Author Archives: tavistock_books

Five Lesser-Known Facts About Jack London

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Happy Birthday to Jack London! On this day 147 years ago, the author of Call of the Wild was born in the slums of San Francisco. Let’s look at five interesting facts about this author, in honor of his special day.

1. London had extremely interesting parents. We all know that the most interesting people come from the most fantastical backgrounds (yes, we made this statistic up to feel better about our own crazy families), and London is no exception! His mother, Flora Wellman, was a spiritualist who claimed to have the ability to channel indigenous Sauk chief Black Hawk. His father is believed to be astrologer William Chaney, whom she lived with after moving with him from Seattle to the bustling Pacific city of San Francisco. In 1876, while living with Cheney, she gave birth to her son, John Griffith Chaney, who would later on go by the name of Jack London.

2. You thought the interesting-parent background ended there, didn’t you? Not a chance! Not only did Flora give birth to Jack against William Chaney’s wishes (he wished her to have an abortion), but out of stress and anger Flora shot herself while pregnant. She obviously did not die, but she was wounded enough that Jack was given to Virginia Prentiss (a friend, as well as a formerly enslaved African American woman) as a baby, and she would be his formative motherly influence throughout his life. When he was studying at the University of California, Berkeley as a young adult, he found the name of his father from old newspaper articles reporting his mother’s suicide attempt, and contacted Chaney who was, by then, living in Chicago. Chaney’s return letter left London (who had taken his stepfather’s name after his mother’s marriage) heartbroken, as the astrologer took no responsibility and asserted that Flora had too many sexual partners at the time for him to be the father. London’s distress at this letter led him to quit school at the University… and then to move north to the Yukon for the Alaskan Klondike gold rush. One might argue that despite the personal stress, Chaney’s awful behavior did London a great favor in the long run!

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3. Despite being extremely influential on his writing, working the Klondike gold rush was very detrimental to London’s health and well-being. After moving up to Alaska, the harsh conditions for the gold rush miners caused London to develop scurvy, a typical illness of miners who were experiencing malnutrition. London lost several of his front teeth, developed marks and scars on his face that he would carry with him for life, and endured pain in his joints… not an easy illness. Though he recovered, his constitution would always be a bit weaker than it had been before, and he would go on to develop an alcohol dependency that began around this time. His experiences in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, however, were quite obviously extraordinarily influential on the aspiring young author, and would serve as inspiration in his upcoming works.

4. Hoping to escape hard physical labor for the rest of his life, London decided that he could try to “sell his brains” by writing and being published. Upon his return to California from the Klondike in 1898, London put monumental effort into becoming an author. He began writing 1,000 words a day (no small feat for someone who hadn’t written since high school). He was first published with his story “To the Man On Trail” and was thereafter a frequent published author in journals and magazines. By 1900, London made $2,500 a year. In 1903 Jack London had his story The Call of the Wild published in The Saturday Evening Post. He sold it for $750. The story was an almost immediate success.

5. Local provenance. Did you know that Jack London lived just ten minutes from us, here in Alameda, California? At one point he rented a home (or a villa, as it was once called) on Lake Merritt… a beautiful area of Oakland just through the tunnel out of Alameda. It is while he lived here that he met poet George Sterling and later moved to a home in Piedmont simply to be closer to his best friend. Nevertheless, we are always happy to feel “at home” with authors we admire!

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George Sterling, Mary Austin, Jack London and Jimmie Hooper on a beach in Carmel, California.

Happy, happy birthday to an author that has inspired so very many… Happy Birthday, Jack London!

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New Year, New You… New Book! Learn to Practice the Art of Tsundoku

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Raise your hand if you’ve ever picked up a new title at a bookstore, excited to read it, then gotten home and taken one look at your bookshelf, and felt the cold familiar feeling of dread when you’ve realized that you still have 47 other unread titles that came skipping home with you similarly, only to be left abandoned on a shelf, to taunt you?

Oh good, it’s not just me.

This familiar feeling isn’t new to the rest of the world either, apparently. As a matter of fact, the Japanese have a word for being surrounded by piles of unread books. It’s called tsundoku, and plenty of people consider it an art form. Instead of making a resolution this year to finally tackle our unread shelves, here at Tavistock Books we are learning instead to embrace our mini libraries, to acknowledge and admire our uncracked spines, adoringly.

Tsundoku is a word dating back to the Meiji era in Japanese culture (from roughly 1868 to 1912, to be exact), and comes from a combination of two words… tsunde-oku, meaning “allowing things to pile up” and dokusho, meaning “to read books”. In essence… allowing piles of books to be read to sit around, untouched. Feels good, doesn’t it? To know you aren’t alone? To know that your tendency to overindulge in bibliomania is a worldwide phenomenon, one that has even had a word created to describe it. It was first seen in publication in 1879, as an ironic dig at scholars and academics who owned books they never read. That being said, in Japan (and elsewhere), the word does not carry with it a negative connotation – it isn’t an insult or something to be ashamed of. As a matter of fact, it has become more of an art form, for some. To surround yourself with books… with new worlds, with other ways of thinking, with doors to be opened… can only serve as a reminder that the world is so very big. It can show us that no matter where we are in our lives we still have much to learn, and so many ways to enrich our lives through the world of books.

So this year? Make a resolution not to feel bogged down by your ever expanding library. Head to your favorite bookstore, pick up an interesting new find, and add it to the pile with a flourish and a smile… knowing you’re simply practicing the art of tsundoku. 🙂

Find out more about tsundoku in this article on Big Think.

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“What the Dickens?!?” The Origins of a Commonly Used Phrase Exposed!

Anyone reading this blog has surely heard the phrase “What the Dickens?” before. Usually used as an exclamation, a comment to proclaim confusion and shock or exaggerate, this phrase is colloquially used throughout the English speaking world.

Now what would you say if I told you that this phrase has nothing whatsoever to do with our main man, Charles Dickens? What if I told you it was infinitely older than him, and his last name just coincided with the phrase already in existence? I think the universal response might be “What the Dickens?”!

In literature, the phrase is first seen in (believe it or not) Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, a work commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I. Published in 1602 (though most likely written before 1597), this Shakespearean play focuses on the vain and comedic knight Sir John Falstaff, and his troubles in love. In Act III, scene ii, the sentence “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is” seems to be the first written use of the phrase, though wordsmiths believe it predates even Shakespeare. Interestingly enough, in Elizabethan times the word “dickens” was a euphemism for the word “devil.” As one knows, cursing has not always been an acceptable act in polite society. And centuries ago, referencing the devil directly was not respectful or used in everyday conversations. Therefore, saying “What the Devil” would have been quite frowned upon.

So… society came up with an alternative! It is possible that it began by shortening the word “devilkins” – a religious word predating Elizabethan times that referred to a small devil, or an imp. Nowadays the phrase is used in several ways, though almost always to exclaim and exaggerate. “Run like the dickens” or “working like the dickens” are heard often enough, though my own personal use of the phrase is typically “it hurts like the dickens!” Yet I had no idea that in writing it down, the word dickens need not be capitalized! Since it isn’t referring to Charles. What the dickens!?

How do you bibliophiles prefer to use this phrase? Let us know!
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“And Death Shall Have No Dominion” – a Look at Welsh Poet Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas is one of Wales’ best known writers. As a poet he expressed himself and his talent at a young age, and though he died much too young, he was amazingly able to create a large amount of work in a relatively short time. On this day 69 years ago, Thomas passed away in New York City. In honor of his life and work we wished to do a short blog detailing this amazing writer and the influence he had on so many.

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Dylan Marlais Thomas was born on October 27th, 1914, in Swansea, Wales. His mother was a seamstress, his father – an English literature teacher at the local school. It was through his father that Thomas first found a love for the rhythm of poetry – as his dad would recite Shakespeare, Yeats, and Poe to the young Dylan at length. His father also took charge of educating Dylan in the Welsh language, which he understood and spoke, despite writing exclusively in the English language and not Welsh. At a young age (young enough to put the rest of us to shame, truly), Dylan discovered a talent for poetry. At the age of 11 his first poem was published in his grammar school newspaper, and by the time he left school he carried out duties as editor of said paper.

When he was 16, Thomas left school and became a reporter for the South Wales Daily Post, where he worked for roughly a year and a half. During that time and the following few years where he worked as a freelance journalist, Thomas wrote somewhere around 200 poems, his most prolific period of writing coincided with these young years and a depth of feeling at such a formative age. It was during these years that some of his most well-known works were published – including the poems “And death shall have no dominion”, “Before I Knocked” and “The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower”. In 1934 his poem “Light breaks where no sun shines” was published in London’s The Listener – catching the attention of several important London literary celebrities, including T.S. Eliot. Eliot and Stephen Spender and Geoffrey Grigson were instrumental in helping Thomas publish his first book of poetry in 1934, called (rather simply) 18 Poems. The book was an immediate success, meeting with critical success, winning awards and thrusting Thomas into the London literary scene with a vengeance.

For a long while, it was as if Thomas could do no wrong. A year after his first volume of poetry was published he contributed his famous poem “The Hand that Signed the Paper” to an issue of New Verse. Another year later (1936) his second volume of poetry was published (similarly titled to his first – Twenty-five Poems) and also met with critical success. In 1938 Thomas won the Oscar Blumenthal Prize for Poetry. Many of his poems published in these volumes and in poetry journals were written before Thomas ever moved to London, back in Wales in his prolific period. Personally, I believe that this back-log of work to choose from (while all of it remaining relevant and popular) allowed Thomas to develop the heavy drinking habits he struggled with all his life.

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Much of his following years look quite like this – critical success, volumes and single poems published. His only less successful years happened to coincide with WWII, and many critics have attributed this to the general population’s distraction with more important matters. Thomas was always interested in the theatrical and even recorded for the BBC, and wrote scripts and screenplays. His work, while the early poems perhaps have a touch more idealism than some of the later, remained popular. He was heralded as a lingering-on member of the Romantics, in a time where other popular works clamped hard on realism and political realms. The Poetry Foundation lists some of Thomas’s work’s key themes, that include “the unity of time, the similarity between creative and destructive forces in the universe, and the correspondence of all living things.” Of one of Thomas’ most famous works “And death shall have no dominion”, critic Clark Emery noted how it was “published in a time when notes of affirmation—philosophical, political, or otherwise—did not resound among intelligent liberal humanists, [and thus] it answered an emotional need. … It affirmed without sentimentalizing; it expressed a faith without theologizing.” (Poetry Foundation). This is true of much of Thomas’ work. It touched an emotional place in his readers, and continues to do so today.

Thomas seemed to become a highly individual figure of the time. He was seen as somewhat wild – with his Welsh accent and beautiful story-telling capabilities. His drinking, the sexual imagery in his work, his ability to captivate. He had something that other poets of the time, especially in London, did not – he did not care about beautiful society or being part of a group of famous literary figures. He and his wife Caitlin moved between London and Wales for many, many years, realizing that London held more work, while Wales held love and safety for them and their children. Thomas was invited abroad to the continent, and then also to tour in the United States four times. It was on this last tour in New York at the age of 39 that he collapsed after a night of heavy drinking, and was unfortunately sent home to be buried in Wales by his family. But the love of his work endures even to this day, his poems no less beautiful, and no less relevant today, than they were seventy years ago.

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Happy Spooktober!

In honor of Spooktober (a spooky October, of course), today our blog calls on our love of the movie Hocus Pocus, as we focus on a magical text, a witches handbook – called Grimoires. 

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By definition, a grimoire is a “a textbook of magic, typically including instructions on how to create magical objects like talismans and amulets, how to perform magical spells, charms and divination, and how to summon or invoke supernatural entities such as angels, spirits, deities, and demons” (Davies). I first came across the idea of antiquarian grimoires via, you’ll be surprised to learn…. Tiktok. The latest and “greatest” of social media platforms is full of information. Some interesting, some shocking, and some downright useless, true. But suddenly on my “for your page” there appeared an antiquarian bookseller (Reid Moon, Moons Rare Books) discussing an early grimoire in his inventory, and I was hooked.

It is not unusual to find witchy empty journals for a witches Book of Shadows’ at Barnes and Noble these days, which differs from Grimoires in the fact that grimoires (a French word derived from the French term for “grammar”) quite literally translate to the grammar of magic. Bookseller William Kiesel explained that “Typically, grimoires are often manuals of practice that give recipes, operations, rituals and perhaps even spells.” Grimoires are then… manuals, where practitioners of alternative methods of healing, spirituality, medicine and more would put their practices within for easy reference later on (literally “grimoires” throughout history run the gamut – from ancient Egyptian magical inscriptions on cuneiform tablets and amulets to the medieval period texts by Popes and doctors, even, to modern day). These days, antiquarian grimoires hold a special sort of fascination in the book collecting community, as they allow for a more individualized look at spirituality, unlike and sometimes even opposing conventional, organized religion.

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One of the pentacles found in the Key of Solomon.

While grimoires were mainly popular between the 1500s and 1900s, there is evidence of their existence (as a physical copy of a written text) as far back as one of the most famous of all grimoires, the Key of Solomon (or Testament of Solomon, two separate works but sometimes confused with each other) written in Greek in the 1st millennium CE. When rumors of its existence first began to circulate, it was claimed that this text included incantations for summoning demons and described them being used to cure cases of possession. The actual Testament of Solomon, while not written by Solomon himself (this can get confusing in the realm of grimoires), is one of the oldest surviving magical texts, dating back to one of the first five centuries A.D. It carries descriptions of a ring that could bind demons from doing harm, and was written as a source of information and warning to its readers. 

As Christianity gained favor throughout the world, many magical texts or books centered on demonology and other potentially pagan beliefs were banned, burned and their authors silenced. A few of the more notable works that remain are often ones dealing in “natural magic” rather than “demonic magic”, as during the medieval period the former was allowed – it could be construed as a way to praise and celebrate all that God placed upon the earth for others to enjoy. Demonic texts, on the other hand, were wildly unacceptable. Another Key of Solomon appeared around this time (Solomon a popular figure for authoring these texts, evidently), and then a German abbot and occultist (I know, the irony) named Trithemius supposedly had a book of magic based on the New Testament character Simon Magus – a contemporary of Jesus Christ who was vilified and demonized by the church as a devil worshipper, despite performing similar “miracles” that were attributed to the former. 

Screen Shot 2022-10-13 at 7.38.40 PMSeveral grimoires make their way onto the scene in the 1500s, with a steady stream of them from thereon after. Some of these include Les Secrets merveilleux de la magic naturelle du petit Albert (1272), the Grand Grimoire (1521), Le Dragon Rouge (published in 1822 but supposedly dating back to 1522), and the Grimoire of Armadel (written in the 1600s, not published until 1980). As time passes and the ability to write becomes more commonplace, availability of paper and writing utensils increase, more and more grimoires emerge. Notable antiquarian collections of grimoires can be found at the Cornell University Library, the Ritman Library in the Netherlands, and the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in the UK. 

The extensive history of the grimoire and like texts prove that one thing is for sure and certain – magic, and the human interest in magic/the ability to witness things not easily attributed to science have inspired us for thousands of years. And here in witch-season we don’t expect it to let up any time soon! Happy Spooktober!

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The Whale – and How it Shapes Lives All Over America

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A few years ago we published a blog detailing Herman Melville’s life. This week we thought we’d revisit his most famous work in a bit more detail, and come up with five in-depth reasons about Moby Dick, why it is one of the most widespread works taught in American schools today, and why it matters. “Book! You lie there; the fact is, you books must know your places. You’ll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts.” And on we go!

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1. Several scholars argue that the opening sentence of Moby Dick “Call me Ishmael” is the best known line in classic American literature. It starts off a long tale of adventure and revenge, focusing on a crazed whaling boat captain and his enduring grievance against the giant white sperm whale that took off his leg. While this book is, as stated, one of the most well-known works in America today, it was considered a flop at the time of its publication. Melville wrote it at the tender age of 32 in 1851, and over the next fifty years of his life it sold only 3,215 copies, making him a whopping $1,260 over those decades. It was only after the centennial of his birth in 1919 that a slow resurgence of interest in Melville’s work began, and by the 1960’s Moby Dick was being regularly taught in schools.

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“I try all things, I achieve what I can.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

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2. Melville masterfully created characters that could inspire, despite their outward, stereotypical appearances. The moral compass of humanity in Moby Dick is the cannibal Queequeg. He is courageous, stoic and self-sacrificing, a good friend to the novel’s narrator, and his virtuous nature is a stark contrast to the vengeful and fanatical Captain Ahab aboard the Pequod (the whaling ship). In this way, Melville dictates to his audience that appearances are not always what they seem. After all, “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”

 

3. Another reason why the story is so revered is Melville’s ability to use these characters to make social commentary on society at large. As Jamie Gass wrote, “A full decade before the Civil War’s carnage, only a highly unconventional writer of profound depth could craft a poetic novel using an enlightened cannibal to devour America’s racial, nativist, and religious stereotypes.” By placing Queequeg as the savior in the story, Melville highlights to students today how being fearful of someone different than us isn’t necessarily justified. Just because people are different doesn’t mean they are inherently bad – and we should not stereotype each other without giving ourselves a chance to see the human beneath the surface, as Ishmael does Queequeg. Some have even likened the Pequod to Melville’s America, with its treatment of minorities on the ship. In this way, Melville used his characters to comment on America’s shameful treatment of African Americans and other minorities, and continues to this day to remind us to look beyond the surface. As Melville writes, “See how elastic our prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them.”

 

4. The life lessons throughout the story rival those in famous religious works. Not only are their cautionary lessons on the limits of vengeance inside, but there are studies of the issues of man vs. nature (is it our job to conquer nature, or simply be its stewards? I’ll give you one guess), sexual orientation, the dangers of following a charismatic madman, and how our unacknowledged biases shape our actions – for better and for worse. One website claims that you couldn’t open to a single page of Moby Dick without finding a lesson being taught…. even when it is lessons on the world of whaling (at times disgusting and horrifying – but nevertheless educational).

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5. Moby Dick is an adventure story, yes. But layered within the adventure “we learn about malevolence, ambition, ego, bravery, friendship. We meditate on the existence of truth. We gather up an understanding that ‘truth’ is rarely captured in a snapshot, that it’s a mosaic of perspectives that don’t always add up neatly.” (Suzy Akin). It can be seen at one time as a religious text, an ancient epic, a Shakespearean drama. It can be interpreted a multitude of different ways. But one thing is for sure – it does teach lessons that could come in handy as students ready themselves for the future, and the “rough seas” that may lie ahead.

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“All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

 

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An Up-to-Date Q&A with Our Very Own Vic Zoschak Jr.

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It’s been a while since we checked in with a more personal blog, so we thought that with the end of summer in sight we’d see what our Master and Commander Vic Zoschak has been up to these last couple of years!

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Q: So V, here we are in 2022 – how have you been this past year, how has life been in general?

We’re into our 4th year of Covid Ms P, and I guess you could say I’ve adapted to that reality.  Last summer, I completely closed the shop to the public, and have been ‘on-line’ only ever since, and to be honest, that’s worked out ok.

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Q: How has “regular life” played a part in your business over the past many months? The last time we checked in was at the heart of the pandemic. Have you noticed any notable changes since?

I avoided Covid for the first 3 years, but here, early in the 4th, I did catch it a couple weeks back… a variant, I think, for I’m fully vaxxed & boosted.  Let’s just say it was not a fun couple of days.  But that aside, in response to the on-going pandemic, last summer, I changed my work routine, adopting a semi-retired approach to my work life, only going into the shop 4-5 hours a day, freeing up some personal time to spend with the dogs, catch a few more Giants games, read a few more books…  I must say, I find this newer, more relaxed lifestyle quite enjoyable!

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Q: You recently celebrated 25 years on Webster Street in sunny Alameda, California. How have you seen Alameda and your location change over the past two and a half decades, as one of the longest running and most-established businesses on the island?

Time does fly, does it not!?!  Seems like just yesterday I opened the door at 1503 Webster, but that was actually July 15, 1997.  When I opened the shop, the west end of Alameda had just experienced a devastating blow to the local businesses… by that I mean the Navy had closed NAS Alameda in April of that year.  All of a sudden a large consumer base was gone.  As a result, lots of vacant store fronts existed on Webster, so a new business opening on Webster was a big event, in this case, the Mayor, the Vice-Mayor & the head of the Alameda Chamber of Commerce all came for my ‘ribbon-cutting’.   The West end was a long time in coming back, but now, 25 years later, Webster is the main mercantile street in Alameda’s west end.  It’s quite vibrant actually, with lots of restaurants & other interesting businesses.  But that said, despite the current vibrancy, the street did not, and will not, support a specialized antiquarian book store like mine…  were it not for my on-line / mail-order sales component, I would have had to close the doors long ago.

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Q: Now that the book world is back to hosting in-person book fairs, how have you seen the changes brought about by the past couple of years influence the book world of today? Which changes are for the better? And on that note, do you find any for the worse?

This one is difficult for me to answer, for as part of my semi-retired approach to business, I’ve decided to omit book fairs from my current business paradigm [except for the local, one-day Sacramento show].  I find it exhausting to be a one-man exhibitor, gone for 5-6 days….  pack the books, drive to the event, set up the booth, man it [solo] for 3-4 days, pack out, drive back to Alameda, unpack all the boxes & reshelve the books.  Too much work for this 70 year old…  an example of the old leisure vs income dichotomy, with me falling down on the leisure side of the equation.

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Q: What would you say your bookselling high and low were, in recent months? This could be an event or a meeting of sorts, or perhaps a notable sale?

I think most booksellers will agree that their favorite book is the one that just sold.  But to answer your specific question, two recent sales do come to mind…  I helped one of my customers find & acquire a very nice copy of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and one of my institutional customers ordered an 1866 broadside published out of San Francisco, Freedom’s Footsteps.  This latter quite rare, with only a couple copies known to exist.

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Q: What do you have on the horizon of interest for yourself and/or for Tavistock Books? 

Well, the ILAB Congress is next month, being held in Oxford, England.  I’ll be attending, and we’re concluding the trip with some time in London, and then Paris.  So that definitely that trip is of interest!

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Q: For a fun last question – what is your favorite item to come across your desk in the last few months? Let’s see it!

Oh my, that’s a challenge to name just one!   Well, let’s see…  as you know, like many of the local booksellers, I tend to scout the monthly Alameda Point Flea Market.  Not too long ago, I purchased a book that mimics the great William Blake, Ode to Sea-Sickness, by William Muir.  Quite scarce.  I think it’s pretty cool, and it will be offered in my stand at the next Biblio Live VBF.  Here’s an image of the title page.

Vic's Ode to Seasickness!

Vic’s Ode to Sea-sickness!

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