Millie, Mickey, Wallpaper, the Doctor, DC and Downsizing—a Bookseller’s Week
These are a few of the stories of people and books at Wonder Book in the last week, December 2-9, 2017.
An email with the Subject line reading “Books For Sale” dropped in early July 2017. It read in part:
I have a rather large collection of matching leather bound books, that I need to sell. The books are of the Franklin Mint collection and number about 100… I took several samples and photos to the Frederick store. The staff person said that … the best avenue was to email you pictures and information.
Attached are photos of the collection. They were a part of my Father’s collection. He passed away several years ago, and now I am downsizing to a smaller living space. My name is Susan. I was diagnosed with ALS last year and I am moving into a care facility…
At the end of the correspondence were a couple sentences from a “Millie” saying it was she that was writing. She was typing what was being dictated to her by her friend, Susan, who, because her hands wouldn’t let her, was unable to type the message herself.
There were about 10 clear images of the Franklins and some other sets and book assortments attached. I reviewed them and quickly sent a reply expressing my sorrow about the situation and including an estimate of what we’d be willing to pay if the books could be brought to us.
I was thanked for my quick response and was told Susan—via Millie—would be in touch soon.
I heard no more and had forgotten the interaction when 5 months later, nearly to the day, I got another email from a “Millie.” This time the Subject line was blank. I opened it and read:
I chatted with you recently [?] about my friends collection of books.. You were very understanding of her condition. I said she has ALS and her health is declining every day. She will be moving into an assisted living facility… I have finally packed the books and have help to load them tomorrow.
Thank you so much for your help, I will be driving from Towson to Frederick and don’t want to make the trip if all is not in place. Again thanks, and Happy Holidays to you and your family. Millie.
The “recently” confused me as I didn’t recall any “recent” correspondence about Franklin Mint books. Am I losing my memory? (I’ve wondered this for decades.) I searched for “Millie’s” in my inbox and found last July’s interaction. I replied that we’d be ready at the warehouse the next day and to please give me an ETA so I could be sure to be around.
The next morning Kelly came and found me in the far reaches of the warehouse and said that Millie was here.
“Ask her to pull around back to Dock 1 or 2.” (There are 21 loading docks here—each with a big number on a white metal sign above it.)
I walked back there to see a big ole jet-black Toyota truck backing up. It was the kind of truck that can get out of most situations—mud, rock, devastation, calamity…. Big nubby tires; a suspension that raises the floor of the cab above your waist. If you really got in trouble, there was a big winch on the rhino bar attached to the front bumper so you could pull yourself out of…whatever.
It looked kind of like this:
I hopped down and introduced myself as Millie clambered down to the ground. She was in her mid 70s I’d guess. Her faced deeply cragged. But she was vibrant and energetic. She wore a big sheepskin coat and jeans and work boots that rose to her calves. She had the aura of someone who works with animals. Maybe horses?
“That’s some truck, Millie!”
“Its my son’s. He works for FEMA. He thinks he needs it.”
The back of the truck had a cap with windows all over it and I peered inside. The pickup bed was loaded to the roof. I’d had the impression there’d only be 8 or 10 boxes. I called Steve over to help. The tailgate was so high off the ground he had to fetch a step stool to get up in it. Box after box came out. I opened each and peered inside, quickly ascertaining what was there before another was set atop it on the rough wooden pallet set at the edge of the dock. A set of the HARVARD CLASSICS (the “Five Foot Shelf of Books”) floated in. As did 4 boxes containing the GREAT BOOKS OF THE WESTERN WORLD set. Oddly, the spines on this 54 volume set were all worn from use. We see a lot of these. The buyer’s of Britannica’s “Great Plan” are almost always aspirational. Most sets arrive here in perfect condition—many still in shrink wrap. But they sure look pretty and impressive on the shelf! Susan’s Dad had read the whole canon! A set of PULITZER PRIZE winners was hoisted up to me. There were boxes of assorted titles coming down from the vehicle and then up to the dock as well. Mostly history, art and literature. Soon there were about 35 boxes stacked as high as my chest and I had a price calculated. There were few collectibles. There was no junk… The Franklin Press “100 Greatest Books of All Time” was the best part. These are beautiful but not collectible. They are real leather with raised bands on the spines and lots of gilt lettering and decorations. They had been very expensive to subscribe to back in the 80s and 90s. Like the Great Books—impressive. Shelf statements.
Nowadays the common Franklins are tough to sell. The are dozens of copies of each title on Amazon and ABE. That darn Internet! But the signed and limited first edition Franklins can have appreciated if they are by authors who are still actively collected like Kurt Vonnegut.
Sadly, most are now just pretty books. This would be sold “by the foot.” We already have a LOT of copies of these titles online and in the stores. There is no other choice. Still, they command a pretty good price for us in our Books By the Foot service.
They will likely go as a lot and be an impressive shelf statement in someone else’s home.
I told Millie my offer, and she was pleased, saying she’d thought it would be about $500.
I asked, “How did you get that truck loaded?”
“I had some help from my son. These all came down 3 flights of stairs. We’ve been emptying Susan’s home for weeks. I’ll be glad when it’s done. I’m no spring chicken, you know!”
She really said that!
She climbed up on the dock and followed me to the office where we wrote her a check.
“Good luck with the rest of it. Can you find your way out ok?” I said.
“Sure. And thank you for taking all of them.”
So, Millie had moved into the scene and out again—off the stage—likely never to be part of this Wonder Book Show again. But she’d played her part well. And we’d done ours.
You don’t meet many “Millie’s” any more and Mickey is certainly a name that usually comes from a different era. It makes me think of Spillane, Rooney…Mouse. This Mickey is a woman. Elderly from the sound of her voice.
“The people at your store gave me your number. I have a couple boxes of old children’s books. An antique dealer told me they might worth something.”
I was on the road to our Hagerstown store driving a van with fresh stock—maybe 30 boxes of books, 10 boxes of records, a few boxes of CDs and 7 or 8 boxes of DVDs. There were also supplies, paperwork, candies and gourmet sodas for resale behind the driver’s seat as well. We’d been called by that store’s manager at the warehouse. The van currently parked up there was full—stuffed to the roof with boxes of books, movies and music they had purchased from the public over the last “couple few” days.
They NEEDED a “Swap.”
Why did I groan? Most old books—~99%—have no collectible value. They are just old books. Old kids books usually have the additional curse of being in poor condition. Heck, even modern kids books are quite often “loved to tatters” by the time we get them. Furthermore, when someone’s been advised they may be valuable by someone who is likely not experienced in books, the owner has high expectations which may end up being dashed when the forthcoming offer is low—often very low—for unsaleable kids books.
“Where are the books?”
“Pennsylvania. Up above Gettysburg.”
A no win situation.
She described the books to me, “…Golden Books…”
Golden Books… we see hundreds every week.
I explained that it was unlikely the value of the books would offset their transportation to Maryland and that she might want to try someone closer to her home.
She was very understanding but pressed the issue telling me she wanted the books to go someplace good. Her hope was for what we call here a “Happy Ending.” That the books will get a new beginning with someone, somewhere. We try to find Happy Endings for every book we can.
I tried to dissuade her again.
She pressed again.
I was vulnerable—driving and all.
Why I quoted a price without seeing images of the books, I don’t know. Trying not to disappoint Mickey too much I guess and maybe a little mercy for the woman and her hopes for her books.
…and maybe a little of the instinct that has worked often enough to keep me in business, and amused, for so many years…
The price I offered wouldn’t hurt too much even if the books were junk. It was high enough to make the trip a bit worthwhile for a retired person with plenty of extra time on their hands.
I guess we had made a date and approximate time of arrival.
So, some days later, she arrived at the warehouse—just a few hours after Millie. But, guess what, I was not there. I was on the road to Gaithersburg…to make a swap.
It could be my memory or hers. It could be because I’d been unable to write the information down as I was driving and forgot all about it in the “excitement” of arriving, unloading the van and swapping it with the full van. We also have to juggle it so as not to lose the prime parking spot for transferring books from sellers’ vehicles into the Wonder van.
When I returned to Frederick from Gaithersburg, Ernest confronted me and told me I’d missed Mickey’s appointment.
Total blank. It had been a week or two or more since the phone call… which I did recall. But an “appointment”—that I did not recall. Oops.
“She backed in just as you pulled out. It was that old white Chrysler mini van. Those are her books there.”
He pointed to an orange plastic pallet with about 10 ragged boxes on it.
I wanted to see what I had “bought blindly” so I had the pallet put aside. When I had some time, I laid them out myself.
There was a nice run of Hardy Boys—similar to those I would have had when I was a kid.
A Bicentennial set of Encyclopedia Britannica including the 3-volume facsimile of the 1771 Britannica. The facsimile actually sells pretty well online for $50-75.
Why there’s a set of the 20-volume International Wildlife Encyclopedia! I’d packed those on an assembly line along with The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Wildlife Kingdom when I was 16! It was my first job and lasted only a couple weeks before the tedium got to me. Maybe I helped pack this very set!
And there were 4 “volume 1’s” of sets that Mickey did not continue with. Grocery stores and mail order houses would often give away volume 1—”Free Book!”—to get people hooked on buying the rest. Either one at a time on the installment plan or as a group with a lump sum payment. The pitch being once you had one book you would want to “Complete the set”!
Then there was the good stuff. Turns out the Golden Books were mostly of the older variety with tan and beige paper spines rather that the shiny “foil” spines that are still sold today. Most were in great condition. None had the hard to find dust jackets but they are still nice.
One was so cute. The little girl with the big forehead and tiny mouth. Eloise Wilkin’s work. All the kids she drew had those features. As a toddler I found those little girls so attractive. Cute! Weird too…FIX IT, PLEASE. At the end of the book Polly—the little girl on the cover—has a fever. Mother calls the doctor who comes to the house and gives her pink medicine. The next day Polly was “as frisky as a puppy.” The old doctor was a “Fix It Man” too! Those were Golden Times to grow up in.
There was a nice run of Rand McNally Elf Books and Puppet StoryBooks. The Puppet Storybooks had exotic, high-tech (for the time), 3D images glued to the front covers. All were in near perfect condition.
The Tall Book of Mother Goose—1942—still had a very nice dust jacket. The 150 images on the 120-page book by Feodor Rojankovsky are pretty exotic. Some are a bit macabre as well.
So Mickey was right. They were good kids books and worth #bookrescue. It was fun to go through the small collection. Most were before my time. Childhood signatures from the early 1940s in the older ones indicated some were Mickey’s and some her husband’s (I had made the check out to her—with his surname.) The later ones—more contemporary with my youth—were probably their children’s.
Thanks for pushing me Mickey!
The Yellow Wallpaper
We’ve embraced Instagram here in the past year. So much so that 7 or 8 of us compete to post what we feel are interesting photos on @wonderbook&video and @booksbythefoot. I’ll check the sites periodically and often wonder, “Who posted that?”
I wondered this when I saw a turn of the century (19th -20th century that is) book with an unusual cover posted with the comment, “…don’t stare at it too long or you might go crazy…”
Pretty ugly wallpaper I thought and then thought no more about it. We see a LOT of old books with interesting bindings and cover art every day.
When I checked Instagram again that night someone inquired, “Is this for sale?”
We don’t usually post images of books with the intent of trying to market them. It is usually just to share some of the cool things we see with people around the world.
My first instinct was, “Sure. I’ll ask for ten bucks. It’ll make someone happy.”
The next morning I spied Elizabeth Stetson’s little oeuvre on a cart of old books set aside for me to review. It was in the area where Caryn sorts “Raw” books. “Raw” means books we’ve bought from people at the three stores or from estates or…other places. They all go through a pretty complex triage process to try to get the books to the right places. Some books we know do well in the stores. Some belong online at WonderBook.com. Some, if we know there is too much “supply” or too little “demand,” go to BooksByTheFoot.com or to bulk sales domestically and internationally. If there is no other choice, we will recycle the hopeless ones to make new paper…maybe to make new books. There are a number of other triage choices as well. Including “Chuck” carts. These are for books nobody else is quite sure what to do with.
“So it was that you posted this one?”
I was going to walk away with it and quote it to the Instagrammer but something stopped me. Some instinct. Maybe there’s a bit of “divvie” (diviner) in me. Maybe sometimes there’s some external assistance.
This book stuck to my hand. Stopped me in my place. It was an ugly little thing.
“What horrible creepy graphics.” I thought.
“Do some research on this one when you get a chance.” I asked her and handed it back.
We have a room stacked high with yellow tubs of books that need individual research. We are always hopelessly behind. (Wanna come help?)
A day or two later I was reviewing the results of some books researched here that were designated for my attention. There was the slim THE YELLOW WALLPAPER with the end of a 3×5 card protruding from the top of it. I opened it and read her notes. She had found the following in other people’s online listings:
“…low price of $475…up to $3000…”
I shook my head and put it back down. I’ll look it up myself to see what’s going on.
I returned to it a few days later while I was reviewing other problematic researched books that had those “Chuck” slips in them.
I went to viaLibri and put the info in. It is an important and rare book. The copies going up to $3000 were from very knowledgeable and trustworthy booksellers.
How was I missing this book in my collectible book mental repertoire?
I Googled it and found this on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Yellow_Wallpaper
As you can see there are numerous groundbreaking feminist, mental health and first person descent-into-madness attributes to the little 60 page novella.
It can also be seen as an important work of Gothic Horror. H P Lovecraft wrote, “‘The Yellow Wall Paper’ rises to a classic level in subtly delineating the madness which crawls over a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined.”
Nowadays it is reprinted under surname Gilman from a second marriage. Maybe that’s why I missed it? Maybe it is that memory thing again.
Our copy was the 1901 edition not the 1899, but it was in great condition.
I decided to post it on a list that goes only to other members of the ABAA. I wanted to see if my instincts were correct and a specialist colleague might want it for $1000. If you’ve never visited the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America website—abaa.org—it is well worth it. You’ll see beautiful wondrous thrilling books that’ll knock your socks off. I do whenever I visit. Plus any bookseller that can pass the rigors and tests to get into the organization is carefully vetted and the community continually monitors itself for excellence and accuracy.
Within seconds of my posting it was sold. In fact several specialists wanted it. An excellent Virginia dealer who has a focus in feminist literature was seconds ahead of the other two “Yes, please.” replies to my email posting.
“Wow! That was quick!”
So this copy of Stetson/Gilman’s torment and the resulting telling of it had a happy ending. This rare book may end up in a university library or feminist archive or …someplace good.
We get a lot of requests for house calls from all over the DC Baltimore region. We do as many as we can. We farm some out to scouts like Nelson Freck. We often encourage people to bring the books in to our stores or warehouse. We still can’t do them all. Phone requests are stuck to my door jamb with Post-its. Most are from recorded messages left on the public number here.
(Well, this picture is staged. Christmas time is slow for house call requests—but there are often that many requests or more taped up there for me)
I review them—trying to read between the lines of the brief descriptions left by callers and then decide what, if anything, can be done.
Alice H. had left a couple messages over the last few weeks. She was clearing her brother-in-law’s estate in Frederick but she was from Erie Pennsylvania and her visits were irregular.
A note appeared. “over 1000 books and CDs…will be in Frederick tomorrow. Please come…”
The timing was fortunate. We had a van and a couple guys free. And it was close. So I called and set a time for 1pm the next day.
We filled a van with empty boxes, printed a map quest. I decided to go along mostly as a diversion. If I go on a house call a lot of books already triaged and put aside for my review start backing up on carts.
It’ll mean more work on the weekend if I take a brief “field trip” from the “Book Factory” today.
I followed Clif and Steve in my Expedition.
I hadn’t recognized the street name or apartment building’s title, but when we pulled up, I realized I’d been by this building hundreds of times over the decades. The old brick building was on its own little spur road.
The sister-in-law met us at the entrance to let us in. It is an “In Between” apartment building. Designed mostly for older folks who are still active and don’t need assistance. There was no nurse’s desk or other signs of late life but everyone we passed in the lobby, halls and elevator were of a “certain age.”
We exited the elevator and proceeded down the long hall. There was the strong scent of plug-in air “fresheners.” Almost every door in the otherwise bleak pathway had a wreath put up by the tenant. It is December. Christmas.
The Doctor’s apartment was at the end of a hall on the second floor. It was a spacious corner suite with two bedrooms.
We were let in. Each us carried 6 empty Banker’s Boxes. We’ve found these optimal for quick packing and easier lifting and toting.
That sad feeling poured over me upon entering. Mortality slaps you in the face. I don’t like endings. The place was pretty torn up in preparation of the auctioneers coming in to take whatever was left. Family members had already taken a good deal of whatever they wanted. Empty spots on the walls showed where some framed thing had been taken down. Various accoutrements of life were piled here and there about the combination living dining and kitchen area. A box of half filled liquor bottles, boxes of cleaning supplies from under the sink…everything was on its way out.
His brother was there, and we were introduced. He was older. 80 something? A bit stooped.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“He was a researcher. A cancer doctor. And it was cancer that got him.”
They showed me around. There were neatly shelved books in the dining area, the hallway the corner bedroom (which had been converted into an office and photo lab.)
In the bedroom there was the sadness of hospice. Oxygen tanks, boxes of rubber gloves, various machines… the accoutrements of demise. And more books.
Inhale. Exhale. I’ve done this many times for many years.
I walked through again and made an estimate. Maybe a thousand books. A thousand or so CDs—nice stuff—obscure label and artist opera, folk, world music… The stuff that still sells pretty well. CDs are actually “coming back” a bit—but we still take in far more than we can sell of common recordings. Visit our stores—we have huge selections of CDs for under $1. He had a lot of books on art, photography, travel…He liked Illuminated Manuscripts.
I do too!
Not much collectible. A couple nice Charles Addams 1sts in dust jacket. One perfect Oz title—later but still nice.
There were blown up photos framed and unframed leaning against the walls. Utah canyons. Microscopic butterfly wing scales. And boxes and boxes of slides.
“Do you have plans for these?” I asked.
Sometimes these “vernacular” photo collections have value. Slices of life from family vacations decades ago to recorded business or professional archives. Often one of a kind material.
“I’m probably taking them home and digitizing them.”
Oh, well…they would have been hard work anyway.
There were a lot of spaces on the bookshelves. Had another bookseller been in and cherry picked ahead of me?
“Did you get rid of some of the books already?”
“Yes. The family’s been through and picked some out as mementos.”
I made my offer. It was accepted. The three of us set to work.
I dropped to my knees and assumed the bookseller position I’ve taken thousands of times. It’s a blessing to have good knees and a good back in this trade.
I’ve always felt a bit of supplication doing this. I don’t worship the “book” but I do adore it.
Ok, ok…get to work. I’d pack, carry and stack the boxes near the door. It was tight quarters because of all the photos and other stuff stacked for removal along the narrow hallway near the front door.
Clif was packing in another room. Steve would roll stacks of boxes—five at a time—on a two-wheel hand truck down the long hallway and to the elevator. Then down and out to the van where he would slide them in the side door.
The packing was soon done. There were about 25 boxes still in the hall. While Clif and Steve rolled them away, I looked through the apartment in case we’d missed anything.
“Is all the rest of this going to auction?” I inquired
“Most of it.”
“Would you like me to make an offer on some things? You can say no if it doesn’t seem high enough?”
Acquiring things beyond books and media can be a pleasant diversion. The cool odds and ends we come across add variety and interest to the stores.
I pick up this and that and put them on the dining room table. There were two pretty exotic beeswax candles. I looked at Anne questioningly.
“He was a beekeeper for many years as well as a photographer.”
I made an offer on each and they were accepted.
So we left that sad apartment and the not so sad building. A coat of paint and new carpets and appliances and the doctor’s presence will be gone.
He won’t be forgotten. Family and colleagues will remember and have memories and mementos. And the cancer victims whose research he helped—they won’t know of him personally most likely. He’d retired 20 years earlier.
But I’d remember and parts of his life became part of me from this brief, final, interaction.
I’m writing this part of the tale as we drive down to Capitol Hill to pick up 3500—4000 books I reviewed last week. The week that is the focus of this story.
The email sounded intriguing, but I’d likely have passed it on but for a compelling ulterior motive.
The National Gallery on the Mall is having a Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting exhibition. Vermeer has melted my heart for decades. I had made it a quest to see every one in the world. If, in my travels, I was anywhere close to a Vermeer I’d make a side trip, a pilgrimage to it. Kind of like a birder ticking off my “Life List.” There are only 34 confirmed Vermeers extant. And I have seen every one.
(Yes. I saw the one at the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston before it was stolen in 1990. I’d visited friends in Boston while in college in the late 70s. Lucky. It has been gone for all these years and we can only hope it hasn’t been damaged and will someday return to public view. The Gardiner has left its frame empty all the years since the heist. I saw that void again a couple years ago. So sad. It was a heinous kidnapping. I pray it did not become murder.)
Some years ago I wrote a poem about what Vermeer means to me. I’ll append it at the end of this blog so you don’t need to see it. 🙂 *
I made my way down to the Beltway, crossed the Potomac and headed east on the George Washington Parkway. Then back across the Potomac and threading my way through Capitol Hill I arrived at the lovely townhouse just a block from the Eastern Market.
You never know what’s going to be behind the next door. I’ve had amazing collections in rusty mobile homes. I’ve had dreadful wastes of time in Georgetown mansions. This was just…ok. 3500—4000 books.
Mostly non-fiction but mostly soft cover. A strong focus on the Middle East. Some Shakespeare—the wife worked at the Folger teaching voice. 3 or 4 facsimiles of 17th century Quartos in 1930s jackets.
We’d make money with scholarly if not bibliophilically exciting books. I made the offer and got a date for us to return and pick them up before the couple moved to North Carolina. Then I walked to the Market and browsed through the tents and kiosks outside. Going into the old brick Market itself I experienced the color and variety inside.
I bought a few culinary treats that were irresistible and then headed to my car. The Mall was just a couple dozen blocks west. I found a spot right in front of the National Gallery. It was Sunday, and I expected crowds on a cool bright day. Would I need tickets for the special exhibitions?
I expected to hear, “The next available admission is in 3 hours.”
Still, I would wait.
But when I found the velvet ropes delineating the queue for Vermeer—there was no one there. Just a uniformed usher.
I walked right in.
And there she was!
My heart beat faster and I mouthed the word, “Wow.” I had her to myself for minutes til someone wandered up next to my shoulder and I moved on too the next Vermeer. I apologize to the other dead Dutch artists but I passed them all over til I got to the next Vermeer. Life is too short. Then the next and next. “Awwww…!” When I’d had my fill—or was it I could take no more—I stepped out into the regular exhibits. Then I saw a poster. There was a Munch exhibit at the far end of the building?!
Lucky, lucky day…
I had a glorious dinner on Pennsylvania Avenue and then headed back to Frederick and the warehouse.
Sometimes the books are just ok but the side trips are glorious…
This was another office doorjamb Post-it house call. “2000 sci and fantasy books” in Gaithersburg Maryland. One of our stores is in Gaithersburg. It would be a “twofer.” I could drop stuff off at the store, do a walk through/inspection and continue on just a few blocks to the house call.
I asked Clif to drive so I could multi task on the trip down. After we’d done our duty at the store Clif set the GPS to Gloria’s address.
The house Clif and I pulled up to was very familiar. It was almost the exact floor plan as the one I’d grown up in a few miles away in Rockville the 60s and 70s. White with black shutters just like our family home had. It had to have been built around the same time. Mid 1960s. Maybe even the same contractor.
We walked up the short truncated driveway and turned left on the short arcing walkway. One step up onto the stoop and I knocked on a door that could have been my front door a lifetime ago.
A petite woman answered. She wore chocolate-brown velour matching top and pants.
“Gloria? I’m Chuck.”
She let us in and led us to the living room past the, oh so familiar, 5 steps down to the family room and the 7 steps up to the bedrooms on the left immediately after you cross the threshold.
She walked slowly, with a cane and after some small talk she explained:
“…I broke my hip. I moving to a single level condo near Annapolis to be close to my daughter…”
After inspecting the bookcases in the shelving room, she led me upstairs to the 4 bedrooms and 2 baths. The were no books in the master bedroom (what would have been “my parents” bedroom) but there were book cases in the 2 “spare bedrooms ” as well as in what would have been “my room” in the front right corner.
The books weren’t exciting except financially. So much of what she had was perennially popular. Neil Gaiman, Witchcraft, unicorns, angels…
I made the cursory inspection and quickly made the offer.
She was pleased and Clif and I quickly fell to packing. When there were enough boxes packed Clif began wheeling them across what could have been “my small front yard” to the van parked at the curb. I’d procrastinated mowing that lawn so many times. Poor Dad.
We chatted as we packed. She and her husband had spent years stationed in Germany.
That explained the dozen or so German beer steins atop the bookcase in the living room.
“Clif was born there!” I interjected
“Those were the best years…” she said dreamily
She and Clif quickly bonded, and they talked about towns, and regions.
Now superfluous, I moved upstairs and began packing in the middle room. To my surprise I discovered those books cases were stacked two deep.
“A little bonus,” I thought.
Spirits and faeries. Fantasy and horror. Much of this would go to the stores where we can make more money per book on this kind of material because we don’t have to pay shipping. The prices on our books on WonderBook.com are “all in”—post paid. The margins on selling common stuff online can be extremely tight.
The big Queen bed in “my room” was covered with books stacked about 2 feet. A bedspread was laid atop them to keep us out. Those would be the keepers they’d be taking to the condo.
I packed and packed—on my knees in familiar spaces. Mary Stewart’s Merlin, Are You Psychic, Find Your Guide. Lee Child. All the books were newish and in great shape. The contents—if they weren’t seeking something they were escaping something.
I carried bankers box after bankers box down the steps from the top floor. The bottom three steps were where my father had died in my arms a week before my 21st birthday a lifetime ago. He had a massive coronary, and I went to him where he had slumped.
The husband would breeze in and out of my consciousness periodically. He didn’t say much but annoyingly he would break into whistling the same 10 bars of a random tune every few minutes. I couldn’t get that jingle out of my head for days.
Then I saw more of the story on the bookcases. Books appeared on conquering breast cancer, recovery, attendant problems…
Then we were done.
I borrowed a pen and wrote the check using an unimportant hardcover book as the writing surface.
For a little while I’d been home again. There had also been good times in the twin—the doppelganger—of that house where I grew up. 4700 Levada Terrace Rockville 20853. There’d been good times there. One Christmas eve my high school buddies—the Wonder Boys (yes, that’s part of the source of the business name)—had stood on the landing and barked Jingle Bells to Mom and Dad down in the family room. They literally barked it. “Woof woof woof! Woof woof woof! Woof WOOF woof woof woof…”
There’d been horrible times.
My Mom died Christmas morning on the operating table at Walter Reed a year and a half after my Dad. I didn’t really enjoy Christmas again until my kids were born.
To be home again … Neu ja …
So those were parts of last week. December 2—December 9, 2017. There was a lot more to it than that. There were many, many more books that that. Many more people. Intramurally and intermurally. It was a better week than many. It was worse than many.
And it is Christmas time! There was snow on the mountain this morning. Enough to cover the ground and make the drive down a bit dodgy.
God Bless Us Every One!
I thought I should add this bit of clarification. He will most certainly be surprised when he sees this appended without his knowledge.
But I simply could NOT let the stories above stand without the full story being told.
I’m his book muse. I’m not ready to tell you my name. My! I haven’t told him my name and I’ve been with him…a long, long time … when he needs me or when I need a bit of amusement or when I…well…
The talk above about being a “divvie” or the happy or evocative coincidences, well, let’s just say I play my part…as needed.
And I do like books! And, if it be said, I do like him… well… most of the time.
What is wrong with me!? I’m never at a loss for words or a stammerer.
I WILL give you this bit of inside tale telling. Even he doesn’t know it.
‘Twas I that called him to Hay on Wye—the “Town of Books”—in Wales when he was back packing over Europe. He was all of 19.
‘Twas I that called him to Richard Booth’s sprawling bookstore there.
‘Twas I that lead him to a spartan room with rows of JM Dent Everyman Classics shelved beneath a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling on a wire.
I let him choose the book that would tie him to that time and place. He chose Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Kings of Britain.
And that little volume would tie him to…well…
He still has that little volume. Though he has not seen the thing for years, I know where it is.
I wanted him to see and have and believe the words that appear on the endpapers of most of those venerable tomes.
“Everyman I will go with thee and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side.”
And I have.
Now I’m probably talking out of school, but if you are a part of the “book” and if books are a part of you… if you have gotten this far in his story you must be pretty… what’s the modern phrase …hard core? … well, you likely have a muse as well. Like it or not. Know it or not.
We are a pretty shy lot. But we are here. By your side.
it is me she sees
through her casement.
me reflected in her iris
if you could get close enough.
me inverted on her retina
if i could get close enough
to look inside that camera obscura.
i’m not sure i should enter
if i should cross that threshold
but i must know
so i pass that portal
in to her vestibule
toward the light.
crossing through her door
i pass her by
because the tilt of her head
is non committal
i cannot chart her countenance–
coy or concerned or questioning.
“so he’s back”
i know that much
is behind her eye.
i’d been away long
we neither knew where we stood.
i would break that light
put her in brief darkness
as i stride passed in pride
to the map hung upon the far wall
too prideful to look.
too worried to look because
if she cast her eye down
what it would mean
if her gaze followed me
o what it would mean
to where i stand
looking at the map of the world
where i’ve been.
the world or her
i know now where in the world i stand.
i’ve made my choice.
to prove my works
i would note the errors
on that world
“it’s not like that you know.”
“was it grand?” she replies.
“i see more in this room
than mysteries of the deep
or on distant shores”
i confess with no conceit.
would she would then stand
and come to my world
lay a hand upon my shoulder
upon her wall
before which we have been before
she would not leave the light
where she’d been all along.
would i could step to her
turning my back to the wall
away from the world
and touch the sunlit cheek
my hand casting a shadow
upon her face
but i am transfixed by fear
for to touch would be to know
perhaps to know finality.
i’m in her picture now
and so i stand where i stand.
then she touches a string.
it’s her favor to me
we two sang this song
we knew long ago.
i know now.
so i may.
i can step to her
my shadow moving unseen
because of the sun’s station
and stand at her shoulder
and with her last verse
raise her face to mine
from the work of her hands.
both faces brightening
in the window’s light
and wordless lips
i’d not gone too far.