Daffodils were shooting up along Lexington Avenue as I began my Monday march through Manhattan. Pots of yellow blooms brightened the windows of fax shops and Chinese laundries.
The whoosh of traffic was echoed by the whoosh of pedestrians, who sped along the sidewalks of New York like motorists on California freeways.
These big-league walkers held a steady pace, eyes straight ahead; then they veered, as if on radar, to avoid a blind man selling pencils or two elderly fur-clad shoppers who stopped in mid-sidewalk to gossip.
New York pedestrians take it all in their stride: They maneuver around dogs, bicycles and children. They pass on right or left, without signaling. They balance on curbs for an instant or two as a taxi rattles by, and then plunge between cars stalled in traffic. They rarely seem to brush each other, or run into bent fenders.
I was in the market for a book that Monday, a tale by Robert Louis Stevenson called “The Silverado Squatter.” I hoped to find a leather-bound copy as a birthday surprise for a friend.
First I tried the Yellow Pages of the Manhattan phone book. I called the Strand on Broadway, known for its miles of books. A clipped young voice promised: “If we have, we call in two-three hours. If we don’t have, we don’t call.”
That seemed fair, but I continued my quest. The Gotham Book Mart near Rockefeller Center had a recent edition of some Stevenson works, but nothing that included “Silverado Squatters.”
At the Antiquarian Booksellers a woman with a rich accent said, “Silver Otter?” She did not have the book by any name.
I wandered into Argosy, a rich haven of old books and new, on East 59th between Lexington and Park. A bespectacled clerk led an earnest search in rooms beyond my view.
“We have ‘Kidnapped’ and ‘Treasure Island,’ ” he reported, “but that’s not what you want. Perhaps they could help you at Bartfield’s.”
A Former Landmark
For almost four decades J. N. Bartfield was a landmark on West 57th, just downhill from Carnegie Hall. Now Bartfield’s has moved to a smaller space on the third floor across the street.
“New York rents are outrageous, you know,” a book buyer told me with a glance toward the former site, which is now a McDonald’s.
The shelves at Bartfield’s were lined with rare leather-bound collections. I sensed I was in the wrong place for a modest purchase of a single volume.
As I bundled up to leave, George Murray arrived, his cheeks still pink from the cold. This patient bibliophile listened to my query as he approached a desk mounded with newspapers, invoices and magazines. He was carrying a Big Mac and steaming coffee.
He did not have a copy of “Silverado Squatters,” but he did have Stevenson’s inkwell and other memorabilia bought from a London auction. They were somewhere in one of the crates that remained to be unpacked. He would write me when he came to them.
He added that most Stevenson books handled by Bartfield’s go to a collector in St. Helena, the Napa Valley town where the Scottish-born author spent his honeymoon and wrote tales of California.
Murray invited me to make myself at home in a small back room that was chockablock with sweet-smelling, leather-bound books.
After browsing the shelves for much of an hour, I decided against an illustrated book about a Welshman and his birds, although my friend with the birthday is of Welsh descent.
Instead, I chose “Pictures from Italy” by Charles Dickens, a rollicking account of his horse-and-carriage journey through Europe. It was published in 1846.
I could not put the book down after opening it to page 156 and reading Dickens’ description of his first glimpse of Rome:
“When we were fairly off again we began, in a perfect fever, to strain our eyes for Rome; and when, after another mile or two the Eternal City appeared, at length, in the distance, it looked like--I am half afraid to write the word--like London !! There it lay, under a thick cloud, with innumerable towers, and steeples, and roofs of houses, rising up into the sky, and high above them all, one Dome.
“I swear, that keenly as I felt the seeming absurdity of the comparison, it was so like London, at that distance, that if you could have shown it me, in a glass, I should have taken it for nothing else.”
Someday I shall find a fine copy of “The Silverado Squatters.” In the meantime, I can’t stop smiling at the gee-whiz reaction of that 19th-Century traveler, Charles Dickens.