It’s been revealed that my library is somewhat large-ish, and was once called the Holy of Holies. References have been made in a book meme and at one point when a bunch of us were posting photos of some of our library shelves, which I did (in part) during 1–2–3–4–5 posts. At present, it appears I must have about 160 linear feet of bookshelves. To be precise, I don’t have that much bookshelf-space, but that’s about what would be needed to get them all shelved… I have a few stacks and some boxes kicking around at the moment. It’s probably in the neighbourhood of 3,000 books at the moment.
And for the record, no, I haven’t read them all. There’s a certain comfort in having good or even classic works on a given subject awaiting the day when I decide to look into said subject. Of those on the shelves, I’ve probably not read some you’d expect, but read a number you might not. In any event, the collection includes some gems, too… a first edition of C.S. Lewis on the Psalms which it seems could be worth $2-300. I paid $20-25; it’s in great condition. I’ve got a couple of copies of J.B. Phillips “schools edition” of his New Testament translation, which are worth more than I thought, considering I don’t think I’ve paid more than $1 for one, and I’ve given one or two away. Then there are a couple of first edition Agatha Christie novels, including Star Over Bethleham as well as some harder-to-value but hard-to-find items, like Schnackenburg (all three volumes) and Westcott on John’s Gospel, as well as others that you don’t tend to find in a layperson’s library, like the ten-volume TDNT. I picked up a first edition of Le Carre’s Russia House for $1.50 last summer, as well as a first edition Stuart Little for a few bucks… sadly it was just the Book Club edition and not the original printing. Still, it’s always fun when you come home from some unlikely bookhound place with a really good find.
I can spend my share of time rooting around used bookstores… I quite enjoy Steel’s in Kansas City and Loome’s in Stillwater. Places like these, of course, are likely to price books closer to value… you need a whole different source if you’re going to find real bargains.
Going back 10-15 years now, the Children’s Hospital Book Market in Winnipeg used to be an outstanding source. It was and is an annual event every spring when they will move thousands of books into a local shopping mall. They used to bring in tens of thousands for a two-week run… the event is now considerably smaller. Back in the day, the religion section was worth very special mention. It always began on the second Monday of the sale, and the first people to arrive on that morning would line up outside the booth about an hour to ninety minutes before the sale began. There would be coffee-drinking and general visiting in the line, as well as peeking over the walls of the booth to see what there was and plan one’s strategy concerning where to make one’s bee-line the instant the doors opened. One year there was even a fellow with a set of opera glasses which he used to get a good look at all the titles beforehand.
The booth itself was about 20×20 with books laid out in four rows on counters and shelves around the perimeter with another set of counters/shelves in the middle. One side of the booth was reserved for sets and for the cashier, which further compressed the available bookspace into a much smaller area. Below the counters were more boxes of books to be put out as shelf space became available. Those who lined up beforehand and the committed who showed up year after year (“the regulars”) would have bags, boxes, and backpacks ready to stuff with books once they were in position. Once the doors opened, it was a free-for-all. There would be at least fifty or sixty people trying to get into the same spaces near the books, ultimately lining up three or four deep. Exchanging places with the person beside you in the front row had to be done with care or else someone from the second row would slip in. There were a lot of elbows and no small amount of pushing and shoving went on in an effort to get near the books. All in all, it was a most unholy spectacle and everyone said so, commenting on how Christian charity went out the window when books were at stake. But nobody really amended their habits, and I was in there like a dirty shirt.
When we’d been through the books on display and space had been created on the shelves, someone would usually slip down below and open up some of the boxes, with others crowding around for cover — those with eagle-eyes would call out the title as it came up out of the box to call “dibs” on it, and books were handed around like this. Those titles in which no-one had any interest would be set into the clear spaces on the shelves, which were then shoved down to make more space. This went on until we got caught, because opening boxes was verboten. After a while, they would clear everyone out and begin restocking the shelves. We would then sort through the books in our boxes and bags, deciding which ones we really wanted and passing along others to friends and colleagues who were there. “I grabbed this Bettenson, someone should really take it,” someone would say. Three or four would say they already had it until someone else would take it. (I already have two copies myself.) Then there was trading. “I’ll give you these two titles for that Barrett on Romans,” someone might offer. Once this was all done, we would settle up, empty our purchases into the trunks of our cars, and line up again. Things settled down a bit by lunchtime, when we would grab a bite to eat and return to the booth for at least one more round. They would go through thousands of books this way, but none of the booths had the legendary reputation of the religion section. The nearest competitor was the children’s books when the Hutterites would overrun the shop on the first day.
We did this ritual for a number of years until the selection dwindled, the prices went up, and the entire booksale was shortened. It used to be that I’d take the day off work, but the last number of years, nobody even bothered going early — if at all. Last week I wandered into the shopping mall and found the sale going on. The religion section was now only three tables, nothing more. Whereas in the past I would have taken home two or three boxes of books, I picked up only three… only one of which was a “find,” a 1954 hardcover copy of Lesslie Newbigin’s Household of God, with the dustjacket worn but intact. $1.50 — in the old days, it would have been about 35¢, which explains how we were able to walk out with books by the box. This is how I was able to build my library in the early days, particularly my selection of commentaries, reference, and scholarly study materials. There are leftovers from college and seminary courses, naturally, and the slow accumulation of years spent watching the bargain bins, but over time I’ve spent far far less on books than what the current size and value of my library would reflect. I used to come home with books by the box, to my wife’s chagrin. I would say, “But all these only cost $40!” or whatever. The “take” each year became smaller and smaller, but I still remember those chaotic booksale excursions with fondness. And to be honest, I miss them.
How about any of you — any book collectors or bibliophiles out there? What was your best find, and where do you like to go searching?