Angie Cosey, our Oldest Book Contest winner, talks about her Swiss manuscript from 1636.
In the summer of 2012 I found myself wandering solo through Switzerland. I’d dined on fondue in Zurich, gone paragliding in the Alps, visited the bears in Berne, hiked with the mountain goats in Creux-du-Van, picked wild raspberries from the bank of the Rhine in Vaduz, and finally arrived in Geneva at the end of my journey. I spent one quiet afternoon lunching at the Place-du-Bourg-de-Four in the center of the old city.
When I finished lunch I meandered down the Grand’Rue where I stumbled upon the oh-so-picturesque La Librairie Ancienne shop of Alexandre Illi. It was probably the most beautiful bookshop I’d seen, inside and out. Prints and more commonplace books were displayed outside, luring passersby with hints of more treasures within. Two large rooms held thousands of tomes, swathed in cloth, leather, and even paper bindings.
I spent hours carefully browsing the stacks and shelves and more stacks of old and rare books, searching for a gem. I would know it once I found it. I considered haggling for a late seventeenth-century illustrated medical text. But on the way in I’d seen a beautiful thin vellum piece that I’d fallen in love with.
It was a slim, worn creature with flowing French script in faded brown ink covering both sides of an early seventeenth-century legal document, which had been repurposed as a cover. The first ten pages were missing. The next 30 or so depicted engravings of European coins from various provinces. Following that were dozens of pages written in a fine and elegant French hand. It was indecipherable to me for the most part, but I did recognize an area of astrology, and another area that listed the values for various market goods.
I hadn’t seen a price on the book and since it was in a case with a lot of very expensive books I tried to put it out of my head and my heart. But it was glorious, and before I started bargaining on the medical text I had to inquire about it. The woman at the shop showed me where I’d overlooked the price on the back of the description card. Six hundred francs. I bit my lip as the wheels turned in my head. I could almost afford that. I took the book up to the man who I believed to be Alexandre Illi. “Would you take 500 francs for this book?” I asked him.
He looked at the book and then at me. “If you pay me cash.”
It took even more haggling with the ATM at the bank down the street to withdraw the cash in francs, but eventually I returned to my flat with the strange little homemade book tucked under my arm, giddy from a successful hunt.
Oldest Book Contest Winner