Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Mike Vincent pulls out a couple of Bibles not much bigger than decks of playing cards, one of them from the 1500s, the other from the 1600s, one in Latin and the other in French.
Far more than just valuable antiquarian religious texts, they are also “pieces of living history that transport you back in time.”
The Bibles were common among mendicant Franciscans of the time who took vows of poverty and renounced all worldly possessions. Consequently, their robes had no need for pockets.
“So the Franciscans would carry these compact Bibles with them by rolling them into the sleeves of their robes,” Vincent said.
“I can picture the friars unrolling their sleeves and removing the Bibles to read by candlelight. It just boggles my mind that I can sit in my living room and hold the same Bible held by a Franciscan friar in 1606. And it makes me think about that book’s journey. Where was it in 1776 or 1812 or 1917? Today, it’s in my living room. To me, that’s remarkable.”
As is the rest of the collection in Vincent’s Rio Rancho living room, which is packed with early and first editions by authors – some famous, some obscure, and many pivotal in history.
Among the volumes are a 1552 collection of works by Martin Luther, an 1894 copy of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” Joseph Conrad’s 1899 “Lord Jim,” a signed edition of John Steinbeck’s 1966 “America and Americans” and a signed 1868 copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The Chimney Corner.”
The list of authors goes on and on: Tolstoy, Nabokov, Pasternak, Baum, Cather, Byron, Tennyson, Stevenson, Twain, Hemingway, Lewis, Freud, Darwin and more.
The oldest piece in his collection is an illuminated manuscript on parchment from 1100, written in Greek and announcing an annual celebration of the Virgin Mary’s ascension.
In all, Vincent has nearly 2,400 volumes in his collection, 1,600 of which take up shelf space in his living room and a study, and the remainder in a climate-controlled self-storage unit. When last appraised in 2011 the collection was valued at no less than $170,000, he said.
In answer to the obvious question – yes, he has read nearly all the books in his collection – at least the ones in English, though he does speak some German and has made it through a number of titles in that language as well.
A retired school teacher, Vincent, 65, is an advocate of literacy and introducing young children to the wonders found in the pages of books.
“I feel for kids today who haven’t had a chance to cultivate their imaginations through books,” he said. “It’s all electronic media and instant gratification through TV, computers and video games. Kids don’t have a chance to develop these vivid pictures in their brains from the written word. That was my life. If you took away books from me at any point, my life would have been empty.”
Vincent grew up the youngest of eight kids in the small farming town of Burlington, Kan. He was just a year old when his father committed suicide. His mother had two successive marriages to men who drank too much and showed too little in the way of kindness, he said.
Still, there were moments of divine intervention, like the second-grade teacher who instilled in him a love of reading.
“In school, I won a reading contest and for the first time in my life I received praise,” he recalled. “I was a regular at the library, where I went through all the children’s books and then moved on to more grown-up titles.”
He was 6 years old when he received his first book, a Bible, from a neighbor family who often took him to church. At age 8, Vincent made his first book purchase, “Tom Sawyer.” Both titles have been a part of his collection ever since.
His family moved to the San Bernardino, Calif., area when he was 11 in an attempt to escape the dysfunction of earlier years. Vincent played sports in high school and continued to read and collect books.
His college years were interrupted in 1972 by the U.S. Army, which trained him in helicopter flight operations and shipped him off to South Korea. He arrived with a footlocker full of books and found that bookstores in South Korea were surprisingly great resources.
After separating from the military in 1976, Vincent moved to San Diego to complete college. He received his bachelor’s degree in English literature and later a master’s degree in business administration. He became an eighth-grade English teacher, which he loved, but found that the salary was barely enough to support his family that included the first of two children. He took a corporate job with the Firestone tire and automotive company and eventually owned three Firestone retail outlets in California.
He sold the businesses in 2003, went through a divorce and returned to teaching. In 2005, he relocated to New Mexico and taught elementary school in Bernalillo, from where he retired last November.
Through all these transitions, Vincent continued to visit bookstores, estate and garage sales, and online auctions and antiquarian book dealers. Now remarried, he said he’s had to accommodate wife Linda’s earthly possessions by putting many books in storage and slowing down on the collecting – though he said he doubts he will ever completely stop.
“These books are unique, not just because of age, but because of content and symbolism, because of the author or the artwork, or because of the event or times being chronicled,” Vincent said. “You’re touching history and you’re living that history.”