Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Roman-Capitalist Mystics

Let me first say what a privilege it is to fill the shoes of my inspired co-worker Lydia. She is a triumphant force of nature, single-handedly pumping the virtual bellows that powers O’Gara and Wilson’s electronic existence. I guess double-handedly, actually, since the virtual bellows is our keyboard, and one pumps a keyboard by typing, which requires two hands. My apologies for making the metaphor explicit. Lydia probably wouldn’t have done so, being skilled in the art of rhetoric, and humble enough to revise. Indeed, her flair for writing is matched only by the beauty of her penmanship, which is reason enough to visit our store.

But enough with the niceties. MY name is Alan, and though I have never written a blog entry before, it is my sincerest hope that this one will be successful. That is to say, I hope to avoid offending people, and inspire them to purchase things. A meager definition of success, perhaps, but such meager definitions are crucial for keeping one’s success constant.

The Confucian aspect of my training at the divinity school is now reminding me that success is also contingent upon respect for tradition. So, without further ado, allow me to present this week’s Affordable but Interesting item:

I’m sure most readers of this blog, insofar as they are educated, are already fervent supporters of laissez-faire capitalism. But for those who have not yet been awakened to the truth about free-market consumption, you may want to read “How We Live,” a hardbound 1944 manifesto on the indubitable and inexhaustible advantages enjoyed by a consumer culture. Never fear the specter of propaganda, my friends! The authors assure us on page one that “there is, in this book, not a single opinion, not a single word of praise or condemnation.” The graphics, needless to say, are all in keeping with this claim. Our kind and even-handed explicators of the economic process exhort us: “It must be remembered that harmful, uncontrolled monopolies cannot exist as long as the customer is free to buy from whomever he pleases.” And they observe that “disemployment and hardships are caused by one large group securing advantages over other groups, and that those who suffer most are to be found in the group that supposedly has the advantage.” Common sense, to be sure, but everyone can use a refresher course. And a cheap one at that -- $12.50 Give thanks to our consumer culture for driving down the price.

The previous paragraph is, in fact, intended to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Just making sure.

We turn now to a man who wrote with his tongue far, far, far away from his cheek. Thomas à Kempis was a Roman Catholic monk, best known for his devotional work “The Imitation of Christ,” which is this week’s Favorite. Originally written in Latin and published anonymously, Kempis’ mystic meditation on the divine has been printed in over 2000 editions. It is filled with everything from straightforward statements about proper Christian humility, to more paradoxical statements: “At the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done.” Geez Thomas, don’t you know how that’s going to make me feel, given that I’m reading your book? In all seriousness, it is a wonderful work, and deserves a binding that does it justice:

This 1876 edition was custom-bound by Stikeman and Co., a late 19th century high-end American bookbinder. The binding actually contains the company signature, subtly worked into the intricate hand-tooled gold border that you can see lining the leather boards (this type of work is known as “doublure”). At $60 this makes a beautiful gift or addition to a collection. The book is pristine but for rubbing to the leather on the outer front hinge.

I don’t know about you, but I’m still reeling from Thomas’ statement about reading. Maybe books aren’t the way to go after all – didn’t Aquinas say that everything he had written was straw? If you’re feeling like I am, perhaps the Collector’s Item will be more up your alley. We have, in our increasingly inaccurately named “bookstore,” a number of genuine Roman glass pieces:

These are from the 1st or 2nd Century A.D., and range in price from $75-175. Some are flecked with iridescence, others boast unusual patterns and colors. They are almost guaranteed to be the oldest item you own. We recommend scrubbing them thoroughly before using them as serving vessels, however, since these Romans were somewhat boorish in their eating habits… recall Seneca’s words: Cum ad cenandum discubuimus, alius sputa deterget, alius reliquias temulentorum [toro] subditus colligit. I’ll leave you scholars out there to translate – this blog must remain a place of relative purity and good taste.

Well, that’s all for this week. Thanks to Lydia for letting me hijack her venue. Hmm… I guess I didn’t really hijack anything, since she gave me permission to wr DARN IT!! There I go again explaining metaphors. I’m outta here. Happy holidays to everyone!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Today I finished reorganizing our Russia section, and the Miscellaneous Europe section below it, as a break from Literary Criticism. We have a surprising number of books in Cyrillic, but I haven't the faintest idea of what any of them are about, so I shan't feature any here. In fact, I'd already decided what to put up here before I finished ... so talking about the section is a little mean, I guess. I'm really just mentioning it because you can tell what a behemoth Literary Criticism is how quickly I finished these other areas!

I was touched by the generosity of this week's Affordable but Interesting paperbacks, which are rather worn, but in pretty good shape considering their travails:

These are both horror collections -- one by H. P. Lovecraft, the other edited by August Derleth -- and their travails arise from the fact that they're Armed Services Editions. Apparently, during the Second World War, a whole nonprofit agency was created just to print cheap copies of current books to be sent to lonely soldiers. As this site on Armed Services Editions tells us, in fact, the books were actually printed more cheaply than was necessary -- the hope was that they wouldn't survive the journey back, and the book market wouldn't be flooded! Success made these books collectible, but not enormously so, so we're able to sell these historical curiosities for $10.00 each. Sending books strikes me as a much nicer gesture than knitting a scarf, to be sure -- it's a shame the agency didn't start up again in later wars.

The next item is really more Alan's Favorite than mine, but he was so excited about it that I was inspired:

At first glance, this seems like merely another of those turn-of-the-century fairy tales, with sweet Victorian children galloping about having heartwarming relationships with various animals. Of course, it is a First Edition -- and from 1911; and to be sure, the illustrations are beautiful:

The exciting thing about this book, though, is that the author turns out to be L. Frank Baum! Baum, who made his name with the Oz books, apparently published dozens of books under pseudonyms. One wonders why he did so. Perhaps he felt that the Oz books were serious business, and ought not be associated with fancies such as Babes in Birdland; one editor of Baum's time is also on record as having noted that Baum wrote very quickly, and it was not deemed wise to split the audience by issuing too many Baum books per season. Regardless, reading through the pages of this book reveals the same charming tone we know from Oz, and I don't feel nearly as patronized by the text as I thought I would. It's also in very nice condition. The pages are very clean -- there's a signature on the front free endpaper (right inside the cover), but the charming "This Book Belongs To" page was never filled in:

We're charging $125.00 for this pretty First Edition, part of the light-hearted "Twinkle Tales" series that of course never rivaled Oz but had its own popular run.

I guess that last could have been our Collector's Item, but I fear I must admit bias. If I ever become a collector, I'd be much more likely to collect this:

The very famous Daniel Burnham, who designed many of Chicago's major landmarks (click here for a rundown), made his fortune when he laid out the 1893 World's Fair. His fame grew and grew; he was eventually hired by Chicago herself to create an ambitious, attractive plan for the city's expansion. What we have here is one copy of the limited 1909 First Edition of the Plan of Chicago (only 1650 copies were printed, of which this is number 273). It contains quite a comprehensive discussion of Chicago's potential, a number of detailed maps, and some truly glorious illustrations of future Chicago city scenes:


Not all of Burnham's plans were realized, of course, but as the scholar Wilbert Hasbrouck has pointed out, "it was ... the prototypical city plan to which virtually every similar work undertaken ever since has been substantially indebted." Even today, Chicago's superhighways follow the Plan of Chicago, and the entire park system on the lakefront is just what Burnham wanted. We all share his legacy, naturally, but you could own his vision for $3,000.00.

I'm leaving soon for the holidays, dear readers; I'm going to try and convince the hilarious Alan to write next week's entry. Again, happy holidays; I'll see this beautifully-developed city again in January!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Let it snow, let it snow.

It's that time again ... not just for blogging, but for snow! We had to bring in our cart full of bargain-priced books because it was all dusted up. I guess most Chicago residents have already seen the first snow, but I was away for Thanksgiving, so it's all exciting for me.

-- Almost as exciting as learning that we have a copy of unpublished Jane Austen chapters, which is my Favorite thing ever, or at least this week:

I found one of our regulars sighing over this slender volume, and she explained to me that it's two unpublished chapters of Persuasion, from the first draft. Intrigued, I opened it up to find not just the chapters themselves, but a facsimile of Austen's manuscript:

I then learned from an exhaustive site about Jane Austen's writings that the original draft of these two chapters was, in fact, the only original draft of any of Jane Austen's writings to survive. Everything else she wrote survived only in the spotless clean copy that was published. Even better, this is a really elegant edition, in beautiful condition. The pages are even uncut, which means that they were never separated from each other -- so this copy has never been read! We're selling it for $75.00, and I can't help but note that it really would be the perfect gift for a beloved Austen fan.

If your beloved happens to be a Darwin fan instead, then boy, do we have a Collector's Item for them:

Donald Johanson is the archaelogist who discovered "Lucy", the skeleton of the oldest hominid ever to walk upright. He was funded by a gentleman named Leighton Wilkie, who had made his fortune with the DoAll tool corporation, and had a passion for scientific discovery and the history of tool use. (Wilkie also funded Jane Goodall and other important researchers.) What we're selling here is not just a plain old copy of Johanson's famous book Ancestors -- but a small archive of letters and documents he sent Wilkie over the course of his research. There are grateful notes thanking Wilkie for his contributions ("Your grant of $1000 ... will help support such important projects as continuing excavations at Olduvai Gorge"), and there's even a copy of one of Johanson's research proposals. Whoever buys this (at $200.00) will not just learn about evolution and archaeology, but will hold genuine primary sources about one of these fields' biggest discoveries.

Ah, the things I run across in our little bookshop! Time to go all postmodern and ponder the nature of the bookstore, aided by an Affordable and Interesting play:

This incredibly sweet story, about the correspondence between a struggling writer and the staff at a London bookshop, moved Doug so powerfully that he lent all the staff here at the shop the movie version, way back when I started working here. And before this was a movie (with Anne Bancroft, Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins, no less!), it was a book and a stage play -- it's the play we're selling, for $7.50. The story is all about, not just the book trade, but the era in which all those letters were written -- 1949 to 1969. So (because I have to talk about gifts so often that it becomes tiresome), this wouldn't just make a good gift for book lovers, but for those who feel nostalgia for the era that stretched from Churchill's war to the Beatles' invasion. (Those bookending events were chosen by the dust jacket, not by me.)

And now that I've belabored the gift thing, I can say: happy holidays, gentle readers! At risk of being stereotypical, I must urge you to curl up out of the snow with some cocoa and a good book. That's certainly what I'll be doing in my free time this week!