Penman No. 292: Adventures in Bookhunting (1)

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Penman for Monday, March 5, 2018

 

OVER THE past couple of years, slowly but surely, my collecting focus has shifted from vintage fountain pens to even older books, for several reasons. One is that I’ve actually run out of “grail” pens, as we call them, to chase after—the realistically reachable ones, at least (although some will argue that holy grails, almost by definition, should lie beyond one’s grasp).

The second is that old books, on average, are much more affordable than pens. Just for example, I recently sold a 1945 Parker Vacumatic Senior Maxima (a big, black, art-decoish pen to you) to a former student for P10,000 (well below its market value, because I liked the guy). Flush with disposable cash, I went on a book-buying spree on eBay, and for $200 I was able to get (1) the 1895 edition of Bartlett’s Quotations, the last edition Bartlett himself edited; (2) a 1946 edition from Guatemala of Thomas Gage: The English-American—A New Survey of the West Indies 1648, a thrilling account of travel on the galleons, although Gage never made it to Manila; (3) Das Leben und Leiden Jesu Christi den Joseph Berg, from 1910; (4) A Venetian June by Anna Fuller from 1895; 95) The Writings of John Burroughs, Vol. 7, Signs and Seasons, from 1914; (5) Petit Voyage Autour du Monde by Pierre Blanchard from 1850; (6) The Laughter of My Father by Carlos Bulosan in a 1946 Bantam paperback edition; (8) La France Coloniale Illustrée, a profusely illustrated travel book from 1895; (9) An American Doctor’s Odyssey by Victor Heiser from 1936, a first edition in its dust jacket; and (10) A Book of Delights by John Hadfield, a book of poetry and fine art from 1954.

That’s ten wonderful books averaging $20 each, some of them going for no more than $5, often with free Stateside shipping (I hoard them in my daughter’s place in California, then she ships them to me in bulk). Can and do I actually read all these books? Honestly, no. I did learn some French, German, and Spanish in school, but hardly enough to figure things out without a dictionary. But as book collectors are wont to do, I picked some of these books less for their contents than their covers—exquisite bindings, lush illustrations, fantastic condition after a century’s passage. I do plan on enjoying them in my retirement, but I’ll dwell on that another time.

All of the books above came from eBay in the US and the UK, but some of my best finds have happened right here—none more spectacular, perhaps, than a 1551 volume in English that I picked up last Christmas Eve in Cubao.

One day last week turned out to be a particularly fine day for bookhunting. I checked out the usual places online and saw that someone was selling a very interesting pair of old books. I messaged the seller, and after a bit of haggling, we met at a burger joint in Tandang Sora (my favorite kind of place for these transactions; about 11 years ago I picked up a first edition of Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart in another fastfood in Philcoa), and instead of a Big Mac, I came away with a facsimile edition, in two volumes, of Cervantes’ deathless El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha from 1608/1615.

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Collectors rarely bother with facsimiles or photographic copies, but this one, published in Barcelona in 1897, had acquired an appeal of its own, and it was in good shape and nicely bound.

What was even more interesting was when I opened the books and discovered stamps. One displayed the name of the previous owner, a certain “M. Ramirez y Apostol, Medico, Sagunto-322-Tondo,” and another simply said “Agencia Editorial.” That sent me scurrying to Google, which revealed, first of all, that Agencia Editorial was a bookshop in Escolta run by a man named Manuel Arias y Rodriguez (1850-1924). Arias was a Spaniard, but he sympathized with the brewing revolution and (says our source at nigelgooding.co.uk) sold the Noli and Fili on the sly. He was also an amateur photographer who covered the revolution as a war correspondent for a Barcelona newspaper, and famously took Rizal’s execution picture. He died in Tokyo in 1924 as Spain’s ambassador there.

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I couldn’t find anything specific on “M. Ramirez y Apostol,” but I did establish that the family must have been quite well off, because an Ildefonso Ramirez y Apostol sold some land on Calle Ilaya in Tondo in 1908, which became the subject of litigation. Calle Sagunto (now Sto. Cristo) intersected with Azcarraga (now C. M. Recto), in a theater-and-restaurant district, and was the street on which Andres Bonifacio lived and where the Katipunan was founded in 1892. On Nov. 24, 1919, a scandal exploded in the newspaper La Nacion’s headlines: prominent Manileños and politicians had been caught by the police in a raid on a gambling den in Quiapo—among them, a powerful banker named Eusebio Ramirez y Apostol.

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It wasn’t what I was looking for when I bought Don Quixote, but side-stories like these make bookhunting even more of an adventure, albeit from an armchair. And the day wasn’t over yet—I later picked up a journal from 1962 called The Philippine Colophon, full of bookhunting stories, but that will have to wait for next time.

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