Twenty-five years ago, while browsing through a local thrift store with his wife, Jack Bradford pulled a book from a shelf and discovered he’d already read it – albeit a long time ago.
“It was my second-grade reader,” he said.
That bright red book “Friends and Neighbors,” published in 1946, launched a collection that now numbers approximately 500.
Bradford began hunting for the entire series of his elementary school readers and soon found a trove of books, including the iconic “Dick and Jane” series.
For nearly 40 years, from 1930 through about 1970, more than 85 million American children learned to read using the “Dick and Jane” readers, published by the Scott Foresman Co.
Dick and Jane first made their appearance in 1930, in a preprimer of the Elson-Gray basic reader series. Bradford owns the Elson-Gray primers as well, including a volume published in 1911.
With a dog named Spot and a kitten named Puff, the children inhabited an American landscape of white picket fences and neighborliness.
That’s what drew Bradford to this nostalgic collection.
“They represent a kinder, gentler time,” he said. “The children lived in loving, caring families in a safe environment. We’d never heard of school shootings.”
Adding to his collection offered a much-needed diversion from his job. Bradford worked for the Washington State Department of Corrections for 40 years and one month and retired in 2012.
His career included stints working with felony offenders and as a parole officer before he earned his master’s degree in counseling from Whitworth University. Then he worked with mentally ill offenders at Eastern State Hospital and concluded his career as a treatment specialist for sex offenders.
“One of the ways of clearing my mind was going back to the golden years through these books,” Bradford said. “There’s always been a dark side to our world, but kids were protected from it.”
The lovely watercolor artwork was the hallmark of children’s textbooks in the 1940s and ’50s and those illustrations captivated Bradford.
“Over the years the artwork deteriorated and became more of an afterthought,” he said.
Bradford didnt build his collection online. Instead, he visited thrift shops, estate sales and garage sales.
“Part of the fun is the pursuit,” he said.
Books didn’t need to be pristine to be added to his collection. He included well-worn copies with writing in the margins and dog-eared pages. Accordingly, he rarely spent more than a dollar or two per book.
“Maybe, I spent $25 for something I really wanted, but that was unusual,” Bradford said. “I probably have the best cheap collection of children’s books in Spokane.”
He released discovering new series to complete, one volume at a time. For example, in 1941 a special edition of the Dick and Jane readers was developed for Catholic schools. Called the “Cathedral” series, this version featured Catholic situations and even changed the names of the characters to children with more Catholic names like John and Jean.
Bradford also found the “Alice and Jerry” books, including a 1941 copy of “If I Were Going.” The illustrated volumes had richer stories than “Dick and Jane” and were set in places beside generic American suburbia.
“But all these books feature the values of family, community and respect,” he said. “They’re so hopeful, even though most of them were published in the midst of World War II.”
From reading textbooks, he branched out into math and science volumes.
“Even the science books have beautiful illustrations,” Bradford said.
A copy of “Sunshine and Rain,” published in 1937, introduces weather with inviting pictures of children playing in the snow and rain.
When Bradford first began collecting, he hoped he’d be able to one day give the books to his four grandchildren
“They don’t want these,” he said. “They read on iPads.”
At 78, he’s ready to downsize and is researching the value of his books. He’s thinking to sell some of his duplicates, but he knows he won’t part with them all.
“This collection helped me get through a 40-year career of dealing with very dark stuff. Without it, I might have burned out earlier,” he said.
“But you can’t read these without your heart being warmed.”