Rebuilding the Collection

What I Got at the PTA Book Sale

When the house that my parents had built for their retirement retreat burned in a catastrophic brushfire in 2003, they had only about half-an-hour warning, and so there were a good many things they simply did not have time to pack into the car, or even to remember certain items that would have been easy enough – if they had thought of them in that half-hour. One of those items was my mothers’ nearly-complete collection of the run of American Heritage Magazine. She had all but the first two or three years of issue, back when the enterprise was under the supervision of Civil War historian Bruce Catton – Mom had a complete collection of his books, also – as well as the full run of their companion publication, Horizon. I grew up reading American Heritage – of course, I delved into them as soon as I could read, and possibly even before then, as the articles within were all beautifully illustration with contemporary paintings, portrait photographs, lithographs and modern photographs of the relevant relics. Even if I couldn’t grasp the meaning of the bigger words, much less pronounce any of them, I was still intrigued.

Until the late 1970s, the regular issues all had a uniform look; a pale ivory-white cover, matte finish, with an illustration on the front cover to do with the main article and a smaller one, sometimes as a kind of humorous coda on the back cover. The ivory-white yellowed over time, and given heavy reading, the spine usually began to peel away from the rest. In the late 1970s, they flirted with dropping the standard ivory-white cover – now the cover picture spread beyond the formerly conscribed margins and wrapped around the spine. That lasted a year or so, and then it was an edge-to-edge illustration with a black, or sometimes a dark brown spine – the last gasp before it went to paperback, accepted advertising, and looked like just about everything else on the newsstand. The big articles of note seemed to concentrate on the 20th century, which became rather tiresome for Mom, and she had dropped the subscription entirely around the time the house burned, with all the back issues.

But I have begun to reconstruct Mom’s collection, especially my favorites – the issues from the late 1950s, up to when they abandoned the ivory-white covers and went to worshipping strange designer gods. Once a year, my daughter and I head for the massive PTA book sale which is held in a regional school sports and recreational facility; the entire floor of the basketball arena is covered with tables piled with donated books. I head for the Texiana, mostly – and then to the general history; most shoppers head for the novels, kid’s books and YA, so I usually don’t have to get there early and elbow my way to the good stuff. Last year I found about a dozen issues of the old American Heritage, and snapped them up – the wonderful thing about the sale is that the PTA prices to sell; a flat $1 for a hardbound book (even lavish coffee-table books) and 50¢ for a paperback. This year, I found another twenty-five or so, and it’s a darned good thing that I added three shelves to the wall next to my desk; for the printer, and the paper supplies – and now one of them filled with American Heritages. Next year, I’ll have to make up a list of the issues that I have, so as to avoid duplication. But every issue is an old friend; and many of the articles are as sublime as when I first read them.

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