Wednesday, January 27, 2016

John P. Quaine - Bookhunting in Bendigo in the 1890s

Here is a nice reminiscence by John P. Quaine (1883-1957) about bookhunting in the Victorian mining town of Bendigo in the 1890s, published in The Advocate in December 1950.

My Bookhunting in Bendigo Sixty Years Ago

Bendigo will celebrate during the coming year the centenary of the first gold rush. But there was other treasure besides gold to be fossicked out in old Bendigo in the years that followed, as is here described by an old Bendigonian, J. P. Quaine, now one of Melbourne's best-known "bookworms," authority on old-time "Deadwood Dicks," author himself of something in that line, and proprietor of one of those second-hand bookshops dear to his heart.

Rare old city of Bendigo! Or, to quote from the title of a bygone booklet which proclaimed the allure the auriferous region held for tourists, "Healthy, Golden, Glorious Bendigo." Modesty was always the distinguishing attribute of Bendigonians. During the coming year there will be much rejoicing of spirit midst the good folk of Bendigo and its environs, for then they will unite with other Victorians in celebrating the Centenary of our first gold rush. Doubtless the old creek which gave its name to the district will come into its own and enjoy for at least a brief spell some of the veneration now paid to "Ol’ Man Riber," the Rio Grande, Swanee and other foreign streams so energetically crooned about over the air and belauded in popular literature.

I for one would have it so, for I hold this (at times) gently rippling rivulet, once so pungently smellful, in the highest esteem. For I was born on its bonny banks, and spent the first fifteen years of my life thereon. My natal place was Nolan-street, just on the border of Irishtown. I'd like to mention that this term was not bestowed on the hallowed region in any derisive spirit. Irishtown was a proper- postal address, as can be seen by consulting newspaper files of the 'fifties. My home was about a mile from the post office, and so situated that it formed the focal point, so to speak, for a peculiar mingling of odours, whichever way the wind blew. The creek itself, until about fifty years ago, was simply an open sewer running right through the city, sludge from the mines, liquid refuse from an hospital, a benevolent asylum, several breweries, and most of the residences along its edges, with an occasional dead cat or dog, or even a larger animal lying half-buried in mud, all helped to create an odoriferousness without parallel!

The happiest hours of my boyhood were those I spent amongst books. I was surrounded by them from babyhood, and as soon as I was able to forage for myself, though I had barrowloads of books on all sides, I went searching for more. The premature development of the aquisitive instinct; the book collector in embryo. So from now on I shall talk about books, and the men who sold them in those good old days. There were several well equipped first hand book shops in Bendigo back in the '90's, all of which shared my patronage. Souter, in Hargreaves-street; Robshaw, in Mitchell-street; Barker and Hampton, in View-street; names which should recall happy memories to some old-timers.

There were other less important emporia. I got "my light weekly pennorths from Karl Van Damm's tobacconist's shop in the Shamrock Hotel buildings, Pall Mall. Here one could obtain Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, Scraps, Snap Shots, Texas Siftings, and all the English weeklies and monthlies, as well as current Australian periodicals. They were in pleasing array on the top of the long glass cases which served as counters, and even now, after nearly sixty years, I can sniff the mingled aromas of snuff, cigars, and printer's ink which used to envelope me as I walked manfully up to the tall, vandyke-bearded proprietor and planked down my pennies for Pick-Me-Up and other ephemera of that era.

Bendigo has never had a real secondhand bookshop. There were, in my early days, sundry general dealers who included old books in their miscellaneous impedimenta, but most buyers of secondhand books sent to the metropolis for their wants. However, there was a jovial old Jew named Morris Phillips, who ran a small place, little more than a stall, in Bull-street. This was stocked entirely with secondhand books, Phillips wore a pointed beard and a cork hat, and looked like Napoleon III in his pith helmet. He also reminded me of Blandois, in Little Dorrit, whose nose came down as his moustache went up, except that Phillips went one better than that mysterious foreigner and buried his beak in his beard whenever he smiled. Back numbers of periodicals and paper-covered novels, usually comprised his stock. He had a hinged shutter which closed die shop front at night, and when let down during the day and propped underneath acted as a bargain table. This bench carried cargoes of the Aldine publications so popular then; weird, wild tales of Buffalo Bill, Deadwood Dick, and other heroes of that age, selling at two a penny, but unprocurable now at any price!

The real Golconda of my boyhood was in Howard-place, which any that know Bendigo will remember is situated at the northern end of Rosalind Park, just where Pall Mall splits into McCrae-street and Bridge-street. Old-timers will recall this old building. It had at one time been a cooper's shop, and is at present reconditioned into a wine and spirit store. This shop was of the type known as "Johnny All Sorts," and the rambling structure really looked as if it had been erected by the expedient of roofing the intervening space between the flanking buildings. There was no shop front. After business hours, the establishment was closed by a series of ricketty shutters. In the daytime a couple of these were set on trestles along the footpath, and untidy heaps of tattered volumes were displayed thereon, being protected from the assault of the wind by lengths of gas pipe laid upon them. Whenever I had a chance I poked about amongst these maimed old veterans, buying what appealed to me, but in my boyish ignorance, probably leaving behind me many a "plum." Inside were heaps of all sorts of discarded furniture. Iron bedsteads seemed to predominate, but there was a generous leavening of ancient mining machinery, venerable chairs, sofas and frowsy-looking paliasses, broken kitchen ware, and tables in their last stage of transition to kindling wood. There seemed to be no attempt at order, but a couple of pathways had been cleared through the maze to accommodate prospective patrons. Along the left wall were some makeshift shelves on which were stacked in unsightly heaps scores of old books. No effort had been made to sort them, and, as they were effectually barred from close inspection by layers of bedsteads, they always seemed undisturbed. These books were richly endowed with the dust of ages, which, in some spots, had turned to mud by the rain running down the wall.

I used to crawl through the bed-iron barricade and delve into this debris. I think I was the first to disturb those sleeping beauties, for on my initial invasion I had to crack the dried mud that encrusted them, and even prise some of the volumes apart! There must have been many a rare and radiant old edition buried in this ignoble tomb. This mausoleum was run by two brothers, Sammy and Harry Hunter, men in their, thirties, both garbed in beaufort coats, boxer hats, and sporting moustachios. They seemed to disagree a lot, and finally dissolved partnership, opening rival and smaller shops in different parts of the town. What eventually happened to their old books I do not know.

In my boyhood days the only way to dispose of rubbish was to deposit it in one of the hundreds of gullies which peppered Bendigo, or throw it down some deserted claim. There were two of these old gullies almost at my very door. One just across the road from our house, at the rear of "Lampy Tom's Hut," and another on the opposite side of the Bendigo Creek, which flowed past our fence, close to its junction, with its tributary stream before-mentioned. To these dumps at irregular intervals loads of litter were carted and scattered among the scars and holes that made up the gullies. I prospected these tips for old books, and often dug out some tattered oddment which seemed to my simple soul to be a treasure.

One day, after a flood had finished roaring down the creek, I ploughed through the sludge to retrieve a ponderous tome, which, caught on a snag, laid half-buried in mud. It turned out to be a bound volume of The New York Herald for the year 1844, soaking wet, but quite complete. I was days drying it out, and then had an intellectual banquet. For the first time I learned something of Mormon history, for this was the year that Joe Smith, the founder of that cult, had been murdered. Smith, so 'tis said, was slain because of his plurality of wives. If this was so, then his killers must have been all bachelors, otherwise they would have decorated him for his heroism instead of murdering him! There were many crude woodcuts in this volume depicting the "Mormon War," as it was called, including a couple portraying the deaths of Joe and his brother, Hiram. Only a few worn pages of this priceless tome remain with me today; a succession of vandals down through the years appropriated such parts as appealed to them, leaving me the bare skeleton!

On another occasion I descended a "20-foot hole" to examine a bundle of books which I had noticed a neighbour toss into its depths. I salvaged a few to my liking, uncovering at the same time an assortment of decaying cats. The matrons round about used to shake their heads mournfully as they watched me raking over these dumps. It did seem a pity that such a nice little boy, who seemed otherwise all right, should be getting that way.

Where any of them commiserated with my mother, she only smiled, for she understood. To be sure, she exercised a severe censorship over all I brought home after an afternoon's sport, for people of Irish blood then, as now, were singularly clean-minded, and particular about the literary fare of their offspring. Several times she pitched some of my hard-won jewels over the fence into the creek. I remember scrambling down the bank one night to retrieve a much-frayed volume of Zola thus disposed of. Fortunately, when I tried to read it, I found it so dull that I threw it into the creek myself. However, in spite of all the pitting stares, I proceded on my grubby way unperturbed. 

There was a little shop near my home which stocked all sorts of things—fruit, vegetables, battalions of cockroaches, soft drinks, and a few cheap books. Once the lady in charge got in a job lot of temperance tracts. I expended odd pennies on a number of these, and jolly good little pennorths they proved to be. I read all about How Paul's' Pound Became a Penny, and How Peter's Penny Became a Pound, and one which I never forgot—Buy Your Own Cherries. This narrative detailed how a British workman, while waiting for the landlady to fill his pot of ale, helped himself to a cherry from a plate on the counter. The lady sharply told him, "Buy your own cherries." He was so incensed, that he pushed back the pewter pot, left the premises forever, bought his own cherries, and eventually a fine house and wonderful furniture! This workman was something of a miracle worker, in a way, or else the cost of living in the far back fifties must have been remarkably cheap, for he did it all on the saving of one shilling a week! But I never forgot the tale, improbable though it may be, and when, a few years ago, I ran across a volume of Kirton's tracts, I found much delight in renewing old palship.

These tracts were not, of course, as full of meat as Alone in the Pirates Lair or The Wild Witch of the Heath, but I relished them. As a fact, I always had the happy gift of enjoying everything I read, and, when you come to think of it, this is really the ideal way to be. It matters not what your in-born prejudices may be, you must always lose yourself in the personality of your hero, be he what he may. Afterwards, in your lucid (or, perhaps, not so lucid) moments, you may revert to your former preconceived notions. So, it booted naught to me what read; whether it was The Life of Saint Patrick, Turnpike Dick or Jack the Ripper made no difference. I dipped into everything from Butler's Lives of the Saints to The Malefactors' Register, with the result, probably, that I have transformed my grey matter to a seething mass of over-ripe haggis. In the process, I learned a little about a lot of things, but a lot about very, little!

There were two small bookshops in McRae-street, which, though they did not deal in secondhand items, and were mainly Catholic repositories, found favour in my eyes, because they stocked what are nowadays known as "dreadfuls." Miss Fairlie ran one of these; Miss Conway the other. The latter was almost opposite St. Kilian's Church. Her shop was, through space reasons, a bit jumbled, and her stock, though primarily devotional, was mingled most delightfully with more mundane publications. I can visualize now, after nearly sixty years, a copy of Three Fingered Jack; or, The Terror of the Antilles, balanced between a couple of religious statues! But she was a kindly lady, and I am sure she must be in Heaven, for did she not, as far back as 1890, sell me my copy of Happy Jack the Rover?

1 comment:

  1. A rather fascinating sort of piece. If only the author had written down more names of those elusive books that even in his time were incredibly rare.