David Mason: Collector's Notes

David Mason Leaning on a book Shelf

Photo courtesy of David Mason Books

Introduction to the Collector's Notes:

In June 2017, David Mason celebrated his fiftieth anniversary as a bookseller – or, as his father would have put it, a bookbuyer. His purchases and sage advice to collectors and librarians have shaped many private and public libraries in Canada. In addition to a penchant for modern first editions, David Mason’s abiding interest in children’s literature resulted in a collection of more than 2,500 works built over several decades, which was acquired by York University Libraries in 2016. Insights into David Mason’s approach to developing the collection and his deep connection with the books can be found in the following excerpts from the introduction to Catalogue 85, Boys’ Adventure Stories, and his overview of the collection, “Children’s Books,” written in November 2016. 


Excerpt from:

Boy's Adventure Stories

David Mason

For many years I have been buying early children’s books, my preference being novels as opposed to those books chiefly sought after for their illustrations. My favorites have long been those elaborate multi-coloured pictorial cloth covers, produced from the 1880s or so into the 1920s, before dustwrappers made that format largely obsolete. The most famous titles done in that format were the many books of G. A. Henty, although such people as G. M. Fenn, F. S. Brereton, and Percy Westerman were almost as prolific.

As one who grew up in a home without books I was forced to find all my reading in the library and so I observe these books with a deep regret, for almost everything here escaped my childhood reading. My weekly trips to the old St. Clements Children’s Library, where the lady librarians would guide our reading, directing us to new choices instilled in me habits which have never changed. I have never been without books and I would no more leave my house without something to read then I would without my keys or wallet. If books can change your life, and I believe they can, it follows that those books read early can have an even greater effect. It is for this reason that I go to extra lengths when young people enter our store. It’s not just our lives we can change, we can influence others’ lives.

I have had many collectors of Henty over the years usually men of considerable accomplishment who I always assumed were rereading the stories that had so influenced them as youths. One of my favorite bookselling anecdotes relates to that. One day I had two customers in the store at the same time, one of them the Chairman of one of Canada’s major banks, in his $2,000 suit and with his chauffeur driven limousine waiting at the curb and the other, a 13 year old English schoolboy in short pants. Both were collectors of Henty so I introduced them to each other. An animated conversation ensued comparing locales and citing favorite plots, all considerations of time and differences in social status forgotten for almost two hours. I love to relate that incident, one of the best illustrations I know of how the love of books breaks down just about all social differences. I had another client for Henty, a Professor of history, who assigned Henty to his students so they could, by reading them, absorb the common general sentiments of the British people during the glory days of their empire. I thought that a brilliant idea and assumed he must have been an excellent teacher.

At one point when I had several Henty collectors I decided I needed to know more about this man who so influenced several generations of young boys, so I tried to read one. It was difficult, in fact a failure. The prose was cliché-ridden, the emotions shallow so the appeal must have been the plots. The real lesson is that you may – although it can be dangerous – re-read your childhood favorites but if you didn’t read them as a child you probably can’t now.

We now tend to absorb the emotional essence of our times largely from movies and television and I can’t help thinking we have lost something very important by missing these books in our youth. I still remember clearly the excitement of anticipation I felt as a child going home from the library with the limit, ten books, intent on conning my mother into thinking I was ill on Monday morning, so I could stay home from school and read. At first my mother was too smart for such transparent ploys but I quickly learned that if one started demonstrating the symptoms of dire illness on Sunday afternoon, before dinner (after cleverly hiding food under the bed to replace the dinner which you claimed to be too sick to eat), even the most suspicious, strictest mother could be fooled into accepting the fraudulent symptoms. Before long I realized that it was pointless to stage such elaborate productions for only one day off school – why not two or three days? So I have a family history of having endured a sickly childhood without ever actually having been sick once.

The problems of ascertaining first editions for most of the Boys Adventure Stories of the late 19th and early 20th Century are numerous as noted by Eric Quayle in his pioneering effort to classify boy’s books “The Collector’s Book of Boys’ Stories” (London: Studio Vista, 1973). No bibliographies exist except for the most popular authors such as Henty or Ballantyne. In this catalogue we call a title a first edition only when we have been able to ascertain that it indeed is. But there are probably a few, maybe quite a few, of the lesser known authors listed here, which we do not denote as firsts, but they could be. A dated title is sometimes an indication of a first edition but we suspect (and Peter Newbolt proves it with his admirable comprehensive study of Henty’s books) that many dated editions are actually reprint editions. Conversely many undated editions may be firsts, indeed they may be the only editions.


Excerpt from:

Children's Books

David Mason Books

We have always carried a large selection of children’s books, primarily from the mid-19th century into the 1930s. These books, like most of our stock, reflect our personal interest and include large selections of boys’ adventure novels, attractive reprints of classic children’s stories, and school books, to name just a few. The vast majority were purchased individually with particular attention to condition and attractiveness. The result is a collection of items that, in addition to illustrating the changing reading habits of children throughout this period, also stands as a fine archive of decorative arts and illustrations for children.

In The Collector’s Book of Children’s Books, Eric Quayle notes that 1855 is the “dividing line between the old and the new, between soul-saving didacticism and the modern children’s book.” This is also an approximate marker for the beginning of this collection. About twenty percent of our children’s section represents general Victorian children’s fiction from the 1860s to the 1880s. These items are striking for their elaborately gilt-decorated bindings, and the occasional chromolithographic frontispiece or title page.

We have a large selection of boys’ adventure stories from the 1880s to the 1920s. The most famous—such as Henty, Ballantyne, Kingston, Westerman, and Brereton—are well represented (though more likely to be found in decorated covered reprints than in the expensive first editions) and rounded out with minor British and American writers of the period. Several years ago we issued a catalogue of these books (http://www.davidmasonbooks.com/catalogues/BoysAdventureStories.pdf), which gives a good indication of the kinds of titles we keep in stock, as well as the excellent condition of most of our children’s books. Within this genre we have also made an effort to buy stories with Canadian settings.

There is nearly as much turn-of-the-century girls’ fiction as there are boys’ stories. While there are numerous titles by well-known writers such as L. T. Meade and Annie Fellows Johnston, one of the strengths of this section is the number of lesser-known women writers of the period. Also of note is a small selection of early adventure stories with female protagonists. 

Another large section, of which we have also issued a catalogue, is school books (http://www.davidmasonbooks.com/schooldays_files/School-Cat.pdf). This includes school fiction (Tom Brown’s School Days and the like), magazines (Boys’ Own Paper, The Schoolgirl, etc.), and textbooks and instructional books spanning the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. 

Additionally, there are 20th-century series books as late as the ‘40s (usually reprints by publishers such as Grosset & Dunlap) like the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew. In those cases, they will only be present if they have dustjackets.

Other smaller but notable sections include early reprints of the Oz books, Thorton W. Burgess titles, Raggedy Ann books, pop-ups from the 1960s to the 80s, and large-format boys’ and girls’ annuals. 

We believe this collection would provide an excellent foundation for a collection of late Victorian and Edwardian children’s books.


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