The Rare Book Bug

Owner Diane Doonan and my husband have a thing going…

for rare books.

While I am a quantity girl when it comes to books–large numbers of unread books obtained as cheaply as possible–Diane and my husband definitely seek out quality.  I have learned that when my spouse asks sweetly, “Can I use some of your East Side Books credit to get just one book?” that I need to inquire, “How much?”  His rare book purchases can often equal an armful of new reads for me.

My youngest daughter has also caught the “rare book bug”.   Just recently as I hustled her past the Rare and Vintage Children’s Book section on our way to the Children’s Room, she planted her feet, came to a full stop, and plucked a book off the shelf.  “No, not from there,” I said, but she ignored me, turning pages carefully.

“Can I have this one?” she asked, holding up a book with a ink and watercolor illustration of a frog on the cover.  It was called A Roundabout Turn by Robert H. Charles with drawings by L. Leslie Brooke.

I took a deep breath and checked the price.  It wasn’t as bad as I anticipated (because Diane tends to mark down the books she loves so they find a good home), but still, it wasn’t a deal like you could find a few feet away in the Children’s Room.  “Are you sure you want that one?” I asked.  “You could get two or three books instead of just one over here in the children’s section.”  I took a couple of encouraging steps that way.

“I want THIS one,” said Clara, her eyes shining. I sighed in resignation because I knew that look.  It was the same look my husband has when he comes home with a new rare book purchase that cost most of my credit, and it is the same excitement Diane has when she shows me a new treasure she has just uncovered.

“But why?” I asked.

“Look at the pictures, Mom,” said my daughter rubbing her hand over each page gently.

Yup, I’d seen Diane do that very same thing. But I had to admit, the pictures were beautiful–simple black and white line drawings with plenty of empty space that seemed to give the illustrations room to come alive.  When you ran your hand over the page you could almost feel the raised lines of the drawing, and the paper was soft and thick.  On the flyleaf there was a handwritten inscription: to Carl from Granddad and Grandmother, Christmas 1965. I have to admit, I am a sucker for the handwritten inscriptions by strangers.

“Plus, it has this nice crinkly paper on the outside,” said Clara.

I had to laugh.  Clara even liked the protective clear mylar paper the staff uses as a protective covering.  She was hooked for sure.

I don’t think I will ever become a book connoisseur like my husband, my daughter, and Diane–I tend to read for speed, seeking new knowledge or a good story, and when lucky, both at once–but since that day, I have found myself slowing and often pausing as I pass East Side Books well stocked shelves of Vintage and Rare Children’s Books (located direction across from the Young Adult section.)  The other day I stopped and picked up 003 1/2: The Adventures of James Bond Junior.  On the cover a teenage boy fights off a vicious looking Doberman with just a flashlight.  The subtext along the top read: The Daring Exploits of the Nephew of 007.  Who knew that James had a nephew?

“This is great,” I said, holding it up so Diane, who was at the counter, could see.

“Isn’t it?” she answered, hurrying over.  “I think someone will love that book.”

I put the book back on the shelf, a steal at $4.00, and just went ahead and asked her. “Diane, what is it that you love so much about these vintage and rare children’s books?”

Without hesitating, she said, “I like the pictures.”  It is as simple as that.

With a little more coaxing she gave me a brief history of the Golden Age of Illustration, a period of time between the turn of the century up to the 1930s when well known artist were creating children’s illustrations, some becoming rich and famous because of it.  Within this Golden Age there are a number of styles and movements including ornate color plates to simple black-and-white prints influenced by woodcuts and silhouette to art deco style.  Wanda Gag is one of Diane’s favorite illustrators.  Even if her name isn’t familiar, you have seen her work.  She is the author/illustrator of the Newbery Award Winning book Millions of Cats with its wonderful cover an old man and a line of cats striding across rolling hills in bold colors of black, yellow, and red.

Another well known illustrator from this time is Boris Artzybasheff.  His wonderful drawings are simple and in the style of woodblock art.  To show me his style, Diane pulled two of his books from the shelves: a large picture booked entitled Seven Simeons and a simple, beautiful volume of illustrated Aesop’s Fables. Even to my untrained eye, I could see that both are treasures and minor works of art.

When I asked Diane how she became interested in vintage and rare children’s books, she brushed her fingertips over the spines of books on the shelves and said that these were the books she grew up with, the books that came on the Mono County bookmobile out to the ranch in Hammil Valley where she was raised. She tugged from the shelf a tan, cloth covered picture book called The Big Rain by Francoise.  The illustrations are colorful, childlike, and charming.  “Picture books like these are my favorite.  I know they are simple,” Diane shrugged. “But I just love them.”

Diane also said that part of the appeal of vintage and rare children’s books is the nostalgia–finding a favorite book from childhood in the original edition.  East Side Books has a number of classic or first edition children’s collectable books such as Swiss Family Robinson and The Phantom Tollbooth. Diane pointed out a number of classic series that bring back fond memories to many: the brightly colored covers of The Bobbsey Twins, Tee Vee Humphrey, and The Happy Hollisters.

While checking out the very bottom shelves, Diane showed me the incredible My Book House set that she sells individually.  Each book contains classic children’s stories with the original illustrations included.  “When I was growing up everyone had a set of My Book House,” she said. “It was like owning a set of encyclopedias.  It was just someone each household bought.”  Eastside Books also carries a set of Child Craft, which is a similar but even more popular series.

My Book House The Treasure Chest book cover


A stack of vintage and rare children’s books teetered before me when Diane dipped into the bookshelf one more time and holds up with a ragged edged book. “Now, you will like this,” she said.  She handed me a book with the title Easy Steps in Sewing for Big and Little Girls. On the inside flap, written in pencil in big loopy handwriting, is the inscriptions: Charleen Norris Oct 4, 1933 From Love Mother.  On the next page are two more inscriptions with later dates.  Inside is a manual written for girls with illustrations and advice from fairies, birds, and thimble people on how to sew for dolls.  It is a terribly sweet book, and Diane is right, I couldn’t help but love it.

Easy Steps in Sewing for Big and Little Girls vintage book cover

When other customers needed her assistance, Diane left me with my pile of books.  On my own, I found a few more that were irresistible, like a copy of Dick Tracy Meets the Night Crawler with wonderful black and white comic strip-like illustrations from that time period, and Jolly Jack Wollopor, a children’s picture book with a cover depicting a brightly painted picture of a squirrel dressed as a farmer following a plow pulled by a snail.  It was with some reluctance that I return each book to the shelf.  Although not yet a convert, I am beginning to understand the appeal.  The pictures are beautiful.  And there is something about holding a really old book in your hand that makes you wonder about all the hands that have passed this particular book along its journey.  And sometimes it is important just to own something because it is charming or reminds you of a happy time or creates a little delight in your day.

I encourage you to slow down and take a look at the wall of vintage and rare children’s books at East Side Books.  Ask Diane to be your guide.  Perhaps you can find a special gift for someone who has a taste for rare things. (One of the best baby gifts I ever received at a baby shower was a out-of-print copy of “I Can’t” Said the Ant by Polly Cameron.  Clever and rich with rhyme and wonderful drawings, it soon became a favorite of my children.) Or treat yourself to a bit of your childhood.  Or simply buy a book because the pictures are so beautiful you can’t resist.

And, in case you were wondering, yes, I bought my daughter  A Roundabout Turn with the illustration of the frog on the front that she held tight against her chest the whole time we shopped. And as we checked out, Diane congratulated her on her fine taste.

6 thoughts on “The Rare Book Bug

  1. Loved this blog. It helped me to remember some of the neat books from my childhood and it would be nice to still have a few of those.

  2. this blog is a fantastic look at the world of children’s illustrated books. Now I will have to run to the bookstore at lunch to check it out.

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