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The Curse of St Clements - or, A Tale of Peril and Redemption

When Leslie asked me to talk to you about books, and my bookselling career – if bookselling can be called a career – I decided that, this being the Osborne Collection, I should confine myself to children's books This will not be hard to do, because children's books have always had a central place in my life I should warn you though, that tonight you are going to get less of my daring adventures as a bookseller, and more of my conclusions about books, especially children's books, gained from 40 years experience of bookselling

Published on 14 Dec. 2009

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By David Mason


When Leslie asked me to talk to you about books, and my bookselling career – if bookselling can be called a career – I decided that, this being the Osborne Collection, I should confine myself to children’s books This will not be hard to do, because children’s books have always had a central place in my life I should warn you though, that tonight you are going to get less of my daring adventures as a bookseller, and more of my conclusions about books, especially children’s books, gained from 40 years experience of bookselling

I was born and raised in Toronto, in the area north of Yonge and Lawrence Ave I don’t know who taught me to read, but someone must have very early, because I have no recollection of a time when I couldn’t Sometimes I like to think that I was born already knowing how to read
However, I grew up in a house where there were no books, except for the books my sister and I received at Christmas and birthdays, or the occasional ones loaned to my parents by friends
But, as with just about everything else, this book deprivation had some positive benefits – the greatest one being, that it introduced me to libraries And it also meant that I not only read, and reread, all the books I received as seasonal presents, like the Hardy Boys, but as a voracious reader, after I read my boys books, I devoured all my older sister’s books too So, I have read all of Nancy Drews, the Bobbsey Twins, and the Pollyana books and many more meant for young girls And while I have to admit that all those young lady heroines were “plucky” they didn’t really meet my criteria for adventure

And, like many another insatiable young reader, I also read some inappropriate books, simply because they were there Which is how, at around 8 years old, I read perhaps the first book of many, which profoundly altered my life This was the “Royal Road to Romance” by Richard Halliburton Halliburton was a rather strange American, who spent his whole life traveling the world and writing books about it He did things like climbing the Matterhorn by himself, and sneaking into the grounds of the Taj Mahal to swim in the pool in front of it He also swam across the Hellespont, copying Byron, and then swam the entire length of the Panama Canal, for which he paid the lowest toll recorded in history, 36 cents Halliburton wrote a lot of books of his adventures, which culminated in him building a replica Chinese junk in Hong Kong and sailing off to conquer the Pacific, never to be seen again He was a real hero to me, and his infectious sense of adventure and daring caused me, some years later, to take off myself, to spend several years traveling in Europe and North Africa, seeking adventure You see, books can change your life!

Aside from these occasional loans, the only books I remember seeing in our house were some compilations of platitudes called Tony’s Scrapbook, issued yearly by a man called Tony Wons, which my mother religiously bought as they came out – although I can’t remember ever seeing her read one As a pointless aside, I can’t resist telling you that I now have an almost complete set of this man’s puerile books, partially because seeing them on the shelves provides a sentimental renewal of the connection to my mother, but more practically because another of my collecting interests is publisher’s design bindings, and all the covers of Tony Wons’ books are wonderful examples of the best in that period’s Art Deco design So are their dustjackets And since I also collect early dustjackets I have here a double justification Perhaps you are beginning to see that being a collector means finding lots of justifications for your collections.

Since I grew up in a house, where books seldom entered, my reading really began when my older sister and I started visiting the library every Saturday The closest library to us was the St Clements branch which was then the only library branch in North Toronto Or, at least I think it was.

I have three indelible memories of St Clements in those early days One was sitting in a circle with a bunch of other kids being read to by one of the librarians The second, of a librarian examining the books I was returning from the previous week and, based on them, recommending new ones “Did you like that one?” she would say “Then perhaps you should try this one next ” The third, and maybe the key one, was the thrill of excitement I felt every Saturday morning when my older sister led me by the hand to return last weeks books, and borrow ten more The thrill of anticipation I felt then, returning home with 10 new books, has continued to this day some 60 years later And the excitement I still feel, as I head home to solitude, and the wonder of our incredible human imagination, with a new book by an author I love, still provides that thrill, one of few characteristics of my life which has never changed
I also remember, with some satisfaction, my attempts to con my mother into thinking I was sick on Monday mornings, so I could stay home from school and read At first my mother was too smart, and too strict, for such transparent ploys, but I quickly learned that if one started demonstrating the symptoms of some dire illness on Sunday afternoon before dinner – after cleverly hiding food under the bed to replace the dinner which you claimed to be too sick to eat – even the most suspicious mother could be fooled into accepting the fraudulent symptoms And it didn’t take long before I realized that it was pointless to stage such elaborate productions for only one day off school – why not two or three days? So, I have a family history of having endured a sickly childhood, without ever actually having been sick.

Just recently I read an interview with the late Jack McClelland of McClelland & Stewart, who suffered from asthma as a child McClelland relates that all he had to do was fake a wheezy cough on Monday mornings for his mother to say “Oh, another asthma attack – you’d better stay home from school ” McClelland, like me, was an indifferent student, who was happiest at home by himself, reading.

Of the many thousands of kids who frequented St Clements over the years many more must have been influenced as I was by those wonderful librarians, although perhaps not to the point where they devoted their lives to books, being a bookseller for 40 years and owning, perhaps, 100,000 books in my business, a warehouse, and in my stuffed home If you were wondering what my title “The Curse of St Clements” referred to, now you know.

I know of at least two public people who also frequented the St Clements branch One was Michelle Landsberg, the journalist and social activist, and the other, James Houston, the man largely responsible for bringing Inuit art to the attention of the world James Houston is dead, but sometime before he died he gave a talk here, which I unfortunately missed, but part of which was recounted to me afterwards by Margaret Maloney As Margaret told it to me Houston talked of proposing marriage to one of the librarians when he was 9 years old The librarian apparently responded by suggesting that it might be better if they waited awhile I told this wonderful anecdote in a talk once and suggested that, in my opinion, anyone with the wisdom to give such a reply, should have been running the country, not a children’s library
A few years ago, after Leslie McGrath had heard me go on for the umpteenth time, about how much I owed those nameless librarians at St Clements, for what they had introduced me to, Leslie presented me with a photograph of the woman who was head of the St Clements library then Naturally I didn’t recognize her, and when I pointed out that, as the head of the Branch, I probably wouldn’t have met her anyway, Leslie told me that “no, in those days every librarian worked the floor so to speak ” So she could easily have been the one who Houston proposed to, and who did so much 15 years later to change and direct my life Her name was Isabel O’Brien and if she wasn’t the actual one in my memories, she is now So, that would make her perhaps my earliest heroine – after my older sister, of course

Although, I mustn’t leave out Poor Mrs Quack, Mrs Peter Rabbit and Old Mother West Wind For the first books I clearly remember reading were the wonderful nature stories written by Thornton W Burgess Reddy Fox, Paddy Beaver and Old Mother West Wind and all their friends, so filled my imagination that when I couldn’t find any new ones I hadn’t read, I re-read them countless times When I became a bookseller I started a collection of them, constantly upgrading as I found better copies Last year, after years of telling Leslie I was going to give it to the Osborne, I finally turned over my collection When I did give it, I was surprised how good it made me feel I felt I was giving back something in memory of those wonderful librarians who did so much to influence my life, and I also felt I might be helping to influence some future generation into a love of reading and books And, of course, the next day I started acquiring more Burgess for the next gift

Whenever I meet anyone who grew up in North Toronto I always ask if they frequented that library If I ever meet Michele Lansberg, I will introduce myself as an alumnus of the same school she went to Now, perhaps Ms Landsberg went to some private girls’ school, and if she did she might be confused, until I add that I mean the St Clements Library, where my still ongoing education began Then she will understand, and I would be very surprised if she didn’t agree

When the George Locke Branch of the Toronto Public Library opened at Yonge and Lawrence in 1950 I started going there and dropped St Clements Since I was now 12 years old it made sense anyway I had graduated from Burgess through Doctor Doolittle, the series of the Twins from various countries – like the Dutch Twins and the Chinese Twins – and a similar series I liked, the Little Cousins series (our Little Japanese cousins, our Little German cousins, etc ) All of which I have collections of, you won’t be surprised to hear All were intended to teach kids the customs of foreign countries It instilled the idea that even with all these different customs and beliefs we were all remarkably similar in our humanity It seems to me, that we could use a bit more understanding of that fact these days

And, of course, I devoured all of Arthur Ransome’s wonderful sailing adventure stories, and much more But by then I was beginning to discover some of the great classic children’s literature, like Tom Sawyer and Dickens, and Dumas, all of whom I still read

For some reason I found comic books a bit lacking, just as I’m not much taken by the graphic novels we’re seeing so much of these days, but I did read them So, aside from my library visits I also read and collected some comic books, but mostly I liked the Big Little Books, which me and my pals bought, read, discussed and passionately traded Dick Tracy, Tarzan, Little Orphan Annie, and the Shadow enthralled us And also about that time, I discovered the fairly new Classic Comics, which were a brilliant innovation, rendering some of our great classical literature into comic book format designed for children I bought these avidly, blowing my allowance regularly on them, even sacrificing the sweets, we usually used our meager occasional money on

Many years later I found that I often couldn’t remember if I had read a particular famous book as a child, or only the Classic Comic version of it And then the only thing to do was to read the actual book to find out Which continued to introduce me to great books Whoever invented Classic Comics did a wonderful thing for young readers and I hope they made a fortune from it They certainly introduced me to some great writers

Being a frequenter of flea markets and paper shows I still see those old Classic Comics and some years ago I started to collect the first couple of hundred in the list, not a difficult task because they still seem to be plentiful, and are still fairly cheap Big Little Books are another story; they are neither plentiful nor cheap, partially because their stiff paper boards wear easily and, I guess, because generations of kids read them to ruin It’s not a fluke that the best preserved children’s books of the 18th and 19th centuries are religious books; the exciting books filled with real life, and real adventures, were read to pieces and no longer exist – except in places like the Osborne Collection Which is, of course, another of the many reasons why the Osborne Collection is so important Because one finds nice copies of the Big Little Books selling from $50 00 or so up into the hundreds of dollars I follow the first rule of collecting with them, which is condition, condition, condition I have something over 100 of them now, at a cost I don’t like to think about, but as an exercise in nostalgia, I believe it’s worth it One of my clients has a collection of 600 of them, for which he wants a lot of money While I want them badly I can’t really justify such an outlay these days, but I am plotting, and I believe that someday they will be mine

Another of my clients once defined book collecting as “a licensed return to childhood”, a definition I greatly admire and often quote And certainly, that is what collecting children’s books has done for me Every time I see and buy another I feel the same rush of pleasure I got all those years ago when I first discovered them At the January inauguration of President Obama he referred in his speech to the well known quote from Corinthians, “But as a man it is time to put aside childish things ” After pondering this for a while I decided Obama couldn’t really be referring to the harmless acquisition of children’s books, so, even though I was a bit embarrassed, I ignored it

One day unpacking a box of books from a house, where, as often happens, I had been forced to take all the books not just the ones I really wanted, a large red book with a picture of Mother Goose tipped on the cover, fell out I recognized it instantly as the very edition I had read, and re-read, hundreds of times as a kid I had sought it for years by sight, and in fact, since the illustrations seemed very similar, I had been collecting books illustrated by Leslie Brooke, the English illustrator, mistakenly thinking that Brooke had been the illustrator of my childhood edition But it turns out, that Ann Anderson actually illustrated my childhood Mother Goose Still, even though I lost my justification for collecting the Leslie Brooke books you won’t be surprised when I tell you that I kept most of them anyway Unfortunately, the Mother Goose I found was shabby and it took a few more years and a few hundred dollars to find a really nice copy of it, but I eventually did, and I still treasure it But that started me trying to collect all the children’s books I remembered reading from my youth, and I still avidly search for them

I also started buying every edition and all spin-offs I could find, of perhaps my favourite childhood book “The Wind in the Willows” While I loved the pompous Toad, and still do, I strongly identified with Mole, with his cozy underground sanctuary which I always envisioned, and still do, as being lined with bookshelves Recently, out of curiosity, I counted my different editions to find that with various spin-offs like movies and separate segments I actually have over 200 variant formats And I still lack several of the expensive ones, especially the illustrated ones signed by Ernest Shepherd and Arthur Rackham However I do have the first edition, which is a very expensive book I found it in a copy which had damaged covers, so I commissioned a design binding from Michael Wilcox, the great Canadian bookbinder I once lent that copy to Leslie for an exhibition at TPL and she tells me it attracted a fair bit of attention I expect my “Wind in the Willows” collection will probably come here too someday, although I’m not certain the Wilcox binding will come with it I may decide to leave that to my son That is, unless he keeps irritating me and I have to disinherit him. But hopefully I still have lots of time to decide, and hopefully he still has lots of time to smarten up

I discovered many years ago that one of the great advantages of being a bookseller is that it allows you to pretty much buy any book that you want to This is because dealers used to give each other a courtesy discount of at least 10% but today dealers mostly give 20% off the price to another dealer I buy a lot from other dealers, which is why years ago, I would hear through the grapevine derogatory accusations against me by some of my enemies They went like this: “Mason is not really a dealer, he’s really a collector He’s just pretending to be a dealer so he can buy books for his collections ” I’ve often wished that were true, and that I didn’t have to earn a living, but unfortunately I do However, I never even bothered to refute this accusation because, true or not, I fail to see how anyone could consider such an accusation, buying books, as an insult But it is true that I use my status as a bookseller to justify much of my personal book buying

So you can see, if you don’t care about a small profit, you can say to yourself when you see a lovely book at another dealers shop, “I can buy that, and if I get tired of it I can sell it myself, for at least what I paid, maybe more if enough time has passed ” It’s a great excuse and I’ve been doing that for many years When I’ve had a good sale, or at every bookfair I attend, I usually end by buying a nice book for myself as a self-indulgence However the trouble with that great justification is, that I never seem to get tired of those books and I never quite get around to taking them to the shop to sell

My partner Debbie and I live in a small house which naturally has lots of bookcases but I have only one smallish room for my study where I can put anything I want to – without it needing to pass inspection Any collector who lives with a woman – and all women – will know exactly what I mean by that You see that I refer to collectors living with women and perhaps you think that this is a biased viewpoint Perhaps even a sexist viewpoint Well, if you do, I can only say that Debbie is also a collector, but I don’t get to pass judgment on her books, or her pictures, or her antiques, or where they go in the house

Looking around my little room the other day I noticed that a very high percentage of my self-indulgences in the past 10 years or so have been children’s books and my study is full of some pretty nice ones From old children’s paper covered dime novels to the elaborate pictorial covers I most love, to collections of Mother Goose, Uncle Wiggley, Little Red Riding Hood, Reynard the Fox, and several more And another collection, which gives me great pleasure for a different reason; Pinocchio – I collect all editions of Pinocchio

The reason I’m so pleased about the Pinocchio’s is because of one of the greatest collectors I have known, a most remarkable woman, who probably some of you also knew; her name was Sybille Pantazzi, and she was the librarian at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and a passionate collector

Sybille had a great influence on me, and on many others I knew We became friends when she discovered I collected publisher’s bindings, as she did But we never spoke of Pinocchio that I remember and it was only after her death that I learned she had collected him and that her collection is now in the Osborne collection Someday mine will join hers and they will be melded together, another reminder to me of my connection to that incredible woman I’ve been working on a talk about Sybille for quite a few years, although I expect that many of her other friends who have been supplying me anecdotes about her for years don’t expect me to ever finish it But I do intend to

For many years now, I have had young couples coming into my bookstore with the stated intention of building a library for their children This usually occurs when their new child is very young, often, in fact, so young that they can’t even walk or talk yet, never mind read I always encourage them, even though I know it almost certainly isn’t going to work Their intentions are commendable They hope to start early, equipping their child with something that will give it an edge in life, and they believe that books can do this So do I They are right to believe that, because books can, and do, provide an edge – besides the many other pleasures they offer

But what doesn’t work is the idea that providing books for their child, will cause the kid to become a lifelong reader As far as I can tell a love of reading that lasts is pretty much a matter of chance Some kids take to it and some don’t And worse, many who do it as children gradually let it drop as adults, except for the occasional bestseller or self-help instructional book It may be that giving books is not enough It may be that parents must make an example too, not just by giving books, but by reading themselves Maybe kids don’t read because they don’t see their parents reading Something to think about But in recent times it seems to me, the central problem is that kids are not exposed to books long enough or deeply enough that reading passes from a slight pleasure to a lifelong habit

Twenty years later when these kids would come into my store looking for their books for school classes, I could tell in 30 seconds those who read, and those who didn’t It’s not even hard; those that read books can speak English, those who don’t, can’t It’s as simple as that The non-readers don’t finish sentences, use “like” and “you know” incessantly, and most irritating, don’t seem to be aware of their deprivation I bluntly tell parents this too

For many years now I have gone to extra lengths to encourage any young people who came in my store, hoping to add them to that tiny pool which Stendhal called “The Happy Few ”

Along with the great luck I had to somehow find my way to books at such a young age, I had what now seems to have been another great piece of luck, which was that my family didn’t get our first television set until I was 14 years old Already a voracious reader when we got it, I did what everyone else no doubt did, I sat glued to it for the first couple of weeks, watching everything, even the commercials, with great fascination But sometime into the second week it started to occur to me that what I was watching was puerile crap Why am I doing this I thought, watching Howdy Doody and Kukla, Fran and Ollie with Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island sitting up in my room half-read? Back I went upstairs to my books, saved by a habit formed so early, that I was already immune to the mindless pap on TV

Years later, studying our great Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan I was astounded to find McLuhan pointing out the crucial difference between watching television and reading Television viewing, said McLuhan, is passive; you absorb sensations without any work Reading demands mental effort I found this stunning I had never pondered the difference, even though, as with anyone who has brought up a child, I was more than aware of the hypnotic effect of television on young children To see a young child, its eyes vacant, transfixed by images they didn’t even begin to comprehend was both scary and depressing Reading makes you exercise your mind, you must use your imagination We must feed our minds just as we must feed our bodies, and the passivity of television viewing surely will do to the mind, what junk food does to the body, resulting in flabby minds This explained for me why so many of the young can’t speak English They absorb images and they begin to see the world in images, but they haven’t absorbed the techniques to order their thoughts into some coherent means of communication Reading books will do that for them, if we could only get them going

One of the unforeseen results of being a long time bookseller, is when one looks around and realizes that the rest of the trade contains a number of booksellers who have worked for you, and you realize that you have had some influence on the future of the trade There are no schools for bookselling, and aside from the many, many lessons one must learn through the hard school of experience, the only way to get a proper grounding is through the apprentice system, which means working for another dealer So, booksellers have mentors and then become mentors I had two serious mentors The first was Marti Ahvenus of the Village Bookstore who was most responsible for me becoming a bookseller I spent a lot of time in his store and saw him in action Later, when I went out on my own, he gave me space for my first office

Then, I was very lucky in the beginning, to be offered a job by Gerry Sherlock, the owner of Joseph Patrick books, who I consider to have been the best bookseller in Canada in his time Along with his many other admirable traits Gerry is modest, and he would dispute that, but I think he was the best of the generation, which I consider to be the first generation of real professional booksellers in Canada Both these men were terrible businessmen, as I am, and I love to make jokes that what I really learned from them was how not to do things The trouble was I seem to have invented my own methods of doing things the wrong way Marti was a marvelous salesman, whose customers loved and trusted him completely But he would buy a big library, sell all the best books to his customers at absurdly low prices, leaving him to deal with the junk to try and get some profit out But I still learned an enormous amount from him While Gerry, like me, was very good at buying books but not much else He bought lots and wisely, but he completely ignored the usual business principle that you should be equally interested in selling too While we booksellers sometimes try to pretend that we are businessmen – usually when we’re dealing with people like bankers, or the Government – the truth is as businessmen, by my observation, we range from pitiful through pathetic to ludicrous In my early years I would go to my father, who was a banker and spent his life dealing with small businessmen, for advice At first he enjoyed passing on his experience, but gradually he became leery, and finally after a year or two he told me he didn’t want to discuss my business any more “I’ve never seen such a stupid business, in all my years in the bank”, he would say “All you fellows talk about is buying books You act as though you are getting rich when you buy a box of books I wouldn’t pay a dollar for It’s a good thing no bookseller ever came to me when I was loaning money I wouldn’t loan any one of you a penny ”

The problem I had working for Gerry Sherlock was that he dealt almost exclusively in Canadiana, a field about which I knew little or nothing Like most of my generation, the extent of my education in history meant a constant repetition of the events of 1759 Every year I can remember my history teacher in grade nine who stood in front of the class reading in a monotone from the history textbook about… what else, …1759 So dull and boring was this that my natural instincts caused me to rebel, resulting in finally, after quite a few periods standing in the hall, perpetual banishment from Mr Drones class This was one of two classes, the other being Science, where the teachers, goaded beyond reason by my smart-alec defiant antics, refused to allow me back in their classes for the rest of the year

The great irony in all that, for me, is that while I thought I hated history, and despised Mr Drone’s boring recitals, I spent half of every night reading by flashlight under the covers at home And what was I mostly reading in those late-night sessions so packed with adventure, –historical fiction of course And in retrospect, while the story and adventures were exciting what really appealed to me was the wealth of historical detail from earlier times and far away places – in other words the history part And while at that time, I didn’t make the connection between my official boredom at school, and my private passion at night, neither did any of my teachers and they were supposed to be smarter than me It’s too bad my boring teacher hadn’t the imagination to offer us G A Henty’s “With Wolfe in Canada”; we would have loved it and probably absorbed a much greater sense of those events I have never forgiven our school system for not having even one perceptive teacher, who could see that behind the façade of that greasy-haired delinquent, which I was, was a passionate incipient scholar waiting to get out Ever since I came to realize that, I have carefully watched every young person who came within my sphere of influence, watching for the signs that they might have some unrecognized potential, that neither they or the world, are aware of As my reading widened, especially when I happened on the first great historian, Herodotus, history became one of my great passions, and still is But all my personal history of delinquency leaves me in no doubt that, if it weren’t for my incessant reading, I would surely have come to a bad end A personal example which confirms for me that books really can save lives

Of all the booksellers who worked for me before starting their own businesses, and there are now a few of them, my favourite is Yvonne Knight the proprietor of St Nicholas Books St Nicholas specialized only in children’s books Yvonne is now retired and St Nichols is defunct so some of you may not know that I’d like to tell you how that came to be Yvonne came to work for me in around 1971 I encouraged her to specialize in children’s books, a part of my stock that I had been consciously building up for a long time

My store then was in a converted house on Church St , and adjoining the entrance to the washroom, was a small alcove which I had shelved, leaving only a narrow aisle for access to the washroom When shelved this space was hardly larger than a closet, and that’s where we put the childrens books Yvonne had started working for me in April or May In January of the following year she came to me and told me she had to return all the money I had paid her for the entire previous year, some 7 or 8 months It turns out that her husband, who is a Doctor, had been told by his accountant, that her having a job was going to mess up his tax return so much, that it would cost him more than her total earnings To avoid that mess he told her to return all her pay

I didn’t know how to respond to that, except I knew I couldn’t allow her to work for nothing – even though she said she’d be happy to I finally thought of a solution Which was, that I gave her all my children’s books and the space they were in She had an instant business We thereafter referred to her first shop, beside my washroom, as the world’s smallest bookstore, contrasting it deliberately to the World’s Biggest Bookstore in downtown Toronto I continued to buy childrens books and paid her with them, which suited us both She ran her little shop while still working for me for a few years, until it’s size became impossible, about the same time she felt ready to become entirely independent She moved her business into the third floor of her home where it went from being the smallest bookstore in the world, to certainly the loveliest children’s bookshop in Canada

Yvonne and I remained close friends – we shared booths at International book fairs several times and some of my best kid’s books came from her Yvonne sold her books too cheaply and she also over-described – to over-describe means that a dealer notes all defects with such detail, that it often results in a book’s condition sounding way worse than it is Which means that if you ordered a book from her that she had described as good you would be delighted because it would invariably be in fine condition Obviously her customers loved her and she sold a very high percentage, from her catalogues

After she left my store I would only see her stock when I visited, when she issued a catalogue, or at the bookfairs I’m going to tell you a couple of anecdotes which resulted from this Once, at a Los Angeles fair she had mounted a lovely display in our shared glass display case As soon as I saw it I wanted to buy over half the books in it, but especially a lovely, very ornate set of tiny 19th century children’s books in a special wooden bookcase It was beautiful and as usual, too cheap I wanted it badly but Yvonne asked me if I would not buy anything until the fair had opened, because she didn’t want to ruin her display Out of deference I agreed, but later, still before opening, a dealer I quite disliked, a guy who had a reputation as a vulgar bully with his colleagues, came up and tried to buy it It looked like being accommodating to Yvonne meant I would lose my treasure But he wanted 20% off which luckily gave me an out In those days the standard discount was just 10%, which means he was being a bully again Yvonne, wasn’t in the booth and I told him he’d have to come back and ask her When he left I promptly took it out of the case and hid it When I told Yvonne why she wasn’t angry because she didn’t like this man either I paid her the full price and then had the pleasure of telling Mr Creep, when he came back, that it had sold I didn’t tell him it had been sold to me I just told him it had been sold to a dealer who didn’t try to beat her down But, sure enough, this guy was so dumb that he didn’t even get the point of my insult I still have it and it’s still beautiful

The other anecdote is more painful Visiting some recent friends and clients once in their home I saw one of the great rarities in Canadian literature, a first edition of “Anne of Green Gables” After expressing surprise that they had such a rare book, I asked if they could tell me where they got it and how much they had paid We bought it from Yvonne Knight I was told and it was $400 00 Four Hundred Dollars! I almost cried Even then that was grossly under-priced; Yvonne simply hadn’t thought to mention it to me, so I had missed it Which is as good as an example as you’ll ever hear, as to why it’s a good idea to visit used bookstores regularly Some years later, I bought it off my friends – for a bit more than $400; in fact I paid them $9,000 for it, and sold it for $10,000 the same day If you’d like to have a more detailed account about that you will find the whole story in an essay on my website entitled “Anne’s Adventures on Her Way Home ”

I have been doing appraisals for a long time for the Osborne so I have probably seen more of the individual components of the collection than most outsiders have Like other institutions the Osborne now receives donations of the papers of many Canadian children’s writers and illustrators These collections are becoming increasing important One of the most enjoyable parts of appraising the papers of some of these Osborne writers, has been to come across files, often very large ones, of letters from young children It seems to be a common practice these days for the authors of children’s books, to give readings to children at their schools, and quite often the teachers use this experience as a teaching aid, by having their classes write thank you letters individually to the author When I encounter the files containing such letters I always treat myself to the self-indulgence of reading some of them

To us adults a classroom of small kids is just an amorphous mass of movement; different colours, sizes, and shapes And when one reads their letters, one finds personalities just as diverse as all those colours and other physical differences This seething mass of barely suppressed energy, is really a whole bunch of small humans learning to take on the world And their letters show these diverse personalities Also accompanying these one always finds many letters to the author from thankful teachers voicing their appreciation and thanks

I have come to believe that these are pretty important, and I find them fascinating reading They seem to be almost a continuation of the reading circles those St Clements librarians treated me and my friends to all those years ago

But even I wasn’t ready for the ones I found in the papers of a recent Osborne acquisition, the papers of the children’s writer Brian Doyle Brian Doyle is a remarkable man Even though I had never heard of him, I will be reading his books as I find them Brian Doyle had answered each of the letters from these young children individually, with a sense of humour so witty, that I broke into irrepressible laughter In fact the other appraiser and I were laughing so hard some librarians came out to see what the commotion was So clever and so natural is Doyle that I wrote him a fan letter, ending by saying he must have been a wonderful school teacher, which is what he did for a living – since, of course, few writers of children’s books would ever support themselves from their books He was certainly the kind of teacher I wish I had had as a kid I also called his publisher and told her that I thought they had a book in those letters and Doyle’s replies Maybe the Osborne ought to do a compilation as one of their gift books

By now you will see that what I am saying is that the importance of children reading goes beyond the mere pleasure books give them While we adults read for information, as well as pleasure, books are a hundred times more important for children who have not amassed the means we have to deal with the world It follows therefore that it is a hundred times as important to influence children’s development, by encouraging them to read And by directing their reading Besides enriching their lives it can change them And it can save them too
Years ago when my sister’s children were very young I never gave them books as presents I felt that they would assume that their uncle, being a bookseller, was just dumping random junk on them But one day it occurred to me that biography is full of accounts of kids who had their lives influenced by an aunt or uncle who every year gave them the latest Chums or Girl’s Own Annual I had always wished I also had such an aunt or uncle So I decided, that having an uncle who was a bookseller, they ought to expect to get books at Christmas and what they might think, or even whether they read them or not, was not my concern I had a duty to try

So I began giving them all books every year, and they loved it And as they grew up and married and had their own kids, I would cut them off and start giving books to their kids And then I did it to my friend’s kids until they grew up and when I mostly ran out of them, I started on my client’s kids and the neighbor’s kids

I now live on a small isolated street and only one family of our neighbors has a child, a little girl two years old She is already overloaded with picture books and pop-up books, probably still too sophisticated for her, except for the pictures But she’ll grow into them And just recently, she has had two twin brothers who in a couple of more years will also become part of my plan Most appropriately too, because their parents, both medical people, have named them Darwin and Osler With names like that we have to make them readers and I’ve got lots of science books, both pop-ups and picture books, all ready for them in a couple of years

But, luckily the world will never run out of kids And neither will I Two friends, here tonight,are celebrating the birth of, respectively, their first grandson and first great-grandson, just last week Debbie and I have already presented him with his first book, a nice copy of Kipling’s “Just So Stories”, and George is now part of my project There will be others

I could go on and on but my time is short so in case you haven’t got it yet, I’ll reiterate again, my major point Books can and do change lives, and we adults, it seems to me, have a moral obligation to try and introduce children to that world The Harry Potter books, probably the greatest example in my lifetime of what books can do to transform a child’s view of the world, may or may not become great classics I tend to think they will but what they certainly did do was introduce many millions of kids to reading, who hadn’t realized the pleasures to be had I saw quite a few articles, where kids were quoted as saying, “I didn’t know books were so great I’m going to read some more ” Sadly, it also indicated to me, that there were millions of kids out there who, at 9 or 10 years of age, had never been introduced to the wonder of books

I hope you can see by now, that what I refer to in my title as the Curse of St Clements has hardly been a curse (except, of course, in the view of my father, the banker) but in fact a blessing I have been very lucky to have been able to spend a whole life surrounded by books and that is why I feel so strongly, that I have a duty to pass it on

And on the assumption that you people are all affiliated with the Osborne because books have also influenced your lives, I will stress that again We have a moral duty to children and indeed, to our culture, to pass it on If you can get a kid reading you can change a life, and you will be contributing to civilization And that’s why people like Isabel O’Brien and these librarians here, in this place, are so important We owe them a debt that can only be repaid by passing it on

Thank you

Talk given by David Mason at the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, Toronto Public Library, on 30 April 2009. The article is published on www.davidmasonbooks.com, and it is presented here by permission of the author. Thank you very much.

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