The Old Man’s Books: Look for these five collections when you are book hunting

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Our fine old dining table is groaning under the weight of our latest book buying debauchery. Looking at the stacks of literature, biographies and references has my head spinning. It is the aftermath of a local estate sale that included a magnificent library of thousands of volumes.

Book dealers swooped in early to look for first editions and the things they can turn profits on. But later, when we arrived there were still great finds. We came home with nearly 100 volumes of what a book seller friend of mine calls “book books.”

These are not the collector’s pieces you find on the back of the New York Times Book Review, these are books you can actually read. And many are bound handsomely enough that you would be proud to display them. We must find room to eat, so these will be going into our bookcases – but not before spending time with me in my study.

At this sale and others, I have noticed a lot of sets of books and series that were published in the late 1800s and early 1900s that you can find for ridiculously low prices, but which would make handsome additions to anyone’s libraries.

Here are five favorites that I have found recently and that you may want to keep an eye out for:

1. The Harvard Classics, published by F. Collier and Son in 1909. This is probably my favorite. The president of Harvard University had often said that the average American could obtain a good liberal education by reading 15 minutes a day from a collection of books that could fit on a five foot book shelf. They include the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith and The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

2. The Colonial Press. Around 1900 this London and New York publisher began printing sets and series of books. I found a 16 volume set printed in 1901 that includes everything from The Federalist Papers and John Stewart Mills’ Political Economy to Turkish verse.

3. The Works of Washington Irving: A number of publishers produced sets of his work. We found two recently, from the late 1800s. I have been captivated by his Alhambra describing a journey he took in the early 1800s “among the Moors and Spaniards.”

4. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. This set published by Houghton Mifflin in 1904 includes his lectures and essays.

5. Encyclopedia Britannica. When I was a child, I desperately wanted a set of encyclopedias, and I thought Britannica was the best. With the advent of the Internet and the fact that half a century of discoveries and reconsiderations of facts has occurred since these were printed, they are nearly worthless to many people. But I stubbornly bought a set I found recently. And I make a point of using it still.

The Old Man can be found teaching vocabulary to his gun dog in the back yard of the Old House and occasionally typing his ridiculous and profane thoughts on an old Underwood typewriter.

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Sale Day

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S.G. bought a bear suit this morning. Cecelia found a concrete head and a copper stock pot. And I came home with a 1927 T.E.Lawrence first edition and monogrammed damask napkins.

It was just another Friday morning here in the South, where there is nothing better than a good ole eccentric estate sale. You get to see some old friends—or in S.G.’s case, the woman she tangled with over a painting a few months back. (Note: never leave me guarding fine art in a crowded sale.)

If you are prone to being nosy, a sale provides a rare glimpse into how people in your area really live; and that peek is never dull. Who knew that one of our neighbors owned a very expensive pale pink Italian breakfast set? Or why the gentleman in south Tampa had a signed Walker Percy first edition mixed amongst his cookbooks.

I acknowledge that it may be distasteful to some to go through a house full of the once cherished belongings of a person; a couple; a family. But things are not what are important in the end. That is the most valuable lesson learned by anyone who goes to estate sales or sits through antique auctions.

My husband has declared that our children will one day host the greatest eccentric estate sale of all time. But you will need to go to S.G.’s house for that bear suit.

Old Man Monday: Three reasons why my old typewriter beats your laptop like it owes me money

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By The Old Man

I have a lingering fixation on old typewriters, and if I am any judge, this hardly qualifies as unique. Scope out any vintage store, hipster hangout or flea market and you are likely to find several cool old manual typewriters, often with price tags over $100.

This is a good thing.

Some of these machines become merely display pieces on someone’s book case. Some, tragically, are dismantled, their keys transformed into cufflinks or some other form of art. But the most fortunate machines continue to serve the noble purpose for which they were originally constructed: pounding words onto paper with decisive snaps.

I think more people need to rediscover the joys of writing on a typewriter, and here is why:

First, typing a note to someone is unique and private, especially in this age of cut and paste opinions and social media exposure. If you type someone a note or a letter and mail it to them, they know you did something specifically for them. You didn’t post if for an audience to see, and even if the ideas or words are not completely original, they passed directly from your fingertips through the keys of that old machine and onto the paper.

Second, I think typing is helpful to the writing process. Taking the electronic pulses of your brain and converting them into something tangible like ink on paper helps to solidify your thinking during the drafting period. Converting those brain pulses simply to some other group of electrons in a computer is too impermanent. You need to commit to your words and your ideas. The declarative striking of metal on paper reinforces that commitment. Take a pencil or pen to this draft and then re-type it into computer. I bet you will be happier with the results.

Third, old typewriters are iconic. Find a famous photograph of any writer from the mid-century or earlier: Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson, and it will likely be of them and one of their favorite machines. They might be smoking a cigarette or sipping something brown from a glass, but they are also thinking about what’s on that page in front of them. And you can find a machine just like one that your favorite writer used. Of course, having a 1936 Royal doesn’t mean you will start writing like Dorothy Parker, but writing is tough, and you take inspiration where you find it.

Fifty years from now, nobody is going to be fondly typing on a 2014 Mac Air. But my 1940 Underwood will still be going strong, even if I am not.

Here is what to look for in an old typewriter:

1. All typewriters have things that mark their era. For example, pre-World War II machines often have glass-topped typewriter keys. Later ones will usually be plastic.

2. A lot of typewriter collectors have taken the time to create websites with historic information about the various typewriter brands. Some even post old owner’s manuals and serial numbers with manufacturing dates online.

3. If you find a machine you like but are worried about keys that seem sticky, look closely to see if it seems rusty or dusty. Dust you can clean out with compressed air or sometimes with a rag and some isopropyl alcohol (keep this away from plastic and rubber parts, however!). Rust is a much more difficult problem to fix.

4. Be conservative about using oil – it attracts and holds dust, which can make sticking parts eventually stick worse.

5. There are lots of sources online for new and restored ribbons, including advice on how to re-ink your own ribbons.

The Old Man can be found teaching vocabulary to his gun dog in the back yard of the Old House and occasionally typing his ridiculous and profane thoughts on an old Underwood typewriter.

Repurposing

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I just knew I was the first person to ever think of this!

Due to the thousands of productive hours I have spent flipping through Instagram, Pinterest and Southern home and garden decorating magazines, I believe that I have a pretty good grasp on what can accomplished in a dining room.

But I had never seen an orchid in a cut glass punch bowl.

And since I have an abundance of punch bowls already in my dining room, I thought I had finally latched on to a signature style—as opposed to my current style of crazy-punch-bowl-hoarder-lady.

So off I went to see my friend who conveniently owns a terrific garden shop specializing in orchids. Well, you can probably see how this went:

Me: “I have this amazing idea.”
Him: “Oh, I do that for people all of the time.”

So there you go. Not an original idea but still a really good one.

Basically take orchid moss (found at any garden shop) and line the bottom of your punch bowl. Then place as many orchids or bromeliads as comfortably fit inside the bowl. I leave them in the plastic containers. Best (and easiest) dining room table centerpiece ever.

Just remember, you heard it here first!