BY JOSEPH PLANTA
VANCOUVER – When you’ve got some time to waste, there’s no better place to go to than a used book shop.
I’m not saying a used book shop is a waste of time, rather they do require some time to browse. If you’re looking for a book quickly, you might as well go to one of those chains where they have sales associates hovering at your every move, or to a website like AbeBooks.com , because used book shops demand to be browsed at a leisurely pace.
They’re also roughly organised. At least the good book shops aren’t. Good used book shops shouldn’t have their entire inventory in some database or online. The unorganised shelves are compensated by knowledgeable shopkeepers and proprietors who know exactly where to find that last copy of a certain book, or those books by so-and-so. Also, another prize for the customer at a used book shop of this ilk is yielded in that small victory of some rare find in some pile or at the back of a shelf.
My collection at home contains a great number of political books. I have nearly every book on the prime ministers from Diefenbaker to Harper, as well as most of the major books on Nixon, Reagan, Thatcher, and Obama. I lack books of the Canadiana vintage before Diefenbaker. And it’s those books I’m on a lookout for whenever I’m in a used book store, a charity shop, or a library discard sale.
Recently, I wandered into First Used Books, an estimable shop on that strip of Kingsway between Broadway and Main. I saw on the shelf a biography of Louis St. Laurent, Canadian by Dale Thomson. Having no books on St. Laurent I bought it. (It’s not however, to my surprise, the first book of Thomson’s I own. I later found that I own a copy of his Vive le Quebec Libre, which was published in 1988.)
I took the book home, and somewhere tucked inside was this note, handwritten on a sheet of white paper that appears to have been hand ripped:
Vancouver, Nov. 4, 1968
On the occasion of your birth day I am giving you the Dale Thomson Life of Louis St. Laurent, which I have read and which I commend to you as a model of the sort of life I think you are planning for yourself.
Uncle Arthur, once removed
P.S. Also the $100 cheque—a gift.
And no, the cheque wasn’t also in the book, which was published in 1967.
It’s a charming note, exuding a formality that was probably the norm of people from that era and likely from before. The city in which the note was written is datelined. Few people dateline their correspondence nowadays, unless one is on holiday, and usually the postcard’s photograph would give away where it was posted from. The whole ‘once removed’ reference would no longer be employed either. I doubt many young people today could explain the generational difference that ‘once removed’ represents. Kids today, in our largely Oprah world, give every family friend, creepy or otherwise, the designation of uncle or aunt.
I posted this photo on my Facebook, and my cousin noted the use of the word ‘commend.’ Few people, Norman Spector notwithstanding, use that word today. Uncle Arthur’s cursive writing—precise, halting, and graceful—evoke a time when penmanship mattered. His was not neat writing, but it was appropriate for the occasion.
Finding this note only elicited more questions. I’ve since wondered who old Uncle Arthur was. What did he do for a living? How old was he when he gave this gift to his nephew? I doubt that Uncle Arthur is still alive, so how did he meet his demise?
As the note is unaddressed, I wondered too about the recipient of the gift. It’s surprising at the level of formality employed by Uncle Arthur, that he could have lacked precision. He didn’t write his nephew’s name, and he left little clue as to his own identity, as he simply signed the note: ‘D.A. McK.’ The nephew would have known who he was, and I’m sure it never crossed his mind that someone other than his nephew would come across this note some 43 years later and wonder who he was.
It’s rather nice that the book stayed in Vancouver. I did feel bad that Arthur’s nephew didn’t keep the book. I wondered what happened to him and what amounted to his life. Did he heed the lessons of St. Laurent’s life?
Wherever Uncle Arthur is, I’m hoping he’d appreciate that his gift is safely ensconced in my collection. And perhaps he’s pleased he’s being thought about.
As a bit of a postscript, I later e-mailed Peter, the proprietor of First Used Books, to ask if he had any clues as to the mystery surrounding the note. He simply can’t remember how the book came to him. If you’ve any information, do e-mail me.