Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2020 Issue

Long Lost Books Discovered in a Library's Walls

Jack Tripp's library card and the missing old books (SLC Library photos).

There's always a certain amount of anticipation when you tear out the walls of an old building. Might there be something, perhaps trivial in its day, of substantial value now to be found within? For book collectors and readers, the excitement would be particularly strong if that building is a library. That happened recently in Salt lake City, and what was discovered was some old, long lost books, some missing almost a century.


The story begins in 1928. That is when the Sprague Branch of the Salt Lake City Public Library moved to a new location. It was a fine-looking structure, winning an award from the American Library Association in 1935 as The Most Beautiful Branch. It still is a beautiful building. Unfortunately, a surprise rainstorm on July 26, 2017, hit Salt Lake City and the Sprague Library was a primary victim. Over five feet of water covered the bottom floor. Many of the books were destroyed, while water seeped into the walls. There is not much you can do when the interior is that extensively damaged. The decision was to gut the interior, while preserving the award-winning exterior of the classic old building.


Renovation is now underway, with an expected completion date late this year. Recently, during part of the renovation that involved tearing out the walls, some old books were discovered. There was some built-in shelving and apparently a few books slid behind those shelves, never to be seen again until now. Also discovered was an old library card, one that entitled Jack Tripp of 603 Ramona Avenue to borrow books. He took out several books in 1930, but he would not be able to use it today. The library card expired in March 1935.


So, what were the books that the librarians found? Sadly, there were no Shakespeare First Folios, no first edition Birds of America. However, they did find The Birds' Christmas Carol. None of these books are particularly rare or collectible. A couple of them may have some modest value, but with the emphasis on “modest.” Here are some titles other than The Birds' Christmas Carol they found: Lady of Lyons or Love and Pride, Building with Logs, Making and Showing Your Own Films, and General History of Architecture. The Birds and the Lady are 19th century books and may have a limited amount of value.


The Lady of Lyons looks to be the most valuable book. This is a play and evidently it was once quite popular. It also appears to be one of those books that has since gone out of favor. We were able to locate 13 times when it came up for sale at auction between 1888-1923. Since then, it has only appeared once, in 1962, when Sotheby's sold a copy for $98. That one came with stage directions so was likely more valuable. Bookseller George MacManus offered a copy in 1982 for $35. I think we can estimate this book in the low hundreds.


Kate Douglas Wiggin, better known for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, was the author of the Birds' Christmas Carol. It was her second book. The Birds here are not what Audubon drew, but a human family named Bird. It is something of a tear jerker. This book has come up for auction five times since 2010 with triple digit estimates but did not sell even one time. I'm not sure what that means, other than maybe it is being estimated too high. Unfortunately, those estimates were for the 1887 first edition. The Sprague Library has the 1888 edition, a copy of which sold last year at Heritage for $52. Peg this one at low to mid-double digits.


The other three are 1930s-1950s books and don't show up in the auction records. That does not reflect rarity. It reflects insufficient value. If you can sell one of these for more than single digits, you are doing well. Nonetheless, the find is interesting to the curious, and the library has put the books on display, not at the library, since it is closed, but at a local firehouse.


That leads us to a final question, who was Jack Tripp? It turns out that is more difficult to answer than you might imagine. This is not because you cannot find a Jack Tripp in Salt Lake City doing a Google search. To the contrary, the problem is you will find too many. That is because of a remarkable oddity in what otherwise appears to be a fairly ordinary family. The Tripps named all of their sons “Jack.” For this we are indebted to Salt Lake City's Deseret News which did some outstanding sleuthing to answer this question. Jack Tripp had two sons from different marriages. Both were named Jack. One of those sons, who died in 2012, had five sons and he named all of them “Jack.” That must have been confusing. He did give them different middle names to distinguish one from another. The Deseret News did locate library-card Jack Tripp's daughter, who is 82 years old. She remembers her father as a hard working man. She figured he must have taken the books from the library for school assignments since he was not much of a reader. He worked as mechanic at a smelter during the war, then for Greyhound, and finally for a machinery company. He played ball with his children, took them for ice cream, but they did not have the money for vacations. He worked hard to support the family and it took its toll. Pictures show he aged quickly and died in 1962 at the age of 51. He probably would have remained forgotten to all but a few aging people, and his name and picture would never again have appeared in a newspaper, were it not for the accident of his library card slipping behind a bookcase during the 1930s. It came late, but Jack Tripp finally achieved his 15 minutes of fame. That's more than most people will ever get.


You can find Jack Tripp's story by clicking this link to the Deseret News.

Rare Book Monthly

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