Bookstalls and Bookstalling

(This is taken from W. Roberts' The Book-Hunter in London.)

Of the numerous ways and means of acquiring books open to the book-hunter in London, there is none more pleasant or popular than that of Bookstalling. To the man with small means, and to the man with no means at all, the pastime is a very fascinating one. East, west, north, and south, there is, at all times and in all seasons, plenty of good hunting-ground for the sportsman, although the inveterate hunter will encounter a surfeit of Barmecides' feasts. Nearly every book-hunter has been more or less of a bookstaller, and the custom is more than tinctured with the odour of respectability by the fact that Roxburghe's famous Duke, Lord Macaulay the historian, and Mr. Gladstone the omnivorous, have been inveterate grubbers among the bookstalls. Macaulay was not very communicative to booksellers, and when any of them would hold up a book, although at the other end of the shop, he could tell by the cover, or by intuition, what it was all about, and would say 'No,' or 'I have it already.' Leigh Hunt was a bookstaller, for he says: 'Nothing delights us more than to overhaul some dingy tome and read a chapter gratuitously. Occasionally, when we have opened some very attractive old book, we have stood reading for hours at the stall, lost in a brown study and worldly forgetfulness, and should probably have read on to the end of the last chapter, had not the vendor of published wisdom offered, in a satirically polite way, to bring us out a chair. "Take a chair, sir; you must be tired."' The first Lord Lytton had a fancy for these plebeian book-marts; whilst Southey had a mania for them almost: he could not pass one without 'just running his eye over for one minute, even if the coach which was to take him to see Coleridge at Hampstead was within the time of starting.'

The extreme variety of the bookstall is its great attraction, and the chances of netting a rare or interesting book lie, perhaps, not so much in the variety of books displayed as in their general shabbiness. Ten years ago an English journalist picked up a copy of the first edition of Mrs. Glasse's 'Art of Cookery,' in the New Kent Road, for a few pence. It is no longer a shabby folio, but, superbly bound, it was sold with Mr. Sala's books, July 23, 1895, for £10. A not too respectable copy of Charles Lamb's privately-printed volume, 'The Beauty and the Beast,' was secured for a few pence, its market-value being something like £20. A copy of Sir Walter Scott's 'Vision of Don Roderick,' 1816, first edition, in the original boards, was purchased, by Mr. J. H. Slater, in Farringdon Road, in January, 1895, for 2d.—not a great catch, perhaps, but it is one of the rarest of Scott's works; and as the originals of this prolific author are rapidly rising in the market, there is no knowing what it may be worth in the immediate future.

Here is a curious illustration of the manner in which a 'find' is literally picked up. A man who sells books from a barrow in the streets was wheeling it on the way to open for the day, and passed close to a bookseller's assistant who was on his way to work. As the man passed, a small volume fell off into the road, which the assistant kindly picked up, with the intention of replacing it on the barrow. Before doing so, however, he looked at the volume. One glance was enough. 'Here, what do you want for this?' he asked. The dealer, taking a casual glance at the volume, said: 'Oh, thruppence, I suppose, will do.' The money was paid, and the assistant departed with the prize, which was a rare volume by Increase Mather, printed in 1698 at Boston, U.S.A., and worth from £8 to £12. A copy of Fuller's first work, and the only volume of poetry published by that quaint writer, the excessively rare 'David's Hainous Sinne,' 1631, was bought a few years ago for eighteenpence, probably worth half as many pounds.

The coincidences of the bookstall are sometimes very remarkable. Mr. G. L. Gomme relates one which is well worth recording, and we give it in his own words: 'My friend, Mr. James Britten, the well-known plant-lore scholar, has been collecting for some years the set of twenty-four volumes of that curious annual, Time's Telescope. He had two duplicates for 1825 and 1826, and these he gave to me. One day last January I was engaged to dine with him, and in the middle of the same day I passed a second-hand bookshop, and picked out from the sixpenny box a volume of Time's Telescope for 1816. In the evening I showed my treasure with great contentment to my friend, expecting congratulations. But, to my surprise and discomfiture, a mysterious look passed over his face, then followed a quick migration to his bookshelves, then a loud hurrah, and an explanation that this very "find" of mine was the one volume he wanted to complete his set, the one volume he had been in search of for some time.' Another book-collector picked out of a rubbish-heap on a country bookseller's floor a little old book of poetry with the signature of 'A. Pope.' Subsequently he found a manuscript note in a book on the shelves of a public library referring to this very copy, which, the writer of the note stated, had been given him by the poet Pope.

The late Cornelius Walford related an interesting incident, the 'only one of any special significance which has occurred to me during thirty-five years of industrious book-hunting': 'When living at Enfield, I used generally to walk to the Temple by way of Finsbury, Moorgate, Cheapside, and Fleet Street. Every bookshop on the way I was familiar with. On one occasion I thought I would vary the route by way of Long Lane and Smithfield (as, indeed, I had occasionally done before). I was at the time sadly in want of a copy of "Weskett on Insurances," 1781, a folio work of some 600 pages. I had searched and inquired for it for years; no bookseller had ever seen it. I had visited every bookshop in Dublin, in the hope of finding a copy of the pirated (octavo) edition printed there; and but for having seen a copy in a public library, should have come to the conclusion that the book never existed. Some temporary sheds had been erected over the Metropolitan Railway in Long Lane. One, devoted to a meagre stock of old books, was opened that morning. The first book I saw on the rough shelves was Weskett, original edition, price a few shillings. I need hardly say I carried it away. . . . I have never seen or heard of another of the original edition exposed or reported for sale.'

Mr. Shandy père was a bookstaller also, and if Bruscambille's 'Prologue upon Long Noses,' even when obtainable 'almost for nothing,' would fail to excite in every collector the enthusiasm experienced by Mr. Shandy, we can at all events sympathize with him. '"There are not three Bruscambilles in Christendom," said the stall-man, who, like many stall-men of to-day, did not hesitate to make a leap in the dark, "except what are chained up in the libraries of the curious." My father flung down the money as quick as lightning, took Bruscambille into his bosom, hied home from Piccadilly to Coleman Street with it, as he would have hied home with a treasure, without taking his hand once off from Bruscambille all the way.'

We have already seen that there were bookstalls as well as bookshops in and about the neighbourhood of Little Britain during the latter part of the seventeenth century. There were bookstalls or booths also in St. Paul's Churchyard long before this period; but books had scarcely become old in the time of Shakespeare, so that doubtless the volumes which were to be had within the shadow of the cathedral were new ones. Booksellers gradually migrated from the heart of London to a more westerly direction. The bookstall followed, not so much as a matter of course as because there was no room for it; land became extremely valuable, and narrow streets, which are also crowded, are not a congenial soil for the book-barrow. The Strand and Holborn and Fleet Street districts, both highways and byways, became a favourite spot for the book-barrow during the last century, and remained such up to quite modern times—until, indeed, the iconoclastic wave of improvements swept everything before it. Holywell Street still remains intact.

One of the most famous bookstalling localities during the last century was Exeter 'Change, in the Strand, which occupied a large area of the roadway between the present Lyceum Theatre and Exeter Street, and has long since given place to Burleigh Street. The place was built towards the end of the seventeenth century, and the shops were at first occupied by sempsters, milliners, hosiers, and so forth. The place appears to have greatly degenerated, and soon included bookstalls among the standings of miscellaneous dealers. Writing on January 31, 1802, Robert Bloomfield observes: 'Last night, in passing through Exeter 'Change, I stopt at a bookstall, and observed "The Farmer's Boy" laying there for sale, and the new book too, marked with very large writing, Bloomfield's "Rural Tales": a young man took it up, and I observed he read the whole through, and perhaps little thought that the author stood at his elbow.' This locality was also a famous one for 'pamphlet shops.' 'Sold at the Pamphlet Shops of London and Westminster' is an imprint commonly seen on title-pages up to the middle of the last century. In addition to shops and stalls, book-auctions were also held here. The curious and valuable library of Dr. Thomas Pellet, Fellow of the College of Physicians, and of the Royal Society, was sold 'in the Great Room over Exeter 'Change,' during January, 1744, beginning at 5 p.m.

Early in the eighteenth century, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, in his 'Miscellaneous Reflections,' 1714, refers to notable philosophers and divines 'who can be contented to make sport, and write in learned Billingsgate, to divert the Coffeehouse, and entertain the assemblys at Booksellers' shops, or the more airy Stalls of inferior book-retailers.'

Bookstalls or barrows have been for nearly a century a feature of the East End of London, more particularly of Whitechapel Road and Shoreditch. The numbers of barrows have increased, but the locality is practically the same. Many useful libraries have been formed from off these stalls, and many very good bargains secured. Excellent collections may still be formed from them, but the chances of a noteworthy 'find' are indeed small. The book-hunter who goes to either of these places with the idea of bagging a whole bundle of rarities is likely to come away disappointed; but if he is in a buying humour the chances are ten to one in favour of his getting a good many useful books at very moderate figures. We have heard of a man who picked up a complete set of first editions of Mrs. Browning in Shoreditch, but no one ever seems to have met that lucky individual; and as the story is retailed chiefly by the owner of the barrow from which they were said to have been rescued—the said owner apparently not in the least minding the inevitable conclusion at which the listener will arrive—the story is not repeated as authentic. One of the last things which has come out of Shoreditch lately is a copy of the first edition of Gwillim's 'Display of Heraldry' (1610), in excellent condition, and which was purchased for a few pence. An East End book-hunter tells us that, among other rarities which he has rescued from stalls and cellars in that district, are a first folio Ben Jonson; a copy of the Froben Seneca (1515), with its fine bordered title-page, by Urs Graf; an early edition of Montaigne, with a curious frontispiece; the copy of the editio princeps Statius (1483), which was purchased by Mr. Quaritch at the Sunderland sale; one or two Plantins, in spotless splendour; Henry Stephens' Herodotus, a book as beautiful as it is now valueless, but of which a copy is kept in a showcase at South Kensington, and others, all at merely nominal prices.

Many first-class libraries were formed by these frequentationes orientales. It is a great pity that Macaulay, for example, has not left on record a few of the very remarkable incidents which came under his observation during these pilgrimages. The late Mr. W. J. Thoms contributed a few of his to the Nineteenth Century thirteen years ago. One of Mr. Thoms' most striking 'East End' book-hunting anecdotes relates to a Defoe tract. When a collected edition of Defoe's works was contemplated some forty years ago, it was determined that the various pieces inserted in it should be reprinted from the editions of them superintended by Defoe himself. 'There was one tract which the editor had failed to find at the British Museum or any other public library, and which he had sought in vain for in "The Row" or any bookseller's within reach of ordinary West End mortals. Somebody suggested that he should make a pilgrimage to Old Street, St. Luke's, and perhaps Brown might have a copy. Old Brown, as he was familiarly called, had a great knowledge of books and book-rarities, although perhaps he was more widely known for the extensive stock of manuscript sermons which he kept indexed according to texts, and which he was ready to lend or sell as his customers desired. . . . The editor inquired of Brown whether he had a copy of Defoe's tract. "No," said Brown; "I have not, and I don't know where you are likely to find one. But if you do meet with one, you will have to pay pretty handsomely for it." "I am prepared to pay a fair price for it," said the would-be customer, and left the shop. Now, Old Brown had a "sixpenny box" outside the door, and he had such a keen eye to business that I believe, if there was a box in London which would bear out Leigh Hunt's statement [that no one had ever found anything worth having in the sixpenny box at a bookstall], it was that box in Old Street. But as the customer left the shop his eye fell on the box, he turned over the rubbish in it, and at last selected a volume. "I'll pay you for this out of the box." "Thank you, sir," said Brown, taking the proffered sixpence. "But, by-the-by, what is it?" "It is a tract by Defoe," was the answer, to Old Brown's chagrin. For it was the very work of which the purchaser was in search.'

In the way of antiquity doubtless the New Cut—as what was once Lambeth Marsh is now termed—comes next to the two East End localities above mentioned as a bookstall locality. The place has certainly been a book-emporium for at least half a century. Mr. G. A. Sala declares that he has purchased for an old song many of his rarest books in this congested and unsavoury locality where Robert Buchanan and his ill-fated friend, David Gray, shared a bankrupt garret on their first coming up to London from Scotland. The present writer has picked up some rare and curious books in that locality during the past ten years, and others have doubtless done the same. Not so very long ago a volume with the autograph of Drayton was secured for one penny, certainly not an extravagant price.

For some years Farringdon Road has enjoyed the distinction of being the best locality in London for bookstalling. Its stalls are far more numerous, and the quality of the books here exposed for sale is of a much higher class, than those which are to be met with in other places. There are between thirty and forty bookstalls or barrows here, and the place has what we may describe as a bibliopolic history, which goes back for a period of twenty years. The first person to start in the bookselling line was a coster of the name of Roberts, who died somewhat suddenly either in December of 1894 or early in January of the present year. Roberts appears to have been a fairly successful man at the trade, and had a fairly good knowledge of cheap books. The doyen of the Farringdon Road bibliopoles is named Dabbs—a very intelligent man, who started first in the hot-chestnut line. Mr. Dabbs has generally a fairly good stock of books, which varies between one and two thousand volumes, a selection of which are daily displayed on four or five barrows, and varying from two a penny ('You must take two') up to higher-priced volumes. Curiously enough, he finds that theological books pay the best, and it is of this class that his stock chiefly consists. Just as book-hunters have many 'finds' to gloat over, so perhaps booksellers have to bewail the many rarities which they have let slip through their fingers. It would be more than could be expected of human nature, as it is at present constituted, to expect booksellers to make a clean or even qualified confession in this respect. Our friend Dabbs, however, is not of this hypersensitive type, and he relates, with a certain amount of grim humour, that his greatest lost opportunity was the selling of a book for 1s. 6d. which a few days afterwards was sold in Paris for £50. He consoles himself with the reflection that at all events he made a fair profit out of this book. If we could all be as philosophical as this intelligent book-barrow-keeper, doubtless the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune would impress fewer wrinkles on our brows, and help us to think kindly of the friends who put us 'up' to good things in the way of gold-mines and generously left us to pay the piper.

However picturesque may be the calling of the bookstall-keeper to the person who experiences a fiendish delight in getting a 6d. book out of him for 5-1/2d., the calling is on the whole a very hard one. Exposed to all weathers, these men have a veritable struggle for existence. Their actual profits rarely exceed 30s. or £2 weekly. They vary greatly, of course, according to weather, and a wet Saturday makes a very material difference to their takings. Many weeks throughout the year these takings do not average more than 8s. or 10s. We have made inquiries among most of the bookstall-keepers in the Metropolis, and the above facts can be depended upon. When these men happen upon a rare book, they nearly invariably sell it to one of the better-class booksellers. By this means they make an immediate profit and effect a ready sale. There is beyond this a numerous class of what may be described as 'book-ghouls,' or men who make it a business to haunt the cheap bookstalls and bag the better-class or more saleable books and hawk them around to the shops, and so make a few shillings on which to support a precarious existence, in which beer and tobacco are the sole delights. We once met a man who did a roaring trade of this description, chiefly with the British Museum. He took notes of every book that struck him as being curious or out of the way, and those which he discovered to be absent from the Museum he would at once purchase. He was great in the matter of editions, such as Pope, Junius, Coleridge, and so forth. The Museum is naturally lacking in hundreds of editions of English authors; but as these editions, almost without exception, possess no literary value, their presence (or absence) was not a matter of importance. For some months the 'collector' referred to inundated the Museum with these unimportant editions. Our friend discovered that the Museum authorities, ignoring the prices which he placed on his wares, would only have them at their own figures—which showed a curious similarity to those at which the vendor had obtained them—and this, coupled with the fact that they refused to purchase many of the items offered at any price, led him to the conclusion that he was serving his country at too cheap a rate. It is scarcely necessary to add that he is now following a vocation which, if less agreeable, is certainly more profitable to himself. Occasionally one of these professional bookstallers blossoms into a shopkeeper in some court or alley off Holborn; but more generally they are too far gone in drink and dilapidation to get out of the rut.

One of the most curious characters who ever owned a bookstall was Henry Lemoine, the son of a French Huguenot. He was born in 1756, and for many years kept a stall in Bishopsgate Churchyard. He wrote many books, and did much hack-work for various publishers, chiefly in the way of translations from the French. He gave up shopkeeping in 1795, and became a pedestrian bookseller or colporteur of pamphlets. In 1807 he again set up a small stand of books in Parliament Street, and died in April, 1812. He might have achieved success, and become a respectable member of society, but his great failing was an all-consuming thirst.

Writing over forty years ago in 'London Labour and the London Poor,' 1851, Henry Mayhew remarked: 'There has been a change, and in some respects a considerable change, in the character or class of books sold at the street stalls, within the last forty or fifty years, as I have ascertained from the most experienced men in the trade. Now sermons, or rather the works of the old divines, are rarely seen at these stalls, or if seen, rarely purchased. Black-letter editions are very unfrequent at street bookstalls, and it is twenty times more difficult, I am assured, for street-sellers to pick up anything really rare and curious, than it was in the early part of the century. One reason assigned for this change by an intelligent street-seller was, that black-letter or any ancient works were almost all purchased by the second-hand booksellers, who have shops and issue catalogues, as they have a prompt sale for them whenever they pick them up at book-auctions or elsewhere.' As we have already pointed out, the same rule which obtained forty years ago applies with equal force to-day, and in the chief instances in which we have met with books well known to be rare, on bookstalls, their condition has been so bad as to render them valueless, except, perhaps, for the purpose of helping to complete imperfect copies.

At one time the bookstall-keepers had fairly good opportunities of making a haul of a few rare books—that was when they were called in to clear out offices and old houses. As the world has grown wiser in respect to books as well as other things, executors, legatees, and so forth, have acquired unreasonable views as to the value of old books, and everything in the shape of a volume is sent to the regular book-auctioneers. When it is remembered that practically all the books which now occur on the various bookstalls of the Metropolis are purchased under the hammer at Hodgson's, the chances of obtaining anything rare are reduced to a minimum. These books are the refuse of the various bookshops, after, perhaps, having passed from one shop to another for several years without finding a purchaser outside the trade. At Hodgson's, of course, these books find their level, after repeated appearances; they are here sold, not quite by the cartload, but certainly in lots sufficiently large to fill a moderate sized wheelbarrow. The tastes of the bookbuying public are so infinite that there would seem to be a sale, at some time or another, for every species of printed matter; but the habitual haunter of the bookstalls meets with the same water-soaked dog-eared volumes month after month, and year after year, so that he is forced to the conclusion that the right purchaser has not yet come along. These volumes appeal to the bookbuyer with a piteousness which is scarcely less than positively human. In the words of George Peele, written over three centuries ago, these books seem to say,

'Buy, read and judge,
The price do not grudge;
It will give thee more pleasure
Than twice as much treasure;'

but no one seems to take the hint. Samuel Foote, in 'The Author,' makes Vamp say: 'Books are like women, Master Cape; to strike they must be well dressed; fine feathers make fine birds: a good paper, an elegant type, a handsome motto, and a catching title, has drove many a dull treatise through three editions.' These adventitious aids may still possess a potent influence in selling a new book even to-day, but they have little effect on the sale of the books which gravitate towards the book-barrow.

The bookstall-keeper, it is true, has no rent to pay, except for the hire of his barrow, which amounts to one shilling per week each. Even this small charge is a considerable item where a man hires two or three barrows and does scarcely any trade. Then he has to pay someone to look after his goods during his absence. Further than this, the barrow-man has to pay cash down before he removes his purchase from the sale-room. On the other hand he gives no credit. The bookseller who enjoys the luxury of a shop, gets credit from the auctioneer, and gives credit to his customers. He has to put as large a margin of profit as possible on his books, and an average of sixpence each has to be added to the original cost of every item catalogued. The bookstall-man is, naturally, handicapped in many ways, and if he finds the sweepings of his more aristocratic confrères' shops a long time on his hands, he, at all events, makes as large a profit with much fewer liabilities.

We have referred to Hodgson's as the centre from which nearly all the bookstalls are supplied. Occasionally, however, the barrow-man buys at Sotheby's, and frequently so at Puttick and Simpson's. Sometimes the more adventurous spirits attend auctions in private houses in the suburbs, and occasionally those held a few miles out of town. These expeditions are more often than not 'arranged,' and usually resolve themselves into 'knock-outs.' It is a by no means unknown contingency for two or three men to purchase, against all comers, the entire lot of books at figures which invariably put the auctioneer into an exceedingly good humour; neither is it an unknown event for these men to decamp without the books, and also without leaving their addresses or deposit! Such tricks, however, are not the work of the tradesmen who have a locus standi, but of the better class of book-jackals, who, failing to get the books for next to nothing, outbid everyone else, and leave the auctioneer to get out of the dilemma as he best can.

For many years the weekly cattle-market at Islington has been a happy hunting-ground of the bookstall-keeper. Books are among the hundred and one articles which are brought from every conceivable source, and many very good things have doubtless been picked up here. But it is always the early prowler who gets the rarities—the man who gets there at eight or nine o'clock in the morning. There is very little but absolute rubbish left for the post-prandial visitor. A few inveterate book-hunters have journeyed thither at various times and in a spasmodic manner, but the hope of anything worth having has usually turned out to be a vain one: they have always been anticipated.

Between the more ambitious shop and the nondescript bookstall, there is a class or species of bookseller who deserves a niche in this place. We refer to men like Purcell, in Red Lion Passage, Red Lion Square, Holborn, who are almost as much printsellers as booksellers. They make one book by destroying many others. Grangerizing is the proper name of this practice; but as the Rev. Mr. Granger has been productive of more curses than a dozen John Bagfords—an evil genius of the same type—the process is now termed extra-illustrating. However much one may denounce the whole system, it is impossible, whatever a particular book-hunter's idiosyncrasy may be, not to feel interested in some of the collections which these enterprising and ruthless biblioclasts manage to get together. Mr. Purcell is an adept at this game, of which, doubtless, Mr. F. Harvey, of St. James's Street, is one of the most clever, as he is certainly the most eminent of professors. Mr. Purcell's collection of prints, engravings, press-cuttings, and so forth, cover an extraordinarily wide field. In fifty cases out of a hundred, booksellers who make grangerizing a speciality find it pays far better to break up an illustrated book than to sell it intact. When they purchase a book, it is obviously their own property, to preserve or destroy, as they find most agreeable. Personally, we regard the system as in many ways a pernicious one, but it is one upon which a vast amount of cant has been wasted.

But bookshops and stalls are obviously not the only places at which bargains in books are likely to be secured, as the following anecdote would seem to prove: 'A writer and reader well versed in the works of the minor English writers recently entered a newspaper-shop at the East End and purchased a pennyworth of snuff. When he got home he found that the titillating substance was wrapped in a leaf of Sir Thomas Elyot's black-letter book, "The Castell of Helth." The next day the purchaser went in hot haste to the shop and made a bid for the remainder of the volume. "You are too late, sir," spoke the shopkeeper. "After you had gone last night, a literairy gent as lives round the corner gave me two bob for the book. There was only one leaf torn out, which you got. The book was picked up at a stall for a penny by my son." The purchaser of the pennyworth at once produced the leaf, with instructions for it to be handed to his forestaller in the purchase of the volume, together with his name and address; and next day he received a courteous note of thanks from the "literairy gent" aforesaid.' Nothing is so uncertain as one's luck in book-hunting, but, without entirely discrediting the foregoing story, we can only say that it is an old friend with a new face. We have heard the same thing before. Not so very long ago, a certain bookseller thought he had at last got a prize; it was one of the rarest Shakespeare quartos, and worth close on £100. He had purchased it among a lot of other dirty pamphlets. He looked the matter up, and everything seemed to point to the fact that his copy was genuine in every respect—a most uncommon stroke of luck indeed. The precious quarto was in due course sent to Puttick's, and the modest reserve of £70 was placed upon it. The quarto was genuine in every respect, but it was a facsimile!

It may be taken for granted that genuine Shakespeare quartos do not occur on bookstalls, and even a rare Americana tract only occurs in the wildest dreams of the book-hunter. Nevertheless, 'finds' of more or less interest continue to be made by keen book-hunters. Dr. Garnett tells how a tradesman at Oswestry had in his possession books to which he attached no importance, but which, a lady informed him, must be very rare. They were submitted to the authorities of the British Museum, who gave a high price for them. One was Sir Anthony Sherley's 'Wits New Dyall,' published in 1604, of which only one other copy is known to be in existence. As a rule, offers of rare books come from booksellers, who do not always say how they become possessed of them. Among the private people who offer books to the Museum for sale are a large proportion who think that a book must necessarily be rare because it is a hundred years old or more. Before the great catalogue was made, finds were occasionally made in the Museum itself, and even now a volume will occasionally be found which has special interest and value on account of its binding. In other cases a book will be found to be in a binding made up of leaves of some rare work far more valuable than the book itself.





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