I've never been to one of my favorite bookstores, Terrace Horticultural Books. I know it's in Minneapolis somewhere, but I always get there by way of the Internet. This is how I keep up with my reading these days. Long before I can reasonably dream of crocus and snowdrops, I can spend winter evenings browsing through the gardening sections second-hand bookstores that have been closed for hours, in neighborhoods I've never seen.
Many of the most wonderful and essential gardening books were published before my time, or when I wasn't paying attention. To find them today, I have to rely on second-hand booksellers. Kent Petterson, up in Minneapolis, assures me that he has comfortable overstuffed chairs for serious browsers at his shop, but I can sit in my own chair at home, with an electric seed mat under my desk to warm my feet, and peruse his whole inventory of used, rare, and out-of-print books about gardening, botany, and natural history. The online bookseller Abe-books (www.abebooks.com) represents Terrace—and 13,000 other bookstores in 48 countries—in its searchable database.
I'm not interested in gilt-edged first editions: I'm looking for books I can use. My edition of Vita Sackville-West's Garden Book is a valuable antique, as far as I'm concerned, but it didn't cost me a penny more than it would have in 1968, when it was published. The book has a date-due slip glued to the flyleaf, but the prominent discard, stamped in official-looking red ink, proves it's mine for keeps. Vita would doubtless approve. On page 17, she writes, “I try to be practical.”
If you know what you're looking for, the Internet can't be beat. I bought Boxwood Gardens Old and New (William Byrd Press, 1924) from a dealer in Australia, who shipped it to my temporary address in Copenhagen. But if you don't have any particular title in mind, there's nothing like a visit to a musty old bookshop. A few years ago, my friends Sallie McCauley and Emilie Wood and I took a day off from a garden tour in England to visit Hay-on-Wye, the charming “town of books” just across the Welsh border. If you like old books, Hay is heaven, and we spent a morning browsing its 30 bookshops for gardening titles. We bought Constance Spry and Beverley Nichols, E. A. Bowles and the Gardener's Bedside Book. I found Karl Capek's The Gardener's Year on a bookshelf out on the street and dropped my ?4 into the metal honesty box. Then we all went off for a pleasant pub lunch.
“The thrill of the hunt is completely missing” when you buy books on the Internet, Sallie maintains. “The fun is the serendipity of picking up a book that you didn't even know existed,” she says, “and loving it.” On the other hand, it's great to be sitting by the fire in your slippers, hear a friendly knock at the door, and have a nice young fellow hand you one more long-missing piece of your gardening library, all wrapped up like a present.