To The Books! (A Nostalgia Story)

Dictionaries in the Midtown library.

When I was a child, the city had numerous filling stations.  Because of their ubiquity, the many companies were constantly in competition. In order to draw in customers, these establishments relied heavily on promotional offers.  Thanks to Sunoco, we had a full set of drinking glasses emblazoned with vintage cars.  Tonight, I will sip from the tumbler depicting a 1915 Studebaker.

Sunoco tumbler depicting a 1915 Studebaker car.
Sunoco tumbler depicting a 1915 Studebaker car.

Nowadays, the only gas station prize you might find is a fuel pump located in Manhattan.

In those bygone years, supermarkets also offered incentives to induce customer loyalty.  You could obtain an entire set of English bone china at Bohack’s  by making a purchase in the store. Get your dinner plate on week one, your salad bowl on week six, and don’t forget week 14, or you will miss the gravy boat.

The greatest prize of all, however, was a set of encyclopedias, offered at a nominal price. With a volume sold every week, the encyclopedia assured the store 26 return visits, one for each letter of the alphabet. It was presumed that frugal education-minded customers would return repeatedly in an effort to complete their sets.  Apparently, my parents were such customers.

Golden Home and High School Encyclopedia VOlume 1
An example of one of the volumes the author’s family owned. Image from eBay seller guinness*dog.

My family owned not one but two different sets of grocery store encyclopedias: The Golden Home and High School Encyclopedia, highly illustrated thin volumes suitable for youngsters, and the American classic, Funk and Wagnall’s New World Encyclopedia, faux white leather volumes trimmed in star-spangled red and blue. My father loved those books.  Although I have no recollection of him reading more than the Sunday newspaper (the News, not the Times) and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, as far as those encyclopedias were concerned, he was a scholar.  Should there be any dispute to settle, any question to answer, any issue of doubt, my father would bellow “To the books!”, and off we would go to look it up. I reflected on that memory when a student inquired about finding the definition of a word.

The word was “overmedication”, a concept integral to the student’s social work paper concerning pharmaceutical excess in the elderly. She would need a definition to lay the groundwork of her thesis.  Her first inclination was to look online.  She found a decent definition on Wikipedia, addressing unnecessary and excessive treatment. The Wikipedia definition hit all the high points – and while I am generally a fan of Wikipedia, this entry ultimately failed as it credited no sources.  Instead, would it be possible to find the definition in a well-respected dictionary?

Together we looked through no less than 15 items.  This required a working knowledge of the alphabet, pulling heavy books from shelves, and leafing through pages.  At long last, page 1554 of Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary revealed:

Overmedication:  Side effects, drug interactions, or other potential problems that result from excessive use or excessive prescription of medications.  Overmedication is common among the elderly, who may have multiple diseases and conditions, and multiple healthcare providers.

This definition was truly citation-worthy. A more diligent search online may have returned a suitable result, but to what avail?  In the game of written assignments, nothing beats a citation to a credible print source.

As American author Emily Winslow wrote in her memoir*,

I tell my kids about life before the Internet.  I remember encyclopedias, book indexes, card catalogs.   …Now I can search for anything I want all night long.  It’s a disappointment to discover that the Internet doesn’t have all the answers.

Just because something is a public fact doesn’t mean that it is findable, especially facts from before the Internet age.  Newspapers, court records, yearbooks: they’re still mostly in the physical realm, not digital. I’m still ultimately dependent on kind people with written records …

In library land, books are regularly retired; they are removed from their shelves, never to return again. Often the departure is dictated by the materials’ poor condition.  Like undesirable vegetation, books are “weeded” when they have become brittle, the pages crisp as autumn leaves. Mandatory retirement also occurs when the collection swells beyond the confines of its space and must be whittled down to fit the limited space available. The materials removed may be perceived as unimportant, passé, or unused.  They are selected to be deselected; they are unappreciated and unloved.  Luckily, this sentiment is not shared by everyone. I still appreciate finding a volume on a shelf.  Be it a volume that will help us define our words, or help us define ourselves, I will always be inclined to go to the books.

*Winslow, E. (2016). Jane Doe January: My twenty-year search for truth and justice. New York, NY: William Morrow. P 105-106


Contributed by Carol Schapiro, Librarian, Midtown


One thought on “To The Books! (A Nostalgia Story)

  1. Aviva Adler October 18, 2018 / 3:18 am

    I love this, and shared it with a young colleague, who didn’t know what a “filling station” was. : ) Thanks for the memories!

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