Past The Use-By-Date?

Karen Radford Treanor 


Copyright 2023  by Karen Radford Treanor

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.
Just before the whole world’s door was slammed shut in our faces, we were at the recycling shop in Huonville, Tasmania. The shop is run by the local council, and it’s filled with odd glassware, old furniture, used books, pots without lids and lids without pots, and et cetera. We were poking around in search of something we needed, such as an undiscovered Sheraton sideboard.

In a corner of a back room was a plain white shelving unit of no particular distinction. You know the sort of thing: a low platform made of chipboard with one drawer and two or three open-backed shelves above. “$20 with contents” it said.

The contents comprised a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, including the year books from 1965.

I stood staring at the shelf. A sort of wormhole into history opened and sucked me down into 1982. I was standing in the Bullcreek Shopping Centre with my younger daughter. We were looking at a display in the centre of the mall.

A jolly-faced man in a discount outfitter’s tweed jacket smiled at us from his seat at a card table. “Ladies!” he exclaimed, getting to his feet and snatching a handful of colourful flyers. “I see you have spotted today’s amazing offer.” He thrust a flyer into my hands, and, sizing up my daughter with a practiced eye, forced one on her as well. Something about her must have s aid “Child with curious mind and above-average reading skills.”

Today’s amazing offer was the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 24 easy monthly payments PLUS this year’s yearbook, abso-bloody-lutely free!

I probably should have smiled and walked on, but I didn’t. Memories of my own mother’s encyclopaedia, which had fuelled many a homework project, came back to me. She’d no doubt signed up for its purchase in a similar manner, smarmed into it by a salesman who flattered her brain whilst sizing up her neat ankles. Mother didn’t have a Britannica; she had a leatherette bound set of Colliers Encyclopaedias, but in those days having any encyclopaedia in your own house was pretty special.

“Er, well, it’s tempting, but I doubt I can afford it. Kids to feed, you know.” I said, backing off a few steps.

“Feeding their minds is every bit as important as nourishing their bodies. Having their very own Encyclopaedia Britannica is like having a private library in their own home. How often has this young lady asked a question you couldn’t answer? Imagine if you had all the knowledge of the world at your very fingertips!”

“My mother knows everything,” my daughter said. “Well, lots of things, anyway. She’s not so good on math.”

Sensing where the sale had to come from, Mr Tweedy focussed on Erin. “I’ll bet you get top marks in your classes, young lady. But when you get to high school, you may want some extra help. The Britannica can be your helper. Rain or shine, it will always be there.”

Turning back to me, he said, “A mere $29.95 a month could deliver this invaluable resource to your doorstep.”

Erin by this time was paging through some of the sample volumes. “Look, it’s got an article about Jericho—remember that TV show we saw that talked about it being the oldest occupied city on earth? There’s lots of stuff here about it.”

“A mere $29.95 a month!” urged the salesman.

We were in those days living on a budget that would have shocked any ecclesiastical rodent with half a brain. M y husband was a full-time mature-age student and I worked for basic wages at the Anglican Education Office. This is where I should have smiled and walked off. But I didn’t.

In a sort of trance I said to Erin, “I suppose I could pay it out of the child support payment, but you’d all have to give up a few treats.” (In those days a beneficent government gave me $31.35 a month as an aid to supporting the family.)

Speaking for her siblings--who might not have agreed--Erin said, “That would be alright.” She turned back to the table. “There’s probably something you have to sign.”

Before I came out of the trance, Mr Tweedy had thrust a clipboard and pen at me. “Just sign here, and here, and your initials here and here,” he said. “You’ll receive an invoice every month, with its own return envelope—pre-stamped. No extra cost to you!”

And so it was that we became the owners of our own Encyclopaedia Britannica. When I told my mother about it she was thrilled. “I worry about the children not having access to the things you did,” she wrote back. Despite my attempts to convince her otherwise, M other always seemed to suspect Australia was a pretty wild and woolly and basic sort of place. No amount of statistics about the overwhelming urbanity of my new home would convince her otherwise.

Over the next two years I paid off the Britannica, and it did indeed come in useful for numerous homework projects, even occasionally those of the adult student in the family, who built a couple of handsome bookcases to house the ever-increasing volumes. Annually, I bought the year books and the science yearbooks until most of the children had flown the nest.

Eventually there was little call on the Britannica. Newer, faster—but n not necessarily more reliable-- technology was nibbling at the ankles of older forms of reference. About the turn of the century the set was retired to storage boxes, all except the gigantic “Britannica Atlas of the Oceans”. That volume remained with the bookshelf through its next several migrations, ending up facing the d’Entrecasteaux Channel in Tasmania, which lets on to the vast, cold, Southern Ocean, about which so little is known. “Here there be sea serpents”.

Eventually, Erin had her own home, with plenty of space, as well as a husband who preferred nonfiction to any other sort of reading, and had hatched a daughter of her own. The daughter at an early age showed signs of being a rather intelligent and curious child.

Unlike the day when I had signed up to purchase the Britannica, for Sarah’s third birthday I knew exactly what to do. I loaded the car with the hastily-dusted boxes and brought them to my daughter.

“I’m delivering this invaluable resource to your doorstep—and you don’t even have to promise me $29.95 a month,” I said, unloading the books.

As far as I know, she still has them.

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