08 October 2009

Usually Modest, Often Attractive

The used bookstore closest to my childhood home was very much a soulless place. In weekly visits – spanning elementary school, high school and the first year of college – I never once heard the owner say anything other than the amounts owing for my purchases. His place of commerce, lit up like an auto body shop, had no shelves; browsing involved flipping through rows of books in bins of white arborite. This form of display, requiring uniformity of format, explains why it is that he sold mass market paperbacks and only mass market paperbacks. Bantams, Penguins, Signets, each was stamped on the inside front cover with the store's name and the words 'BRING BACK THIS BOOK FOR CASH OR TRADE'. An order? An offer? Either way, I attempted this only once, at age eleven, and was surprised to find that
MAD's Dave Berg Looks at Living, bought the previous week for 95 cents, was now worth just nine...

No, not ten cents... nine cents.

This warm and fuzzy childhood memory was revived after I stumbled upon Seven Roads' Gallery of Book Trade Labels. Remnants of an earlier age, these small, typically elegant advertisements stand in sharp contrast to the mass market merchant's big, ugly and crude rubber stamp. Earlier this week, I took a quick look through my collection in search of these labels. The first I came across belonged to Chapman's Book Store, which was frequented by past generations of my family.

The next was this attractive advert from Ireland and Allan, which was once located on Granville Street, not far from my old Vancouver condo. We were separated by only five blocks and five decades. Out of the thirty or so I came across, Ireland and Allan's is the only label that bears a printer's name.

My favourite belongs to druggist Walter E. Shields, pasted on the inside front cover of a near-valueless 1902 edition of Jack London's A Daughter of the Snows. It's a reminder of a time when small rural stores were, by necessity, all things to all people. Waskada, Manitoba, where Mr Shields plied his trade, is not a small town, but a village; its population today hovers around two hundred.

For some reason, I have a dozen or so titles bearing trade labels from Wendell Holmes. These books, first sold in the Ontario cities of London and St Thomas, I picked up in Montreal, Vancouver and New York. Interesting to see the change brought on by time – the three labels below date from the First World War, the 'twenties and the Second World War, respectively. I wonder why Mr Holmes stopped thinking that the books he was selling were good.

Now in its 103rd year, the shop that once belonged to Wendel Holmes soldiers on under his name, despite all challenges. The same cannot be said for that bookstore of my childhood. It is no more – done in, I suppose, by the rise of the trade size paperback.

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