My father said you could understand a person by looking at the books in their library. When my Dad passed, I inherited that which he considered his most valued property; his library.
Recently, I received the treasure of another man’s library, Jim Brown of San Diego, California. I met Jim a few years ago when my wife and I vacationed in San Diego. I wanted to fly fish in the area and I was referred to Jim who had been the San Diego City Lakes manager for 30+ years. Jim gave us an incredible tour of the entire county and charmed his way into our hearts.
While there, I fell in love with Jim’s library. It was the quintessential outdoorsman’s library with hunting and fishing memorabilia and an extensive collection of books.
If you have a library, you know that each book holds a special value, not only for it’s worth as a book, but as a part of shaping how you think. Jim expressed interest in all of his library going to one person at some point in time. He could easily have sold them one at at time but he chose, instead, to make a deal with me on the whole library. Here is his reasoning, in his own words:
I was asked recently to explain why I decided to part with a collection of fishing books, the vast majority pertaining to fly fishing, that I had collected and curated over the last 55 years and was of great personal value to me. It is a question that I am unable to consider without explaining first, the why and how of the collection in the first place.
I suppose that like a lot of addictions it began slowly and even innocently enough when I was at the vulnerable age of twenty with the vast majority of my life dedicated to catching bass and other warm water species – and I was pretty good at it.
Looking for something different, I dug a fly rod out of a collection of rods that I owned, paired it with a fly reel and line and drove into the mountains an hour east of my home to Cuyamaca State Park. At that time the Sweetwater River which runs through the park was planted regularly with rainbow trout and over the years I’d caught hundreds of them using light spinning tackle and a single red salmon egg 18 inches below a split shot. When I arrived at the stream I immediately found numerous pools filled with the planted rainbows none of which showed the slightest interest in the #18 Adams I drifted over them dozens of times. Their rejection was doubly frustrating because I knew from experience I could have emptied the pool of trout using the aforementioned red salmon egg.
Calling the Sweetwater a river is a significant exaggeration. For most of its existence it is a small stream, so small that it could be crossed by hopping across a few rocks to reach the opposite bank – in the wide spots. Otherwise there are plenty of spots where I could straddle the stream – and I’m not known for having long legs.
Discouraged with my results in the pools, I hiked downstream a bit and found a nice rock where I could sit and observe a stretch of current. As I watched I saw a small “bug” drifting on the surface. As it passed around a midstream boulder it suddenly disappeared. Knowing it had not sunk or flown away, I was left with the conclusion it had been snatched by a trout. Rising to my feet, I made a short cast and watched as my fly followed the path of the bug and disappeared as it passed the rock. I set the hook immediately and missed the fish, but the line and leader flew over my head and the fly hooked an overhead branch I couldn’t reach and ultimately claimed my fly.
Heart pounding, I returned to my granite seat and tied on another Adams, treated it with a liquid used to keep dry flies from drowning and after a couple false casts managed to land it well upstream and watched as it meandered with the current. As it passed the boulder, it disappeared again. Flushed with excitement, I set the hook as if I wa answering the strike of a five pound bass. The line, leader and flew past me again and a five inch rainbow trout writhed in some dry grass, but it was unlike any of the trout I’d caught before. Roughly half the size of the planted rainbows, it was strikingly more beautiful with a palette of colors and parr marks down its sides. I got the little fish back to the stream as fast as I could and continued to admire it while bits of grass quickly washed away as I removed the fly from its jaw and watched it swim away.
Returning to my seat and heart racing, I pondered what had just happened. I’d just caught a wild trout, a fish that against all odds hatched and survived in the small stream. I recounted in my mind how the fly drifted perfectly in the current – and disappeared – and I was thrilled beyond belief over my good fortune and the future I foresaw. In the ensuing 55 years I’ve caught a few more trout, adding browns, cutthroat, brookies, kamloops, steelhad and a few goldens to the list – nearly all of them larger – but none more memorable or meaningful than that first little rainbow.
The next step for me in 1967 was to learn everything I could about fly fishing and that is where books entered the picture. It was an era when books were the first place most people looked for answers; books that addressed the questions of how, where and when and best of all for me -; books that are simply good literature. I can think of no other sport, hobby or passion that has inspired so many outstanding books over so many years as flyfishing.
Among the earliest and most notable is Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, published in England in1653. Fly fishing literature brings together so many different elements essential to our understanding of nature, fish, people, passion and more. You don’t have to be an angler to appreciate the writings of Ernest Hemingway, Zane Grey or their place in the world of literature.
With a love of good writing, as well as writing that might help me to become a better angler, I set out to find and collect everything I could that met those requirements. I haunted used bookstores, small, unique and independent businesses that have largely disappeared from our landscape along with the passionate people who owned and operated them. As newer books were published, many featuring new methods, I bought them too. Over the course of roughly four decades my bookcase filled with over 250 volumes that included upland bird hunting, sporting dogs and nature, but the vast majority devoted to fly fishing.
Having covered how and why I developed this addiction to flyfishing books and passion for collecting them leaves a more compelling question, and that is why at this point would I choose to relinquish something I’ve so painstakingly developed over more than half a century?
As a pragmatist I realize that at 75 years of age, 55 of them spent developing and growing my collection, I’ve wrung as much if not more pleasure than I deserve from them. I’ve read and re-read those I’ve most enjoyed and shared many of them with friends. I’ve sat and admired the gold gilt titles on some books published in late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of all, I’ve concluded that my collection, rather than sitting on a shelf and collecting dust, needed to be shared and enjoyed by others. Worse, I feared that when I tip over for the final time, books that meant so much to me and some of considerable value to collectors would end up in an estate sale for a few dollars per box with those not taken headed for a dumpster. They needed to go to someone who would find some books in the collection that they could learn from or pass an evening enjoying – maybe with embers glowing in a fireplace or stove and a favored nightcap in hand. Maybe they would land in the hands of someone who might find a volume or two so influential or simply well written that it would be something they cherished for the pleasure it brought them – but who?
The answer to that question came in the form of a couple who discovered the same pleasure in flyfishing that I found so many years earlier.
That “couple” was my wife and me. I’m building The Jim Brown Library in the corner of my barn that will also have a nifty fly tying set up. Once complete, I’ll show you the photos; I will literally be surrounded by Jim’s books and the world of fly fishing, one that I have loved for 40 years. Stay tuned for Part 2!