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On Buying Old Books
by [?]

By some slim chance, reader, you may be the kind of person who, on a visit to a strange city, makes for a bookshop. Of course your slight temporal business may detain you in the earlier hours of the day. You sit with committees and stroke your profound chin, or you spend your talent in the market, or run to and fro and wag your tongue in persuasion. Or, if you be on a holiday, you strain yourself on the sights of the city, against being caught in an omission. The bolder features of a cathedral must be grasped to satisfy a quizzing neighbor lest he shame you later on your hearth, a building must be stuffed inside your memory, or your pilgrim feet must wear the pavement of an ancient shrine. However, these duties being done and the afternoon having not yet declined, do you not seek a bookshop to regale yourself?

Doubtless, we have met. As you have scrunched against the shelf not to block the passage, but with your head thrown back to see the titles up above, you have noticed at the corner of your eye–unless it was one of your blinder moments when you were fixed wholly on the shelf–a man in a slightly faded overcoat of mixed black and white, a man just past the nimbleness of youth, whose head is plucked of its full commodity of hair. It was myself. I admit the portrait, though modesty has curbed me short of justice.

Doubtless, we have met. It was your umbrella–which you held villainously beneath your arm–that took me in the ribs when you lighted on a set of Fuller’s Worthies. You recall my sour looks, but it was because I had myself lingered on the volumes but cooled at the price. How you smoothed and fingered them! With what triumph you bore them off! I bid you–for I see you in a slippered state, eased and unbuttoned after dinner–I bid you turn the pages with a slow thumb, not to miss the slightest tang of their humor. You will of course go first, because of its broad fame, to the page on Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and their wet-combats at the Mermaid. But before the night is too far gone and while yet you can hold yourself from nodding, you will please read about Captain John Smith of Virginia and his “strange performances, the scene whereof is laid at such a distance, they are cheaper credited than confuted.”

In no proper sense am I a buyer of old books. I admit a bookish quirk maybe, a love of the shelf, a weakness for morocco, especially if it is stained with age. I will, indeed, shirk a wedding for a bookshop. I’ll go in “just to look about a bit, to see what the fellow has,” and on an occasion I pick up a volume. But I am innocent of first editions. It is a stiff courtesy, as becomes a democrat, that I bestow on this form of primogeniture. Of course, I have nosed my way with pleasure along aristocratic shelves and flipped out volumes here and there to ask their price, but for the greater part, it is the plainer shops that engage me. If a rack of books is offered cheap before the door, with a fixed price upon a card, I come at a trot. And if a brown dust lies on them, I bow and sniff upon the rack, as though the past like an ancient fop in peruke and buckle were giving me the courtesy of its snuff box. If I take the dust in my nostrils and chance to sneeze, it is the fit and intended observance toward the manners of a former century.

I have in mind such a bookshop in Bath, England. It presents to the street no more than a decent front, but opens up behind like a swollen bottle. There are twenty rooms at least, piled together with such confusion of black passages and winding steps, that one might think that the owner himself must hold a thread when he visits the remoter rooms. Indeed, such are the obscurities and dim turnings of the place, that, were the legend of the Minotaur but English, you might fancy that the creature still lived in this labyrinth, to nip you between his toothless gums–for the beast grows old–at some darker corner. There is a story of the place, that once a raw clerk having been sent to rummage in the basement, his candle tipped off the shelf. He was left in so complete darkness that his fears overcame his judgment and for two hours he roamed and babbled among the barrels. Nor was his absence discovered until the end of the day when, as was the custom, the clerks counted noses at the door. When they found him, he bolted up the steps, nor did he cease his whimper until he had reached the comforting twilight of the outer world. He served thereafter in the shop a full two years and had a beard coming–so the story runs–before he would again venture beyond the third turning of the passage; to the stunting of his scholarship, for the deeper books lay in the farther windings.