About a year ago Eric Peters and I began chronicling our twelve-day tour of England, a flurry of concerts that were booked in part so Pappy and I could pillage England’s many second-hand bookstores. It was a wonderful trip. Eric and I are both lovers of old books, and the two of us are all too familiar with the tension of dragging family or fellow musicians into bookstores so we can sniff around like hounds for random and rare editions, while they go from politely patient to pouting to grumbling about how long we’re taking. But with Eric and me there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation if we saw a used bookstore on the GPS, even if it was thirty minutes out of our way.
Early on in the trip, though, I began to do a bit of grumbling myself—not because Eric took too long, but because Eric’s talent for finding the good stuff far exceeds my own. Usually I’m in a bookstore alone, knowing I’m probably the only guy in there for a month who’s looked for Buechner or Chesterton or MacDonald. But now I experienced a new and sinful urgency to beat Pappy to the punch. Now, instead of a leisurely browse it was like a bookish version of Cannonball Run. I felt a most unpleasant anxiety as we both shouldered our way into a store, pretending not to hurry as we hurried. He would disappear into the maze of shelves and I had to choose which section to attack first: fiction, or literature (sometimes they’re different), or poetry, or theology, or children’s books? I’d skim whatever section he wasn’t in, usually with a sickening feeling that the reason I wasn’t finding any good books was because he had already passed that way, razing the harvest like a plague of locusts.
And it so often turned out to be true. I’d meet up with him at the cash register with a book or two, and he’d be checking out with a stack of first editions that made me burn with envy. Hopefully you can tell that I’m mostly joking. Mostly. Early on, when we were in Hay-on-Wye, a famous book town on the border of England and Wales, Eric scored a first edition of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, one of the books I was specifically looking for. We were both in the same store. I looked for it and didn’t find it. Minutes later he walked right in, pulled it off the shelf, and bought it for a couple of bucks. I can’t explain how he does it. There’s a reason he’s called the Book Mole.
Well, after a lot of wonderful concerts and visits to castles and dinners with friends and pubs and Oxonian landmarks, we found ourselves at last at the end of our trip.
Tom and Rachel Hart, a delightful couple (he’s English and she’s Scottish), hosted us in their home and arranged a couple of concerts. If the Rabbit Room ever makes it into the U.K., it will likely be thanks to Tom and Rachel’s enthusiasm for what we do here. They’re big Eric Peters and Randall Goodgame fans, not to mention a host of other Rabbit Room friends. (In fact, Tom has arranged not one but two Goodgame tours in England!)
We got to the church in London for soundcheck. Tom was setting up the sound system when I noticed a couple of tables piled with books in the back of the room. “Is it okay if I look through these books?” I asked Tom quietly, stealing glances over my shoulder to be sure Eric was distracted. He said it was fine. The church was cleaning out its library, and the books were all Sunday School curriculum and old hymnals from the 1970s. Once my guitar was checked I looked around to make sure Eric was otherwise occupied and practically tiptoed over to the books, thinking I might discover something rare or interesting. But I was disappointed. I looked under several piles with mounting disappointment, and finally gave up.
This next part is totally true.
After soundcheck Eric walked over to the table and I called out knowingly from the stage, “Don’t bother. I already looked through those. It’s just a bunch of old lame stuff.” As I turned my attention back to tuning my guitar Eric said, “Did you see this?” I looked up and he was holding A FIRST EDITION OF THE GREAT DIVORCE. My jaw dropped. I had been looking for that book, that edition of that book for literally years, and until he had bought one in Hay-on-Wye the previous week I had never laid eyes on one. Now he had found a second one—and this one was free. I truly couldn’t believe it. Eric is a talented man, who has written some of the most beautiful songs I know, but in that moment I was torn between a feeling of astonishment at his ability to book-sniff and an urge to tackle him and wrench the book from his hands.
The good news is, Eric is a more gracious soul than I, and he gladly gave it to me with a chuckle. One of the pleasures of book collecting is not just the story between the covers but the story that surrounds the discovery of the book itself, and I’ll treasure this one as long as I live as a reminder of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to sing the Gospel in England with my friend—and to watch a master book hunter at work.
One last pleasant memory: we finished that show and enjoyed a late night talk with the Harts afterward. The next day was our last show in London, in Harrow at Mike Hutton’s church. We needed to leave for the airport at dark thirty that night, so Eric and I holed up in Mike’s guest room till the wee hours and tried to figure out how to get all the books home. The Man Who Was Thursday, Black Beauty, Perelandra, At the Back of the North Wind, The Book of the Dun Cow, The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Watership Down—book after book after book, piles of words and stories and deep truths, all ready to fly back with us and find their new homes on well-dusted bookshelves. Eric’s suitcase was full to bursting and mine was about to pop, so in the end we each had to carry an armful of books in paper bags through the long corridors of Heathrow airport.
I’m not sure what the airport security thought of us, but if they had tried to confiscate a certain copy of The Great Divorce, I would probably be writing this from a holding cell in Scotland Yard.