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Don Bell's FOUNDE BOOKERS

The three rules you should observe when scouting for books, I was told a few years ago by a dealer much younger than myself but vastly more experienced; the three rules, he told this then novice scout who was attracted to the field after reading a book called How To Be A Book Scout (attracted to the idea that a scout doesn't have the overhead or responsibilities of running a shop; he is a vagabondish mobile bookperson catering to dealers and the retail trade, always On The Road); the three rules (said my friend if I may repeat myself) are condition, condition and condition.

"There's also a fourth rule in fact."

"Condition?"

"You got it."

It's an old saw, but it's probably the handiest advice one could be given. Still, there's an anomaly, a crack, if besides being a professional bookperson, you're also an inveterate reader, a lover of writers, and the characters and ideas in their books.

A couple of years after being handed this advice¨ by now I was starting to feel my way around the trade¨I wrote an article for Biblio, an elegant monthly American magazine addressed to book collectors which folded in 1999. It was titled "The Debate Rages On" and it touched on the eternal conflict between the writer part of myself and the pro scout; regrettably, Biblio's consumer-oriented editors, presumably using the "search and replace" function on their computer keyboards, changed the word "writer" throughout to "reader" and "scout" to "collector." Still, the essential argument remained, which is this: The writer part says it's the text on the page that counts, the creative epiphany, the vividness and credulity of the scenes invented by the act of wordsmithing. It doesn't matter if a book is a first or twelfth edition (the twelfth may even have a useful updated preface that the first doesn't); it's the content that counts. The three rules for the writer-reader are content, content and content.

On the other hand, the scout cum bookseller whispers: Hush hush, boy, a book is worthless¨forget it¨ if it's chipped, if it's musty, if it's foxed, if it's underlined, if it has library markings, if it's not a first, if it's not in pristine condition. To have true value a book should be in the same original state as when it came off the press. The buyer of the book should feel the same ecstasy the author probably felt holding the book in his hand for the first time.

Anyway, the argument goes on throughout the two- page Biblio article. The reason it's being brought up now is because of one of the books, which is sitting in front of me now as I write this, which was used to illustrate the subtle point that it's content that counts even more so than condition, condition, condition. Of course, that's the snobbish biased writer part of me (or reader, if you must) supporting this argument.

The book in question is called Traveler Tales of China and is by one Hezekiah Butterworth. A case was specifically made that this tattered copy was more valuable, more precious than a splendid 1872 edition of The Poetical Works of John Milton.

The covers of both books were lavishly reproduced in color in Biblio; the Milton was in near fine condition and had a decorative cloth with gilded lettering, gilded artwork, gilded everything; it was unfoxed and perfectly clean inside.

But not being a lover of old Johnny Milton, I wrote in Biblio, not realizing how much it would offend some readers, that "Paradise Lost is lugubrious, Paradise Regained unreadable, the sonnets joyless. Let sleeping, old, religion-crazed poets lie," then added that the flawed Traveler Tales of China was all around, to me, a much more attractive book. Ironically, one completist Milton collector who wrote a well-thought-out letter-to-the-editor defending the works of the English poet eventually bought the Milton for $350 U.S., the same amount in fact that the essay brought in; he, incidentally, became a marvelous customer and friend who in no small way supported my wanton life style in France as I found him numerous rare French editions of Milton in translation.

But to return to the article¨I heaped volumes of praise on this Mr. Hezekiah Butterworth for his enthralling 1901 edition of Traveler Tales of China, even though monetarily it was worth peanuts because it was so unsightly¨spotted, smeared, torn. Even the spelling of "Traveler", on the cover with one l and on the title page with two l's, deviates; the yellow cloth showing a Chinese mandarin posed in front of a pagoda was so faded that I amateurishly touched it up with a yellow crayon and then ran a black Bic over the spotty title letters and Chinese symbols, which didn't much help.

The book, priced at $8, then $7, then $5, remained on my weekend outdoor table in Sutton, Quebec one whole summer. Gladly (sez I now), no takers. It's sitting in front of me as I write this in longhand in a bistro on Sherbrooke Street. Clashing with muffins, croque monsieurs, paninis, wraps and cappucinos.

Never mind. Book, I bring you to my lips and plant a loving kiss on your voluptuous body, happy you have not run off with another collector-lover who can afford your charms. I will remain true to you my scraggly darling.

She (I will call her a she) is not obviously sensual, not the sort of book you'd immediately want to fondle; she doesn't quite look, smell or feel like a beauty that you'd lust after. Some perfume (or linseed oil)

might help. But wait, you pick up Mr. Hezekiah Butterworth's concoction and start reading. What an enchantment! You are transported through words and pictures to another time zone and venue. You are in the exotic 19th century land of the story telling Hongs: the tea trade, ginseng, opium, the Jakata legends, intriguing stories of ghosts, the Feast of the Lanterns; chapter headings like "Tai-Ping-Wang, who thought himself a Messiah", "The Silent Mystery of the Fung-Shui", "The Death Lamasary, or the Human God and the ŠPrayer-Flags.'" And full-page black-and-white photos of this century-old China scattered throughout.

You guzzle the book. Any book is a new book if you haven't read it; any book is collectible if its content appeals to you. The book scout in me may be a snob. Condition, edition is what counts. But the writer part says I Salute You Mr. Hezekiah Butterworth, now only dust and a clutch of old bones in some forlorn cemetery, I Salute You for telling us of your travels through China. I Salute You in your deathlessness by reading your fine prose with rapture.

So listen book-lovers. If while browsing in your favorite shop you happen to notice this wild bearded Whitmanesque-looking character shaking his head and talking to himself, don't run away in a fright. It's only good old me and me. Although it could also be you and you, the two parts of ourselves arguing, the writer and the scout. Or as Biblio would editorially have it, the reader and the collector.

Whatever the case, both sides of us would probably agree with the wise Argentine writer and bibliophile Jorge Luis Borges who somewhere says: "I always thought of Paradise as a library, not as a garden." Yes, such is the condition we're in¨the condition and the condition¨those of us who are of the book breed. Helplessly hopelessly addicted.

Next month: Americanisms¨Old and New by John Farmer

Don Šthe Booknan' Bell, a former Leacock Award winner, bounds between Paris, Montreal and Sutton, Quebec tracking down literary treasures. Many of these can be viewed in the secondhand bookshop he now runs, the Librairie Founde Bookes, on the main street of Sutton. His e-mail address is: donthebookman@hotmail.com

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