This time of year, as the air cools and the scents of autumn remind us that the holiday season is fast approaching, increasing numbers of our customers are finding unexpected treasures, often exclaiming "This is the perfect gift!" Most of them are not intending to accomplish any holiday shopping when they first enter the store -- especially in October -- so they are pleasantly surprised by that rare, fifty-year-old cookbook, or the signed copy of Wicked, or the first edition of The African Queen, each of which is perfect for the husband or daughter or best friend. Sometimes the perfect gift is more of a novelty or a joke, like the woman who bought Sex Over 50 for her parents, or the man who bought vintage sci-fi books as stocking stuffers for his kids (nothing says "Peace on Earth" like The Strange World of Planet X and Into Plutonian Depths.) And occasionally the book of interest is a used edition that has been around for so many decades that it undoubtedly has functioned as a gift several times before.
In the 2008 novel People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks describes the centuries-long journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah across Europe. This early Jewish illuminated text becomes like a character, traveling through time and cultures, encountering people who do what they can to keep it "alive." While the older books in our store may not have the value or longevity of that early Haggadah, they do possess their own unique histories. The aforementioned copy of The African Queen was published in 1935, and one can imagine that it has been gifted and regifted in its eighty-one year lifetime. We also have a leatherbound French edition of Voltaire's Candide, published in Paris in 1921. This little tome spent its early years in the City of Light, later moving to Canada, and eventually ending up in a little bookshop nestled among the redwoods of northern California. It is ninety-five years old; it has been opened and read and admired by any number of people, sometimes as literature, sometimes as a family heirloom. And now, it will most likely become a gift again, moving on to a new home with a new owner, someone with his or her own family history as unique and multilayered as the book itself.
Giving books as gifts is not a new idea; unfortunately, it's an idea that has become less common as people turn to electronic media. But in our bookstores, we've learned that people do still take the time to find that "perfect" gift, whether it's a new illustrated edition of a favorite childhood classic, or a beautiful coffee table book of Hiroshige art prints, or a first edition of Isaac Asimov's Foundation. Such a gift will not only enrich the life of the receiver, but will also, ninety-five years from now, peak the curiosity of the person who picks it off the shelf of the local used bookstore.