Today I sit before a small pile of books and wonder who owned them? A year ago I bought a copy of The Refugees by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for $3. Printed in 1893, I assumed it was a first print copy and bought it admiring the leather bound spine with attractive gold leaf print. I thought that I had picked up a good investment since it was in such good condition.
A year later I would go to the Friend’s of the Kalamazoo Public Library gift book sale and find more Conan Doyle books of similar quality for reasonable prices. I picked them up and added them to my self. Sir Nigel, Captain of the Polestar, and The Valley of Fear sat nicely in my admiration as I wondered how I had become so lucky. Some of them I paid a pretty price for. $10 – $20, after seeing how well they were kept I felt like it was a bargain. Three days later the shelves were restocked and more classics appeared. I took pictures of their spines and scratched my head later knowing these were not the original covers.
I had looked at my previous books and tried to match them with the printed dates and companies. Instead of seeing the copy on my shelf I was finding the true original covers starring back at me. I looked further into the books sitting on my table to find new modern paper lining the inside cover. The covers were carefully trimmed to line up with the leather binding. Nothing told the story of how these books came to be.
Sir Nigel had a new blue leather cover with gold leaf print telling the title and author. The Valley of Fear now had a red cloth cover with a brown leather patch on the spine very close to the original labeling in gold recessed print. Captain of the Polestar, while it had more intricate detail on the spine looked very similar to the Refugees, not like a sibling, but maybe a close cousin.
Somebody spent a lot of money on these books, these classics that had been brought back for a new second chance at life. I look at the inside pages and I see books that were loved and cared for. Had the covers been too worn? Were these lost causes that had been brought back from the brink?
Then next day the book store was open I went there after work. I stared at the 1884, four volume set of Don Quixote, with new binding. Tan leather covered the outside with gold leaf print. Inside were pages that looked new. Rice paper covered the prints protecting the ink from smearing. I searched on my phone. I knew I was not going to find the same covers on the editions sitting on the shelf. I opened volume 1 and saw the neatly trimmed liner inside the cover. New textured paper that blended with the rest of the book. I grab a two volume set of the The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio complete with a customized slip case and I think to myself I have to know who had these.
I talk to Carol, the lady that runs the Friends of the Library book store. I tell her about the books having been rebound. As a collector of other antiquities I know that the original cover and dust covers bring the highest value and are the most desired. So who spent all of this money to have first print classics rebound? She tells me the store had sat on these books for over a year in hopes of finding out who had donated them. She never found that information. Her assumption was that an older member of the family had passed away and that the kids or grandkids packed up the books and donated them.
One book she researched was a rare volume written by John Adams, the second president of the United States. She was able to sell it for $5000 to the university of Michigan because it was the one volume that they did not have in their collection. This book also had the cover rebound. Had it been the original cover it would have sold for three times as much.
I look at other books in my collection that I have picked up over the last year. A early printing Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck complete with dust cover and wrapped in acid free cellophane to protect it. In the same care was a copy of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, another early edition. Were these part of the same library?
In the hope of finding some clues I grab the one book I can pay for in cash The Antoinette Romances by Alexandre Dumas, an 1897 edition that had been taken care of without being rebound. Like the rest, there are no notes written inside. No name of the former owner. No clue as to who these books belonged to. The mystery continues until another day.
Matthew Gilman can be contacted on his author Facebook page and found on Twitter.