Don Rose. "The Dime Museum."
The North American Review CCXXVI:846 (Aug 1928), p167-170.
ONE may read of the amenities of book collecting, and so enjoy vicariously the cultivated delights belonging to a higher financial sphere. One may taste the calculated hospitality of the bookstores, skimming stacked tables discreetly, rapidly enough to escape the necessity of purchase. There are public libraries; there is the magnificence of the British Museum , the Louvre and the Library of Congress. But of all thrills attendant on the seeking, the buying, the borrowing of books, there is one supreme.
This is to buy a good book for ten cents at a second-hand bookstore.
All cities have their share of such bookstores. They also serve, in a world wherein there is no end to the making of books. They are a sort of intellectual repositories; wayside inns for books of passage; purgatories of paper and print; Potter's Fields for many books of no importance. In our own city is a second-hand bookstore distinguished above its fellows by a five-tier, fifty-foot shelf devoted to ten-cent books, and flanking the sidewalk with a standing invitation. This is the daily Mecca of many pilgrimages and hopes, and the field for rich gleanings among the unconsidered stubble of the publishing profession.
There are seasons when people seem either to sell more books or buy less. Of a sudden at such crises, either before the blast of inventory or the cold chill of poor business, the store begins to erupt its surplus, and books that have been enjoying false security and fancy prices on inner shelves rapidly descend the social scale. Unable to justify their original rating, they are sold up to pay for their board and lodging. They drop to fifty cents, to twenty five cents. Finally they are poured forth on the ten-cent shelf in daily replenishments that keep it overflowing.
Here is the real dime museum of the day. Here is the true democracy of letters, and the melting pot of the brains of men. Here is the last judgment. Here must they find a kindly owner or face a final grave.
These books are venerable, used and worn, as is the wisdom of the world. They are doubtless full of germs, as by now are most of their authors. The great majority of them are overpriced at ten cents, but a greater majority I shall not buy. It is the remnant, the residue, that I seek after, and if I find one pearl a day in so many bivalves, my dime becomes a joyful offering.
A certain conscience must be developed in the buying of ten-cent books, else a library becomes a confusion of tongues. To buy all that are worth the modest price imperils the peace of the home, and books will overflow into cellar and attic. Four cardinal principles prevail. First, to buy no book, however excellent, treating of matters outside the conceivable domain of interest. Here, for instance, is a book, not unduly obsolete, on basket weaving. Yet I do not weave baskets, nor at this moment intend to. Here is a solid book on dentistry, and again the Confessions of a Barber , yet I do not practise auto-dentistry nor cut my own hair. Such books are not for me, and in charity I must remember that others are here to buy ten-cent books to their own liking.
Secondly, no book shall be bought for binding alone. This is a hard rule; it has a harder corollary, that no book shall be bought because it matches others already acquired. I prize some half-dozen volumes of Belles-Lettres, part of a "universal library", so called, which fell to my lot in the past. Here are six or seven volumes of the Memoirs of Continental Courts in the same edition or one of sufficient cousinship. How richly would they swell the importance of that other five, adding substance and symmetry to the shelf! Yet the Memoirs of Continental or any other courts have no proper place in my library, and for that I cannot, shall not buy them.
Thirdly, I may buy no book which I may not possibly, conceivably, eventually read. This does not mean that I have read or expect to read all my books; to ask this is to challenge the reasonable expectations of human life. But as I have more ties that I can wear; as I own pipes that I may never smoke again; as flowers grow in my garden that will never be plucked or noted, so my library is to present an opulence of choice, a variety of interest and infinitude of resource. With a thought to this wide basis of eligibility and another to the scarcity of shelf space, I will buy with such discretion as is granted to me.
Fourthly, no book may be forgiven for poor binding or bad print, and scarcely for the lesser shame of unseemly binding. I will have books substantial and adequate; yea, though they cost but ten cents; books whose outsides are comely and whose insides are decent. And even this is not incompatible with our appointed price. Witness my five volumes of George Eliot, all dressed in good leather, explaining in their substantiality how they have lived to tell their tale again. Here is a charming copy of Rasselas, surely an oversight of the presiding deity of the shelf. Here are five volumes of Dickens containing thirteen of his novels, bound in leather and not in ill repair. Why so cheap? Presumably because the set is incomplete. Yet thirteen tales from Dickens are no mean education.
The aim is to buy good books, well bound and printed, books of genuine interest which I hope or intend to read; and to buy them for ten cents. Occasionally, it is true, I am tempted around the corner and pay as high as twenty-five cents, but no profound principle is violated by somewhat stretching the limit. What fortune, then?
Enough to satisfy imagination and a modest ambition. A stray volume of Duruy's History of Greece and Rome were no great catch, but to collect five more becomes an achievement; that five of the group are in sequence is nothing short of direct Providence. A copy of Scott's Antiquary suggests further search, and patience is rewarded with thirteen volumes of the Waverley Novels in the same edition. Thirty cents purchases five inches of Dr. Eliot's five-foot shelf, and compasses all classic English poetry. From these same shelves I have three Shakespeares, and one cannot have too many Shakespeares. The plays of Euripides, the Poems of Emerson, the Ingoldsby Legends, Marcus Aurelius, Don Quixote, Sartor Resartus, Xenophon on Socrates, Macaulay's History of England, Gibbon's Decline and Fall, who will grudge for a volume of these the price of a sandwich?
If a man can read he need not die ignorant. Twelve harmonious volumes of science have left the shelf for a better home with me. Here are Darwin 's Origin of Species, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Tyndall's Essays, Hegel's Philosophy of History, Bacon's Novum Organum, Huxley's Addresses, and others as imposing. Have I read them? No. Have you?
Outside the classics there is room for rash venture. Is Mankind Advancing, a book much quoted years ago, turned up here and was worth another reading. Charles Kennedy wrote The Servant in the House, whose reputation justified the investment of twenty cents for two other plays from the same pen. Ten cents devoted to Disraeli's Curiosities of Literature was a happy accident. Odds and ends of poetry and short story have paid generous dividends. Sometimes one buys an odd volume of a series or of some many-volumed work, but there are many voluminous masterpieces of which one volume is enough.
Religious books are here, of course, in an abundance matched only, it seems, by the inexhaustible supply of Owen Meredith's Lucile. There are books of doctrine, hymn books, prayer books and polemics. The state of the Christian world makes its own confession at ten cents a copy. Not least significant is a copy of the Scriptures, once handsome and with its message still entire, which a piece of silver rescued from the underworld of books.
Indeed, if there be a moral to the ten-cent shelf it is this, that the best and most important memorials to human genius find their way eventually to this plentiful scrapheap. One not too particular as to binding and condition might find here fair representation of every writer of importance to classic English and American literature, history and philosophy. The novels of the day, the transient fads of philosophy or art, the technical treatises of trades, live on the sheltered shelves and name their own price. But in the open air, begging for an owner, herded with the least among books, are the wise thoughts of the ancients, the classics of literature, the fundamental studies of human wit and wisdom, and even the Word of the God of both Hebrew and Christian.
Add, then, to the many joys of poverty this privilege, -- to spend much time and little money in treasure hunting on the scrapheaps of literature. Call it a waste of time if you will, but since there is time to be wasted, name if you can a better way to waste it.
Last revised: 16 September 2010