I spotted them spilling out of a small dumpster in front of the store’s window. This was fifty years ago, and I was on Fourth Avenue in lower Manhattan. On and around the seven blocks of Fourth Avenue from Astor Place to 14th Street had been what was called “Book Row,” New York City’s used-book district. The heyday for this book center had been the 1940s and 1950s, and by the time I came to New York City, many of the stores were gone, but a sizeable number had hung on.
The Fourth Avenue bookstores called to me because of a cherished day. I had finished law school and was living in New York City where I had been working for a while. The college alumni magazine had published a list of books, in effect a syllabus, for studying the American revolution. Most of the books had been published a decade or more earlier. My recent reading had been largely aimless; I had never taken a course on the Revolution; and I thought that it could be interesting to read as many of the books on the list as possible. In those ancient days, you could not simply go online to order the books; you had to physically find them. I had set the next Saturday for my book hunting, but a winter storm hit with seventeen inches of snow stopping at four on Saturday morning. Being then young and full of vim and vigor (what is vim?), I decided to carry out my self-appointed task despite the storm. Many streets were yet to be plowed, and many walks were uncleared, but the local subway was running.
I got to Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street and started walking east. The sky was a brilliant winter blue. A nippy wind made everyone’s cheeks rosy but tramping through the drifts and mounds of still-pristine snow kept me warm. Without traffic, it was quiet, and we few pedestrians treated each other reverentially as if we were the deepest friends on a meditative retreat. It was the kind of day where I was thrilled that there was a winter and I was in it.
A few wonderful bookstores still existed on Eighth Street, and I stopped in each of them, but my real destination was Fourth Avenue. Most of the Fourth Avenue stores had a loose organizational layout at best. I might find a handwritten sign on a bookcase that read “US History” to aid my search. The shelves had no apparent organization, and I would have to scan all the volumes to see if there were any on my list. The stores, it turned out, had a surprising number of them, and every time I found one, I got a bit excited as if I had found something much more than an out-of-print book. I had found instead some sort of little treasure that could only be found after an effortful search—the kind of thrill a seeker does not now get on the internet.
And I got another little thrill that day eighteen months after my Revolutionary expedition. I had spotted several sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica that were being tossed out. I picked up a volume and saw that it was the Eleventh Edition of what was more formally, according to its title page The ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature, and General Information published in 1910 in twenty-nine volumes. Somewhere I had heard the eleventh edition was the best edition of Britannica ever published, and since this set appeared to be free, I wanted it. I hurried home and got the spouse, who was also excited by the find, got in our Dodge Dart, and quickly drove back, hoping the books were still there.
We began our dumpster dive trying to throw into our car a complete set. We later found out that we were not completely successful. We did “acquisition” twenty-nine volumes, but we inadvertently retrieved two copies of one volume and therefore missed another one. However, we were still thrilled with our find.
This was probably not the fanciest set of that Britannica. It is small. The pages are eight-and-a-half inches by six. The print is eye-straining. It can be barely read without a magnifying glass, but it calls out for one. Still, however, we had a classic edition and put them on a bookshelf. And they mostly remained on a bookshelf.
There were several problems. Of course, many of the entries were outdated, and in Britannica fashion, the articles often are long. Perhaps there might be some amusement in reading what the encyclopedia says about “Fasting,” but the entry is nearly fifteen thousand words and requires more of a commitment than my casual curiosity wishes to expend. (Not all the pieces are this long. The one that follows “Fasting”—“Fastolf, Sir John”–is a mere 700 words. I learned that he died in 1459 and that the soldier has a “lasting reputation as in some part the prototype of Shakespeare’s Falstaff.”)
And while the bindings had held the pages together, the covers were some sort of faux leather that had become friable. Pulling a volume out and handling it produced a downpour of desiccated brown flakes on the shelves, floors, hands, and laps. Although the set was moved from place to place as residences changed, it was rarely consulted.
The pandemic, however, has changed some of this. Housebound at the beginning of Covid, the spouse decided to rebind our Britannica. With YouTube videos and online readings and purchases, she stripped off the leather covers and replaced them with brown cloth. They may not look as handsome as they did in 1910, but they can now be handled without a major vacuuming job.
(Concluded August 3)