Finding books right before your eyes on the sidewalk: this is one of those phenomena you can encounter almost daily in New York City. Here in Manhattan I have had the good fortune to come across both paperbacks and hardbacks in my comings and goings. If you are an undiscriminating book lover like me, you at least glance at the book’s titles, and then perhaps bend down to retrieve what lies at your feet.
My favorite finds are paperback classics, like Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, which I had never read. It is the older finds, though, that are more interesting if not more readable, because their very age suggests the many hands that have held them and imparted to them, so to speak, an inherent warmth. At one street corner, I came across a cardboard box with a hand-lettered sign, “Free Books.”
What caught my eye among the varied contents was a 1929 hardcover novel called Yonder Grow the Daisies. It deals with a convict who, after release, struggles to lead an upright life. Having once been a chaplain at the Men’s House of Detention on nearby Rikers Island, I took it home to enjoy the simple story and its 1920’s slang: phrases like “You’re the berries” and words like “skirt” for woman, “chatterbox” for machine gun and, of course, “big house” for prison. On the inside of the front cover were stamped the words, “Property of Fiction Lending Library, Brooklyn, N.Y. Loaned to You—Don’t Lend It to Others.” The warning served as a throwback to the era of small private lending libraries, and so the book itself evoked the spirit of an earlier time, as well as that of the many borrowers who must have turned its pages over the decades.
The oldest of my street finds was a well-worn copy of The People’s Common Sense Medical Advisor in Plain English, by a certain R. V. Pierce, M.D. Published in 1918 in Buffalo, its thousand yellowing pages deal with numerous ailments and the cures effected by Dr. Pierce’s own remedies, interspersed with testimonials by people who had benefitted from them. Mr. Edwin R. Dickson, for example—whose photograph shows a young man in a high starched collar and tie, with hair parted down the middle—wrote to Dr. Pierce saying that he had suffered from “bone abscesses and blood poison.” After consuming 31 bottles of Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery and several vials of his “Pleasant Pellets,” however, he found himself “completely cured” and wanted to express his gratitude, as did many others whose testimonials appear.
Handwritten notes on the inside of both covers describe the owner’s own recipes for remedies, such as an “itch ointment” that calls for fresh butter mixed with turpentine. Another remedy makes use of sliced horse chestnuts steeped in lard. Though we may regard homely medications of this kind doubtfully today, they reflect a time when cures were often sought either through homemade recipes or mail-order purchases of medicines like Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery and his Pleasant Pellets. (We are never told their ingredients.)
The interests of this book’s owner went beyond the purely medical. One of the notes is a recipe for “aquaria cement,” useful because of “its resistance to the effect of salt water,” a circumstance that makes it “a capital preparation for maritime aquaria.” Did the owner live near the ocean? A large four-leaf clover lies between two of the pages, the shape of its stem outlined on both—a circumstance that relates the book to a previous era when pressing leaves and flowers between the leaves of books was a common practice.
Not being one to throw books away, when I do decide to dispose of an over-accumulation of finds, I drop them into a shopping bag and donate them to Housing Works, a used book store that assists with the housing needs of people living with AIDS. Besides helping with the organization’s goal, the books may thus find new owners—and thereby a further if tenuous lengthening of their fragile existence.