Books travel. Truly rare books often have “provenance,” a record of their history of ownership. Although some less rarified old books may have traces of ownership — bookplates or multiple owner names in them, or tiny labels from book stores where they have temporarily resided, or perhaps an old letter folded within the pages of the text– the life story of a book usually remains a mystery. We can know its age and where it was published, but questions like, “How many readers have held this book, and who were they?” Or, “How many different houses, states, provinces, countries, has it lived in?” can only be guessed. Even for books, life is often a big circle, and a book sometimes finds its way back home.
Recently we received a touching thank-you message from a customer who had purchased a signed first edition from us. The book had been written by her great grandmother. In our on-line description of the book, we had noted that there was a brief inscription to Peter on the front free endpaper, signed by the author. Our customer purchased it in the secret slim hope that “Peter” might have been her great grandfather, and that the book had been a gift from the author to her husband. When all the family was gathered this past Christmas, the book was presented to her grandfather. Upon opening it, he immediately recognized it as the particular book which had belonged to his father, Peter. From Peter’s personal library on the Isle of Wight, the book had passed through various hands and crossed the Atlantic, eventually settling briefly in our small bookstore in upstate New York. Our records tell us we purchased it last year at the huge Tompkins-Cortland FOL sale in Ithaca, New York (from among 250,000 used and out-of-print books). From our book shop it has found its way home after sixty-five years.
The family was so happy to have retrieved this treasured connection with their roots. The Grandfather who received and identified the book passed away in February, but the now-cherished book remains in the family of the author, where it belongs.
It is stories like this which make being in the used and rare book trade a rewarding occupation. And it heightens the notion that these are the good old days; for here is an aspect of books that digital books will not be able to provide. There will be no signatures, bookplates, no mementos enclosed within the screen of an e-reader.