Around the World to Find 80 Good Books
Eric P. Waschke, The Wayfarer’s Bookshop, West Vancouver, Canada

At the beginning of this year, my desire to visit the ‘Known Book World’ had finally brought me to the ‘Grand Finale’: a trip around the globe, inspired by my childhood reading of Jules Verne’s ‘Phileas Fogg’ and his ‘Around the World in 80 Days.’ My journey ended up being a mental and physical marathon of 23 flights with 13 stops in 8 weeks taking me to visit booksellers in Asia, Africa, Europe, and America.

Stop one was Tokyo, an intensely high energy city of 12 million I had visited two years previously. Tokyo has 23 ILAB members and the quantity and quality of western language books there has always impressed me. Also, many bookshops rival their London or New York counterparts in terms of size and quality of stock. However, book buying was a little disappointing as I found no antiquarian books that afforded me a profit this time.

Stop two was Seoul, a city in the last ILAB country I had yet to visit. Seoul is both very modern and traditional as centuries-old temples, palaces, and pagodas intermingle with skyscrapers. Seoul has 13 ILAB members, yet there are very few Korean antiquarian books and ones in western languages are almost non-existent. I saw only three, but I did see an 18th century Korean atlas which I’m sure one would never see anywhere else. The greatest difficulty in Seoul is the system of street addresses, which seems to baffle even the locals, and makes it almost impossible to find anything.

Stop three was Hong Kong, a dynamic city which despite its British colonial past has a culture which is to the core Chinese. Although Hollywood road offers some of the best antique shopping in Asia, Hong Kong has no ILAB members and is in general disappointing from a book perspective. I was able to find only a couple of used booksellers and I saw no antiquarian books at all. However, the skyline, setting, and the Jade Market made this a worthwhile stop, despite the fact that I later realized that I had unwittingly stayed in a hotel five doors down from the one SARS case # 1 was staying in.

Stop four was Ho Chi Minh City, the cultural and economic capital of Vietnam. The first thing the visitor notices is that the streets are jam-packed with thousands of mopeds, many of which carry whole families. This was the city in eastern Asia where the people spoke the best English, no doubt a legacy of the Vietnam War. Former Saigon has about half a dozen used bookshops stocking mainly post 1970 books in English. The only antiquarian books I saw were French government publications of the early 1900’s.

Stop five was Bangkok, a vibrant city filled with many beautiful, ornate temples and palaces and fantastic restaurants serving local delicacies. There are a couple of good antiquarian bookshops specializing in mainly south-east Asian subjects and there are about a dozen used bookshops. However, as the antiquarian books were priced at a level similar to my own, I found nothing to buy. Also, many reprints of important south-east Asian antiquarian travel books are produced and distributed here.

Stop six was Kathmandu, a fascinating city at the crossroads of central Asia. Definitely the most interesting stop on the trip, typified by the medieval architecture of Durbar Square with its many intricately carved temples and shrines, the unique mix of central Asian cultures, and stunning scenery of the Himalayas. Kathmandu has about a dozen good used bookshops including one with a large selection of antiquarian books on the Himalayas where I bought a first edition in a dust jacket of Herzog’s ‘Annapurna.’

Stop seven was Delhi, a city whose crowds and ceaseless hassles unfortunately somewhat neutralize the irresistible charms of the Taj Mahal in nearby Agra and the impressive Red Fort in Old Delhi. While there are dozens of used bookshops in Delhi, I found only one true antiquarian bookseller. Some very good books have found their way to India because in the 19th century, India was one of the largest importers of books from London. Thus, I was able to buy about a dozen good books here, including Crawfurd’s ‘Embassy to Ava’ and Ogilby’s folio ‘Asia.’ Unfortunately the Indian climate is generally not conducive to storing books for long periods, and consequently foxing, browning, and insect damage are the rule and not the exception. Therefore, one needs to find books from libraries and booksellers nestled amongst the foothills of the Himalayas where the climate is more favorable.

Stop eight was Athens, one of the cradles of western civilization and named for Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. Unfortunately, the wisdom to be found in the form of antiquarian books was sparse for a city of such history. There are about a dozen booksellers who carry used and antiquarian books in a stock mainly relating to the Balkans and Greece. However, as the Greeks only started publishing in the 19th century, a high percentage of the antiquarian books are in other western languages. From a tourist’s perspective, Athens was a pleasant surprise as the recent developments leading up to the 2004 Olympics are once again turning the city into the ‘Paris of the Mediterranean.’

Stop nine was Amsterdam, which at the time was hosting the 24th European Antiquarian Book and Print Fair. The fair had over 50 exhibitors with high quality stock and thus I was able to buy half a dozen good books, including a first edition of Porter’s ‘Travelling Sketches in Russia and Sweden.’ Of course, from Amsterdam it was only a short flight to London, stop ten, where I was exhibiting at the PBFA travel book fair at the Royal Geographical Society.

Stop eleven was Cairo, an intensely lively and somewhat chaotic metropolis of 16 million in the shadow of the Pyramids. This city is an interesting juxtaposition of new and ancient, where one can find the latest model Mercedes and camel-drawn carts, and mud huts and office towers side by side. As I visited Egypt during the Iraq War, I was one of only a hand-full of tourists there at the time which made visiting tourist attractions a pleasant experience. I only found one antiquarian bookshop, in a hotel shopping mall, with a good stock of books, maps, and prints relating to Egypt, and fortunately I was able to find a couple of good books to buy including a presentation copy of Beke’s ‘Sources of the Nile.’

Stop twelve was Cologne, which was hosting the 3rd Cologne Antiquarian Book Fair. I was initially disappointed with this fair of over 40 exhibitors because prices in general did not afford fellow dealers a profit, but after some research I ended up buying the rarest book I found on the trip here, namely Steller’s 1793 St. Petersburg edition of ‘Reise von Kamtschatka nach Amerika (Travels from Kamschatka to America).’ From Cologne, I flew over the great pond to exhibit at the New York Book Fair, for stop thirteen, which I have already covered in a previous article. Then finally, after over 28,000 miles, I found my way home to Vancouver.

Looking back on this trip from a business perspective, over 90% of the books I bought came from Western Europe and North America, even though countries like Japan, India, Nepal, Egypt, and Thailand also have stocks of antiquarian books in western languages. Nonetheless, a trip like this cannot be measured purely in financial terms as its merits also lie in the opportunity to discover new cultures and places and to meet colleagues plying their trade in exotic locations. Now that I have visited booksellers in 50 countries, I feel I have a good overview of how the global book trade works and I feel very privileged that this business has allowed me to see the world.



 
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