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For Susan Price, collecting and sharing children’s books is the stronghold of her life. She is self-described as mad, she is generous, and eternally admirable while refusing to admit it. Susan Price is a fascinating Wellington character, and an incredibly important figure in the world of children’s literature.
I used the telephone to arrange this meeting. I was directed to their house with specific instructions: follow the path, arrows would lead the way, do not go to the second flat. Of course, I forgot about the arrows and found myself on the wrong side of the house. Through the window I caught a vignette of the life within; folders were stacked perilously on top of each other, defying gravity. The warmth of the wooden interior and the grandiose binding of the encyclopaedic volumes that lined the shelves lent the room an Oxfordian romance. And then there was a ladder—but of course there was—which took you to the mezzanine level, where more of the same was stored. I re-routed and found the arrows, which allowed me to find the door. I felt like maybe I had gotten ahead of myself; I had peeled the wrapping paper back the day before Christmas. I imagined a world of precarious stacks of books, books as furniture and animals living amongst them, a wildness of papers exploding around the rooms. A part of me thought I would be walking in to a Grey Gardens-type situation, a world where time had stopped. I was very, very wrong.
I had gotten to know Susan Price while working at Vic Books; her regular visits were a total delight. Her distinctive style, gait, and manner of speech made her quite unforgettable; her effusive “thank you ever so much” remarks increased my job satisfaction tenfold. She would often come up to the counter with stacks of kids’ books, picture books and early readers, the classics as well as contemporary works. She delighted in her purchases with an enthusiasm often lacking from a student campus where “chur” is an acceptable sign of appreciation. Her appearances in my bookshop life made for bookshop magic.
After my first few encounters with her I was intrigued. A quick Google search revealed Price housed an extensive collection of children’s literature. In 1991 she donated it to the National Library (she had to check they wanted it first, so she sent her father down to scope out their interest, as she daren’t face such rejection). It was arranged to be a living collection, to be housed with Susan until she was no longer able to do so, and to be continually updated and evolving until, again, she was not able to carry out the task.
After I found the correct course I knocked on their front door, which opened to Susan’s delighted smiling face. I approached like I was walking in to hallowed ground. It was not a scene out of Grey Gardens; there was neither dilapidation nor rodents. It was a beautifully kept home that housed a immaculately organised and curated collection of books. I didn’t want to make a fuss—Price seems allergic to effusive admiration—but the magnitude of her collection was slowly dawning, and I had only seen the hallway.
Price, 54, lives with her 84-year-old mother, Beverley Randell, in their family home. The house is from a different era—an obviously beloved era. Full of wooden trim, and furnishings in keeping with the 1904 origins of the house, Price is aware the next generation to own the house will more than likely gut and modernise it. “I think we, my mother and I, live a life most people don’t want to live,” she says. “But it suits us very well.”
Not a thing seemed out of place or dirty. She would apologise for the mess—“I’m sorry, as you can see I’ve just got papers everywhere”—but if this was chaos, it was the most organised chaos ever. With a vase of flowers spilling over the coffee table, and lines of decorative toys along the mantel and fire places, everything has a designated area to live in. The book collection itself spans the house, trailing along walls and around corners. After allowing me to digest the first impression of her house and collection, Susan showed me to the dining table where she had prepared afternoon tea for me. Under netted tents, upon a set of Denby China, Susan had prepared pikelets, topped with salmon or jam, and crackers with the same. Susan’s generosity and thoughtfulness is immense; she even positioned me on the table so I wasn’t victim to the late afternoon sun. It was hosting done properly.
Knowing where to begin was as difficult as pulling the threads together for this piece. There are so many elements to this story, and if I gave the reigns to Susan she would most likely approach it chronologically from her grandparents, and work forwards. No doubt wonderfully rich tangents would pique her interest and take her elsewhere. Susan’s love of children’s literature is inherited, along with the bones of her current collection. Her mother Beverley is a writer of children’s books, and was awarded an Order of Merit for her contributions to children’s education. Her father was a publisher and they were both collectors in their own right. Together they instilled in Susan the same passions for curation and preservation, as well as the importance of stories.
Susan’s collection began not in her lifetime, but in her grandmother’s. Price admits that her grandmother “was a bit unusual”—she loved children’s books. When she had children in the 1930s, she “was eager to find for them the very best of the new books being written for children at that time”. Susan spent most of her pocket money on children’s books, adding to the collection. In the summer of her seventeenth year, she indexed her library and found that it reached 350 children’s books, not including picture books or poetry books. Not yet satisfied, Price set her sights further, looking to grow her collection to 1000 of the best children’s books around. She managed to meet this goal within a year, and has has long since exceeded it. Her complete collection, which includes poetry, picture books, non-fiction, and biographies, reached 18,000 in 2002, and has only grown since.
It becomes clear just how well organised and systematic this entire enterprise is. With an index listing the books by subject, and cross referencing them, Susan is proud to be able to say she has read all of the books in her house—her main collection. There is an entire secondary collection, which is densely organised and claustrophobically housed in a smaller adjunct. This is her Room of the Unread. When we reach this room, Susan laughs voraciously “this is where I am mad, I have gone too far”. She insists I understand how busy she is, and that I appreciate just how difficult it is to keep on top of her reading with so many other projects going on. Finally, I think, a moment of reality. She isn’t some superhuman reading machine; rather, a dedicated servant to books. Where she puts her unread away, I put mine alongside those I have read.
As I listen back to the recording of our conversation, it is punctuated by the creaking spines of the books she has pulled out to show me, and the crinkling of dust jackets as they are delicately opened. Her stories are accompanied by artifacts, whether they be photographs, first editions, or newspaper clippings. As she opens books, clippings slide out from between the covers, a storage system for relevant information Price devised in lieu of space. Price’s documentary instinct runs deep, tracking each book’s purchase details—“I always write in pencil in the front of each book… I’m an archivist really, and I just see it as terribly important you see… I also think the price of a book is fascinating… the present will one day be the past.”
Price places immense value on recording and documenting, remembering, with terrifying precision, where each artifact ought to be. She seems to know where almost all of her books are, on the tips of her fingers. The map of her books is fused in her brain. Price would often disappear and re-emerge with an edition of the book in question, recalling with accuracy the publishing company’s history, as well as that of the author. Price is equal parts proper and eccentric. At one point during our discussions she gets up to swat a fly that had been distracting her for some time, worried about it sitting on the food. As she swats it she laughs and proclaims “I have a ruthless killer instinct!”. After cleaning up the mess of the fly, she rejoins the discussion with the same level of sincerity, as if nothing ever happened.
Price identified two stories in particular, or perhaps two authors, whose works had an incredible and lasting impression upon her. The first was Milly-Molly-Mandy (1928) by Joyce Lankester Brisley, which had been a favourite in my household as well. The stories are of the simplicity of family life in a quaint English village. These books were the first to share 1920s village life with a wider audience, transcending the class divide. Along with illustrations penned by the author, each chapter contained a complete story, where something happened. This is something that both Price and her mother had learnt and held onto—the completeness of a story. Problems and resolutions fit tidily within the confines of a chapter, allowing for great satisfaction for the reader.
The other book Price read when she was ten. Thee, Hannah! (1940) by Maguerite D’Angeli is story of a young Quaker girl who struggles to accept the plainness of her Quaker dress. Set during the abolition movement, an escaping slave girl sees Hannah’s plain Quaker bonnet and knows her parents would sympathise with their cause, and feels safe. Hannah’s bonnet then no longer feels tight, but more light and free. The moral undertones of this story appealed to Price, because she herself felt that there were much more important things in this world than being pretty. She proudly admits to not owning jewellery, nor wearing makeup. She is quick to make clear that she isn’t moralistic, and doesn’t disapprove of anyone else practicing these things. A sigh of relief slips between my lips; my fingers are covered in rings, and my face bears the signs of makeup. In passing, when I have seen Susan from afar, I have often thought that she was wearing a bonnet, as her black hat sits perfectly balanced on the crown of her head.
Around Christmas time, Susan and her mother came to Vic Books more frequently. Using Vic Books’ postage service, they would bring with them multiple pre-packed parcels of books ready for postage, sending to some lucky recipients. After a few probing questions, Susan revealed that she buys books for a range of children. She told me that owning books is incredibly important, and that most of the people she has encountered through her life had remembered vividly the books they actually owned.
Price seemed relatively covert about the details, but it seemed obvious that children of friends and family were the recipients of her generosity. Price has by now helped curate many children’s libraries. She sends a new bundle of books every month, and the bundle will be thematically connected and specifically tailored to the child’s age bracket or interests. She corresponds with them as well, and often sends a toy along with the packages. This practice is in part to break books out of what Susan has termed “the loop”. Susan points out that kids’ books have a cyclical nature—as children, your parents would have read you things they knew about from their own childhoods. The repeated purchase of the same books often keeps new and modern works from becoming famous.
Susan is giving these children more variety and loop-free books. She also keeps records of these correspondences, with photocopies of the books, details of their purchase, dates, and themes all recorded in giant ring binders, bursting at the seams. Her modesty prevented much discussion about this organised programme of generosity, but as Price sees it, she can’t cultivate this collection and love of children’s books and not share it with others. Perhaps, too, there’s an element of poignancy around not having had any children of her own.
During our conversations, Price alluded several times to her illness, something which has plagued and altered her life considerably, but never stopped her doing what she loves. She suffers from an autoimmune disease, polyarteritis nodosa. The disease makes her white blood cells go into overdrive, often resulting in nodules around her arteries. Price first exhibited symptoms at the age of 16, and remorsefully acknowledges this was when her energy disappeared. Her disease has seen multiple near-death experiences, with doctors giving her weeks or mere hours to live.
With another near-death experience in 2008, coinciding with the death of her father, Price no longer fears death. Price has seen down the road of death; while looking, she thought of her loved ones, and recited poetry from World War One—“I met a man this morning who did not wish to die”. These men, she tells me, truly knew that death was around the corner. The same awareness seems to have seeped into Price’s life. Rather than fearing death itself, Price fears that it may come too soon, when she isn’t ready. After her father died, her attempts to write the history of Brooklyn were subsumed by the importance of her father’s life—the importance of recording it and publishing it. She had been recording stories about his childhood for over 25 years. I asked whether archiving was a mode of expressing love for her, and she agreed, saying it’s the very essence of who she is, one to preserve and record. As Kate De Goldi describes her, she is a sedulous recorder.
She sort of seems to have this fear that if she doesn’t record and capture as much as possible, then it won’t be kept for the next generation. Whether it is books, or facts, or details, or clippings from newspapers—for Price, recording and preserving is living. On my way out, I noticed the treehouse erected near their front door. Susan told me “one of the first things my father did after he bought this house was build a treehouse; childhood always meant a lot to him, he was a wonderful father.” It seems that in their house, childhood itself has been preserved. As I turned to leave, Beverley, her mother, turned up with groceries in hand. Before she launched into their stories for a second time, Susan quickly assured her she had passed along the information. With sincere thanks, I say my final goodbyes and follow the arrows back. When I return to work, I can’t quite describe the magical world I had just visited.