Monday, May 20, 2013

Dwelling On My Book House

I love when life serves up a little serendipity, so I was over the moon to have chanced into The Bookseller Inc., a cozy shop in west Akron, yesterday afternoon just in the nick of time to have one last look at my favorite thing there. Or at least one last look in that setting anyway.The shop’s showpiece item has been purchased by Kent State University for their Special Collections and is soon to depart to Kent in the next few days. It had been sold online once, but the buyer was from Australia so -- surprise! surprise! -- the extreme weight and shipping  squelched the sale.

For years and years I had been aware that the ever-popular My Book House set once came in a wooden box shaped like a house. I had sold the books any number of times – the black edition, the blue edition, the rainbow edition and once even the white edition which doesn’t charm me – but I had never laid eyes on the house itself and its smaller set until I went to The Bookseller for the first time. We weren’t in the door five seconds when Eric homed in on it like a pigeon with a GPS. It’s funny really how I even knew about this house at all. A casual anecdote buried in some long forgotten book popped off the page and lodged permanently in my brain. The author had gone antiquing with her mother, found both the house and its books in a dusty shop in New England (of course – where else?) and bought it to replace the one she’d had as a child, but had somehow lost.

Lost?????!!! I know it sounds ludicrous, but it happened, which is why seeing one of  these little wooden houses is about as likely as spotting a great snowy owl in the backyard.You know if you were a certain kind of little girl that you would absolutely HAVE to take the books out and turn the house into a dollhouse with curtains at the windows. And maybe if you were a boy it might even serve as a handy garage. Either way, the house/garage became a toy and the books landed in the bookcase. Even keeping the books  together must have been a challenge judging by how many stray volumes turn up at book sales.

My Book House was created in the 1920’s by Olive Beaupre Miller who formed an entire industry around them. What I love most is that it was an enterprise entirely run by women. Instead of selling the sets in stores, Olive decided to sell by subscription and hired a coterie of women sales reps known as The Book House Ladies to knock on doors and sign people up just like encyclopedia salesmen did for Colliers and Britannica. Eric and I bought a set of Britannicas that way back in the early 70’s and we still laugh to this day at the salesman’s extravagant pitch.

“Right in here,” he proclaimed, thumping a sample book, is “every thought, word and idea!” Hmmmmmmm. Wonder what he thinks of the internet.

But Olive created a small dynasty from subscription sales and it continued to grow. The red set was the first to expand with the addition of a new volume for a total of seven, but by 1932 the original six from the 20’s had doubled. I’m not sure when production stopped, but I know I sold a very nice rainbow set from the 50’s once. Door-to-door sales may seem a little cheesy in today’s world, but  My Book House was no schlock product. The books are bright and attractive and  offer a smorgasbord of fiction and nonfiction which for the most part transcend time. The art too, is stellar, as artists include William Blake, N..C. Wyeth, Caldecott, and my favorite, Willy Pogany, who  illustrated my pet edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in 1909. The later sets also included a parents’ guide. Below you can see a few volumes of a 1937 rainbow set, so named because the books are bound in different colors.

As best as I can tell, the My Travel Ship series that shared the wooden house never expanded beyond  those original three books. I never purchased them with a set and never even all together, though I’ve sold all three many times. They include Little Pictures of Japan, 1925 (the best I think); Tales Told in Holland, 1926; and Nursery Friends From France, 1927. I have all three, but they aren't shelved, so I have no idea where they are and I just created several small avalanches trying to find them.

Scarce as the wooden house is though, there is still one last My Book House holy grail that I would love to see. Well, maybe two because the house was fashioned of cardboard at one time also, rather like Richard Scarry’s library set , so that would certainly beinteresting to see and maybe even to buy. But there is also a rare miniature tin house that’s about 3”x5” and contains small books bound in flexible boards. I saw a picture online and it's priced  in four figures.

Given that, I suspect it  will take a lot more serendipity for me to gaze on the tin house in person -- it's really that rare .But who knows? Serendipity played  more than one role with the set at Booksellers already. Not only did I get to visit the wooden house before it departs, but the canceled sale to Australia proved to be more blessing than bane. The sellers paid no commission and avoided a complex wrapping job. AND the books will remain right here in northeastern Ohio at a university that already boasts a stellar childrens’ book collection and a renowned library science program.

Sooner or later it will go on exhibition too, which is just about as good as it gets!


Hilda said...

I hope it makes its way to Wichita.

tess said...

I'll bet sets were sold in Witchita! If I can find the Travel Ship ones without further disaster I'll snap a photo and post them later.

Cheryl said...

I love that the Book House is going to my alma mater .

tess said...

So it is -- and you're a graduate of the excellent library science school!

Anonymous said...

I have one of the tin miniatures, but not the small books.

tess said...

Amazing. Now all you have to do is figure out how many books there are supposed to be and see what they look like and try to find them. It would be worth doing, but could be a lifetime hobby. Still, that pretty cool that you have the house!