Changing frontiers

I HAVE ALWAYS ENJOYED browsing the shelves and piles of books in second-hand/antiquarian bookshops. During my adolescence in the 1960s, I bought many old travel guidebooks, such as were published before WW2 by the likes of Baedeker, Michelin, Murray, and similar. These items were not highly valued by collectors in the ’60s and were very reasonably priced. This was just as well because my spending power was not great at that time. My self-imposed rule was that I would not buy anything priced over £1 (Sterling). One of my prized purchases in that time was a pre-WW1 Baedeker’s guide to Egypt. I paid six shillings (30 pence) for this already rare edition in the second-hand department of Dillon’s university bookshop, which faces the Engineering Department of University College London. This shop is now a branch of the Waterstones chain of booksellers.

Most of the bookshops that I visited regularly were in or near Hampstead, which in the 1960s had at least eight second-hand booksellers. There was one shop that I visited occasionally on the corner of Fleet and Agincourt Roads. Once I entered it and found a copy of Murray’s Handbook to Northern Germany, which was published in the late 1880s. I was fascinated by this book which described Germany long before it was divided into East and West Germany, which is how it was in the 1960s. It also covered parts of the USSR (e.g. Kaliningrad, once ‘Königsberg’) and of Poland (e.g. Danzig, now ‘Gdansk’) that were formerly parts of the German Empire.  I looked inside its cover to discover its price. My heart sank. It was priced at one pound and ten shillings (£1.50). It was well beyond my budget. I could not decide whether I should break my £1 rule … only this once, but I did not. Reluctantly, I left the book behind in the shop. I had never seen a copy of this book before, and as I walked away, I wondered whether I would ever see another.

When on foreign travels with my parents, I went into second-hand bookshops and discovered some treasures, which I could afford. For example, in Madrid, I picked up several Michelin guides that had been published before WW1 when motoring was in its infancy. In Italy, which we visited annually during my childhood, I acquired several guides published before WW2 and during Mussolini’s era by the Touring Club Italia (‘TCI’). Some of these covered places that had been parts of Mussolini’s empire, such as Libya and Somalia. One TCI guide covered Friuli-Venezia Giulia, when large parts of what was to become western Slovenia were under Italian rule and the Adriatic coast as far as Rijeka was also part of Italy. This guide also included the Adriatic town of Zadar in Croatia, which was the Italian enclave, called ‘Zara’, before WW2. One treasure, which was subsidised by my parents, was the TCI guide to Greece, which was published just prior to the Italians’ abortive invasion of Greece. My copy includes notes added by its former owner, an Italian soldier. Interestingly, he had traced his route into northern Greece on the book’s map. From this, it was evident that he had travelled through central Albania before entering Greece.

In the 1980s, I was still avidly collecting old books including travel guidebooks. From 1982, when I had passed my driving test and began owning cars, I used to drive to see friends all over the UK and elsewhere. Often, I visited friends in Cornwall. My route, which tended to avoid motorways, took me through many small towns, all of which I explored with a view to discovering second-hand bookshops. Honiton in Devon used to contain several well-stocked antiquarian booksellers. On one trip I entered one of them at the bottom of a hill at the western end of the town and made an exciting discovery. Yes, you have probably guessed it already. In that shop, I found another copy of the old Murray’s guide to Northern Germany. Nervously, I looked for its price. By now, I had abandoned the idea of limiting my spend to £1, which in the 1980s would have been insufficient to buy any of the old guidebooks that attracted my interest. The volume I found was £7, which was remarkably good value in the 1980s. I snapped it up and paid for it with pleasure.

Nowadays, if I see an out-of-print book that interests me, I seize the opportunity to buy it, if, after checking the price on-line, it is not outrageously costly.

Finally, whilst talking about old guidebooks, I must mention an artwork created for me by the lady who would eventually marry me. Long before we were wed, she knew of my collection of guidebooks and was also a keen amateur potter. One day, she presented me with a wonderful gift. It was a box made of fired clay, which was shaped to look like a row of Baedeker guidebooks. This still occupies a prominent position on one of our many overcrowded bookshelves.

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