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In Praise of Book Scouts

Published in Canadian Notes and Queries, Number 94.


I met many people hanging around the Village Book Store as a beginner.

Stan Ross, an actor, who like so many actors I've known rarely got to act, became a friend. Stan was, like me, an incurable enthusiast. He was constantly auditioning, but seldom got parts. His great claim to fame came when he got a speaking part in what was then considered a Canadian classic, a film called Goin' Down the Road. Stan only had one speaking line in one scene, but when the film got decent reviews Stan figured it was only a matter of time before he hit, first Broadway, then Hollywood. He wrote a play once which got put on in one of those places where young actors gathered in those days, an empty factory on Dupont Street. Marty Ahvenus and my wife and I attended one performance (it may have been the only performance). There was no stage, nor even chairs and the actors did their thing in the center while we, the audience, sat in a circle around them on the floor. Stan's play was pretty good I thought, way better than I had expected. And so did the other twenty or thirty people present who were all, like us, probably friends and family of the other actors. Because there were no chairs we couldn't easily rise for a standing ovation, so we gave the cast a rousing sitting ovation.

Stan collected unemployment insurance or drove a taxi to survive but he considered himself to be a great book scout.

Stan was a serious book scout – not a part-time, but a “between-parts” scout, as he liked to put it – and he was maybe the second-worst scout I ever knew. It's quite acceptable, even, to my mind praiseworthy, to be an enthusiast in many areas of life, but it's not a good idea to be an enthusiastic book scout. Stan would rush into Marty's with a bag of utter crap that he'd spent his whole unemployment cheque on, only to be completely deflated as Marty and I examined his bag of books and tried to gently explain that he'd struck out yet again. Stan would be crushed – another dream shattered – but he always quickly made a comeback. You could watch the grimace of defeat gradually disappear as he yet again pulled himself together and went off to find the next treasure, which this time was sure to vindicate him.

The worse aspect of such enthusiasm in a book scout is the “cry wolf” syndrome. Stan would rush in excitedly, claiming he'd found a great library, but when time after time the result was a wasted trip to encounter another pile of junk, even those friends who hoped for him to triumph became cynical. But in another of those seeming ironies that eventually teach a dealer never to act on assumptions, Stan one day brought me one of the most fascinating troves I ever saw.

Rushing in one day in his usual state of agitation he claimed to have talked his way into a basement in Rosedale (Stan's scouting modus was to solicit fares in his cab, in case they had any old books from their grandfather's library) which was full of fascinating and obviously very rare and valuable stuff.

I'd heard that many times, but it was a slow day and Stan had his taxi as transportation, so I reluctantly decided to humour him.

As usual with Stan, it was really only technically in Rosedale, on the very last street above Bloor Street and it was one of those decrepit mansions which had been converted into a rooming house. The collector, who had died, had lived on the main floor for many years and had had the whole basement for his use. He had died and the owner just wanted all the junk removed from the basement.

But what incredible junk it was.

The amasser had been what we in the trade call “a nutbar”. He had been a man who had spent his entire life searching for answers to the enigma of Life and the Universe. I've never seen anything like it before or since. But my recollections of all the wonderful ephemera I got there are tinged with the knowledge that I very probably wasn't smart enough to salvage the most important part of it.

What we found were mostly all pamphlets, brochures and magazines, either philosophical (in the very broadest sense), religious, or political. The owner had obviously spent his entire life seeking “The Answer” and he had tested every political and economic nutbar scheme available. It went from utopian communes to Socialism, through Communism, Nazism, even the Canadian Ku Klux Klan, through the funny money theories of countless movements (the Social Credit movement was the apex of that particular pyramid, but underneath Social Credit there exist many monetary schemes which only rise to the surface if one is foolish enough to investigate those circles). Under the surface of all philosophic and religious movements there exist various sub-stratas of increasing complexity and confusion. There was Masonic material, Rosicrucian pamphlets and pamphlets from all those California sub-series of cult solutions from Armageddon to Scientology. It wasn't possible to tell if the man's direction had moved from left to right, or vice versa (out of pure charity one would hope that it was the other way around), nor whether he'd moved up or down or from Christianity to Buddhism, through Hatha yoga to Scientology, but it was all there. Every ‘ism' ever invented was there; I even found pamphlets relating to Technocracy, a movement I had attended a meeting on one evening in Vancouver twenty-five years earlier without understanding a single word anyone had said. I still haven't a clue what Technocracy was in spite of the ________________ title. And along with the Ku Klux Klan propaganda and Nazi pamphlets from the 30s, there were a slew of racist pamphlets, mostly anti-Semitic, but actually quite inclusionary, in that every race, gender and religion was also attacked.

These things sold like crazy in those days as institutions vied to fill out their research collections and the more obscure they were the more valuable. We would only sell hate literature of any sort to institutions, so much of this material never got in our catalogues. When individuals came in seeking this material we would refuse to admit we had any such things, our own private form of censorship. But what may probably be eventually the single most important component of the entire buy was a box containing around twenty-five glass negatives which on examination constituted what seemed to be the record of the founding of a small town somewhere on the coast of British Columbia. A couple of photos named this town and when I consulted early 20th century maps of B.C. I found it on some period maps.

Here is where my old man's faulty memory causes frustration, for I can't remember the town's name or its location, whether it was on the mainland coast north of Vancouver or on one of the island coasts or if so which one. Of all the things age takes away so ruthlessly for a bookseller memory may be the most painful.

I do remember that the period was after 1910 and I remember that it had disappeared from the coastal maps, and from history, by around 1920.

But I was reasonably certain by reason of all the accompanying printed material that it was probably an attempt to start one of those religious or utopian colonies which were so prevalent in America in the 19th century and later. It seemed probable to me that my man would have been one of the participants – why else retain the record amongst his other utopian records? This became more significant a few years ago when a graduate student, a young woman, contacted me with questions about this now defunct town. The institution I had sold it to had obviously told her its source and she was inquiring of me if I could tell her any more. When I told her what I knew and my belief that it had been a failed utopian experiment she became very excited. It fit into what her research had already revealed and we both felt my provenance-based speculations had given her important clues to followup.

But here's where it gets murky. I've forgotten her name, her U.S. institution, the name of the town, even the Western Canadian institution I sold it to and any evidence remaining is in my uncatalogued papers at the University of Toronto.

Curiosity has recently caused me to approach all the possible institutions in B.C. to whom I could have sold it to but without the name of the town my search has been fruitless.

But while I don't remember where I sold it forty-five years ago, I clearly remember who I didn't sell it to, for it was one of my earliest lessons in how stupid and unimaginative a certain type of custodians could be in those days.

I arrived at what I figured was a fair price for what was probably the only existing visual record of an extinct town, $450.00, and offered it to the most appropriate place, the British Columbia archives in Victoria. The archivist (I wish I could remember his name) wrote back and pretty bluntly called me an extortionist, a crook in fact, inquiring if I really thought he was so stupid that he would pay $450.00 for a few insignificant glass slides. Today, with my current experience, I would price those insignificant slides at $25,000.00 and sell them with the first phone call. Even then $10,000.00 would have been a good price for them but he seemed sure he'd rescued his province from a sleazy conman. So wherever they are they're not where they should be but booksellers persist and they are at least somewhere in B.C. for I did next encounter the man who bought it at once.

What I left and still regret ensuring the certain destruction of, was some dozen banks of four-drawer filling cabinets all full of his writings. A cursory look told me that most of it would be gobbledy-gook, but experience tells me now that it must have been interspersed with broadsides and more pamphlet material. But it was so immense that had I taken it all it would have filled my store to the point that there would be no room for customers. I left it all and no doubt it was destroyed. I still feel occasional guilt over my part in destroying what might have been important. His twenty file drawers full of his handwritten views of all this would, I'm sure now, have provided a pretty good psychological view of that 20th century phenomenon “the seeker” – the True Believer, seeking his belief system. I'd bet that all those file drawers would provide several PhD theses with their material. There are no areas of human activity that don't merit study but I was then too short of experience in the scavenging field to have the necessary depth which eventually will cause a dealer or a collector to see everything as possible research material. One of my favorite stories which illustrates this axiom is an anecdote of a correspondence between two Japanese-Americans, conducted while they were in separate “concentration” camps, in America, during the early, panicky stage of the Second World War where both Canada and the U.S. brought shame on themselves by locking up people of Japanese extraction for the sole reason that they were of Japanese descent. This correspondence was found in a dump – by a book scout, of course.

This couple had courted by mail, married after their release, had a family and eventually died, whereupon their children, no doubt thinking that those letters were of no consequence, had tossed them in the garbage. Apparently, I'm told, there is no other such correspondence anywhere.

A frequenter of flea markets, I have been quietly buying similar second world war ephemera for some time, as that generation of veterans slowly dies off. I have bought several lots, usually found in bundles, of letters written by soldiers stationed overseas to their families in Canada.

No matter how commonplace these letters may be, often written by young men with little education and subject to wartime censorship, there is bound to be raw history in all of them. It is my job to rescue these things so posterity can study them. I might even profit in the end although, even if I'm forced to donate them, I won't care, for I will still be performing a service to the historical record.

I did a catalogue and some lists of those pamphlets and got multiple orders for most of them. The printed material on the Canadian Nazi Parties – there were two, Adrien Arcand's Quebec-based one, and another one in the west – and the handbooks for the Canadian branch of the Ku Klux Klan were ordered by almost every University in Canada and quite a few in the U.S.

I had multiple back orders for all of them but unfortunately, I've never seen another of any of them again. This was in the days that Canadian Universities suddenly became aware that they would soon be faced with hoards of post-graduate students seeking resource material to pursue PhDs. They realized that their libraries were deficient in the necessary background material any in-depth study needs – political pamphlets being a perfect example. These pamphlets and broadsides, which were used for proselytizing by all groups, political or whatever, to recruit followers, had been distributed, sold for 5¢ or 10¢ or handed out free, and by their very nature became rare.

Anything thought by people not to be worth anything is treated accordingly. You glance at the flyer some proselytizer hands you on the street, then throw it in the next waste bin. You are not interested, but posterity will be – for this tiny insignificant scrap will tell future generations what was happening in our time. I always accept offerings from those wild-eyed proselytizers and I always file them. That's my job, to save them for the record, not to judge their content. Even when the Jehovah's Witnesses knock on my door I surprise them by refusing to debate with them but requesting their printed material anyway.

I once met Alan Suddon, then the head of the Fine Arts Department of the Toronto Public Library, parking his bicycle in front of one of those stores which rent tuxedos on Yonge Street.

“Renting a tux are you Alan?” I asked. “One of your kids getting married?”

“No,” replied Suddon, “I'm here to get their latest rental catalogue with this year's styles and prices, while it's still free. So the library won't have to pay some rapacious bookseller like you a hundred dollars for one a few years down the line.” That's when I realized that Alan Suddon was a great librarian. And it wasn't even for his deportment.

Try and find now, outside long-established institutions, the broadsides and penny tracts of the 16th to 18th centuries – they are rare now and very expensive – precisely because they were ignored and dismissed in their time.

As it happens my first shop on Gerrard Street was directly across from the bookshop owned and run by the Communist Party of Canada. I became friendly with the couple who ran it and would drop in to chat during slow periods. Just as my atheism has never caused me to be antagonistic to those who practice their beliefs without attempting to impose them on others neither do I hold people's political beliefs, no matter how ludicrous I may privately believe them to be, against the holders. It is how people proselytize not the content of their ideas that can offend me.

In those times the Soviet Union, in an attempt to show the West how advanced they were technologically, published a lot of finely printed children's books. They were quite beautifully done and the Communist Bookstore sold them very cheaply, 25 and 50 cents each. It was probably better not to consider how many Russian children were starved so those criminals could attempt to prove their superiority to the west. I had already been buying lots of them but I wish now I'd bought ten times as many. When the Communists moved and closed their shop my friends gave me several cartons of their propaganda – I sold them, those 5 and 10 cent pamphlets, for a long time, at $10.00 and $20.00 each. No one seems to want them these days, but someday they will again and I have several lifetime's supply.

The Chinese Government later did the same, publishing blatant propaganda, in comic book format, also very nicely printed. So ludicrously blatant was that propaganda that one can instantly see the oppressive nature of any totalitarian regime. No one who reads any of that crap, except a simpleton or a true believer, could ever do otherwise than permanently despise all totalitarian regimes. All the fine coloured printing in the world will never make two and two equal five. They condemn themselves by their own absurd attempts to convince.

I have a colleague who now makes a minor specialty in searching out and then selling this stuff, and I bet at a hundred or a thousand times what he buys it for. He also pays for and profits from all those trips to China and so he should, for he knows its significant historical value.

These anecdotes should, as they are intended to, indicate how important the bookscout is. For he rescues the endangered artifacts of the historical record so future generations can study our stupidity and our follies. And so that those of us who remain optimistic about humanity and its ability to eventually supercede our political prejudices, in spite of the abundant evidence to the contrary, can continue to hope that the study of this historical evidence will help future generations to perhaps avoid some of our besetting stupidities.

 



-David Mason

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