea give me a broad book of memories to draw from.
Their books gave evidence that the Whites had been in Scandinavia in 1988 and South America in 1990. There were books on Paris from the 60s, the cheap guidebook paper yellowed with age. Pat confirmed that they’d been there twice, including during the student riots of ’68, when the disturbances were so bad that the riot police tear-gassed George Whitman and his Shakespeare and Company bookstore for trying to give sanctuary to students in his 600-year-old building.
The elderly widow had many books from the 70s and 80s on Hawaii and Australia, where she assured me that they had been six times. “We have a daughter in Australia, in Perth, and we used to go to visit her, stopping in Hawaii a few days each way to make the trip easier. He was always trying to find a geology conference somewhere along the way so his expenses would be paid by the university. He was important enough in his field to usually find some professional angle to our down-under visits.”
With her failing voice, her comments took longer than usual, but that gave me time to review more of her books, most of which I was passing over. At least the shelves weren’t full of the Three Rs: Religious, Romance, and Reader’s Digest.
She never seemed to mind talking to my back as long as I turned around once in a while and made eye contact as her memories traveled from her head through her heart to her voice.
“Oh, the places his job took us!” she declared, as she got up out of her maroon Victorian chair and walked to a framed black and white photograph on the wall. “Twice we went to Greenland! This is my husband crawling up a glacier there. That was his specialization; he studied glaciers, and loved it. So we went where there were glaciers, or conferences on glaciers.”
She pointed to another photo of a young man in uniform and proudly said, “That’s also my husband, my Sid.” It was the only time that she used his name, referring to him as “my husband”, as though using his name was too painful, even after two years.
“He was in Navy intelligence in the war.” She turned to me and said, “Sometimes weeks would go by without hearing from him, for he wasn’t allowed to make known his whereabouts. As the war was coming to an end, I knew only that he was in the forefront of the Pacific advance. I went crazy with worry, for we’d gotten married just before the war, and I didn’t want to lose him before we’d had time to really be together.”
Her head jerked uncontrollably as she struggled to talk, and it was obvious that it wore her out. But clearly she wanted to talk, if haltingly, about her memories of their various travels as I was reviewing the shelved collection, stacking up a few things, especially from her modern literature shelf. There were collectible editions of “Moby Dick” and “Walden” and a few others which would be easy to sell for good prices.
There was also a nice run of the excellent children’s classics that Scribner published in the twenties and thirties, with artists such as N. C. Wyeth providing the illustrations.
Her late husband’s grandmother had thoughtfully provided these beloved books to him year after year: “To Sidney from Grandma” graced the inside of each book. 1923 was “The Boys King Arthur”; ‘24 was “The Deerslayer”; in 1925 he received “Swiss Family Robinson”; and in ’26 she provided him with “Kidnapped”.
In 1927, she gave him “Jinglebob: A True Story of a Real Cowboy”, but the inscription had changed to: “In Memory of Your Blessed Mother”. That was the last book in the series that was on his widow’s shelves.
I was sitting on the tan carpet in a corner, lost in the story of these books given 85 years ago to a boy who loved to read. I can just sense how pleased his grandmother was to provide good classic literature, and the thrill he might have felt each Christmas morning, sitting in the corner near the decorated tree, beginning to read his new book while the family’s holiday festivities swirled around the oblivious reader, engrossed in his latest prize from Grandma.
From yet another travel-books shelf, I pulled several red Baedeker travel guides – in very good condition, maps included: Great Britain, 1906; Paris, 1907; and Switzerland, 1909. We have a couple of customers who collect them, so I set them aside from the other books I’d piled up.
When she saw me with the guides, she lowered her newspaper, leaned forward and said earnestly, “There’s a story to those Baedekers!”
“When my husband’s parents got married in 1910, in Knoxville, Tennessee, they had some money given to them, and were going to honeymoon doing the European Grand Tour, which was so popular back then.”
She looked expectantly at me to see if I knew of the tradition of the Grand Tour.
I nodded and smiled as I went over and sat on an upholstered stool near her, giving the storyteller my full attention, the Baedekers in my hands. Her eyes were alight as she began the story – perhaps the first time in years that it had been told, and probably the last time she would tell it.
“They wanted to see everything and bring stories back home from Europe, so far away.”
Her voice gave out frequently, causing her to stop and compose herself, but she never apologized for her infirmity. I was patient.
She continued, “As a honeymoon present, my husband’s grandparents gave the newlyweds three books to help them appreciate their grand adventure, the best guides available for the trip of a lifetime.
She paused for effect, then said, “And it was those very books in your hands that went on that wonderful honeymoon in 1910.”
A chill ran down my spine.
“So those books have sailed the Atlantic, guided the thrilled newlyweds around London, and trained across the continent 99 years ago this past June, helping a honeymoon couple from Tennessee to see the sights of Europe. They never stopped talking about that trip, and I heard the story of those books directly from them.”
She paused at length then, worn out from straining to talk so much. Finally she reached for the New York Times crossword she was working and concluded, “I am so happy to have been able to tell you the story of those Baedekers, and maybe to help keep their story alive.”
Even as she was telling me the great story of the guides, I was thinking of Michael Kaper, one of our regulars who is a very nice guy, and buys from all over the store on his visits. Lately he’s been collecting Baedekers, and though the guides don’t come in often, when they do, I hold them for Michael to have first shot at, our way of rewarding our regulars.
I knew he’d appreciate the story, but might already have the guides in question. However, I felt duty-bound to honor Pat White and her husband and his parents and grandparents by maintaining the integrity and the objects of the story. They were too special to sell separately; they had to be kept together as a set, which would reduce their salability – except to the right person, the one these books sang to.
I wanted to help Patricia White keep their 99-year-old story alive.
Michael turned 40 this fall. We know that because we were phoned by his wife to help her find just the right book to surprise him with for his 40th. “You know what he likes, and what he has, more than I do,” Angie Kaper said, providing a price range. I selected an attractive, bright first edition of Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” for her to give to him.
A week later a man came in and asked us to help find a gift for his brother. This is a common request, and I thought nothing of it, until he brought the set of Howe’s “Historical Collections of Ohio” to the counter and gave me his credit card. “Kaper” was the last name. Click.
“Is your brother Michael?” I asked him, bagging the books.
“Yeah, and he just raves about this place. Now I know why,” he grinned. “This is for his 40th birthday.”
On Michael’s last pre-Baedeker visit, he came in all smiles.
“I just want to thank you so much for the books you selected for my wife and brother. I had a great birthday, thanks in large part to you,” and he shook my hand.
By the time he made his next visit, we had bought the storied Baedekers from Pat White, and they were on the Hold Shelf behind me. He had his usual stack of $50-$100 worth of books.
With great anticipation, I told him that I’d just bought something special that he might be interested in, setting the bait.
“Oh yeah? What that might be?” he asked alertly, taking the hook.
I turned around and picked up the old guides, placing them on the counter. Downstairs Norman had leather-polished them for a very appealing appearance, despite their age.
“Baedekers!” he declared, pleased, but curious about why they were being given the honored treatment.
“Not just any Baedekers,” I replied. “These,” and I gently patted them, “come with a story.” Which I then passed on to him, suspecting that the tale would appeal to him even more than the books themselves.
Quite interested, he asked, “Are you going to sell them as a set or individually?”
“Normally I’d price them per book, but after hearing widow White’s story about them traveling the seas together, I want to sell them as a set.”
“As they should be,” Michael said, nodding in agreement.
He lifted them carefully, allowing their magic to work on him. After saying nothing for a moment, he set them on the counter, where he could examine them better.
“Great Britain”, 1906. “Paris”, 1907”, and “Switzerland, 1909”. Books brought together nearly a century ago to be given as a useful wedding present, destined to be together for the next 99 years in the White house.
Now after a brief stay at Acorn, I sensed they’d be leaving that day with a 40-year-old booklover who was hooked on their adventurous story.
“Sold!” Michael declared, with a big smile. “I already have two of these guides, but I don’t care. I want to keep their story alive,” echoing Patricia’s White very sentiments.
PS: And, yes, I do regret not keeping them for myself.