Saturday, April 23, 2011

Gifts that live.

It's a steady Saturday here at the bookstore and since I can't stray too far from the register, I'm using the down-time to whittle away at the pile of books waiting to go online. (In case you're not familiar with our system, most books at an eight-dollar price-point or above are cataloged so that they can be sold online as well as in the store.) In one of the piles I unearthed quite an interesting catalog from 1941.

The product is "sold under the fairest plan and easiest terms ever offered." There is a "30 Days Trial" and the buyer has "4 Months to Pay."

Can you guess what it is?

. . . 

Employee Ben couldn't, either.

The product--sold via mail-in orders only--is singing canaries. The world's finest.

The canaries are sold* by Roderick Bird House of South Bend, IN and come in such varieties as Yankee warblers, American singers, gypsy serenaders and Manhattan serenaders. There are Seifert Roller canaries, Glucke canaries, white canaries. An English Norwich canary is "half the size of an ordinary canary" and "can be furnished in yellow or mottled," while the English Yorkshire "stands very erect" but does not sing as frequently as other canaries. The Dutch frill is a "large bird with a fairly good song" with a plumage that "consists of curls and frills." 

There's even a handy name guide for your new canary. Roderick Bird House suggests such gems as Andy, Beauty, Buttercup, Dizzy-Dean, Dempsy, Dillinger, Lindy, Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Playmate, Dandy-Jim, Jumpin'-Joe, Kayou, Whiz-Bang, Franklin D., Pretzel, King-Ben, Moon-Mullins, Tarzan, Vander-Meer, Little-Boy-Blue and Torpedo. They caution, however, that these are "merely suggestions" and "maybe you can think of a better name."

The two-page, step-by-step canary breeding section is particularly amusing because of two, solitary sentences--in all caps--in the body of the text. (Evidently the most important instructions to heed when mating your pets.) DON'T LET PEOPLE STAND OVER THE CAGE AND WATCH THEM, one sentence says. DO NOT EXPECT YOUR MALE BIRD TO SING WHILE IN THE BREEDING CAGE, warns the other. 

Canaries aren't the only bird offered, though. The catalog has a big boast to make about cousin cockatiel. 

There's even a coupon inside titled FREE BIRDS FOR YOU! Each male canary ordered from page 4 or 5 of the catalog comes with a complimentary female companion of the same breed.

So what do you say? We can't give you a free canary, but we can sell you an incredible catalog for $8. 

Title: "Gifts That Live" Birds [catalog for canaries, supplies and other birds]
Publisher: Roderick Bird House
Year: 1941
Condition: G+ [front cover is somewhat foxed and rear cover has small edge-tears]
Price: $8

*well, were sold. I imagine this business is long defunct. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

Babbitt's Books is excited to announce the first-ever event in our "new" location, an April 15th reading to mark the release of David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel and last major work, The Pale King. (We say "new" because we're coming up on our four-year anniversary in the Beaufort Street space.) Set in Peoria, IL, The Pale King explores the boring and tedious life of an I.R.S. worker, David Wallace. The book reads like a memoir and--well--may actually be part memoir, as Wallace claims in the preface that he once took a year off of college to work at the I.R.S. You can read more detailed reviews at The New York Times and Esquire.

David Foster Wallace taught English literature and creative writing at ISU from roughly 1992 to 2002, and has countless ties to Central Illinois. He finished his magnum opus Infinite Jest while living in Normal. Actually, Babbitt's Books used to host regular readings, and David Foster Wallace was a presence at many of them.

At this reading, we will remember him as a patron, a person and most of all as a friend. Fans and friends of Wallace will read selections from The Pale King and his previous works. The reading begins at 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public. Copies of The Pale King and Infinite Jest will be available for purchase. Babbitt's Books will provide complimentary beverages and refreshments.

For more details, please check us out on the web at (Go to 'Events' on the left-hand side of the page) If you are interested in reading you can e-mail us at sales@babbittsbooks dot com. Selections are your choice and should be 10 to 15 minutes in length.

We hope to see you there.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn / Would scarcely know that we were gone

To date on this blog, we've discussed reading for pleasure and buying for collectibility. We haven't yet talked about writing as a means of bringing about social change, though it is an accomplishment that many authors have achieved. Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin strengthened anti-slavery sentiment and probably helped bring about the Civil War, while Upton Sinclair's 1906 book The Jungle led lawmakers to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. In the same vein, Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring is said to be the impetus for the environmental movement. 

Originally serialized in The New Yorker, Silent Spring (1962) discusses the devastating effect of pesticides, particularly DDT, on the natural world. Unlike previous pesticides, which targeted only one or two insect species, DDT wiped out all of them. At first, the pesticide seemed like a miracle cure. In World War II, it was sprayed to kill typhus-carrying insects and the disease was almost eliminated in Europe as a result. DDT was also used to destroy pests like malaria-causing mosquitoes in the South Pacific. 

But Carson noticed that DDT was not just killing off large numbers of insects--it was killing off bird populations, as well. When DDT enters the food chain, it builds up in the fatty tissues of animals and people, causing cancer and other genetic defects. Scientists later discovered that DDT makes the eggshells of birds thinner, which means that eggs cannot withstand the weight of brooding adults--and frequently break before they have a chance to hatch. DDT also causes sterility in adult birds and was one of the main reasons that bald eagles nearly went extinct in the 1950s. Once the chemical was banned in 1972, the bald-eagle population rallied.

Although John F. Kennedy's Science Advisory Committee validated Carson's claims, critics dismissed her findings. Some even suggested that the accredited biologist was nothing more than a hysterical woman. Although she did not live to see the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, her groundbreaking book was pivotal in its creation.

Here at Babbitt's Boosk, we have two excellent vintage hardcovers by Carson. One is the first printing of the first UK edition of Silent Spring, published by London's Hamish Hamilton in 1963. The book's brown-tweed exterior is in almost pristine condition and the interior is clean. It comes with its original dust jacket. At only $20, it's quite the steal.

The second is The Edge of the Sea, which is the third book in Carson's so-called "sea trilogy." (The first is Under the Sea Wind and the second is The Sea Around Us.) All three books are about marine biology and the ecosystem, and classics in the canon of nature writing. The dust jacket blurb reads: 

"The variety of shore life is rich and complex; its patterns go back half a billion years, when the ancestors of our sponges and jellyfish, snails and crabs flourished in the Cambrian seas. The same great forces are still at work: the tides in their eternal rhythms, the waves, the ocean currents. In this book we see how these forces shape the living creatures that depend on them. And so a mysterious universe becomes intelligible, though the essential mystery remains." 

Our copy is a first printing of the first edition, published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1955. The book is in clean, readable condition and comes with the original dust jacket. Priced at only $8, it's also a steal. 

Title: Silent Spring
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Year: 1963
Features: First edition, first pristing
Condition: Very Good/ Good+
Price: $20 

Title: The Edge of the Sea
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Year: 1955
Features: First edition, first pristing
Condition: Very Good/ Very Good-
Price: $8

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"I would rather excel in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and possessions."


A misconception that we encounter on a weekly basis here at the bookstore is this one: if a book is old, it must be expensive. Or rare. Or both.

Week after week, we have to tell customers that that isn't the case. Books have been printed en masse since the 1450s, which makes for 560 years of publishing and millions upon millions of titles. More than 107,000 books were published in the United States alone between 1910–1919. Only a small fraction of those countless books will retain any value after the decades and centuries have gone by. And a book that is old in people terms may not be old in book terms, as Brian is fond of saying.

More often than not, two factors called scarcity and demand affect a book's value more than its age. For example, most people back in the 1800s had schoolbooks--Latin, geography, arithmetic, etc. Many people also saved them, so the used-book market is saturated with them.  The demand for them is negligible, since the information is outdated or just simply dated. We've got a small collection of old schoolbooks at Babbitt's, but the resale value of each book is only around eight or ten dollars. (Which is fine by us, but don't expect $200 for them if you're selling some!)

Which brings me to a couple of new arrivals that I like to call Plutarch's Lives.

These leather-bound books, priced individually as a result of two missing volumes, date from 1822 and contain the lives of famous Greek and Roman citizens, as written by the philosopher and historian Plutarch. Between these particular volumes, you'll find bios on Pericles, Theseus, Romulus, Alexander, Julius Caesar and Cicero. The complete set was comprised of eight books, and each volume here contains two of them. Volume I contains books I and II, while volume III contains books V and VI. (If you want a matching set, volumes II and IV will probably have to be ordered specially through the Internet.) 

Marbled endpapers.

After being in existence for 189 years, both volumes are slightly banged up as you can see from the photos. Volume I has a large signature crack in the middle and several loose pages around the crack, though all pages are present. The previous owners' bookplate is on both pastedowns. Still, these old books are a handsome addition to any bookshelf. 

And fortunately for their buyer (is it you?), these books are also affordable. The two factors we discussed above, scarcity and demand, are aligned against poor Plutarch and his Lives. Plutarch was quite popular up until the 19th and 20th centuries and copies of Lives were heavily printed, which means they're not scarce. As for demand, it has dropped dramatically for Plutarch and other Greek greats within the past century. These factors combined make for an $8 copy of an 1822 book, your choice of volume I or volume III. 

If you like the look of leather spines lining a shelf and want to start a collection of your own, remember . . . buying old, attractive books doesn't have to be expensive.

Title: Plutarch's Lives, Translated from The Original Greek; with Notes Critical and Historical and a Life of Plutarch by John Langhorne, D.D. and William Langhorne, A.M.
Publisher: Samuel Campbell & Son
Year: 1822
Features: Volume I (books I and II), Volume III (books V and VI)
Condition: Fair / Good
Price: $8 apiece

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A madness most discreet.

Less than two weeks until Valentine's Day! If your beloved is the sort of person who doesn't care for flowers and chocolates one way or another, or likes something supplementary, you should visit Babbitt's Books before the 14th and pick out a gift or two. Here are just a few suggestions:

1. We have several classic poetry books from the late 1800s in stock right now. The cloth bindings come in all colors and are handsomely gilt-stamped, which makes the books an attractive accompaniment to, say, one dozen red roses or a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Authors range from Thomas Moore to Tennyson to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Perhaps the best thing about these books, next to the fact that they're old and pretty and filled with romantic poems, is their inexpensiveness.  For example, we have an 1872 copy of Lord Byron's poems for only $16. You'll find the rest of the books on our counter shelves for $4 to $40. 

Not that we're inducing you to marry, but a few years ago a young man came in and bought one of the aforesaid poetry books so he could cut a hollow into the pages and put a ring inside for his girlfriend and (we hope) soon-to-be fiancĂ©e

2. Do you remember that we have totes and tees? The totes come in two designs and each design comes in green on white or white on black. The tees come in two designs as well and are printed on Jerzees heavyweight blend, which gives them a soft feel. (They're nothing like those awful, stiff-feeling, heavyweight Hanes tees.) Tees are men's unisex and range in size from S to XL. The totes are $9 and the tees are $15. 

3. We still have plenty of vintage Valentines, too,  for those of you who are considering an alternative to store-bought cards. 

 $1 (1950s-era)

$1 (1940s-era)

$2 (1920s-era)

$7 (mechanical, 1940s-era)

$8 (die-cut, 3D, circa 1890-1910)

$15 (die-cut, 3D, circa 1890-1910)

4. The following items aren't as Valentines-related, but I couldn't resist showcasing them. Brian has been slowly but surely putting out some of the prints we've accumulated over the years. Some are wood engravings, some are steel engravings, and still others are chromolithographs. Prints are a great way to get some new artwork into your home without spending an arm and a leg. The ones you're about to see are 7" by 10", but many that we have are larger.

 $10 ("Mammals of Earth, Air, and Water" lithograph, 1902)

 $12 (wood engraving by E.H. Dewey, circa 1880. It's a Costwold ram, but I like to think of it as Fat Sheep.)

$15 ("Academic Gowns--British Usage", 1902)

$18 (this is my ultimate favorite--"Octopods and Decapods", 1902)

As always, Kathleen and Brian and I (Sarah) will be more than happy to point you in the direction of these featured items when you come in. We also reserve books for 48 hours, so don't be shy about e-mailing us if you want to stake a claim to any of these Valentine's delicacies. Hope to see you soon!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Pulp fiction.

As you may have gleaned from a visit to the store--maybe a visit to this blog, even--Babbitt's Books has a vast and varied stock which is not limited to antiquarian books. As long as an item is made of paper and is collectible or otherwise in-demand, we're happy to sell it.

Which brings me to our collection of pulp paperbacks.

Named for the cheap, wood-pulp paper they were printed on, pulp paperbacks were printed from the 1940s to the late 1970s, and reached the peak of their popularity in the 1950s. They were cheap and conveniently sized, much like today's mass-market paperbacks, and were the favored medium for mystery, science fiction, and fantasy. Today, they're known as much for their kitschy covers as they are for their content. Strong-jawed detectives, orgiastic young women, space aliens . . . all standard fare for pulp paperbacks. Here are some of our most recent acquisitions in that field:


 Because you can't help judging a book by a cover as wonderful as this.


If only!


Claudia is definitely the sort of wife I would put up for sale.

Some lovely artwork on a pocket-sized volume of Edgar Allan Poe.

Here's something you didn't know existed: a mystery by the author of Winnie-the-Pooh.

A truly fantastic cover is the selling point on this copy of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot.

If you're apt to forget that you're a man, the devil in dungarees has a cure. Apparently.

And last but not least, Reformatory Girls. 'nuff said.

If you like what you see, we've got hundreds more books like these, the majority of them searchable on our website. All are priced between $2 and $150. (Yes, these cheaply bound novels can get quite collectible.)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Saint Valentine's Day

Christmas is done, spring seems far-off and the frigid Illinois landscape has grown steadily drearier. Over at Babbitt's, we're preparing a month or two of mid-winter cleaning. Soon we'll be purging our storage site of old and obsolete books and replacing them with slow-selling, in-store titles in order to make room for our wealth of summer and autumn acquisitions. In the bustle of this rearrangement, I stumbled across some vintage treasures. And wouldn't you know it? They dispelled a little bit of the winter gloominess.

Can't make out what you're looking at?

They're die-cut, chromolithograph Valentines, from the late Victorian to early Edwardian era. The ones that we have on display behind our counter are three-dimensional and, as you can see above, quite intricate. Although they're rife with typical Victorian sentimentality--saccharine children, scads of flowers and doves galore--there's still something attractive about them.

They fall under the category of what we booksellers refer to as "ephemera." Ephemera is a broad category that includes any paper object that was meant to be thrown away. Letters, stamps, ticket stubs, magazines, menus, sheet music, posters, postcards, pamphlets, playbills, pin-ups . . . all of these count as ephemera. A fraction of our ephemera collection is for sale in the store, but most of it is online and stored off-site. Type in ephemera into our website's search page and you'll come up with a massive 12,287+ hits.

You won't find any of these Valentines listed online, but you're welcome to come see them in person. If you're forward-thinking, you might even buy one! Most have a small gift inscription on them, but if you'd like to re-gift one, a small paper label or some white-out will do the trick. Prices range from $15 for smaller Valentines and $25 for larger ones. If you think these are out of your price range, we have dozens more vintage Valentines from the 1920s through the 1950s at $1, $2, and $3 apiece.

See? Just a dollar.

As always, we're open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. This is the slowest time of year for us and we'd love to see you. And really, is there anything cosier than browsing in a warm bookstore on a cold winter's day? Don't forget that we also have a four-month-old kitten who is always in need of playmates!