In 2018, Emma Smreker – a French teacher at Harding Charter Preparatory High School in Oklahoma City – was given a French-language book as a birthday gift from her husband. Among the pages was a receipt from a Montreal cafe. It sparked an interest in Smreker about used books and their previous owners. What started as a curious idea became a fixation with the remnants left behind in passed-on books.
“Before I knew it, I was obsessed with this idea,” Smreker said. “I started going through all the books in my house trying to find things that may have been left behind, perhaps daydreaming about the lives of those who owned them before me. Receipts, business cards, little scraps of paper – they meant something to someone.”
Her findings inspired the creation of an Instagram account, @inusedbooks, where she documents things found inside the books she finds in used bookstores, pawn shops and flea markets.
Some of the items found in her searches include everything from plane tickets and postcards, to old recipes, newspaper clippings and handwritten letters.
At a Norman flea market in 2019, Smreker came across what she believed to be one of these handwritten messages, though it was no ordinary letter; it was an unpublished poem called “Spring, Goodbye” for the Lancaster-Eagle Gazette in Ohio, signed and dated by its author Ed Ruffner on Jun. 1, 1893.
“I was amazed that a poem from that far back made its way to a book found in Oklahoma, so I decided to look up the family name and create a makeshift family tree online,” she said. “I managed to track down one of his descendants who was really, so kind to show me more of his work. He was a prolific writer, one who had sent pieces to this newspaper before.”
Smreker took a step further by sending the unpublished piece to the Lancaster newspaper in order to, “finish the journey of this letter.” A poem written 126 years earlier finally saw the light on Feb. 2, 2019.
“After that happened, this hobby of me finding things in used books transformed into documenting those little pieces of ourselves that we leave behind in the things we own,” she said. “While I search, if I find something sentimental, I try my hardest to track down who it belonged to and return it to them, if I can. Sometimes I think we lose or misplace things, and, in that, we lose mementos. In some way, I hope I can bring something lost back.”
To follow Smreker in her continuing journey for the past among the pages, follow her on Instagram (@inusedbooks).