Sunday, July 13, 2008

John Cole's Cabinet

When I was a child, there was a local bookshop named John Cole's, with an incredible section devoted to children. As well as stocking all the classics and contemporary works for children, John Cole's had toys for children. Many of these were not for sale but were on the premises simply for entertainment's sake. A Rocking Horse and a rocking elephant were among these.

Although I saved all my money to spend on books there, my fondest memory of John Cole's is the Cabinet. This was a heavy, antique cabinet with a multitude of tiny drawers. In each of the drawers, one could find little treasures for sale. All of the items had to be fairly small in order to fit into the drawers and it is possible that my love of miniatures was somewhat inspired by John Cole's Cabinet.

One of the treasures that one could buy there were small red beans containing sets of ivory elephants. They were not expensive, but they represented a marvel to a child. How could any one carve such tiny elephants and then fit an entire set into a small red bean! Animal activists may deplore the tiny mice made from real fur dressed in Victorian finery, but we loved them and they were a perfect size to live as neighbours to the dolls in our dollhouses.

In fact, the red seeds containing miniature elephants are a traditional Indian good luck charm. The seeds are those of the 'red sandalwood' or 'Circassian' tree, and each of the twelve elephants carved from bone or ivory is the guardian of a secret wish. The owner of the bean can make 12 wishes, one for each of the tiny elephants. One is reminded of the beliefs associated with 'worry dolls'. I always felt sorry for those little dolls, forced to bear the heavy burden of an individual's anxieties and 'worries'. At least the elephants bear good wishes rather than fears!

I found a wonderful web page devoted entirely to the miniature elephants in their red beans:

Lucky Wish Elephants

These are only two examples of the little treasures to be found in the drawers. For Mrs. Cole, being a bookseller obviously was a true labour of love. I have visited bookshops throughout the world and I still consider John Cole's to be one of the most enchanting. When I visited the shop a couple of years ago, I was delighted to find the Cabinet there still... and in some of the drawers, I found little ivory elephant sets and Victorian mice!

Too often, the magical stuff of childhood becomes no more than a cherished memory as buildings are torn down and businesses are sold. John Cole's in fact moved from one location to another, but kept its personality. (In fact, the 'new' location suited it even better than the old one.) As I write this, I do not know if John Cole's still is in business but I would like to think that it is and that some one will carry on Mrs. Cole's traditions.

The quality of the photographs may be poor and they probably do not convey any of the magic of the place. Nevertheless, the Rocking Horse and Rocking Elephant have been captured... you may be able to see a bumblebee seated on the Elephant. The little bee was left behind inadvertantly and we had to return to retrieve him. I don't think he would have minded if we had forgotten him completely. If toys are sentient, surely the best possible home for any toy would be a place like John Cole's. As for the mouse, he is a great-nephew of one of the original mice. The original mouse was named Jonathan. I always preferred the mice who were not dressed and who came with a piece of corn in their hands. My sister had some of the dressed Victorian mice, though, and Jonathan spent much of his time and energy courting one of them. (The courtship was rather unsuccessful, I might add. The Victorian maiden-mouse was determined to remain single and appeared to take an almost savage joy in rejecting my poor Jonathan.)

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