THE GREAT BOOK HUNT
Some bookstores are book museums, with a twist . . . You can walk away with the artifacts.
Many libraries are museums, and if you are handy, and quick, when the discards go on
sale, you can find out-of-print books that date back a hundred and fifty years.
All summer I had a date marked on my calendar – Saturday, August 27th. The Mary J.L. Black Library in Thunder Bay recently moved into new quarters, and on that date, they would offer to the public all the books they did not care to retain.
Well . . . a library book sale is always a treat. And sometimes, sometimes, someone slips up, and prepares to trash a gem of literature. I have acquired many books that way, books published in the 19th century. Somebody figures, Jeez, no one’s borrowed this musty volume for fifty years, so it’s time to ditch it.
I have found, and bought, ancient volumes with the pages uncut, i.e., no one has
ever even cracked the book.
The prospect of a book sale at the Mary J.L. Black Library captivated me . . . because . . .
In July of 1934, a Kingston high school teacher was riding the train south of Beardmore when it stopped to pick up a passenger in the middle of the bush. Ted Eliott struck up a conversation with the grizzled prospector. Had he ever found anything interesting on his claim? Sure, said Eddie Dodd. When he was blasting a trench, he uncovered some “French armour or Indian relics”.
Two years later, Eliott visited the Dodd household in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay)
and examined the relics. Growing more excited, he conducted research in the local libraries, where he met librarian Miss Mary J.L. Black. She led him to an illustration in a dusty tome by Du Chaillu. The 11th century Viking sword bore a remarkable resemblance
to Eddie Dodd’s sword.
That same evening Miss Black, scheduled to give a public talk on local history, spilled the story. A local newspaper reporter picked it up, and the story went viral.
Thus began the saga of the Beardmore Relics. Eventually the Royal Ontario Museum authenticated the artifacts as genuine Viking relics and bought them from Dodd. Soon began a controversy that simmers to this day: Did Dodd actually find the relics
on his claim near Beardmore, or did he manufacture a story to arouse interest
in his mining property?
In November of 1990, I rediscovered Dodd’s trench south of Beardmore. It had been lost for fifty years. I keep the location secret, for I want an archaeologist to give it a professional examination. No one is leaping at the opportunity. I do, however, describe the site in my novel The Beardmore Relics.
So, a few weeks ago, I arrived at the old Mary J.L. Black building at 10:10 a.m. The doors had opened at 10:00 sharp, and in a basement space the size of a high school classroom, perhaps two hundred people milled about. Tables groaned with books and boxes of books cowered under the tables.
In this seething mass of humanity many a buttock was pinched and bosom pressed. I was looking for Du Chaillu’s book, The Viking Age. I spotted George M. Grant’s Ocean to Ocean, an account of Sandford Fleming’s expedition through the North-West Territories, published in 1873. It was a modern reprint but, still, it is a classic, still readable, still relevant, a vital piece of Canadian history, and here it was destined for the bonfire. Along one wall, on some boxes of books, someone had scribbled “For incineration”. Yikes, is this what professional librarians do today? As I reached for it, someone snatched it. Good for him!
I found other treasures: Edgar Andrew Collard’s Montreal Yesterdays, published in 1962, but being a collection of his newspaper columns on 19th century Montreal, a book that deserves respect, and that means, preservation in a museum. I have, I think, over the years, salvaged most of Collard’s books, and I have this title in my personal library, but the world can use two of a good thing.
Sacred Legends of the Sandy Lake Cree by James Stevens. Jim is a Thunder Bay
author who spent years researching and writing this classic. McClelland and Stewart published it in 1972. It will never grow old. Ye gods, what nincompoop decided to burn it?
Olga and I joined the line shuffling up to the cashier. We arrived crippled with our burdens. The line stretched along three walls. As we lurched out the door, we saw hundreds more loonies like us clamouring to get in.
This brings us full circle to you, and how you too can be a history chaser.