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The Time Traveling Book Detective

A collection of vintage children's books

In a small strip mall off of Indian School Road, in central Phoenix, there is a bookstore. A man in glasses guards the register, which is actually a vintage wooden desk. Beyond his post, there lies nothing but shelves and shelves of books, but not just any books. This is The Book Gallery, a haven for vintage books.

History is the study of past events. There are entire college departments devoted to this, a whole industry revolving around tracing your DNA, and your ancestors. I don’t know why humans are fascinated so much by the past, maybe the saying history repeats itself is true in the sense that we’re always looking backwards for previous versions of ourselves. Have you ever picked up an antique before and wondered who owned it? There’s a connection there, an unexplainable one that surpasses time.

I feel this way when I take deep dives into fashion history, listen to old music, and especially, when I read old books. From high school up until about last year, I was on a secret mission to read nothing but as many classic novels published before 1930 as possible. I even started a podcast specifically to talk about these classic books.

The other day, my friend Ryan and I made a mid-morning pilgrimage to The Book Gallery. Ryan is an avid book collector and is always scouting for something interesting. In him, I have found a kindred spirit for the love of history and things from times long since passed. As we entered the store, we made a beeline for the back, where the art/drawing books reside and it sits adjacent to the children’s books section.

A selection of books from the Books for Girls shelf, containing vintage children’s books

The children’s books section is my absolute favorite. I love children’s literature, especially old children’s literature. I love to read the kind of stories my ancestor might have read at 11. I pick up the books, always checking the publication dates, and get a weird thrill when I see dates like 1902 or 1890. To think you are holding in your hand now, in 2019, the same thing that some kid might have lovingly read 100 times over more than a hundred years ago. Maybe it was the only gift they got for their birthday, and treasured it forever. Maybe it was the only thing some mom could afford for her daughter back in 1910. Sometimes there are inscriptions on the inside pages, and while they technically devalue the book for the book collector, I find that even more thrilling.

An inscription indicating the book was a Christmas gift to some kid named Harry in 1910

I get a very mixed bag of feelings when I see things like this. Harry is long since dead, but back to that post I wrote a while back, sometimes stuff is important. Harry had no idea that his Christmas gift would end up in the hands of some curious lady over 100 years after he got it. What would it be like to meet Harry? What kind of kid was he? I love to make up stories about the lives of strangers. Based on this book, maybe he liked adventure and was a rambunctious little boy. Or maybe the person giving him the book (E.M. Garter, I think it says) wanted him to look up to someone who was that way; maybe Harry himself was actually a shy kiddo and uncle E.M. had no idea what he liked. He just said This is what young chaps like, here ya go Harry. Some things never change.

Some time ago I read A Room with a View by E.M. Forster and it has since become one of my favorite books (shameless plug- I did a podcast episode on it). It was published in 1908, and tells the story of Lucy Honeychurch, a young woman from England who is navigating the world, starting off on a trip to Italy. The book starts off with her in Florence with her tightwad cousin Charlotte. In the book, she relies heavily on the use of a guidebook which she refers to as the Baedeker.

A copy of Baedeker’s guide to Northern Italy from 1913

Apparently, Baedeker travel guides are a real thing! I came across this on a random shelf in the travel section of The Book Gallery and my eyes immediately lit up as I recognized the name from the book. This specific edition was published in 1913, but it had a huge section about Florence and I started to jump up and down with delight. It’s a few years difference, but this is nearly the same book that Lucy Honeychurch, or a girl just like her, would have used! I held that book and felt like an actual time traveler. What if you used this book as a guide today? How many of the places it references are still in existence? What about the maps? How much have these places changed?

The book was $30, and I don’t have space for any new books right now, but oh man did it give me a thrill. All of this book digging made me feel like some sort of time traveling detective, peering into the lives of people 100+ years ago. I found some more gems in the children’s section, one book published in the 1890s, but that had been copyrighted in the 1860s.

Elsie Dinsmore was a series written by Martha Finley from 1867 to 1905 (which had 28 volumes, by the way). Guys, that was so long ago! And some kid sat and read this book, and then here I am 126 years later, reading it! I wonder if Martha Finley could have ever imagined that? I wonder if we ever think about that, as writers, who will be reading our work 126 years from now?

Doing this kind of book perusing always produces these kinds of questions within me. They are questions that have no definitive answer, but sometimes those are just the kind of questions that I love, because I’m able to make up the answer.

Harry was ten-years-old in 1910, and so he spent his 20s in the 1920s, my favorite decade. His mother died young, but he had a kind father in his life who taught him to be honest and good. He just barely missed enlisting for World War I, and got involved in bootlegging for the money to take care of his ailing father. He spent the 20s in the sharp suits of the decade, and partied it up with girls and boys in pearls. Maybe he even went to Paris and longed to be part of the Riviera Set, but made his way back home to Detroit because he ran out of money, spending it all on champagne and snappy suits. A closeted gay man, he fell victim to heartbreak over and over, and his favorite song was “It Made You Happy, When You Made Me Cry” by Gene Austin, and he would spend many a night crying as he listened to it on his phonograph. He was jailed several times for bootlegging and had an opioid problem for a while after the crash. He would move out west after the Depression and found some success as a developer. He was able to find love, though it remained secret for many decades. He lived 100 years and was able to start and finish an entire century, one of the very few to do so, and would often talk about the glittering chaos and sorrow of his life. He kept this book his entire life, given to him by a kind uncle on a particularly special Christmas when he was ten, so many, many years ago. It was found in his belongings after his death, and purchased on estate sale, and found its way to this here shelf in The Book Gallery, where I am holding it now.

What a life you had Harry. We will always remember you.

Happy trails x

Asa

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