Monday, November 30, 2009

Books, Burkas, Boxes, and Bibles: Adventures at a Mega Yard Sale

Another Place to Find Used Books...and More!

I wonder, is there ever a day that goes by when we don't find a new book experience? Again, bringing you all back to the glorious warm weather of late summer and early autumn, I had a chance, once more, to attend the annual multi-family, multi-block yard sale in the Balmoral neighborhood of Chicago. Now, when I say "multi-family" I'm talking almost one-hundred different families! This is a singular event, and it's in a fairly prosperous neighborhood. So the chances are that you will find some pretty good items for pickin'. My inclination and desire is surely for books, but this multi-multi-mega yard sale is not only books, but just about anything you can imagine.

The first image above is an old produce box, probably once overflowing with freshly picked and deliciously sweet oranges, now filled with some fine specimens of books: a do-it-yourself series in a handsome red binding and the multi-volume set of the Standard Encyclopedia. Today these things may be moderately out-of-date, but you never know what sort of hidden wisdom may be found in and between the aging pages. Indeed, one of the many secrets and surprises of the used book in society is finding what its previous owners have left within it. I have had my fair share of 20-year-old plane tickets or stubs for a long-gone play or theater show, all found in between the subtle pages of a used book I purchased at a thrift store or old used book shop. Most of the time these things matter very little. But they do demonstrate a certain level of history and biography. And certainly, a level of curiosity on my part: "why was Jake Melville flying to San Diego on April 16, 1986...and why was he reading Thomas Pynchon?" Surely, we'll never know. Though, when this sort of thing happens in much older works or books, some of which I may find in the library or special collections and archives, well, then this is a whole different story! Our physical artifacts may tell future historians a specific story that may be important; or even solve a crime! Above, we see a lovely spread of wares: books and other collectibles, including some antique class photos from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. I'd noticed a few on the street from veterinary and medical schools. I always find this to be a bit of a sad commentary on American life: the dispersal of family goods, especially the images of long-dead relatives, because next of kin or the ever-fanning-out progeny have no link to the past or desire to know where (or from whom!) they've come.

There are those other treasures, then, like this movable armoire, which belonged to a diva or other lyrical personality, who was once a member of the Chicago Civic Opera Co. If I'd had enough space in my home, I'd probably have bought it! Being a bit of an opera aficionado myself (both of the music and libretto history, less of the singers), I found this object to be a rather splendid artifact of the "good old days" of opera theater and life. (Now, I must admit here, that I think that this may have been used to store "armor" for a bellicose opera scene and is actually less of an "armoire" technically!! Oh, well. Apologies, friends. I'm sure we could store other things in it, though...).

This item was also really a true remnant of Chicago opera history, which one does not see that often. There is no Chicago Opera Museum to my knowledge, which is a shame, as it has one of the great opera companies in the country, if not the whole world. And there is such a rich history regarding operatic theater and the art surrounding it. Perhaps, if there were such a place, an operatic artifact like this fine old armor could find a home there. Below is an image of the inside of the armoire, nicely organized into various compartments for storing anything from clothes to, yes, of course: books!

Above, a common sight at the yard sale: children's books strewn out on a wrinkled sheet or blanket. Whether a move to look "neat" and not like you've just dumped your kids' library out on the lawn or simply to protect the books from the moist grass, such displays were very common.

At one home, I spied this old musical manuscript. I did not inspect it closely, and so both my immediate and now retrospective thought about it is that it is some sort of facsimile of an old manuscript. Though, one never knows with these sorts of things. Some well-to-do folks live in this neighborhood, and one of them may have had a penchant for collecting old manuscripts of music. This reminds me of something in my own neighborhood: a beautifully large and old home stands across the street from my own modest townhouse. I never knew the history of the home, until one day someone told me that it was owned (until about 20 years ago) by the well-known opera scholar Howard Brown. This to me was striking in many ways, partly because of the late Mr. Brown's interest and scholarly work in baroque opera, but also because Howard Brown's legacy was something I was rather well aware of: Chicago's "higher end" thrift stores, which used to spot the city in half a dozen locations (though, now is down to just a few)--and are by far my favorite book-finding locales--are called the "Brown Elephant" shops, named after Howard Brown; the proceeds go to AIDS and HIV education and clinics in Chicago.

Now how could one deny the magic of such a place as "Bookland?" This fine set of books called "Journeys Through Bookland" was in a box next to the owners of the faux-music manuscript above. Charles H. Sylvester's 1922 multi-volume imprint of great children's literature is still a delight for some. Its artistic renderings and fairy-tale plots will get both children with imaginations and book lovers (with imaginations) excited.

The diversity of this event was clear from the throngs of people who visited and shopped along the streets (12 full blocks, if I read the advertisement correctly). It was a fairly warm day and walking the streets was pleasant. This burka'd young woman with son and baby-child in stroller were checking out the wares, after breezing by me like a quiet wind. This is one of the great aspects of Chicago, that you have such a great spectrum of people from all over the world coming together at one of the most fundamental levels of human instinct: thrift shopping. And in this characteristically American way: in the form of yard sales. Admittedly, in my many worldly travels, I've rarely seen a "yard sale" outside of North America. There may be something about "re-using someone else's things" in other cultures, which may be seen as "low class" or "unsophisticated." But here, even if some people feel this way, a great number of Americans love getting a deal.

Jesus in a box? I've come across a lot of Jesus paraphernalia, but I must admit, I can't imagine that this is what nearly two-thousand years of theology and church history were hoping for: a crucifix sold in to a glossy image of Batman! Oh, the outrage! And below..., more Jesus wares: a Holy Bible guarded over by an exercising Jesus, apparently balancing or doing calesthenics.

At one table there were books piled high and overseen by this young boy and his father. On an adjacent table, there was yet another type of book...a faux-book in fact: it was a book-box. The kind of box that is made to look like a book, but is actually some hiding place for your secret stash of hair brushes, cigarettes, or, hmmmm, banned books? (I apologize for the bright glare on the right hand side--it must have been the image of God or holy spirit intervening in something I was doing...).

I leave you kind readers with this little triumvirate of tattered Spanish language Bibles. Why? you ask, am I offering this image of tattered Bibles, Bibles which aren't even for sale or part of this yard sale? There is a fine story here, a story about this neighborhood. Even though this is a well-to-do neighborhood, one of the focal points of the neighborhood and this annual sale is an old Baptist Church. This old church offers its own sale of used items, but for the benefit of the church and its social services. The community it serves is a diverse immigrant population, from both Latin America (Nicaragua, El Salvador) and East Asia (Burma). I once almost had a part-time job here, teaching English to these students, but my schedule ended up not working. In any case, we have these Bibles. I'd gone to the church's sale, but hadn't found anything: its contents were not as fancy or attractive as its neighbors. But it did--as every past year--have a tent, where they sold hot dogs, kraut, and drinks. And another table, where the newly arrived immigrants from Latin America or Burma could sell the delicious dishes from their homelands. I'd gone in the church building to wash my hands, and then spotted these old tattered Bibles. They were clearly well-worn, well-used, and there for those who needed them. And just like the simple set-up of hot dogs or modest plates of Burmese noodles, the real treasure and wealth was to be found not on the lawns of big fancy houses, but where we least expected it.


  1. armor / armoir

    was this really a portable closet? If so, wow, I would have purchased it if I were you. It is really a neat item. And just think of the great book case it could have made.

  2. could someone translate the previous comment?