Sunday, 7 May 2006

A Million Little Pieces of Fried Bread:

A Memoir

Part II

The bulldogs and beefeaters did a funny sort of dance around the edges of my perception as I began to swoon. For the second time that day, my senses were rebelling against me. Lately, you see, I'd decided to officially become a collector of the books of PG Wodehouse, and to a new collector, the prospect of a half-dozen unexplored local resources was almost too much to bear. I pulled my jaw up from the table and signalled the hostess for a restorative piece of fried bread. As I munched the golden reviver, my faculties began to return and I allowed my memory to drift back in time to the moment when 'the Wodehouse affair' began . It so happened that a little over a year ago, when finding myself in a shopping mall Chapters with some time to kill, I decided to buy an omnibus edition of Jeeves and Wooster novels. I wish now that I could remember why I bought it, but the fact remains that I did. In the time since, I've not read a single other writer and have cleaned out most of the Vancouver bookstores of the their Wodehouse stock. Or at least I thought I had exhausted the local supply. I was a prospector who had foolishly been working only a thin vein of the good stuff; Suzanne's map revealed the motherlode. Eureka!

The nearest star on the map was within walking distance and I was eager to begin the search, so hastening to enjoy the final few pieces of fried bread, we settled the bill and withdrew. We turned east on 10th Avenue, and walked quick and quietly toward Sasamat Street, allowing me to reflect on why this day was happening. I mean of course not why Saturday was happening; obviously that was due to it being Friday yesterday. I thought instead about how it was that Suzanne would know that giving me this day to meander, unhurried and relatively free with the cash through unexplored bookstores all day would be the perfect birthday present at this point in my life. When I first starting reading Wodehouse, I reminisced, I couldn't get through the books fast enough. I was able to buy everything new at the local mall, so I scooped up every reissued collection or omnibus edition they were selling. The initial frenzy eventually cooled off, and I have since started mining ebay, preferring instead to buy one good original edition every month or so. It's been a lot of fun bidding on and winning those old books, and it's such a thrill when they arrive in the mail, but as we turned into Camelot Books, I knew that the possibility of finding an original edition on a shelf would be a greater joy. Keeping in the spirit of the prospector, I dared hope that, nestled somwhere between Kathleen Winsor and Tom Wolfe, a great big nugget of gold awaited me. Perhaps, if I was very lucky, maybe even The Little Nugget (1913 - Methuen and Co, London).

g aside the Gold Rush motif for a moment and instead switching to that of angling, what I caught at Camelot wouldn't be fit to use as the bait for what I was hoping to land. A dog-eared reprint of Hot Water (Penguin, 1982) seemed to me too much like Rock Bass, so I glanced at the price, but immediately let it go. We moved on to the second, and even third stores, but after casting about in every section, from Fiction to Biography without so much as a nibble, a small shadow of doubt began to cross my mind. For a moment I thought that Rock Bass wasn't so bad after all. At the sight of Lawrence Books, thankfully, a store so large and overstuffed with stock that it resembled the Grand Banks, my sunny optimism returned once more.

Faced w
ith zig-zagging aisles shooting off in all directions, Suzanne and I split up. I soon got the sense that I could afford to take my time in this place as books were piled so high and thick that it seemed impossible not to find what we were looking for. I quickly got pleasantly lost among the rows, and it was some time before Suzanne found me in a small ante-room at the back, looking through a pile of National Geographics to see how far back they went (1932). She sidled up and hooked her arm in mine. I should point out here that never once over the course of the whole day did Suzanne tap her foot, or roll her eyes, look at her watch, or register impatience in any way. But upon entering Lawrence's Books, Suzanne did not dally. Whereas I was content to give myself up to the bookstore's whimsy, she went straight to the store's whimsically dressed owner/operator.
"Can I help you?", asked Lawrence.
"I'm looking
for Wodehouse?" Suzanne asked.

She sidled up and hooked her arm in mine.
"Did you see them?", she said.
"See what?", I replied, trying to maintiain an air of chalance.
me gently from the wall of yellow magazines, she retraced her steps back through Canadiana and Reference and Art History and Photography until we reached Literature.

It was probably anticipation, and it was almost certainly the fried bread, but as we approached the -W- subsection, my heart started to race. I scanned the rows, moving from the top, slowly left to right, until finally, near the end of the very bottom row we found what we searched for: two bright orange vintage Wodehouses. I picked the first one off the shelf (Quick Service, Doubleday, 1942) and ran my hands over the boards. They were tight, unmarked, and with minimal rubbing. I opened the cover and saw the price: $40. My heart sank. I put it back on the shelf and picked up the other book, (Pigs Have Wings, Doubleday, 1952), and checked inside the cover. Just like it's partner, it was in good condition, but the price was $40. I laughed and turned to Suzanne. I put the book back and shook my head.
"What's wrong?", she said.
"They're too expensive", I sighed.

I hadn't even considered that the books might be overpriced. I knew I could get the same book online, with dustjacket intact, for around the same price. Unlike on eBay, with its low starting bids and the possibility you can steal a book for less than what it might be worth, Lawrence priced his books as high as he thought someone might possibly go. And I was not going to $40. I handled them for a few moments, flicking gently through the pages and rubbing the cloth boards.
"You know, the point of this is to actually buy some books", Suzanne said.
Bless her.
"Yeah, I know. But they're just too much. It doesn't make sense to overpay like that."
I had been kneeling at the bottom shelf, but now stood, disappointed. We only had two shops left on the list, both of which I had been to before, and both of which had been bereft of fish. With a final longing look at the pretty little orange books, we made for the door.

The sun was still shining down as we walked to the car, but there was a chill in the air. Suzanne and I were silent for much of the drive across town, both obviously worried about the possibililty of a shutout. The penultimate stop on our quest was Pulp Fiction at Main and Broadway. A funky shop filled with graphic novels, Pulp Fiction caters to the hipster. As the owner of a different store further down Broadway once joked, it was only me and the blue-hairs buying Wodehouse, so even though I knew this place has a good selection of paperbacks, I was not confidant about landing the big one here. Indeed, as I suspected, they only had Penguins. There were a lot of them, but nothing in the way of a collector's piece, so I picked up a copy of Hot Water, in better condition than the one we saw earlier at Camelot, and made my way to the counter. It was a just a little Rock Bass, but at the very least I needed something new to read, so I paid the five bucks and we went back to the car.
"Do you want to go back to Lawrence's?" Suzanne asked as we headed into downtown.
"No. It's okay. If they were $40 for the pair I'd get them, but I just can't do it for that price."

MacLeod's Books on West Pender was near enough to the legendary hell-hole that is the Downtown Eastside. We drove east through Yaletown and made towards the edge of the abyss. We'd been in MacLeod's once before, and as soon as we walked in I remembered why I didn't find anything the first time. There were thousands of books piled on the floor, in glass display cases, on chairs, and in windowsills. Tattered handwritten signs misidentified sections of books that seemed to have no organization at all. The clerk sat behind a desk piled high with years worth of paperwork and was being harangued by an obviously crazy local. Suzanne and I looked at each other and shrugged. We turned headed towards the first stack on our left. Amazingly, it was Literature (W-Z). Standing shoulder to shoulder Suzanne and I started at the top, our necks cricked to the right, scanning the spines. I lingered a little over a row of very old Oscar Wilde volumes, so it was Suzanne who first uttered a little exclamation and shot her hand to the shelf.

It was another jacketless orange Wodehouse; Money For Nothing (Herbert Jenkins 1928). Suzanne gasped and turned to me, and poked the book with her finger, but she didn't pick it up. I lifted it off the shelf, dreading the inside cover and the penciled-in price. I turned it over in my hands before opening; it was in fine condition with bright orange boards that felt brand new. I flipped open the cover and saw that someone had made an inscription in pen:

Happy Days Jessie (sic)
This will return the 'joie de livre' to your eyes.


It was inscibed to me! Or rather, to some girl named Jessie, but to Suzanne and I it was destiny. And then I saw the price: $15. Completely reasonable! I flipped to the metrics page. It was a seventh printing, maybe from the 40s, and there was no dustjacket, but the price was definitely right. I clutched the book to my chest and looked back at the shelf. There were no others.
"Is that a good one?" Suzane asked.
"Yes, it is" I answered, flipping through the pages looking for damage. "It's not bad, and only $15."
"Oh look!" Suzanne was crouching and had picked up a book from a pile that ran along the floor in front of the shelf. "Here's another one!"
She passed the book to me, and I swapped her for the first one.
The second book was much older than the first; A Damsel In Distress (A.L. Burt Company 1919) It was a reprint of an edition published by the Gorge Doran company, but I had just seen one for sale in similar condition for $50. This one had a small '$10' pencilled in the upper corner of the inside cover. There were no obvious problems with the boards or the pages, and for a book that was nearly 90 years old, it was in good shape. It too was inscribed:

Dad, From Mildred
Dec. 25th, 1927

I stood up with the book and put it with the first. Suzanne and I smiled at each other, knowing we'd made the right decision at Lawrence's. $25 for two early editions, and I was very happy.
"Maybe I should just have one more little look around here..."
I handed Suzanne the second book and crouched down to rummage around the row of books piled along the bottom of the shelf. It appeared to be a group of books that had yet to be sorted, although much of the store looked that way. I removed a stack of old paperbacks, and a flash of orange caught my eye.
Pushing aside a Herman Wouk and a pair of Edith Whartons, I revealed a bright orange dustjacket with the words PG Wodehouse on the spine. Gingerly lifting it free of the surrounding detritus, I struggled to believe what I was seeing. It appeared to be an early copy of Meet Mr. Mulliner (Herbert Jenkins, 1927), but unlike the other books we'd seen today, and indeed, in my life until now, this one had it's original dustjacket intact!
"Oh, man!", I moaned to Suzanne. I stood up and showed Suzanne. "Look at this!"

There were a few small tears to the wrapper, and the book had bulged slightly in the middle, probably due to some dampness years ago, but the condition was otherwise incredible. I flipped to the metrics page first this time; I wanted to leave the price to the end. It was a stated 4th printing, completing 50,481 copies. Finally, I turned back to the inside cover. In pen, another inscription:

Gerald, With Mother's Love, 27/09/31

In pencil, the price: $40.

My goal when the day started was to find a vintage edition, with dustjacket intact. As the day went on, that goal turned to a dream, and by the end, I feared, an impossible one.
"This is unbelievable Suzanne! Look at this wrapper!" As I turned the book over in my hands, the bright colours flashed in the sunlight like the stripes on a rainbow trout. The cover featured an image of Mr Mulliner, fat and jolly with his pipe. He was known as the bard of the Angler's Rest, a pub by a river where the locals swapped tales; those of the 'fish' variety and otherwise. Now, finally, in my hand, was the mighty beast that I had hoped to land, pulled up from the raging waters.
But I had a decision to make.
"So, now what I do?"
"Well, this is the best one, right?" Suzanne said, pointing to the Mulliner. "But this one's the oldest?" She indicated the Damsel. "But this one is inscribed to you," she said, pointing at the Money For Nothing. "I think you just have to get all three."
I was reminded again how we had come to this place. It was my birthday, and Suzanne had arranged this for me. At the start of the day, back in the Diner, when Suzanne revealed the map and the stores, I had hoped that a decision like this would have to be made, but as we went on, from store to store without any luck, the hope faded.
I held the three books in my hands and knew Suzanne was right. We took a final, quick look around for any books that we might have missed, but we weren't disappointed to not find any more.

"Thank you so much for this." I indicated the books in my hand, but she knew I meant more than that. I kissed her and we turned to leave.

We made our way to the counter, and waited while the clerk rummaged under piles of papers and books, looking for the credit card swiper.
With a hand-written receipt and the books tucked neatly in a shopping bag, we pushed out of MacLeod's and into the late afternoon sun, headed for home.