BUFFALO BILL IN HELSINKI
by George Cowmeadow Bauman
This store-y is about the internationality of books, about how one book for young adults about an American frontier legend published in New York in 1924 was eventually bought and sold in Helsinki, Finland, in 1998 and brought to Columbus, Ohio, to be sold again in 2005.
And about seller’s regret.
Home-schoolers visit the Acorn Bookshop regularly; they practice the advice of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: “Teach your children well.”
Lisa West is one of our home-schooling regulars and she collects the old Tom Swift books for her young son Ryan, a biblioholic in the making – and a nice kid, too.
We do our best to be enablers of biblioholism, an addiction whose devotees petition us daily for their literary fix. Our livelihood depends on these book-junkies. May a cure never be found for bibliophilia, or even for bibliomania! Let us always be able to bestow the blessing of reading upon all who would be entertained and enlightened by the miracle of print.
Lisa was in recently looking for interesting titles for Ryan, who usually comes in with her to pick out a stack of books to fill his voracious reading habit. Unlike most kids his age that we’ve met who also like to read, Ryan enjoys talking about his reading in an adult way. Which makes us look forward to his visits. I like being treated like an adult.
After browsing for a bit, his mother brought a book over and placed ‘The Adventures of Buffalo Bill’, on the counter, with our price penciled in at $45, which is much higher than her usual thrifty purchases. Lisa tapped the cover with one of her very elaborate, multi-design-painted nails and asked pleasantly, “Can you tell me why this book is so much higher than the other books in the Vintage Children’s section, George?” It wasn’t said in a challenging way, just with curiosity.
Always wanting to have customers feel like our prices are appropriate and not artificially high, I took the book and was thinking how familiar it seemed, then did some quick reference work, and went out to where she’d gone back to browse.
“Did you notice this was written by William F. Cody himself? I asked. “This was published early in the century, and is rather rare in this good condition.”
She seemed pleased with my explanation, and asked me to set “Buffalo Bill” with her other selections near the register.
While ringing them up, I did a double-take after looking at the source code under the price. I turned to her and announced, “There’s a story to go along with this special book, if you have a few minutes.” Lisa smiled in anticipation, and after taking care of the commercial transaction, we walked over and sat down by the marble-topped Browser’s Table.
“I bought this book in Helsinki right after a friend and I were kicked out of Finland’s capital,” I began.
“My new Swiss friend Rolf and I had just arrived on the overnight ferry from Hamburg, Germany, less than two hours earlier.”
“Good start to the story, George,” Lisa laughed. She leaned back against the wall of cookbooks, smiling in anticipation of the rest of the story, while I sat on a step-stool where I could keep an eye on the counter.
“It was during the year when Linda had received a Fulbright Professorship to teach at a university in Bratislava, Slovakia. She had received an invitation from Rolf’s wife Ursula – who had discovered Linda’s work online and had established a professional and personal rapport with her – to come and lecture at the University of Zurich in December and to share a panel at a pop culture conference in Tampere, Finland in June. We had spent a wonderful week at Christmastime with them in gorgeous Zurich while Linda lectured, and now that it was June, Rolf and I were on our way to meet Linda and Ursula north of Helsinki.
“Our wives had flown to the conference. Rolf borrowed an old RV from a friend and we autobahn-d north from Zurich up through Germany to Hamburg to catch the evening-departing ferry, tooling along in that rickety old RV while sleek Mercedes and BMWs seemed to race each other around us. Trying to get comfortable in the cracked leather seat, and looking behind us in the cracked side-view mirror, I couldn’t help but think of a customer’s comment to me about driving his old VW bug: ‘Every time we drove it a part fell off!’
After docking in Helsinki the next morning, we were to drive north through Finnish lakes and pines to Tampere. Then it was to be vacation time for all of us, with plans to drive leisurely north through Lapland to above the Arctic Circle, where we would head west and come back south through Norway before re-crossing the North Sea and driving back to Zurich.
“Rolf had never driven an RV or anything bigger than a BMW before, but he had the Swiss confidence that he could do anything he put his mind to.”
I checked to make sure that no customers needed my help, and returned to Lisa and the story.
“We had just driven off the overnight ferry in the harbor and were looking for a place to get some breakfast in a country where neither of us spoke the language, though I did have my pocket Berlitz for Finland with me. We spied a large parking space, and I offered to get out and help guide this rookie RV-er in, but he waved me off.
“As Rolf was trying to fit the RV into that spot, wham!, he backed into a Mercedes, crunching the front end, but barely damaging the bulky RV. I think he broke a taillight.”
Lisa looked aghast.
“Cell phones were already ubiquitous throughout Europe in 1998, and quickly the police arrived,” I continued. “Neither Rolf nor I spoke Finnish; the cop didn’t speak German as Rolf did, so though neither of them spoke much English, they at least could communicate, with my help. It was determined that Rolf was to follow the cop a few blocks to the police station to file a report, with the Mercedes owner following us.”
“’Big shit!’ Rolf said nervously and repeatedly as he drove nervously to officialdom’s headquarters, using one of the few English curses he knew.
“After the cop parked his cruiser at the station, he walked back to big-bearded Rolf hanging out the RV’s driver’s side window, and pointed to where the visiting Swiss should park the beast. Rolf was then to come inside the station, where we were assured that someone spoke better English than the arresting officer.
“Rolf was very nervous, and while trying to back the RV up, proceeded to slam the RV into another Mercedes, while several cops watched in amazement.
“’Oh, very big shit!” Rolf growled between clenched teeth.
Lisa laughed at the image, as I added, “I was very glad I wasn’t the driver.”
She was entranced with the story featuring such a dramatic beginning; fortunately the store was quiet save for this book-narrative, though a couple of heads had popped out from book aisles with curiosity.
“Then what happened?” she asked.
“Well, the cops handled it all very professionally, but you can imagine what a great story that they’re probably still telling at the Helsinki police headquarters ten years later!
“Once the fender/bumper mangled RV was finally parked, Rolf, looking very upset and discouraged, disappeared into the foreign police station, and I was left on my own to process just what the hell was going on.
“There was a coffee shop down the same block, so my breakfast and caffeine needs were met, though I couldn’t find a fresh pair of underwear for Rolf anywhere. I just hoped that regardless of what was happening to him that he’d still be able to walk out of there and drive us to our wives, no matter how many, um, detours we ran into.”
While telling the story, I kept glancing around, always trying to be aware of what’s going on in the store. But none of the other browsers had gone to the counter and no new booklovers had come into the store while Lisa and I – surrounded by the written word – had been taken across the Atlantic via the spoken word.
“I watched through the coffee shop window for Rolf, making rapid notes in my travel journal. If they had served schnapps at 9 a.m. I would have gotten tightly bound. Over an hour later saw him walk out of the building next to a uniformed cop, who was talking to him rather earnestly.
“We all arrived simultaneously at the RV, the cop still lecturing Rolf, in pretty good English, but by that point it was rather wasted on an extremely nervous Rolf. I heard the Finnish officer conclude with, “…so it might be a good idea if you and your friend left the city right away.”
“And that’s what we intended to do,” I told Lisa, shaking my head at my driver’s behavior, “but Rolf was very distressed and wanted coffee and food. He said he’d had to file a lengthy report, pay a substantial fine, and was the butt of at least a couple of jokesters’ mirth. He couldn’t understand the language of humor, he said, but he got the message. He was not a happy Swiss camper.”
“Big shit…big shit…big shit…big shit…”
“As you can imagine, we were quite rattled by the events of our first couple of hours in Finland. We needed a break, a pause for the cause, to calm our nerves.
“Near the city limits we spied a coffee shop next to a secondhand, second-floor bookstore, and Rolf parked the RV without event, avoiding any further paperwork headaches for Finnish insurance companies. Rolf fled to his caffeine and meat while I strolled into my own kind of sanctuary – a used bookshop.
“I asked the proprietor in my very broken Finnish if he had any books in English, having learned from Linda’s and my earlier year of living in Europe” – Romania, 1984-85, the Year of Big Brother – “that most international bookdealers have a few English titles stashed somewhere in the hopes that someone just like me will come in, ready to part with some local currency for a book fix. And what better souvenir for a booknut like me than a book purchased during travels to new towns, cities, countries?
“The smiling, 50-ish bookseller, wearing an old maroon vest over an old black turtleneck and worn brown pants, replied in heavily accented, but quite understandable, English, ‘I have only one such book!’ and disappeared through a dirty green cloth curtain into a small, dark backroom. I could tell he was excited to be able to show off his English to this American, and perhaps make that sale he’d been waiting for.
“I spent a few minutes browsing the incomprehensible titles in the small, dark two rooms in his upstairs shop, trying to convert Finnish markkas into American dollars. If I were correct, the prices were a bit high – admittedly by American standards.
“The proprietor elbowed the curtain aside and emerged holding out an old book to me.
“It was this very book,” I told Lisa, tapping the title with my forefinger, ‘The Adventures of Buffalo Bill’.
“’I am waiting for American to come my bookshop to sell zis book!’ the Finn said. He seemed to speak in exclamation points!”
And I used his excited style to give Lisa a sense of being there.
“That book broke the ice between us, the Finn and American. We spent a half-hour or so talking about bookselling. He led me over to his desk and proudly showed me his new computer, and talked of having just started to sell books on the Internet. This was the fast-arriving future of bookselling which most of us now use and take for granted. He was catching an early ride on what was being called the Information Highway.
“‘Now I sell books you before you come my shop!’ he cried, pointing to his list of books on the blue and white monitor. His English was good, but English prepositions confuse many Europeans.
“’How long have you had this book?’ I asked him. He seemed to say that he’d had it for many years and was waiting for some sucker to come along and take it off his hands at an enormous profit – but I could be wrong.
“I told him I’d take it. How could I resist such an opportunity to buy this book? I paid approximately seven U.S. dollars for it, said thanks and goodbye in attempted-Finnish to my colleague, and left in wonderment at finding such an unusual book of frontier Americana in such a remote-from-that-frontier location. Just how did that book – the only English title he had – come to be in the backroom of that Helsinki shop?”
Lisa and I tried to imagine the story of that travelling book. We conjectured that ‘Buffalo Bill’ had once belonged to a teacher’s or diplomat’s family who were forced to flee during World War II, and the book was ultimately found in the collection of a recently-deceased old schoolteacher who had lived above a fjord on the North Sea.
“So now you have the story of this book, as well as this famous book itself,” I told Lisa, who was grinning. The two other browsers had given up their book-hunting to come over for the conclusion of the story. I could have auctioned off Buffalo Bill’s book for three times the $45!
She thanked me for the book and the story – in English, and said she was anxious to pass it on to Ryan when she gave him the well-journeyed book.
Later, as I pondered the transaction with Lisa, I ruefully came to the decision that I should have saved the book for my own collection of special titles. Damn! How often does a book have such an amazing story of international booking as its travelling companion? What was I thinking of by putting it out for sale?!
Weeks passed, and the more I considered the loss of the Buffalo Bill book, the more I was kicking myself for letting it go, even to someone as nice as Lisa and Ryan.
They were really nice people, and nice people might well understand that I might want to have that book back for my own library, mightn’t they? Especially after Lisa heard the story of Buffalo Bill in Helsinki?
So I phoned her.
“I’ve kind of been waiting for your call, George,” she laughed. “After I told Ryan the story you told me, he said that he was surprised that you had let it go. I began thinking then that book really should stay with you.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you, Lisa!” I gushed. “I’d be glad to buy it back for more than you paid.”
“No, that’s all right, just give us store credit, because you know Ryan will use it up the next time he visits your store. He read the Buffalo Bill book already, and you know Ryan – now he wants to know more about him and his times. He’ll be on a frontier kick for six months now, thanks to you and that story.”
“The Adventures of Buffalo Bill” now holds a place of honor in my antique bookcase in our Riverhill home.
It not only tells a story with its text, but carries with it two more stories – one of its unusual acquisition in a secondhand Helsinki bookshop, and one of its reacquisition in the Acorn Bookshop in Columbus.