On a warm summer’s afternoon about 6 years ago, I was meandering through Oakridge Mall and happened to walk up to Montecristo. I remember feeling a moment of inferiority, standing outside it’s window, in my bright pink ripped shorts, ti shirt, and a plastic cup of Mcd’s iced coffee. I didn’t belong in an upper class jewelry store. But I wondered if this feeling was simply in my head. I was curious to see the jewelry. Certainly had no money to purchase anything. But – couldn’t I go in and see? And so I did. This experience led me in a conversation with the two sales associates in there. The place was empty. They were so friendly. They asked me whereabouts I worked. I was with Four Seasons Whistler at the time. They seemed to approve. I told them I had never been in here before, and they were ecstatic. They even gave me a one year’s free subscription to the monthly magazine Montecristo. It’s a beautiful book. The pages are thick, good quality. And the articles generate around Vancouver life, which I loved. And with this side story – what I really want to talk about today is this article I found in it during their Autumn edition in 2012.
I was quite intrigued by this article – which discussed a historian’s hobby of collecting books that were centuries old and where he could find that people had once made notes in it’s margins. My interest perked when it discussed that, in particular, there was one such beautiful 16th century volume that existed @ the downtown VPL. It’s taken me – get this – five years to take on this project. And when I say project – I mean making a date of getting to the library and searching this book up. I either forgot about this article entirely, or the weather was never good enough that I wanted to make that 10 minute walk from the Vancouver City Center stop to the library.
But I remembered this article in January when I began reassembling all these old magazine and newspaper clips that I had saved from years prior. I remember a late night evening, inputting Vancouver Public Library into the google search bar, and looking up Sanctus Hieronymus in it’s catalogue. My heart skipped a beat. I didn’t even know what this was, but I wanted to find it.
Today, on a beautiful as-warm-as-Vancouver-gets-in-the-winter afternoon, I took the skytrain down to VPL and wandered up to Special Collections on the 7th floor. I had never ever been here before. No reason to. Nothing I ever looked for in the past was here. Not even John Nash’s economics thesis, which is perhaps the next coolest thing I have ever looked for in the library (to my standards). That floor is beautiful. It’s quiet. Filled with drawers of microfilms, and binders of old photocopies of black and white pictures.
I couldn’t access this book on my own. I needed the librarian on that floor to help me. She looked up the reference number and pulled up on screen the one copy they had in their records. She said it was a 1500’s bible, and she could bring it out and show me, but she wouldn’t be able to allow me to do more than that. I realized I wouldn’t be able to touch it. But that’s ok. I was here. I wanted to see it.
She retreated behind a set of closed doors and momentarily, came out wearing a pair of white gloves while holding a heavy leather bound book (or maybe it was a cover made of animal skin) that she carried gingerly over to me and set it down as gently as if it were a baby. As you can see, she said in a concerned manner, this book is disintegrating.
I was fascinated.
She then came around the desk and brought it over to a nearby table, placing the book delicately on two while pillows. She seemed apprehensive all throughout this process, or perhaps she was just being careful. I attempted to lighten the mood by asking her what people normally ask her for, what people are looking for, when they come to this floor. She said it was either newspaper articles, or old photographs – never making eye contact with me. Finally, very gradually, she opened up one section of the book. It’s not even in English, she said. I nodded, smiled, and said in a small voice – it’s in Latin.
I was really delighted when she said I could take some photos. I wouldn’t even have asked if she hadn’t said, given how protective she was about this book.
This is the Sanctus Hieronymus, which – if I’m transcribing off google correctly, means the Holy Sacred Name. It was printed in 1513.
I probably could have spent so much time looking at just the illustrations. But we couldn’t flip through any other pages. She was worried the book would collapse. I couldn’t see the notes and scribbles that the historian had seen in his marginalia research here, there were probably pages of it there if I had been able to flip through them myself. But I was content, and very happy, to see the two pages she was willing to open up for me.
I wondered what the book would have smelled like. But I didn’t lean in to do that. I was afraid to alarm her. The cover was very brittle.
I thought that even the way it was collapsing was a thing of beauty. Just look at that binding. My god. This work of art no longer exists in our current publishing world.
I have always loved coming up to old book bindings. It’s the first thing my eyes fall on when I enter a library, given that they are within sight.
I spent the remainder of the hour on that floor browsing through a book on Chinese immigrant history in Vancouver. It was called…Saltwater City, written by Paul Yee. This was an exercise I had always, always wanted to do. I leafed through old pictures of Chinese people living on the streets of Chinatown. So intrigued by the history of my people. I learnt something new in discovering this book – that before my people called Vancouver “Vancouver,” it was known as 鹽水埠.
I had a nice day at the VPL.