Rarely do I stop at a garage sale — not unless I practically collide with one. I have enough “stuff” and no room for any more. The other day, however, while driving home, something told me to pull up curbside at a garage sale just up ahead.
I’m glad I did. I spied a treasure in a pile of books on a card table. I started salivating when I saw it – a green-and-copper-colored treasure that had suddenly returned to me after a long absence of half a century. Like an old friend.
The treasure is a slipcover book-sized box called “American Geographical Society Around the World Program,” published by Nelson Doubleday Inc. As soon as I spotted it, it instantly summoned up a rush of profoundly happy memories: the smell of summer rain falling on the hot street outside my house when I was 10; the old wood-and-wallpaper smell of my upstairs bedroom; a cardboard package in the mail addressed to me; the smell of fresh-off-the-press paper; the taste of stamp-glue and the sound of a cardboard slipcase box opening with a skittery squeak and a whoosh of air.
Those were the memories from a hot summer day in 1958 when I received that treasure in the mail. Seeing a magazine ad, I’d send away for it. I eagerly opened the cardboard package and there it was, in my hands, smelling so brand-papery new. “It” was actually two items, a paperback book-pamphlet called “France” and this nifty box to hold the book. It was a pool-table green quality-cardboard box, the size of a book, with a shiny-copper-penny spine. It would open like a dresser drawer. I’d pull a ribbon tab on the edge, and it would open, squeaky and whooshy, releasing a whiff of that clean-paper aroma.
“France,” the book that came with the box, had a colorful, stylized map of France on its front cover. Tucked inside the book were several sheets of fairly large stamps, each showing photographic scenes taken in France. You had to separate each stamp at the perforated edges, lick the stamps and then affix them to designated blank spaces in the book.
Those National Geographic “stamp” booklets were quite common in the 1950s. Subscribers would get a new booklet every month. The ones I remember having were – besides France – India, Portugal, Scotland, Germany and Italy. I kept thinking, as I’d lick-and-stick stamps how neat it would be to visit those countries someday. Lo and behold, I did eventually – except for India and Portugal.
I used to wonder why in the world didn’t the publishers just print the colored photos directly on the pages instead of sending us photo-stamps that we had to lick and stick? Maybe it’s because those booklets were a kind of offshoot of paint-by-number sets, so popular in the 1950s. They gave the owner a “hobby” to do, a sense of participation, what they call “interactive” nowadays.
In the early 1960s, my once-prized green-and-copper box slipped into oblivion, tossed out, forgotten. When I saw its “cousin” at the garage sale the other day, I was astounded at how that old object had the magic power of a time machine. I bought it for a quarter, then just stood there holding it, opening and shutting it, dazzled by the long-ago sensations that flooded forth. The booklets in the box were not the ones I had once upon a time. Different countries. No matter. Still magic.
Most people, especially as we get older, can be transfixed by a simple object from our pasts. Just visit a consignment shop. You’re bound to come across a time-machine object (an old croquet set, an aqua-colored Melmac coffee cup, a Kodak Brownie box camera – whatever) that will transport you directly – abracadabra! – right back into happy days of the past.