A Library--and a Love--Rediscovered
I sat down for lunch with my friend Phil and gave him some news that he found shocking: I told him I was thinking hard about selling my once-treasured personal library. I was ready to let it all go -- every rare book about the American Revolution, a small collection of artifacts like a wrought iron camp stove, my big oil on canvas painting of George
Washington and other Revolutionary art, my antique chairs, secretary, revolving book cases. My Henry David Thoreau corner, too. I was tired of it, I told him. I never spend time in the library anymore; I never crack a book. The collection I spent the last two decades assembling sat abandoned, my passion snuffed out. I might as well sell it and put the money into something else.
Phil listened patiently, taking time to digest our pile of hamburgers and chicken wings along with what I just told him. He took a slow sip of water and told me that my idea was the dumbest one I had ever conceived. He said that I had clearly been down in the dumps lately and that I should not make such a momentous decision in that state of mind.
I promised him that I would give myself some time to see if I felt differently later. I shelved the conversation and went back to work running my antiques and collectibles business (and some rare books, too).
My girlfriend Won-ok and I then suddenly moved to a new house. It has a family room built onto it that features floor-to-ceiling recessed book shelves along one wall. It's bathed in natural light from multiple windows and couldn't be more perfectly suited for a library. The room struck me as a blank canvas, a chance to create something new. We unloaded our truck and I spent three days setting up my library before I even trifled with things like beds, kitchen utensils, and the like. I was shocked by the fervor the work unleashed. We invited Phil over to take a look. He was blown away. He said the room felt equal parts library, museum and salon. He was kind enough not to say, "I told you so."
Won-ok and I continued unpacking and began hosting social gatherings even as we worked. Everyone naturally gravitated to the library without me ushering them in. We sat for hours and spoke of politics, the news of the day, what our family members were doing, how our careers were going. We talked about old times. People asked me about my books, artifacts and art. They even began to read the books, too. I started reading again myself. I began reconnecting with dear friends including John and Abigail Adams, Ben Franklin and of course the General himself. I began to remember all the things I loved about collecting the American Revolution.
My modest library was more beautiful than it had ever been. I also realized that a huge part of my new joy came from the fact that, unlike the case in my previous dwelling, my library and every other room was not overwhelmed with excess merchandise from our business. Won-ok and I may not have mutually pledged "to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor" but we did vow not to let any merchandise invade any part of our new home. It could go in our huge new basement office but not anywhere else. Not even for a day.
Won-ok and I unloaded all kinds of other clutter during the move. Our new home felt like a normal house once again. I kept on reading the Washington Post in my library every morning before work and playing with my books in the evening. I started writing again, too--"clocking out" of my basement office and retiring to the main floor so that I could get creative in my clean, sunny library.
I could not have been more excited to attend the 2017 Washington Antiquarian Book Fair on April 28-29. I was thrilled to return to the hunt of collecting and have the chance to again talk shop with the book dealing world. I even donned one of my all-time favorite t-shirts featuring an Edward Gorey illustration and a caption that reads "Real men read." The shirt starts conversations everywhere I go, but I certainly didn't anticipate the one I would have at WABF. Dealer Larry Rakow of Wonderland Books stopped me in my tracks. "I designed that shirt!" he said, in clear disbelief to see someone still wearing one nearly 15 years after he created it. Running another company at the time, he asked children's illustrators to submit work he could use to make t-shirts to promote reading. Famed illustrators like Gorey sent in their work and Rakow developed language for them.
"I realized most t-shirts and items about books were aimed at patrons who were women as they're dominant in the professions of teaching and libraries," he told me. "I thought it was time we should start producing shirts that spoke to men, too. That was back when phrases like 'Real men eat quiche' were popular. I thought, 'No, real men don't eat quiche. Real men read!"
I felt a little star-struck, standing there in the presence of a man whose work has given me so much joy over the years. The one I had on was actually my second; I wore out the first over the years. I couldn't resist the urge to do a quick video interview with Rakow about the "Real men read" shirt.
I returned to my quest for books to buy and began exploring other opportunities to again immerse myself in the world of Fine Books & Collections. I had a great conversation with Amanda Zimmerman, who has one of my dream jobs as a librarian in the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room at the Library of Congress -- my favorite place on the planet. She moonlights as volunteer for the Washington Rare Book Group. Its members include everyone from professional book folks to everyday folks who just love books. I couldn't sign up for its e-mail list fast enough. I also picked up a brochure from Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. Some guys dream of going to a Major League Baseball fantasy camp; I dream of going to a five-day program to study the history of books and printing.
I was so happy to be traipsing around WABF losing myself in the world of old books again that I didn't notice that something had caught Won-ok's attention. After years of kindly spending time with me as I enjoyed my hobby but never catching the fever herself, she spotted a book that Rakow had on display: The Speaking Picture Book: A Special Book with Picture, Rhyme and Sound for Little People. The finely crafted book was made in Germany in the 1800s and features nine pulls that you can tug and that miraculously still produce farm animal sounds. (See the book in action in this quick video.)
"If I made more money, I'd like to buy that book," she told me over our WABF lunch break. I was stunned. She had never purchased an antiquarian book yet there she sat talking about diving right into the deep end of the pool. "I've never let that stop me before," I said. "If you love it, let's go back and get it before someone else does."
We sprang from the table and raced back to our new friend Rakow. I couldn't have been more proud or excited to see Won-ok buy her first rare book. I also couldn't believe she out-spent me on the day.
Won-ok and I left the fair and eagerly headed home to place our prized new possessions in our prized new library. My love for the room and for old books has been completely reborn--and now there are two of us!
Former journalist Christopher Lancette lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, and is thrilled to again be contributing to Fine Books & Collections.