Me and My Encyclopedias

I’m Lea Wait, and, as many of you know, I grew up in a family of antique dealers. As a child my summer Saturday mornings were spent in Round Pond, Maine, attending outdoor country auctions run by Robert Foster, father of the Robert Foster who runs auctions in Newcastle, Maine, today. My grandmother was a doll and toy dealer. My mother was looking for furniture and colonial fireplace equipment for our home. I was fascinated by the people and the antiques and the auctioneer – and how much everything sold for. I longed to be brave enough to raise my hand; to bid, like the grownups surrounding me, sitting on folding chairs in sweltering heat on that uneven lawn overlooking Round Pond Harbor. 

Every week I carefully examined all the items to be sold. While prospective buyers took notes, planning possible purchases, I fantasized about what I would purchase if I could. Two things stood in my eleven-year-old way. Courage. And funds. My allowance was small. I seldom had more than a dollar or two in my pocket. Most items at that auction, even back in those “old days,” went for a good deal more than that.

Until one July day. It was steaming hot. Not many people had shown up, and those that had brought umbrellas or large hats. Mr. Foster’s children were selling cold bottles of Moxie and Coke out of a cooler when one of the runners brought up two large boxes full of old books.  Foster held one volume up, and had the runner tip a box so possible buyers could see them.  “Here we have enough reading for the rest of the year. A really old encyclopedia. Guaranteed to be totally out of date. Who wants it?” No one said anything. Then he said the magic words. “Who’ll give me one dollar for the lot?”

My Encyclopedia Americana

And I raised my hand.

He grinned and pointed at me, not even looking for another bid. “Sold! To the young lady for one dollar!” And the runner brought the boxes over and put them on the ground next to me. 

I was in heaven.

My grandmother looked at me and smiled, shaking her head. “Now, why’d you buy those books?” she asked.

“Because some day I’m going to write historical novels,” I told her, making up an answer on the spot. “They’ll be good for reasearch.”  (I must have sounded very pompous.)

But she just nodded. And she shared my excitement when, in true antique dealer fashion, we examined the books and realized I’d just bought a complete, mint, first edition of the Encyclopedia Americana (1829-1833,) with many uncut pages. It’s stayed with me ever since, and is in my study today.

Top Shelf, 11th Edition Encyclopedia Britannica

Last week that Americana was joined, courtesy of my writing friend Sherie Schmauder who was downsizing and was blessed with two full copies, by the 29 volumes of the eleventh edition (1910-1911) of the Encyclopedia Britannica. That edition is another very special one. As with my Americana, some information in it may not be correct today. But the eleventh edition of  the Britannica includes nineteenth century information and political and social views on a myriad of issues that  is hard to find anywhere else. It was assembled when the Britannica was in transition from its British publisher to its American publisher, so it includes articles by experts from two continents. 

I look forward to exploring it, and using it when I write my next historical novel. Reference books of the period are a wonderful way to put you back in the days of your characters.   

I love my computer; no doubt. But, for me, there are times nothing can replace touching and reading the pages my characters might have looked at, one or two hundred years ago.

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One Response

  1. How lucky you ate to own two sets of the most fascinating books!! I love my parent’s set and hope one day to display them in my home. I remember how much I loved to read them when I lived at home. Thanks for the memory!!

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