An Epic Tale of War and Peace—Cold War
December 8, 2017
This story was written in 2007 about a year after the following story happened. I wish there were more photos but phones and phone pictures were not what they are today. We do have analog photos...somewhere... They'll turn up.
I had recently finished a 350-page story about a ghost—Julia. I'd never met her in life but I came to know her via a storage company who asked us to come get 60 boxes of books or they'd dump them. She passed away at a rather young age with no relations. No one was paying for their storage any longer and no one wanted them. The moving company wouldn't store them any longer. When Clif brought them to the warehouse and I began looking through the boxes I found several dozen journals—covering all her adult life. Reading them I became possessed with her life and her stories and "her." It took everything out of me to write it out. And then I couldn't find anyone to do anything with it. Well, I didn't really try.
I was so drained I stopped writing for...a long time.
But what follows is not a ghost story or love story—it is a book story. I like it and want to touch it up and send it out to you now.
So, with a deep breath I go back 10 years. A tumultuous period when so much was going so wrong and much was going so right.
"Ah, ye're back at it."
Her voice poured through me, directionless, just as my red pen was poised to press upon the yellow legal pad in my hand. It was my book muse and unlike her usual tone—chiding or sarcastic—there was something softer in her voice for a change. Sympathy?
"It's been a tough couple seasons," I said as an explanation for my extended writing hiatus.
"I know. I have been here."
"There have been too many endings and no beginnings. When I pick up my pen to write, I look at the page and there is nothing there. Nothing inside me."
"Ye're work has been demanding of late. Closing one business and are ye not building something new at this very instant?"
"I've done this before. And before. It's drudgery. Compulsory. Nothing new."
"Far be it from me to offer ye excuses. It's certainly not my style. But the physical and mental demands of the last months could certainly have pushed any creative endeavors to the back burner. You've ignored my few gambits and I have not pressed the issue."
"It's more than that. When Julia's story ended, it left a void. Dull, aching. There's been no change. It's left me feeling how terrible it is to...well..."
"Ah, there ye go. But then, you've always been an unreliable narrator."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Holding back for example. And not being honest with yourself in your writing."
"Holding back is what binds the fabric of civilization. Not being too honest is for self-defense."
"So ye're prepared to start again?"
"I suppose..." And after taking a deep breath, "I must. I'm compelled. What else is there? Only the subtext is gone now."
That triggered my memory and the pain that rose from my gut through my chest was acute.
"Much of your own doing."
"I know. I know, but those fires compelled my pen to paper."
"She is gone. And, for my part, I think ye did her justice."
"Like I said, when I was finished there was just an ache all through me. For months I've only been able to fill it with work, sleep and red wine."
"Buck up! Show some spine."
"She was beautiful. Her story was so beautiful. It poured out of me like water from a pitcher. At times I couldn't write fast enough. The words came so quickly to my mind. She made me feel so good. If I close my eyes I can still see her face. Her skin was like porcelain..."
"Stop—ye're getting sappy."
"Now, pushing this pen across this paper is work. Like shoveling gravel."
"Or shoveling books?"
"It'll come to ye. I recommend ye get back to basics. So it's back to the books, my boy. Write what you know. I wager someone special will appear. Then ye'll have a story. But if ye don't put pen to paper, nothing will happen and ye'll not discover anything... or anyone. Who knows, maybe ye'll even find someone real and alive this time."
"Yes." And I paused thinking, can I make a commitment I can stick to? "Yes, I'll throw myself into it. Now where do I begin?"
"I believe when Julia departed I pointed you in the direction of some Russian books."
"Hah! I have them still. Almost all of them. May be my biggest business mistake, at least in the physical sense."
"A sort of bookish Seward's folly ye're thinking? But then that big thing turned out all right, did it not?"
"I've tried everything with them. I've only been able to unload a few thousand and most of those were to decorators because of their pretty bindings."
"Ah, ye of little faith."
"I'm not sure I remember all the details."
"You've my permission to take license where needed."
"So I can mix fact and fiction?"
"When you get like this I feel like something may be about to happen."
"Perhaps...perhaps. Far be it from me to make literary suggestions. I am merely a book muse. But I would think you might wish to start at the beginning and see if it leads anywhere."
"Ruskie Knigi...ahhhh..." (ROO-skee-e KNEE-gee)
Her laugh was not quite mocking nor sarcastic. As much as anything, she was giggling as if at her own prank.
I had been in the throes of the ending of my relationship with Julia—her diaries, her books, her death and her ghost. I had been driven to distraction by the emotions and my compulsion to record her story as it reached its final crescendos. The ending was in sight, or rather, in my hands in the form of her last diary—a book which mysteriously—perhaps even supernaturally appeared in my office. I could feel there was a let down— a huge depression impending as it became clearer that the magical year I had spent with Julia, her lifetime collection of diaries, and our collaboration on a book was ending. Inevitably. With finality only the separation of death can confer.
It was then that I discovered...
It was then I was led to discover a phone message written on a Post-it. The message had been stuck to my office door by one of the numerous employees who take phone calls at our book warehouse. It had fallen off the door onto the floor behind a stack of books. Just another bit of debris amidst the clutter of my office. It was destined to be just another of the thousands of messages which failed to get through to me or I failed to answer over the years.
It read simply:
"Call Buddy. Has books. 304-262-1467."
It appeared the kind of cold call which I would have felt hardly compelled to return in the best of circumstances—those circumstances being a very slow business day with nothing better to do. That was certainly not the case at this time. I was swamped with work and books and other things on my mind. Plus it was a West Virginia area code—rarely a good sign. But something...
Someone told me Buddy, despite his moniker—for "Buddy" is hardly a promising name for an owner of fine books—may have something intriguing in store for me. I called Buddy. His number rang and rang and, after eight or nine pulses, I hung up.
I tried again later. The Post-it with his number was still atop the pile of papers on my desk. It had not been buried as yet. But I got the same result. I crumbled the note up and tried to drop it into the wastebasket next to my desk but the adhesive on the Post-it caused it to stick to my hand. Unusual, I thought, as that sort of adhesive was never very strong.
"One last try," I thought as I punched Buddy's number into the phone again.
It rang and rang. For some reason I let it go on far longer than I normally would. Perhaps fifteen rings. Then it was picked up! "This is the office of Unique Enterprises. Leave a message." The voice on the recording was loud and female, though hardly feminine. It had a very distinctive West Virginia accent.
"Hello," I said. "I'm returning the call about books from Buddy." And I left my phone number and forgot about it.
A couple days passed. Coming in early to my office the message light on my desk phone was blinking. I pushed "Play" and the robotic voice reported the date and time of the recorded message. It had been left last night at 11:53 p.m.
"This is Buddy. I got a lotta books I need to move. Call me at..."
It was the same office number I had tried and tried before. His voice was so loud I had to hold the telephone receiver a few inches from ear. It was harsh. His accent and syntax came from that far backcountry—the hills of West Virginia. I doubted Buddy had ever read a book, nor did I have any optimism that any books he might have would be desirable. It was about 6:30 a.m. but I felt no qualms about calling back. No one was ever there. I would tag him with a return call now and get it out of the way. So I punched his number in, waited for the interminable rings to end, and left the usual message. I then exited my office to go out into the warehouse proper and shift some books around. I enjoy physical work. It relieves the mental stress of my administrative business duties and worries.
I was just beginning to break down a pallet of boxes of extremely unusual espionage books which I had bought from a crazy retired spook (it had been an amazing house call what with the booby traps and all—but that's another story) when the warehouse phone began to ring. Its loud electronic pulsing tone echoed through the empty warehouse—empty except for me and a few million books. I took the long walk up to the nearest phone extension at the shipping area. I fully expected whomever it was to be gone by the time I reached the phone. I picked up the phone, put the receiver to my ear, and then immediately withdrew it. Whoever was on it was yelling. Not at me but at someone at his end of the line. He was arguing with somebody. Vigorously.
"Hello?" I asked.
The yelling continued. Almost everything being said at the other end of the line was incoherent. I heard the occasional "I don't..." or "no I won't..." or "you ain't..."
"Hello," I said a little louder.
The yelling continued. I held the phone a good six inches from my ear.
Frustrated, I finally yelled into the phone, "HELLO! BUDDY!!" For I knew who was at the other end of the line.
There was a pause.
"Hi, this is Buddy. I got a hundred and sixty thousand brand new books. They're cheap. It was the biggest of the first Russian book stores in the country. He got hisself evicted and the landlord, I'm working for her, she's trying to 'recup' some of her losses." He paused but not long enough for me to get a word in edgewise before he continued. "You want 'em?"
I was about to answer with one of my cautious replies:
"I'd be glad to look at them."
Then Buddy started yelling. Not at me. But at someone on his end of the line.
"I told ya he ain't got no business in there!"
The telephone handset was now nearly a foot from my ear, but it was not so far that I couldn't hear the response.
It was a female voice—certainly not feminine—the same voice that had been on the answering machine recording from what I could tell. I could make out her words despite the distance between her and Buddy's phone and my phone and my ear:
"I didn't leave it open! It's all your crap anyway!"
That must be Mrs. Buddy I thought. Lovely couple I'm sure.
Their debate continued and quickly descended into personal epithets and slurs.
"Hello?" I said into the receiver.
"Hello?" I repeated more loudly.
"You're a pig and I ain't cleaning it up after you!"
"I'm on the phone."
"I don't care."
"It's business. Money business—you want them books or not?"
This last—addressed to me—was not screamed and so, with the change in volume and the phone's distance from my ear, I was more taken aback than unsure of what Buddy had said so I replied:
"Books!! You been calling me about books. I gotta clean this space for a new tenant. The landlord, she's on me. I heard you buy books. She wants something to 'recup' her losses she said. The Russian guy just walked out owing her lots of back rent."
"Okay... I'd be glad to look at them."
"How 'bout today?"
"Um... Where are they?"
They were about thirty miles away and today's calendar was filled, but I balanced the difficulty in not only connecting with Buddy but also communicating with him once I had him. So I said:
"Okay... It'll have to be this morning."
"How 'bout now?"
"I can be there in half an hour."
"It's hard to find. I'll meet you..." He went on to describe a fast food restaurant which was on a major highway. "Look for my van. It's white with 'Unique Enterprises' in blue and red letters."
Patriotic, I thought.
I took off right away in one of the Wonder Book vans with all its black and yellow lettering, just so it would be easy for Buddy to identify me. Half an hour later I was in the McDonald's parking lot. But there was no sign of Buddy's van. I called his cell phone and he answered that he was on his way and, sure enough, I soon saw his vehicle bounce into the entry drive. He pulled behind me but didn't stop. He drove on past and got into the queue for the drive-thru window. There were three cars ahead of him. I pulled my jaw together from where it had dropped. It was 10:30 in the morning—too late for breakfast and too early for lunch. Maybe he just wanted coffee. I got a pen and my "to do" pad and began making notes of what else I needed to do today. The list served as my memory for business and personal things which "must be done, should be done and can be done"—in that order or priority. I would cross off completed items and add ideas as they came to me. It was always cluttered with writing, often illegible to me after the fact, written down in various inks and pencil (whatever writing instrument had been at hand.)
I don't know how many minutes later (for I had picked up a book and started reading after I had run out of ideas on my "to do" list—there were always a few supernumerary books floating about the van,) when I heard a honk. I looked over and Buddy was next to me, waving a big old sandwich at me. Then a dog jumped up on his lap and stuck its snout into it. Buddy let it have a bite of the sandwich. He then motioned with his sandwich that I should back up and go.
"Vaminos," I thought.
We were soon in a district of light industrial and warehousing centers. The one he turned into had a long drive which was a right-of-way between a small retail strip center and a self-storage facility. It emptied out into a parking lot surrounded by mini warehouses. These units were all attached and identical and looked much like the other warehouses we had driven past to get there. Buddy had been right, I would never have found this one. It was unnumbered and unnamed. The thirty or so units were identical and attached in two long buildings at right angles to each other. They each had an overhead drive-in garage door then a regular door flanked by two tall windows.
Buddy headed to the farthest corner and pulled up to the very last drive-in door. I parked next to him. A simple painted sign above the door read:
"Victor Kamkin Books
Russian Books, Records & Art"
I had been to Kamkin's a lifetime ago. When I first got my driver's license I searched the wastelands of my suburban county for bookstores. That desolate region—desolate because of its dozens and dozens of sterile undistinguished housing developments—had few bookstores and they were the common garden variety like Walden's, small with very mainstream selections. I had found some used bookstores. But that discovery of neat old books gave me a hunger to find more. There had to be more books in this the wealthiest county in America.
I had stumbled upon the original Kamkin's in the Yellow Pages. Hoping there was bookstore I'd somehow missed in Montgomery County I'd resorted to looking at "Books-For Sale" under "B" in the phone book.
(If you don't know what a phone book was or what the Yellow Pages were—well, it was a BIG "book" that had every one's phone number and address listed in the front half. The White Pages. Really. Almost everyone's name address and phone number was published in a book that was dropped off on everyone's doorstep for free! Businesses would pay to list themselves in the back half of the book. The Yellow Pages—for, indeed, the paper was yellow. They'd pay for ad space by the inch—or often the fraction of an inch under headings like "Plumbers," "Car Dealers—Foreign," "Pet Supplies"... It was hugely expensive. But if you weren't in the "Book" you weren't in business. I guess it was kind of like "Yelp" without the ratings?)
I wrote down the address and asked my high school girlfriend, Katie, if she'd like to drive out to it with me. Oddly, it was just a block from where I'd had one of my first jobs. Best, Co. It was a part-time job at a jewelry counter in that cut-rate department store. How had I missed it?
I picked her up in my parents' 1972 blue Ford Maverick. In about 10 minutes we pulled into one of the parking spots right near the front door. That storefront was big and brightly colored. Its signage was professional. I remember the façade in colored plastic squares, probably two feet across in a gaudy 1960's style. Tall plain illuminated plastic letters across the front read only:
How had I missed this? I was a book nut since I was a little kid. I should know these things. It was a brilliant day. Azure skies, bright sun.
We stepped inside and were immediately surrounded by thousands of books. The lighting was subdued. They were beautiful. On tables or neatly shelved floor to ceiling. Mostly hardback. Lots of attractively bound sets.
But as my eyes adjusted to the light, when I began to focus on individual books, I came to the realization that there was something very wrong here. The lettering on all the spines was in a different alphabet. Nothing was legible. I couldn't read the titles of these books. I was a pretty bright high school student. I recognized that they were Russian books. I would not have known the word Cyrillic at that time. The Cold War was raging. It was in the news every night. Was I in a communist bookstore? It was bizarre and disturbing. We hastily retreated out into the parking lot. We looked at each other confused and embarrassed over nothing as only kids can be. And we had the usual juvenile reaction. We started giggling. We got in the car and returned to the real world—my boring but safe bit of suburbia. They were probably giggling inside as well at the two gringo kids that had entered their alien empire and who looked dizzy and disoriented before turning on their heels and scurrying out. Maybe the little old man behind the counter was Victor himself.
The ironic juxtaposition of something so alien and exotic with one of the things that was to provide comfort for the rest of my life—books—made for what I considered an interesting story. I would tell friends about my brief foray into a "Commie" bookstore that appeared so normal from the outside.
Flash forward three decades. 2002. I had become a book dealer on a relatively grand scale. And, get this, Katie had become a top Russian scholar and professor at an Ivy League school. Strange world. Coincidences trouble me. It's like someone else is pulling the strings.
Ok, ok...2002... The Washington Post newspaper ran a feature on Kamkin Books. Their landlord was evicting them. Naturally, the Post focused on the evils of commerce and the victimization of a poor innocent tenant. Their angle was that an endangered species was about to become extinct. They were hoping somehow these books would be rescued. And many were. The Library of Congress and local elected officials inserted themselves in an odd mix of government and retail commerce to "Save the Russian Books."
Sure, I thought, that would be a shame. So I looked them up on the Internet and e-mailed them, asking if they'd be willing to sell any to me. Their return e-mail offered me a generous fifteen percent off?! Something stunk. But I had lots of other stuff going on and soon forgot all about them. Later, I heard somehow that they had found someone to help them survive. The books had been rescued.
That was nearly four years ago. Now I was parked next to Buddy and his dog facing a garage door on a nondescript warehouse building. A simple white wooden sign with black painted letters was the extent of Kamkin's advertising in this last incarnation.
My reverie going back to my youth was snapped by Buddy's knuckle tapping impatiently on my window.
"I gotta another job down the road," he said, implying my delay was costing him money.
He still had part of his sandwich—or was it a second one—in his other hand.
I stepped out and, as I introduced myself and reached to shake his hand, I began to size him up. This was interrupted by his dog bounding over toward me, lifting his leg and peeing on my front tire not eighteen inches from my feet.
The dog was a skinny shorthaired mutt. Probably twenty-five pounds, young with round patches of brown and black marking his mostly white body.
"Come on, Whiskey," he said to the dog and turned toward the building.
I followed. He was well over two hundred fifty pounds. His belly hung over his belt obscuring his waistline. His hair was cut very short. His face was coarse featured. He wore a white T-shirt advertising a paint manufacturer. He wore blue jeans which didn't look like they were very comfortable. About three steps away from me he pulled out his cell phone and began talking. I followed him as he moved to the door.
"I told him I wasn't gonna do that..."
Whiskey was at his heels. As he unlocked the door, the dog lifted his leg and sprayed a dead potted plant by the door. Buddy stepped in and a moment later the garage door began to rise with the rattling of a chain, grinding of gears, an electric buzz of a motor, and metallic banging of the door panels.
Whiskey came bounding out of the garage entrance when the door had risen only a couple feet. He ran up to me and sniffed my pants cuffs. I eyed him cautiously; ready to step out of range if he showed indication of wishing to put his mark on me next.
"Are you comin' in?" Buddy's volume and tone had not changed from his monologue on the cell phone so it took a moment to register that he was addressing, not ignoring, me.
I looked up and into the black void of the warehouse yawning before me. It appeared empty. Buddy stepped behind a wall and switched the lights on. It was a much larger space than it appeared to be from the outside. Three vans could easily drive inside for the front half was empty but for dozens of empty boxes and large piles of trash off to the sides. But in the back half of the warehouse I could discern rows of gray metal shelving going to about eight feet- about one-third of the way to the metal joists of the ceiling. Around the perimeter of the rear half, bright yellow pallet racks rose twenty feet. These racks were stuffed with books—loose or in brown Kraft paper bundles tied with twine or in corrugated boxes. The shelves, all twelve rows of them, appeared full of loose volumes arranged neatly except in several aisles where many appeared to have been pulled off the shelf and dumped into piles on the floor.
"I got rid of half of 'em before someone told me about you. Guy named Trevor Allred—you know him?—he said you might actually buy these things."
We were moving toward the rear of the building as he spoke. I tuned out his monologue as I began to focus on the thousands of books in front of me. Fifty thousand? A hundred? One hundred and fifty? How could I tell?
"... I'd come in mornings near dawn, there'd be these old women rootin' through the dumpster. Some that were cryin' and askin' why I was doing this."
"What?" I said.
"Them books. I got rid of half of 'em already. I'd pull 'em down and use a scoop on the Bobcat to get 'em out to the dumpster. These old women, they looked like peasants dressed all in black with scarves on their heads, they'd show up near quitting time. When I'd come out in the parking lot with a load, they'd always ask:
"Why do you do this?"
"Some of them would be cryin'. When I'd pull away to go home, they'd start pulling books outta the dumpster. They'd be in the dumpster when I'd leave. Then they'd be there in the morning when I got in, too. Don't know if they'd spent the night rootin' through the trash. It was weird. Like they thought I was doin' somethin' bad."
I had a vision of a kind of chorus in a Greek tragedy mourning over the corpses of dead heroes.
We had reached the shelves and stopped. Even after all these years, large quantities of books can still take my breath away.
Whiskey brushed by my leg. I looked down hoping he hadn't gotten me, but he looked up at me and then lifted his leg on the bottom shelf of books closest to me. It was a stack of slipcased folio art books. In English surprisingly:
"English Art at the Hermitage."
Whiskey's spray splashed a dozen or so spines.
"Hell, the guy paid no rent for months. One Russian guy was gonna pay a quarter apiece for the books but he never came. Guess he didn't have the money. So I had to start cleaning the space out. The new tenant wants in the first of the month. So I got two weeks to empty it out and fix 'er up. You want 'em?"
"I need to look at them. Any idea what you want?"
"Landlady, Tanya, says get what you can but get 'em out. I got some fit out I gotta do here. You gonna take long?"
"Maybe an hour. I work pretty fast."
"I gotta go down the road. Get some drywall. Here's the key."
He walked me to the door and showed me how to use the lock box where the key was to be stored.
He interrupted Whiskey spraying my van again- "GIT Whiskey!" and then climbed into his Unique van and pulled out with his cell phone pressed to his ear. His mouth moved in such a way that I could tell he was yelling at somebody. Whiskey, his paws pressed on the passenger side dashboard seemed to be looking at me as though he'd missed something.
I returned to the books. It was impossible to focus on that many. Plus, ninety-five percent of the books were in Russian so I had little notion of what I was looking at. They were just objects. Book shaped objects.
I put my forefinger to the spine of a book and walked down a row, drawing my finger along the hundreds of spines until I reached the end of the aisle.
It was a familiar sound my digit created, "Tap-tap-tap, tap..."
There, I found the way obstructed by mounds of books which had been unceremoniously dumped on the floor. There was a void against the wall where a couple pallet racks had been removed. I surmised Buddy had thrown the books down to the floor in order to dismantle and remove the racks. His plan had been to scoop them out later I surmised.
I sat down on a stack of elephant folio Antarctic Atlases (I could tell what they were by the continent's outline on the cover)
Alone, in the near dark, surrounded by thousands and thousands of books.
Familiar territory. I've been here before.
How many books were here I wondered? How many are left?
What are they?
Would anybody want them?
How much would it cost me to move them?
I was pretty sure I could get them cheap, but I could end up owning these books forever. Another albatross about my neck. I already had millions in my warehouse. But if I took these, what—maybe seventy-five tons of books—it would be that much longer before I had time to think—for books I had discovered after all these years were not just my occupation. They occupied all the spaces in my mind where I might go if time allowed. The uncertainty that they might be bad spaces made books a necessary distraction for my well-being.
Perhaps that was part of the appeal. A story that would never end. A mountain that I could never get to the top of. I could acquire this hoard and, whether the money was good or bad, time would pass.
If I decided I would take them. I would use them to push time away.
If I could work hard enough and there was no end in sight, it will keep things away that go bump in the night or people who do.
What was I getting myself into?
I couldn't count or even estimate the number of books piled and scattered on the floor. Nor were the bundles and boxes and loose books on the pallet racks lining the rear perimeter walls possible to count. I could do some shelf counts, get some averages, and with a little multiplication be in the ballpark as to how many loose books were shelved.
It tallied as follows:
About thirty-eight books per shelf. Nine shelves per bookcase. Twelve rows of ten bookcases—back to back. Two hundred and forty bookcases. Some were part empty but most were full—often overstuffed. Around seventy-five thousand books?? I was guessing—but in the ballpark. Probably at least that many more scattered on the floor and piled onto the racks. Plus there were numerous large piles toward the front on the floor. These must have been books which Buddy was going to shovel into the dumpster but hadn't gotten to yet.
I began perusing different titles to try to determine what was here. I discovered there were a number of titles in English or were bilingual. Some were just textbooks. But there was also Russian literature in translation and technical titles. Then I found some veins of Russian history, art and regional books in English.
I found I could determine subjects on some of the Russian books by pictures on their cover or photos or illustrations inside them. There were a lot of art books—quarto and folio, some clearly contemporary, others apparently classic reprints as well as runs on antiques, coins, archaeology, decorative arts and folk art, costume and crafts.
There seemed to be only one copy of some books while it was clear there were hundreds of duplicates of others.
There were about five hundred copies of an attractive but oddly bound Byelorussian cookbook in English. The recipes appeared to be very challenging both in content and technique.
Though they were all "new" some were thirty or forty years old. Many were in perfect condition. Other showed varying degrees of shelf wear.
Plusses and minuses.
I could become a Russian book dealer who didn't know what he was doing. I could be stuck with dozens of pallets of anonymous unsaleable books forever.
Buddy was trying to get me to pay to clear out his trash.
Two hundred and forty bookcases... Ten rows were twelve-inch deep metal back-to-back bookcases. They were a good dimension, close to what we were using for Internet stock in our warehouse. The most recent new units I bought were over a hundred and fifty dollars. Was I looking at the wrong stuff here? There was about thirty-six thousand dollars worth of shelving here for the taking.
I looked at the base of the bookcase I was standing before and saw a puddle there.
Whiskey had left his mark yet again.
But the shelving was the silver lining to an otherwise iffy proposition.
I flipped through some more books and found a lot of them had ISBN numbers. Maybe some of these books could be listed on the Internet despite the fact that we would have no idea what they were.
I filled a few pages with notes—numbers, ideas, counts, points "for" and points "against"...
Buddy had told me to take anything I wanted as samples, so I picked out a few dozen representative books to see if their ISBNs would show up when entered on line.
I wandered around the premises thinking and nosing about. There is something creepy about being alone in someone else's dead bookstore. There are ghosts there. The former employees and customers. The bankrupt owners. The sales reps and vendors and all those who will come and go no more.
Once this place was alive with people and books and motion. Employees were either happy to work with books or disgruntled at some perceived slights by the management...familiar territory... Now it is silent and still. I wandered into the tiny office. An eight by eight drywall cubicle with a window so the bosses could see what was going on outside this room of decision-making and paperwork. It was empty but for some debris on the floor. The desk and chair and filing cabinet and whatever other accoutrements needed to administrate this enterprise were gone.
Buddy had probably sold them off so his employer could "recup" some of her losses.
"Unique Enterprises"—a business by that name encompasses a lot of potential. Buddy and spouse were game for anything.
I bent and picked up a piece of cardboard from the floor. It appeared to be a ragged portion of a flap torn from a box. Someone in an awkward hand had written eight names. Next to each was a food item or two. A drink selection and how much each would cost.
Misha was having fried zucchini sticks that day. Lee a turkey club sandwich... Did they know this would be one of their last days here—if not the last? Certainly the owner must have had some idea. Would that have been Lev with the tuna salad? Or would the owner dine alone or skip lunch as I almost always do? Ghosts...
Maybe he or she thought they'd been lucky so far. They dodged numerous landlord ultimatums and drop-dead dates before I suspected.
Did the employees come to work the next day only to find they were locked out and that the landlady was the owner now?
I wandered about some more. The nearly empty front section comprised more than half of the unit's space.
Had Buddy dumped at least a hundred and fifty thousand books before he contacted me? I suppose he'd have guys knocking the books to the floor. He would then shovel them up with the scoop on the front of the Bobcat parked now by the overhead door. He would then tip the scoop back and drive outside the garage door to the huge roll-off dumpster in the parking lot near by. He would raise the scoop and spill the books into the dumpster as if they were trash.
I could understand the Russian women's tears and their efforts to salvage what they could.
For many of these books were beautiful. Faux leather sets abounded. What were they? Who were the authors?
Attractive uniform editions—some with fifty or more copies of each volume rose in stacks upon the pallet racks.
Bundles and bundles of thin children's books filled one section. Five or ten thousand copies of fairy tales rendered into English rose far above my head. They were thin reprints done in the 1980's of 19th century illustrated stories. The color reproductions were lovely—like Rackham or Howard Pyle or N. C. Wyeth. I looked closer at the artist's name signed in each plate. It was in Cyrillic. He was not credited in English anywhere. Something clicked in my bookseller memory—Bilibin. I counted nine different titles. There could be more. Was there a thousand of each? Or could there be eight thousand of one tile and a hundred or a handful of each of the other titles?
What beautiful objects had Buddy destroyed?
A hundred and fifty thousand books. Essentially for free. Many were beautiful. But what were they?
Well, not "free." Hundreds of man-hours. Dollars and dollars of transport.
There were shelves of Lenin's works in English and in Russian.
These in Cyrillic I could identify by the uniformity of their bindings.
Some appeared to be Soviet era publications. I assumed those would be worthless. Hammers and sickles were emblazoned on spines or covers. "CCCPs" abounded.
There was a rack of those Antarctic atlases and surveys. A couple hundred massive bundles. They were twenty-four by thirty inches. How could I even market them? What had Victor been thinking?
Who were the authors of all these various sets? Chekhov? Tolstoy? Dostoevsky?
Or was most of it obscure communist propaganda and works by hack government funded "artists" and mouth pieces?
What would it take to get them out of here? Three tractor-trailer loads?
How much labor? We'd need a forklift and over seventy pallets. That would eat up a lot of free space in our warehouse.
Was this a white elephant or like Seward's folly—buying Alaska from the Russians—would it eventually turn out to be a brilliant decision?
If I didn't take them Buddy would destroy a lot of beautiful books.
No one else I knew would take them. Or could take them. And there was no time left to find anyone else.
I wandered around some more. Dead silence. Thousands of books perched on shelves all around me as if in anticipation. How could I market them? There must be some big Russian dealers to whom I could flip these as a lot. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Had geography and the fact that Buddy didn't speak Russian played into my hands.
I stopped before a bay completely filled with identical bundles. Each was approximately one cubic foot. Gray cardboard tied with coarse twine. The primitive packaging looked like it could be one hundred years old. The title and other publisher's info were printed on the label affixed to each. In Cyrillic. I tore one open at the corner. It exposed the books inside. Rich chocolate brown glossy spines appeared.
A textbook. Ten per bundle. Five hundred bundles?
I felt again the dead quiet. And the troubling feeling I was not alone. I was surrounded by a hundred and fifty thousand books. Millions of pages. A billion words. Billions of letters. Albeit Cyrillic letters. The silence seemed to deepen as the decision on their fate was being awaited.
My eyes rested on a stack of odd-shaped books on a nearby shelf. There were about ten copies. They were oblong. An odd size and shape, somewhere between a quarto and a folio. The covers were highly decorated with medieval motifs embossed in gold leaf and other colors. I opened one and flipped through it. It was a bestiary. Almost every other page dedicated to a wonderful two-sided color reproduction of a page from an illuminated manuscript. It was one of the most unusual bindings I'd ever seen, for the reproductions were only about one-half the width of the book while the accompanying text was a full twelve-inch oblong page.
I love medieval bestiaries.
Wait a minute. It's in English too. Bilingual.
It was the "Leningrad Bestiary" from the Leningrad Public Library. The book was published in 1984 by Iskusstvo Art Publishers in Moscow.
One of these would be going home with me for my own shelves.
That one book sealed the deal for me.
The rest of them would go with me too. All of them would get a shot.
Was that big exhalation me? Or the spirits of...maybe this IS a ghost story.
If Buddy would toss in the shelving we'd have a deal and I'd make out well enough with that hardware. I'd profit many times over for the whole deal. Including the packing and moving. Anything I could do with any of the books would be gravy.
I put my stack of samples and my bestiaries in a box and carried it out to my van. I returned to the front door and locked it and placed the key back in the lock box as Buddy had instructed.
I hopped in and felt the euphoria of a good deal and the acquisition of hundreds of hours of books to play with it. As I drove back, I planned my strategy for dealing with Unique Enterprises. The trip alternated between those euphoric highs and tides of financial and logistical doubt and the dread of the massive amount of drudgework ahead of me.
I called and called but again only got his answering machine, busy signals or unreturned messages on his cell phone. Buddy was clearly a busy man, pursuing what I assumed were many unique enterprises.
That name struck me again "Unique Enterprises." With a company name like that Buddy could do anything for a buck.
I finally connected with him again. I identified myself and Buddy did all the talking. He was one of those guys who could hold forth without a pause. Seemingly without a breath.
"... Yeah, this Russian guy was gonna go thirty-five cents a book. We had a deal but he never came through with any money. Tanya, she wants to 'recup' some money. But she wants them books out there. She wants that space cleared and cleaned out. When that real estate guy told me about you, I figured you might could use 'em. I got some money for some fixtures and some shelving and some pallet racking. You want some of that? That would be cheap. There ain't much to sell in there. I tried. Got some money for some office stuff and carts and such. I was thinking a quarter a book. You want 'em for that?"
The flow of his words had been so constant that when it abruptly ended with a question posed to me, I was caught off guard.
"A quarter a book?"
One minute he tells me he's throwing them away and asking me if I'd take them. Then suddenly they're worth forty thousand dollars.
"I... I... don't think..."
He jumped in and interrupted my stammering.
"You make any offer you want. I bet Tanya will take it. She wants it cleared this week and anything I can get will help her 'recup' some of the back rent that Russian stuck her with. I got a buyer that wants the pallet racking. You want them shelves?"
He liked that word "recup." It was as if it was a new toy in his vocabulary.
"Well, I can use the twelve-inch shelves."
"How much can you go on them?"
I was catching on—dense as I can often be.
His modus operandi was to start out at "free" and then jump up sky high from there, if I'd express any interest in what he was selling.
I'd have to see how much they'd cost to move and set up.
"They're a couple hundred bucks new. You want the pallet racking?"
"I thought you had a guy for them?"
"Yeah, but if he don't come up with cash, that won't do me no good. You got a price for the books and the shelves I could take back to Tanya? She'll probably go for anything, and if you could help me out, that would be good too. She ain't payin' me good for this job and it's taken longer than I planned."
Of course it's taking longer. You're always doing so many unique things in so many places you can't focus on any one.
I had had a crazy low figure in mind for everything but as always happens when I'd been put on the spot, even after all these years, I'd still blurt out a figure often much higher than I had planned.
I don't know. If I had said two thousand and held firm he probably would have taken it. He couldn't say no. I was the only buyer for these books in my estimation.
"I was thinking about five thousand..."
The words had barely left my mouth when Buddy countered:
"And how much for the shelving?"
The five had been for everything. What made these words come out?
"Um... Two thousand?"
What was I saying?!
"Oh, I dunno. That's gonna be tough for me to sell to Tanya, and ya know, I got a lotta personal time tied up in this that I ain't been paid for."
Buddy was fishing for something... or was this deal slipping away?
"Well, I'd like to offer you something for helping me so much," I said.
He was silent—for a change.
What would be enough?
"How about a thousand as a finder's fee?"
I could sense his smile through the cell phone. Buddy didn't know about books but I bet he had played some poker in his life.
I could envision Whiskey in the passenger seat with his forepaws placed on the dashboard, sensing his master's pleasure, and smiling as well.
"I bet I can sell Tanya on your offer."
I bet you can, I thought.
"Can you get 'em out in a week?"
"I can shoot for about ten days," I found myself saying, unconscious of where that number had come from. " Business days," I added for cushioning.
"Well, they gotta be outta there or I'll need to start dumping them again."
It was a deal. Whether it was a home run or a tiger by the tail, or something in between, only time would tell.
The next two weeks were a whirlwind of planning logistics and hard, hard work.
We needed pallets, gaylords (giant heavy duty corrugated cardboard containers approximately four feet by four feet by four feet which rest atop pallets) and rolls of plastic wrap. Lots of all of them.
I'd have to find a trucker and a forklift. I needed shelving contractors to tear down, transport and re-erect the shelving in my warehouse.
I had decided on gaylords rather than boxes because they would facilitate and speed up the packing of the loose books. The books could simply just be set into these giant boxes and stacked to the top.
I went down the next morning with Clif, my warehouse manager, to get his input on how we should approach this project. I let us in using the code on the key lock box Buddy had given me. When the lights came on Clif let out a long breath and tugged on his beard.
It was a mountain of material.
I pushed the button which raised the garage door and he backed the van up to the foremost shelves and we filled it up with as much as it could take. As we were leaving, I looked back. You couldn't tell we had been there.
The next day we returned with two vans loaded with pallets and folded gaylords and two additional strong backs.
One of those strong backs was Kent. One of the more memorable gofers we've employed transiently over the years. They would do grunt work for a week, a month or a year and then move on. Their formal title was not "gofer."
He sort of looked like G. Gordon Liddy during his Watergate days. His head was shaved. He was very physically fit. He had a bushy mustache. He usually wore camouflage. He had hit on every young woman in the company. He was in his mid forties, a self professed samurai and had told just about everyone in the warehouse he had been celibate for twelve years and was looking for a wife to bear his children. His advances had made a couple of the twenty-something girls uncomfortable with come-ons that were too strong and small unwanted gifts he'd leave on their desks as love tokens. They'd made small complaints, and we'd given him fair warning to do his compulsive search for a warrior princess mate elsewhere.
But he was a good worker. Almost robotic except on days when he would show up moody and broody about his latest failure at woman hunting.
At one point he started trolling for wives in Chinese restaurants and every other week or so he was sure he had found The One.
As he packed books in our warehouse, he began to put aside anything remotely related to China or the Chinese or even what he supposed was written in Chinese. He'd buy junk and quality books. He'd spend a good portion of his paycheck on them despite my deeply discounting his finds.
For a week or so he'd arrive every morning elated.
"This is the one. I'm giving her a ring tonight."
Only to arrive the next morning cruelly crestfallen. It hadn't worked out.
One day he announced:
"I'm learning Chinese. Ming Li (or whatever) is teaching me during her breaks at the restaurant."
We would find out a few days later from a distraught Kent that Ming Li was dating a cook and had apparently only been using Kent for the gifts and meals he would buy her. Kent would share every detail, clearly moping and freely sharing his latest failures at love. This cycle repeated itself many times with marriage and children impending, only to be embarrassingly rebuffed. Eventually, when I guess he ran out of Chinese restaurants, he began pursuing Latino women in shopping malls. He'd regale any of the guys who would listen with those exploits. It was becoming spooky stuff.
His tenure at the warehouse ended when he made yet another young coworker uncomfortable with his mooning looks and unsettling, almost comic premature hints, at matrimony. During a calm personnel meeting with me and a couple managers, we cautioned him to lay off the in-house girls yet again. He blew up at our "accusations" and quit on the spot, stomping out in a huff.
The enslaved warrior king was freed to seek his own kingdom and a fertile queen.
But, like I was saying, he was a good worker when he wasn't depressed about women.
Back to the Russian books...
We unfolded the gaylords and set them atop pallets and started to fill them with anonymous Russian books. Atop every full gaylord we would stack boxes or bundles of more anonymous books which had never been removed from the packages done up at the printers somewhere in Eurasia.
A rented forklift was delivered later that day and Clif began staging finished pallets toward the front of the empty warehouse to get them out of the way of where we were working.
We focused on the shelves we would be taking. We also cleared paths down the aisles that Buddy had filled by dumping loose books.
After a few hard dusty days I called the shelving contractors and they arrived the next morning. That packing up day became accompanied by the incredibly loud banging, clanging and electrical unscrewing cacophony of heavy-duty metal shelving being dismantled and tossed to the floor. We were constantly in each other's way. It was unbearable so I stopped bringing crews down for a couple days to let the shelvers create their sonic havoc in peace.
The morning after they were done I stopped in and I was surprised to find an enormous pile of books had been unceremoniously dumped on the floor in a back corner of the space. The pile was over six feet high and at least twenty feet in diameter. It completely blocked access to a big section in the rear of the building. Inspecting it, I noticed it was adjacent to a big void in the pallet racking.
He had sold some racking and pushed my books to the floor so he could take it apart and move it.
I called his cell and surprisingly he answered.
"I been tried to find ya," he said in response to my hello. "When ya gonna have all your stuff cleared out?" he added, some annoyance in his voice.
"We're working on it," I replied, perturbed myself. "Do you know about this huge mess here? Somebody threw about ten thousand books on the floor."
"Nope. Tanya wants that space cleared. I got drywall, drop ceiling and lights I gotta put in down there."
Never mind, I thought.
"Never mind," I said as I envisioned Buddy and Whiskey smiling as the unique van flitted to whatever mission or missions it was on that day.
That was also the day the shelvers had begun re-erecting Buddy's shelves in our warehouse. We moved ourselves back to the Russian warehouse and we focused on packing and stacking. We weren't half way done yet but we had over a truckload—twenty-four pallets—ready to go. I called the trucking company that day and they said they'd be there the next morning for the first load.
Buddy's mess was blocking one of the two outside aisles with the remaining thirty-inch shelving and many of the pallet racks along the side and rear wall, making one entire rear quadrant inaccessible. They were so jumbled that manual clean up would take too long. We were under a deadline. Plus, the books that Buddy had pushed down were mostly textbooks, worthless stuff. Many of these marginal titles were damaged by Buddy's mishandling.
An idea struck me—or was it an implanted memory? I went to the front and retrieved the broad snow shovel I had seen propped near the front door. I tested it and it seemed to work. I trained Kent on how to gently slide the blade of the shovel along the concrete floor under some books and carefully tip the load into a gaylord. He took to the change of pace and set to work clearing paths around this snow-pile-like mound of books grunting in time like a mythic hero on a chain gang.
I returned to packing in another area of the building. I sensed a presence behind me and turned to find Whiskey with his rear left leg aloft not six inches from my sneakered foot. He wasn't aiming at me. I think. But I jerked my foot away anyway and he angled his spray on a stack of Lenin's works (I could tell by the picture on the front.)
Buddy was not far behind his dog and I rose to greet him.
"I thought you were gonna get these shelves out," he said in lieu of hello. He banged his beefy fist on a row of thirty-inch-wide shelves that I had specifically excluded because they were too wide and of no use to me.
"No, I only agreed to the twelve inch shelving units and we finished getting them out yesterday."
Ignoring my response he asked:
"Shelves is shelves. You should take 'em. When are ya gonna be done?" looking up and around.
Most of the two remaining rows of thirty-inch-wide shelving were empty but the remaining pallet racking lining the rear and perimeter walls were still mostly full. Some were stacked nearly to the ceiling about twenty feet off the floor.
"Well, if you hadn't blocked that whole side over there by dumping the books on the floor..."
"Your guys musta done that."
"You just ruined a lot of those books and I've already paid for them."
"I gotta git down the road. Big floor tile install I gotta get done. Tanya will be all over me if this ain't cleared soon."
We had gotten another truckload ready and the next morning Clif maneuvered the forklift around and lifted the pallets up to the semi trailer which he'd backed to the front door with another twenty-four pallets.
The shelving contractors had finished re-erecting the metal shelving in our warehouse and the foreman presented me with the bill. No "send a check" billing terms with these guys. It was for the amount agreed upon and I walked out to the warehouse floor to inspect the job. I counted the units per row and multiplied by the number of rows.
Something was wrong. I counted again and multiplied. This time on paper.
"There's supposed to be two hundred and forty," I said.
"We brought everything that was there," Brad the supervising contractor replied.
I had dealt with him for several years. He was a straight shooter.
"We agreed on a price to take down and move and set up two hundred forty units."
He walked up and down in the aisles he and his crew had just finished.
"A hundred ninety-two," he said.
"That's what I get. You counted two hundred forty down there, didn't you?"
He was flustered.
"Yes... We brought everything that was there. I know it."
I was on the phone with him in minutes.
"Buddy, there's a bunch of shelves missing."
"I can't pay them bills if you don't get me a check!" A coarse woman's voice was shouting in the background.
"There's still them shelves in there."
"I can't use those. I paid you for two hundred forty twelve-inch bookcases. There are only a hundred ninety-two."
"They must have gone out when you dumped those books and took out the racking."
"I mighta taken a couple down to make some room to get out. You should take them big shelves—for free."
"Buddy, I want to be reimbursed for those shelves you took," I said.
"Sure. Sure. I'll take care of you. I only took a couple for my workroom. When are ya gonna be done?"
We returned the next day and began unloading the pallet racks. Each section had three levels—the bottom section resting on the floor, a separate section about six feet above it, and the third section was about twelve feet above the floor. There was no safe way to get up to those. The forklift wouldn't fit down these narrow rows. Not wishing to risk an employee or a worker's compensation lawsuit, I scrambled up those as if I was climbing on monkey bars. From that height, I would hand down armloads of loose books to a coworker on a stepladder below.
When I came to books still packed in their original boxes or bundles I would shoo staff away from the area where I was and gingerly drop them the twelve feet to the floor below. I would aim and angle these packages so they would land as softly as possible and not burst open. The aisle below was soon filled with a jumble of brown cardboard or kraft paper three-dimensional rectangles—bookish building blocks.
When the section of pallet racking was empty or the little canyon below me was filling too high, I would call for help to clear it out. Meanwhile, I would clamber over metal supports to perform the same task a few sections away.
The back of the warehouse was emptying out and its chaos was reforming in neatly stacked pallets and filled gaylords toward the front. Mostly neat—I still occasionally assigned Kent to continue shoveling Buddy's book pile, haphazardly into a gaylord to clear paths to the last congested areas to access loaded racking.
I had been buying lunch for the crew every day. I'd record each man's name and food and drink selections on a piece of scrap cardboard and take it to the nearby "Texas Deli." The Vietnamese family that ran it had become familiar with me and smiled broadly, nodded, and sometimes nearly bowed when I entered. I did this partly because it was good for morale. The men were working hard and had been away from their usual workplace for a long time. But it also kept their rhythm going, for this work was very repetitive. It also gave me a breather since I never ate lunch.
The Texas Deli appreciated my trade. I wonder if they suspected that I would not be a regular for long and that within in a few days they would never see me again? I suppose I was just another contractor or foreman of a crew which came and went in this sprawling warehouse and light industrial district.
As I walked back across the broad parking lot, a plastic T-shirt bag with food in one hand, drinks in the other, Buddy sped past me. One hand had his cell phone pressed against his ear; the other held his sandwich and the top of the steering wheel simultaneously. Focused on his next enterprise he didn't, or chose not to, acknowledge me. Maybe I was just another lunch gofer in his peripheral vision. But Whiskey did. His head turned and followed me. I swear his demeanor seemed to be one of longing mixed with a sense of having missed something.
Entering beneath the Kamkin sign which still touted a huge selection of Russian books and music and art, I called the guys up for their lunch.
Clif came up to me.
"Buddy was just here."
"I know, he almost ran me down. Busy guy."
"He had the new tenants in—walking them through. Middle Eastern, I think, and I think they were unhappy. Buddy was doing a lot of fast explaining while they were walking through pointing at stuff."
"Probably beyond deadline. He hasn't done a lick of work here ever since we started even though the place is half empty—except dumping our books and appropriating our shelves."
"I heard him bragging how much money he had gotten for the stuff in here. He told those guys he had lined his workshop with shelving. It was as if he didn't think we understood English."
"Buddy braggadocio," I said.
"Never mind. He say anything to you?"
"Yeah, when the other guys left he asked me when we'd be done. I told him it looked like we would have the last semi load out of here by the day after tomorrow. Then he said 'I hope you guys leave the place broom clean.'"
"Yeah, does he expect us to clean up all his trash and demolition debris?"
"Well, we're not. I don't even plan to shovel up all those junked books Buddy threw off the racks he took."
"Then he asked me to talk you into taking the big shelving. He said that they'd be a pain in his butt to take apart."
"I'll call the scrap steel guy. Maybe they'll take it."
Why would I do this guy any favors, I thought to myself.
"Then he asked if I wanted to buy any of the stuff leftover here—like for myself. When I said no, he said 'just take anything you want except the pallet racks. I got guys that wants those.'"
There were a lot of odds and ends around I hadn't paid attention to—shopping carts, two and four-wheel dollies, chairs, step-stools, bundles of shopping bags, a snow shovel...
I told Clif, since we had permission, he should start foraging through the space and pick out anything we could use and load it in the van. I thought it would please Buddy and also offset some of the loss for the shelving he had... umm... appropriated from me. I could "recup" some of my losses.
Clif's estimate was correct and we would finish the next day. I called the trucking company for one last pick up the morning after that. When we finished about lunchtime I counted exactly twenty-four pallets. One last full load. We had built seventy-two big pallets there. Plus, we'd taken vanloads of books and stuff every day.
The next morning just Clif and I went down. The truck came. It was the same driver that had taken the other two loads.
"I'm gonna have to take back roads again," he said surveying this last load.
I looked at him questioningly.
"You guys build huge pallets. I'm way over weight with these. No way I'm gonna stop at any scales."
Clif started up the forklift and loaded the semi. When he finished I let him go while I waited for the rental company to pick up the forklift.
I walked over to the Texas Deli to get an iced tea, leaving all the doors open so that the forklift guy could do his business if he arrived in my brief absence.
Walking back across the familiar parking lot with my drink I saw the forklift being loaded on a flatbed truck.
We were finished. Here anyway.
I walked around the warehouse one last time. The books were gone—almost. We had left much of the snow pile of books for Buddy. Right where he had dumped them.
The floor was littered with cardboard boxes, packing materials, dust jackets and trash which had come off the shelves and racking while we were pulling books.
It was a big mess.
I smiled to myself. Buddy still had some rows to hoe. But he'd made out like a bandit—the bandit he was. Good for him.
He'd be calling me I bet.
I walked up and down the remaining aisles. We hadn't missed anything.
The ghosts were gone. This was just an anonymous space now. Soon it would become a Middle-Eastern trader's enterprise.
I called Buddy, leaving a message on his answering machine that we were finished. Then I locked up and left.
What had I done? What had I gotten myself into?
I arrived at our warehouse early the next morning. I flipped the switch to turn on the lights. They were industrial mercury vapor and did not come on right away. When activated, they power up with a loud deep humming electric buzz and then slowly brighten over a couple minutes to full intensity. The light they cast has a pinkish-orange tinge which slightly distorts many colors. Burgundy reds can look brown. Turquoise blue can appear green. This caused problems with the books we sold by the foot to interior designers in colors they would specify to match their rooms and carpets and furniture. Let me assure you- the books we sell for that purpose have no other options for survival. They are titles we get too many copies of to sell online or in the stores or to...anyone... for reading or collecting. But that colorful sideline and some of the quirky designer mavens I'd dealt with is another story.
Like the lights coming up slowly on an operatic stage my warehouse was revealed. The receiving area was a solid mass of seventy-two big pallets. Many were up to seven feet tall. All full of who knows what. Books certainly. It was massive. An irregular rectangle of varying heights like a mountain range in Alaskan proportions. Where would I begin?
Looking around, I saw another section of the fifty-four thousand square foot warehouse space. The gray skeletal shapes of the newly erected eight-foot metal shelves. Four rows of forty. One of thirty-two. It would hold a lot of Internet stock. Thirty-six times nine times a hundred ninety-two. Sixty-two thousand two hundred and eight books, give or take. The value of the shelving was nearly four times what I had paid for everything. Including labor. I smiled. I'd made out. Not like a bandit for I'd done nothing wrong. More like a vulture. A necessary creature which recycles fallen entities. In this case, Victor Kamkin's long lived book business.
Returning my focus to the books I thought again:
What have I done? Was this a gold mine or an enormous albatross? Time will tell. I was stuck with them for good or bad.
Where to begin?
Find a Russian!
Glowing with confidence that some big Russian book company would buy them as a lot for a fraction of their value, but for a lot more than I paid for them. I'd walk away from this with money, shelving and no mess. I searched Russian books and Russian bookstores on the Internet.
Russkie Knigi appeared several times which I had deduced meant Russian books. New York City had what appeared to be four very large operations. Each touted a massive amount of books. There also appeared to be a very large one in Detroit. I clicked on the first of the four sites and wrote down their name and phone number. I called and the voice which picked up at the other end answered in Russian.
"Um, may I speak with your buyer?"
"You vont to buy books?"
"No, I want to sell books. May I speak with the person that buys books there?"
I repeated myself.
"Ve are a Russian bookstore."
"I know. The books I have are in Russian. I have over a hundred thousand. They are all new."
I called number two. Again I was greeted in Russian but this time the transition into English was much smoother. After my explanation the woman said:
"I see. You vill vant to speak with Ivan. He's out now. I vill give him your number."
Number three was answered in English, albeit with a thick Russian accent. We actually engaged in a dialog. He finally got around to asking the source and when I mentioned Victor Kamkin he laughed loudly.
"I know these books. They are sheet. How much do you vant for them?"
"I hadn't thought of that. I really don't know what most of them are. But they'd be very cheap. You should see them."
"I vill come look at them."
He took my number and said, "I vill call you back."
He never did and never took my calls again.
Number four explained in very good English that they got all their books from Russia. Their website showed graphics of brightly colored books clearly brand new publications with often lurid or sexy covers.
"These books are all from Russia..." I said.
"No, our company is in Russia. They send us all our books."
Then there was the big one in Detroit. I called there. The man seemed intrigued.
"Seventy-two pallets. How much do you want per pallet?"
I hadn't thought of that.
"I hadn't thought of that. You should really see what they are."
We spoke some more and he said that he might get to the Washington area in the near future. He too took my number and told me he would call me back.
After those, all the other listings on the Internet seemed small or irrelevant.
I sent off e-mails to big used booksellers and remainder companies I knew around the country and in Europe, hoping they might have a Russian connection to help me out.
A few days passed. No one returned my calls. No one e-mailed me with potential connections. No one was biting. A waive of depression swept over me. These books weren't going anywhere.
My phone line lit up.
"There's a Buddy asking for you on line two."
"Tell him I'm in a meeting please."
I thought I give him some of the treatment he'd given me. Besides, I was concentrating. I was uniquely busy at the moment.
I went out to the warehouse and looked at my new acquisition.
"White elephant," I whispered softly.
Then I recalled the starred pallets, three of them which I had distinguished with bold hand drawn stars on all four sides. When I came across particularly nice books in English or bilingual, I had segregated them and so had built these three pallets full of books with which I could actually do something. I climbed atop the nearest pallet and stepped from pallet to pallet as though they were rocks in a dry riverbed until I found one. Kneeling, I looked at the titles on the top level.
There is some great stuff here, I thought. Some of these had to be pretty rare. I pulled about ten interesting books and made my way back across the precarious boulder field of book piles and took them to Madeline. She was my best researcher. I wanted to see if she could find any values for them.
I gave her titles like:
"Miniatures and Illustrations on Alisher Navoi's Works From the 15th—19th Centuries," "Museum of Ukrainian Decorative Art," "Russian Embroidery: Traditional Motifs," "French Tapestries at the Hermitage," "Daghastan Decorative Art" (where is Daghastan?), "The Mausoleum of Hadja Ahmed Yasev," "Russian Distaffs."
Alien books from an alien world. Madeline would be challenged.
Back at my office there was a message taped to my door. "Buddy" followed by his number.
I moved on to other work. I had as many lines out as I could think of. I would just have to wait for the first bite or any nibble.
I took Buddy's fourth call that morning. He was livid. I could almost feel his saliva spluttering into his mouthpiece.
Whiskey was yapping in the background, although not in anger I felt. Did I sense some need or urgency in his barks?
We went back and forth. I kept my cool. I had nothing to lose. He'd been paid. And I had everything I wanted.
"Except my forty-eight bookcases, Buddy. Where are they?"
"That place is a mess."
"It was a mess when I got there. Any stuff we left there were empty boxes or debris that were on the shelves or racks. I only agreed to take the books."
"What about those books on the floor? I can't get in to take the shelves down. And I can't get the scoop back there to get them books out."
"They're right where you dumped them, Buddy. You ruined them throwing them down like that."
Then I heard a yelp and understood. Whiskey's barking had been interrupting Buddy's train of thought. And that was Buddy's way of silencing him.
The conversation went in circles but I wasn't going to give him much time.
"You bring me my forty-eight bookcases and set them up and I'll send someone down to sweep up."
I finished, "Hey, keep my number. If you ever run into any big lots of books like this again, I'll pay you a finder's fee."
I was stuck with them.
No one I had contacted had any leads.
One waggish dealer I had e-mailed sent a reply:
"Pour gas on them. Light a match. Throw it. Run away."
Were they poison?
Trying again, I called the two Russians who had showed some interest a few weeks earlier. No movement. No commitment to come look.
Then I tried another month later.
They weren't going to sell as a lot. I decided to begin breaking them up. I pulled the three pallets of books in English that I had segregated as we packed first. They were the cream of the English titles I had found on my own. I broke those pallets down as if they were a nice "normal" collection. The books I felt were highly desirable or those which were beyond my scope—like a tall folio slip-cased volume on Russian pillow lace—I sent to be researched. Others flew onto the Internet at prices I fixed. A large portion was sorted for the retail stores. Many of them had ISBN numbers. But the Russians up to a certain point had used an unusual two-line ISBN numbering system. None of these worked when we tried to bring the book up using that number. The ISBNs were as reliable as a Lada (the notorious Russian car brand.) I figured it must have been a cold war competing technology issue—"our way is better." Those which had western style ISBNs only worked about three out of ten times. The rest would come up "item not found."
72 pallets of mostly unsaleable books. What would I do? We'd invested a lot of time in them already.
Now they were taking up a lot of valuable space.
"Great. Thanks for the advice. This was your idea."
"Ah, yer bein' an eedjit. Give it some time."
"Punt? What's that mean?"
"Lookin' at this mountain every day'll just get ye depressed. And ye can use this space for some good things that'll be coming yer way."
"Do you know something?"
"That would be tellin'."
"What do you mean by punt?"
"What is a punt? Ye'll figure it out," she replied.
Was she gone? Leaving me holding the bag as it were?
"Oh, and about the Russian books, remember what yer Mom used to say about lemons."
If you've got lemons make lemonade...
I'm a little slow on the uptake but a day or two later I noticed my warehouse neighbor who bought and sold office furniture had a number of storage trailers. Our parking area was huge and sparsely used.
I punted the Russian books into 3 storage at $80 each—per month.
And what's become of the last of the Kamkin Russian hoard 10 years on?
They're all gone...mostly...it's a long story and I'll save that for another time.
But if you want to know what happened before all this, just Google Victor Kamkin. He was quite a fascinating fellow and bookman. But you will already know more of the story than Wikipedia.