Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I was in the city last week (by which I usually mean I was in the "old" city, the historical center of Krakow). I decided to look up an antykwariat that I hadn't visited in a long time. This one is located right around the corner from Florian's Gate and the Słowacki Theater.
This little shop, as well as its proprietor, could slip unnoticed into any Dickens novel. The tiny shop is crammed and crowded with books. I think there is some kind of table in the middle of the floor, piled high with books. The white-haired shopkeeper, sporting glasses and a neatly trimmed beard, sits in a tiny antique chair in one corner.
There is no kind of cash register or counter--just the old man, surrounded by books, and a tiny walkway one has to squeeze through to move around the store. I followed my usual habit of asking about English books, and he directed me to a shelf along one wall. I started to look through the titles, occasionally pulling a book off the shelf for closer examination.

One very old book, a Complete Works of Byron caught my attention. Inside the front cover was an inscription, obviously written in old-fashioned pen-and-ink, dated 1902. The former owner had written that he had purchased the book in London during his last trip to England, for one schilling, and then returned to Warsaw, where he had the book re-covered for one ruble (Poland was not independent in 1902, and Warsaw was part of Russian territory). I have no way of making a comparison between the value of a schilling and the value of a ruble in 1902, but it obviously meant something to him, because he wrote, "Holy Moses! What a difference between England and Poland. Pity my country." Then he signed and dated the inscription.

While I was reading this, the white-haired man came over to me and showed me that the book was actually missing about 3 pages, and he showed me where the pages skipped a few numbers. He told me proudly that being honest about the condition of the book showed what kind of character he had. Then he insisted on my sitting in his little chair, while he brought me other English books to look at. Most of them were very old paperbacks that held no interest for me, but I thought I might take the Byron, just for the sake of the inscription. I asked him if he knew what it said (it was written in English), and he didn't, so I translated it for him. That prompted a long discourse about the superiority of Poland over other countries in general.

I had thought I'd seen the price of the book marked as 24 złoty (around $8), but I was mistaken. He showed me the actual price of the book, printed at the back, and it was 180 zloty--around $60, and definitely outside of my budget. I didn't even have that much cash with me, so I had to tell him regretfully that I couldn't buy the book. He insisted I must want something--one of the paperbacks?--and I finally agreed to buy a copy of The Angry Wife by Pearl Buck for 10 zloty (around $3). I hate paying that much for these old paperbacks that have prices printed on the cover--35 cents when it was new!--but I didn't have the heart to leave without buying anything when he'd been so pleasant, calling me sympatyczna and elegancka (words you can figure out even if you don't know Polish).

This book was originally published under the pseudonym "John Sedges," and the front cover calls it "A compassionate, revealing novel of deep-rooted conflicts which caused war between men and women as they caused war between the states." We'll see. This one isn't exactly going on the top of my "to be read" pile.

Before I left the shop, the nice white-haired men begged me to stop in and visit any time I was in the city. I'm sure he wants to flatter me into buying more books, but I may take him up on it anyway. Going in there is like visiting another something you would read about in a book.


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