I was fortunate as a child to enjoy a collection of Oz books on our family bookshelf. The original Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the lesser known thirteen sequels authored by L. Frank Baum were from a hardcover printing issued during the late 1950s. As an adult, I began a quest to find older copies of these favorite books, with the ultimate goal of finding one or more first editions dating as far back as 1900.
My journey down the yellow-brick road was pre-internet, by phone and on foot. I visited a number of used bookstores in Chicago and the suburbs, perusing shelves and gradually becoming more obsessed with discovering a printed treasure. It was hunting, and my prey was increasingly rare and elusive. Shop owners came to recognize and trust me, no doubt relating to my glassy-eyed infatuation.
The musty bookstore underground eventually led me down a trail of referrals that felt like a detective mystery or video game. Scraps of paper with phone numbers and names were passed in stealth and with a nod of the head. “Tell them I sent you,” was a frequent key to the next level.
From Evanston I made my way by appointment to a private collector in Lincoln Park who lived in an apartment that was as fascinating as the collection of books I found there. I was welcomed into an expansive living room, sunken and elegantly decorated with a thirty-foot wall of leather bound collections showcased from floor to ceiling. The matching bindings were generally imprinted with gold leaf, gleaming and precisely arranged. The red, green and brown rows were not unlike a barrister’s bookcase, but on a massive scale. To my left, the living room led through French doors to a rooftop garden, meticulous and in full summer bloom. It was an oasis in the city, a secret vantage point elevated above the unsuspecting pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk below.
I purchased the book I had come to inspect. How could I not? The volume included an association to this magical location, not unlike a visit with residents of one of the four counties in Oz; Gilikins, Winkies, Quadlings and Munckins. The collectors were pleasant, private people, granting me entrance through a network of trust and a web of shared passion. They showed me around their home, obviously proud and eager to share. And then came my next referral.
The Wrigley Building is a widely recognized Chicago landmark. It stands above the Chicago River like a sentry on the Michigan Avenue Bridge. My directions led me to a security guard in the lobby, where I requested access to an antiquarian bookseller somewhere in the building. I was taken to an elevator that traveled half way up the building’s 30 stories. There I was escorted to a single car for the remainder of the trip up the 425-foot tall south tower. When the doors opened at the top, I was admitted to a climate-controlled library with an attentive and cautious docent. I had died and gone to book heaven.
I spent the next thirty minutes in row upon row of neatly preserved tomes, some so old I was afraid to touch them. Vastly older than anything I had previously seen in run of the mill used bookstores. I could have spent days wandering the stacks, but it was clear I had been granted admittance for a short time and a single purpose. Once again, I bought a book for my collection. A token from the Wizard’s bag of tricks would have had no more impact on me than the place itself. Exiting by hot air balloon would have barely equaled the special elevator ride down to street level and my departure from this amazing library, hidden in plain sight.