A too-prized possession of the author.

by Hugh Gilmore

During this summer heat spell, I’ve been getting in my exercise by walking on the Springside Chestnut Hill Academy track in the mornings before it gets too hot. Last Friday, I had just started my fourth lap when two ladies in serious running gear ran past me at a good clip. They were doing 200-meter wind sprints and then walking half laps and repeating their dashes. I happened to catch up at the far turn during their walk phase.

As I walked past I overheard “1854,” which I found coincidental since I’d written an article last week partly about the Indian street sign names in this section of Chestnut Hill and the Indian head on Philadelphia Cricket Club. Then, when I had passed them by 10 feet, I heard, “the Indian street sign names and the Indian head on the Cricket club sign.”

I’ve been writing this column for 13 years and never once overheard a conversation about something I’ve written. For better or worse, for praise or complaint, I could not stop myself from impulsively turning around and walking back to them and saying I couldn’t help but overhear, and please pardon the intrusion, but “I wrote that article you’re talking about.” They reacted nicely.

In fact, I was praised for how neatly I’d handled a potential controversy by laying out the historical facts in a clear, cool manner. The three of us walked along for a minute. I was asked if I write for the Local full time? No, I’m just a column contributor. However, I also run a business selling old and rare books. Even used to have a shop, but just person-to-person or online now. We came to the sprint zone and exchanged “nice to meet yous.” They ran off.

I finished my last lap and did my stretches. I was just leaving when the two women came walking back to go to the water fountain in the entrance way.

The dark-haired woman said to me, “Do you have a fantasy rare book you’d love to own some day?”

I didn’t need a second’s thought to say, “I’ve already had it.”

“Really, what was it?”

“Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species.’”

They both thought that was swell and fussed a little to show they approved of my choice.

“But I had to get rid of it,” I said.


So I told them, and afterward, the woman who’d asked said, “You should write that up in your next column.”

Here it is.

Reading the works of Loren Eiseley, the poet, philosopher and anthropologist, left me with a deep admiration for Charles Darwin. Indeed I quit my job and entered the anthropology program at Penn because of my fascination with both Eiseley and Darwin. I even went to Africa to study savannah baboons in the wild. My view of life was both changed and enhanced by all I learned.

Years later, I was, because of a shrinking job market, no longer an anthropologist. I taught school for a while, but quit to follow a lifelong dream to open an old book shop. Whenever I got a chance to buy books by either Loren Eiseley or Charles Darwin, my heart skipped a beat. The Eiseleys I always gave away because I could not bear commercializing a man I knew and admired so much. The Darwins, however, had become so scarce and important over the years I could not really afford to build a collection of them. Until one day, that is.

My business was flush and I was invited to an old farmhouse to buy a dusty, but exquisite, collection of old books. Inside a secretary desk off the library, when I’d bought everything I wanted, I was shown a beautiful, bright “On the Origin of Species.” I checked: Yes, first edition. Checked further: Yes, first printing. I paid a more than fair price. I owned a first of Darwin’s greatest book! I drove home thrilled.

That afternoon, I was sitting watching the Super Bowl.

My wife, Janet, said, “Hugh, you’re stroking that book!”

I looked down. Indeed I was. I held it to my chest, arms crossed, running my thumb almost lovingly over the cover. Yes, I was. If I closed my eyes and listened to the soul of that book I could hear the tumultuous, mystified, nervous crowd in London on Nov. 24, 1859, when the much-anticipated book was published.

Later that day, I relinquished the book to the bookshelf in my living room. I sat across the room and admired it. But then I had a bad thought. What if someone who came in my house wanted to pick it up? Someone who didn’t know how to handle an old book? Leaving a fingerprint. A torn page. Maybe opened it too far and cracked the hinge. The value would go down. I’d paid too much to let that happen. What to do?

I decided it was not for display. Now what? I wrapped it in brown paper and bubble-wrapped and put it in a sturdy dark bag. Now, where? I put it in the back of the closet.

After a few months, I couldn’t stand it. I owned that wonderful Darwin book, but what a way to own something. It was crazy. It was more like the book had become an object of value – it now owned me. No, I thought. I do not want to own a book, anything really, that I have to hoard like that. I sold it for a very modest profit to someone less timid, someone who did not own it in such a personally meaningful way.

I cringe every now and then when I read of another massive sales record for that Darwin, but I did what I had to do then. I thank the good, fast ladies who asked me about my fantasy rare book and thank them for suggesting it.