A BOOK HAS A HISTORY… Alternatively, Googling in a Coffee House in Stratford-upon-Avon

Once a book has gone from the shelf of its first shop, or from a warehouse for mail order, it begins a kind of history. For some, the fate is a place in a sack full of other unwanteds that head off to some modern version of the old pulping machine.

For others it’s a second hand bookshop, charity shop, or being passed from hand to hand until it falls apart and goes into recycling. Or a skip. I’ve seen books of my own on eBay, some of them even inscribed, presumably after readings, which the person maybe enjoyed only to find the book disappointing and tried to get a couple of pounds back by auctioning it.

Whatever. I like to buy second hand books, sometimes to feel the years that are worn into the pages – foxing, old coffee or blood stains, a fold, maybe even a tear – and sometimes to wonder about the inscriptions. The poet John Robinson once wrote about spending 10p on a copy of Samuel Butler’s The Way Of All Flesh from the cheap boxes on trestle tables outside a shop, taking it on holiday to Greece, and opening it to find the inscription ‘John Major, London 1959’. It may or may not have been the John Major but the poem was lit by the possibility contained in that joyous moment.

I thought of this as, in a Stratford-upon-Avon coffee shop, I looked at a poetry book I’d bought a while back in a sprawling second-hand shop in Los Angeles, not far from Skid Row or Desolation Row or whatever this week social commentators called the hard streets where people slept and held together their lives in bags or shopping trolleys. The book was called Down At The Santa Fe Depot, sub-titled 20 Fresno Poets. It was published in Fresno, California, in 1970.

Before I began reading, I looked at the biographical sketches. I do enjoy these. One poet revealed he had been stuck in Fresno for 24 years. I understood that. I’d been to Fresno for a week and it felt like six months. Another one declared he had been raised in western Pennsylvania and had gone to various schools.

And then, inside the front cover, the name Gretchen A Magnussen was written neatly in blue ink.

And so Gretchen A Magnussen was this book’s history. I googled her. Of course I did. Unnecessary stalking, I hear you say. Well, perhaps. But this was about the book, not her. I didn’t expect anything to come up anyway, so what was the harm?

Except, there she was. She graduated from the University of Santa Barbara in 1976 and had, it seemed, lived in Santa Barbara ever since. There was even a phone number. No, no, no. Too far. She worked at Santa Barbara City College as a chief development officer. So I googled Santa Barbara City College and discovered Bella Quiroga had a job called Confidential Executive Assistant and Agneta Parry had one called Visionaries Circle Director.

None of this, however, told me how Gretchen got to have her book called Down At The Santa Fe Depot nor why she didn’t want it any more, nor how it got to be in the big second hand bookshop in downtown Los Angeles, where I bought it for five dollars and brought it home to Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England.

I settled down with another large coffee and began reading the work of poets who were writing in 1970 when they were young and had something to say. I read it from first page to last.

And so – of course, I did – I googled one of them, Roberta Spear, whose poems seemed honest and kind, and discovered she had died of leukaemia in Fresno in 2003 – the year, incidentally, that I was there, and who was considered important enough to have an obituary in the Washington Post. She also had a website that described her as mother, wife, poet, dancer, friend.

I was sorry she had died. I would have liked to have told her that I enjoyed her poems.

And I found myself hoping Gretchen A Magnussen had enjoyed a good life.

As well as the poet who was raised in western Pennsylvania and went to various schools.

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