Old Books With Stories To Tell


John J. Dunphy

(originally published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch under the title “Bookseller Finds Old Books With Unusual Local Ties”)

As the owner of a used-book shop, I’m accustomed to having local residents donate unwanted books to me. A few turn out to be collectibles. Most, however, are just reading copies in conditions ranging from never-perused birthday gifts to an advanced state of decomposition. A couple of recent arrivals, however, defy easy classification. They wouldn’t merit a second glance from any serious book collector. Yet, area residents with an interest in this region’s history might find them interesting.

“The Spirit of the Border” by Western writer Zane Grey is the very definition of a reading copy. It’s quite worn, lacks a dust jacket and was published in November 1939 by Triangle Books, which specialized in issuing reprints. A notice that had been stamped in the inside cover caught my eye, however. It reads: “This book is for Rental Only. Kindly return in two weeks or have renewed. ‘The Convenient Reader Service’ ARGOSY LIBRARIES ST. LOUIS, MO.”

I knew there have been other libraries in the Gateway City besides the St. Louis Public Library. For instance, I have several books in my shop that bear this stamped inscription on their inside covers: “PROPERTY OF Famous-Barr Co. Circulating Library, Olive, Locust, Sixth & Seventh, St. Louis.” No mystery there, of course. Just about everyone is familiar with Famous-Barr. But Argosy Libraries?

I found nothing on line and contacted the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center. It took some digging on the part of Jason D. Stratman, an assistant librarian at the center, but he eventually uncovered this information and sent it to me”

“There is a listing for an Argosy Lending Library in the 1947–48 Saint Louis City Directory. Paul Catching is listed as the manager and he operated the Library out of his home, located at 2209 39th Street. He also worked as a confectioner at 1429 Whittier Avenue.

“This the only year in which we found a listing for the Library. It must have been a small collection of books he had in his basement or garage and people borrowed them from him. But that is just a guess on my part.”

Perhaps Paul Catching had always wanted to be a librarian and decided to realize that dream by starting his own library. I like to think that he simply loved books and wanted to make certain that his fellow St. Louisans had ready access to the printed word.

The other book has an even more fascinating story. “The Faiths of the World” was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1882. As suggested by its title, the work consists of chapters dealing with the world’s religions. Each chapter is by a Scottish clergyman, all but one of whom possessed a doctor of divinity degree, and examines an ancient or modern religion. The chapters were originally a series of lectures delivered at St. Giles. “The Faiths of the World” is very much a product of its time. The contribution by the Rev. James Cameron Lees, minister of St. Giles’ Cathedral, High Kirk, Edinburgh, is titled “Mahommedanism,” an archaic term for Islam that is now regarded as offensive.

A label on the inside cover of this book reads: “The Gift of Ebenezer Alden, M.D., of Randolph, Mass., who died January 26, 1881, To the Congregational Church of Brighton, Ill., Intended Especially For The Use Of The Pastor. Sent from A.B.C.F.M. Rooms, 1 Somerset St., Boston, Mass. E.K.A.” “Brighton, Ill” was handwritten on the label.

Born in 1788, Dr. Ebenezer Alden held degrees from Harvard, Dartmouth and Pennsylvania. He was descended from John Alden, who came to America aboard the Mayflower. Alden owned an extensive private library and specialized in collecting books and pamphlets related to the Civil War as well as the ecclesiastical history of New England. He wrote several works dealing with regional medical history and genealogy.

The letters A.B.C.F.M. stand for American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Organized during the first decade of the 19th century, it became the largest and most influential missionary organization in the United States. Founded by Congregationalists and ardently supported by members of that denomination such as Alden, the A.B.C.F.M accepted missionaries from other denominations, especially those that shared the Calvinist roots of Congregationalism. Alden’s will provided funds for the distribution of copies of “The Faiths of the World” by the A.B.C.F.M. to Congregational ministers across the United States.

The A.B.C.F.M. eventually merged with other societies to form the Board for World Ministries (BWM), an agency of the United Church of Christ. According to its web site, the BWM works to secure “an ecumenical global sharing of resources and prophetic vision of a just and peaceful world order, joining with God’s concern for the poor and oppressed.”

The Pilgrim Congregational Church of Brighton, whose pastor received a copy of “The Faiths of the World,” was formed in 1867 when some disaffected members of a local Presbyterian congregation withdrew to form a Congregational church. The young church failed to grow, however, and its 13 remaining members voted to disband in 1894. The organ, carpet and Bible of Pilgrim Congregational were given to the Congregational church of Harvey, Ill. The pastor’s copy of “The Faiths of the World” evidently remained in this area.

There are copies of “The Faiths of the World” listed on Abebooks.com in the $35 to $40 price range, so this long-ago pastor’s copy is somewhat marketable. I doubt whether anyone will want to acquire a ragged Zane Grey novel once owned by Argosy Libraries, however. Only the most meticulous scholar of St. Louis literary history would find such a book historically significant. I think I’ll keep it as a poignant memento of an obscure St. Louis bibliophile who realized his dream of becoming a librarian.

John J. Dunphy’s works include “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials” and “Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois.”




John J. Dunphy owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL USA. Google him to learn more about this enigmatic person who is such a gifted writer and poet.

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John J. Dunphy

John J. Dunphy

John J. Dunphy owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL USA. Google him to learn more about this enigmatic person who is such a gifted writer and poet.

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