This is an old story. It likely took place in the mid 1980s. Though I’d logged some 5-6 years as a full-time bookseller on my own and had moved my store once and expanded that second location twice, I was still a novice in many ways. But I had seen a lot of books in those years. Word got out I bought all kind of books and every day vehicles would park at the curb and I would go out and look at a handful or grocery bag full or pickup truck full of books and make a cash offer on them.
A phone call from outside the old railroad town of Brunswick, Maryland on the Potomac River piqued my interest. It sounded a bit dodgey but back then I would attend to every house call request. Perched high on a ridge looking across to Virginia, the little town of 5000 was a rough and tumble, blue-collar place. A rail yard and train tracks run along the river’s edge. The ruins of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal parallel the river as well. Nearby is the farm where John Brown plotted and launched his raid on Harpers Ferry essentially sparking the five years of Civil War which torn the country to pieces for decades. Outside of town most of the houses were ramshackle affairs perched on the slopes the river had cut for eons or down in the damp woody hollows cut by creeks and streams that are tributaries to the larger waterway. The Potomac is quite wide and shallow along here. Boulders rise above the water in thousands of places. Small green nameless islands are impenetrable tangles of trees and shrubs. Nowadays, Brunswick is a far cry from its 18th century roots as “Eeltown” and later “Smoketown.” The old B&O tracks now include a commuter rail station to Washington D.C. The old firehouse which hosted concerts by Patsy Cline, Duke Ellington, and many others is now a cool brewery—Smoketown Brewing Station.
It was a rambling conversation. Sometimes it seemed a lot of calls were from people who had lost their minds. Their books are plainly of no more use to them. Or they are third or fourth generation descendants of a good family gone to seed. The books, being like furniture, were simply left in place over the years. Often the books have not been opened or moved for fifty years. I think this may have been the case here. I was told they were “family” books. I never found out.
On the appointed date and time I found myself on the sagging wooden porch of a disintegrating asbestos shingle house. I pushed the round ivory white button that was the doorbell. Soon the door behind the dirty screen door slowly opened and a craggy, red, gin-blossomed face cautiously protruded between the door and the jamb.
“You the book guy?”
He withdrew his head back inside and in rusty overloud alcoholic voice balled out, “He’s here for the books!”
He continued, under his breath to me, “Harry’s not sure he wants to sell. Follow me.”
I was led through the low ceiling living room and into a small cramped dining room. The colors of the old furniture and wall paper were muted by age and the dim light that seeped in through the dirty and partly shaded windows. Except the dining room table which was illuminated by a light fixture with three bare bulbs hanging above it. Two guys were seated at the small worn table. There were scars and circular stains where wet or sweating glasses had left their permanent marks. Much of the table’s original finish was worn or scratched off. There were three hands of cards dealt to the two seated and one face down at my usher’s empty chair on the left. The guy to the right side had his head down looking into the hand he’d been dealt. His other hand cradled jelly glass with a couple inches of amber liquid in it. The guy at the head of the table had both hands pressed on to the table’s edge as if he was ready to rise. His cards were face down before him. A different cheap plain glass held more booze and a half full bottle of Canadian Club was next to that.
The guy at the head had an air of leadership about him. He stared at me with bloodshot and yellow eyes that evinced both anger and distrust.
The usher introduced me, “This is the book guy.”
He turned to me and said, “I’m Tom. That’s Harry and Richard.” He’d indicated the guy at the head of the table was Harry.
I swallowed my laugh when I thought, “Tom, Dick and Harry.”
They were drinking men, and they were drinking already. From all I could tell they’d been drinking for a while.
It was eleven a.m.
On a Tuesday.
Harry growled, “I know about books so don’t think you can steal from me.”
Nods and mumbles of agreement from Dick and Tom. They knew Harry knew books. There were no books in sight.
I said, “Let’s see what you have and I’ll do the best I can.”
“Well, you just sit here and I’ll bring them out to you.”
This was a new one.
“I’d like to look at all of them if I could.”
“No! You sit here and I’ll show you some books you’ve never seen before.”
It was yet another situation where I wanted to bolt, but the lure of the books kept me there. I was thankful they didn’t offer me a drink. They wouldn’t dream of it. I was a tradesman after all. Not another buddy on a social call. Or a fourth hand.
I decided to remain standing at the foot of the table just a few feet opposite Harry’s place at the head of the table.
Harry exited through a curtained doorframe into what I assumed was a kitchen. The “curtain” was a worn twin bed sheet. He re-emerged moments later with one book. I could tell from across the room what it was. Some old books you see so often, the color and shape are as distinctive as a pure bred dog. It was the unusual shade of soft blue colored cloth of History of the Johnstown Flood. This sounds like a great title, right? Well, the first one you see as a novice dealer is memorable. A real collector’s item. Then a month later you find another and bless your luck. Four or five copies a year and the treasure loses its luster. Now they don’t turn up as often. The generations that had tenuous links to the era of that tragedy have all moved on. The old “family” collections have been dispersed. Still, I could understand Harry’s misplaced pride as he set it on the table out of my reach. Apparently I was not to touch it. Dick and Tom settled in their dinette chairs and gazed in awe of Harry’s treasure.
This was a no win situation. I always had one or more copies in stock. For a real fine copy, at retail it was a $25.00 book at best. Normally I wouldn’t buy it individually. In a good group I might factor it in at $5.00. Thousands had been printed and sold by subscription, especially in this region. It was one of the earliest instant books printed fast and dirty to cash in on the public’s lurid fascination with a disaster. Occasionally, I would get “salesman’s dummy”* copies of it. But I decided to “chum” them. Throw some extra money out on the table to see if it brought any better fish out. I was also concerned that three drunks might get ugly if I displeased them.
* A salesman’s dummy is an abridged version of the finished book. It was a sample used by old-time traveling salesmen to solicit pre-orders. The binding is identical to the published book. Sample chapters and illustrations are inside. Often at the back there are lined blank pages where the salesman could record the names and addresses of customers who had committed to buy a copy.
I said, “This is a good book. But I think I have a couple in stock right now. I can go $20.00 on it.”
Harry’s eyes narrowed to slits. His nose reddened even more and I could swear I could see even more micro blood vessels bursting on his cheeks as the pressure built from within. Gin blossoms in full bloom.
“You don’t know books! Do you think I’m stupid!?”
Murmurs and raised mumbles akin to “Hear! Hear!” from his two-man parliament. He disappeared with the Johnstown book and reappeared from behind the curtain with two short Octavo novels. The standard size and shape from 1910 to 1930. He laid them before my unworthy eyes.
“Zane Grey!” he ejaculated.
“Ooh,” from the gallery of two.
Even at the distance of five feet I could see two lines at the base of the spine that certainly read, “Grosset & Dunlap”
Cheap reprint editions. The equivalent of paperbacks at the time. Jacketless and well worn, they were essentially valueless even though people were still reading Westerns back then.
“I’d really like to see all the books if I could…” I said, my tone somewhere between asking and pleading.
“What are these worth!?”
A dollar apiece if they were in decent condition, I thought to myself.
“I’m actually really well stocked with Zane Grey.”
“Not like these!”
His pitch was rising and looking up at him I saw a drunken parody of John Brown full of wrath inspiring his flock not very far away at the Kennedy Farm one hundred twenty-five years earlier.
The rare Zane Greys were whisked away, and he reappeared with his hands at his side. I looked down and one hand held a knife, a big knife. A Bowie knife which he then raised and waved before him carving the air about his shaggy head. Clearly my services were no longer desired. He was not actually threatening to attack me I felt. He was showing his tusks, showing his male superiority and warning me from any further funny business on my part.
Tom and Dick sobered slightly and sat a little straighter at the sight of steel.
“Ahh, Harry, he’s just a kid.”
“He don’t know books!!”
I’d proven my ignorance. So, I was allowed to skulk away. My honor smashed. My nose had been rubbed in my incompetence. Tom escorted me out to the door.
“HE DON’T KNOW BOOKS!!!!” was Harry’s final broadside from the bowels of the house as Tom twisted the metal knob and pulled the door open.
I stepped out onto the porch into the real world. The door slammed behind me. Tom returned to continue the liquid lunch I’m sure.
I briskly crossed the porch and yard to my old beat up once white Ford F-150 pickup truck with the tacky cap covering the bed to keep books dry. I looked over my shoulder a couple times to be sure the door wasn’t bursting open or a rifle barrel wasn’t protruding from a window.
Ah, reality. Fresh, damp, river air and gray light. That den of misrule may have disappeared back into the twilight zone as soon as I stepped out for all I know. I certainly felt as if I’d visited some alternate universe. I shuddered at the “treasures” I’d missed and gave thanks that I was not allowed past the curtain where I could have been trapped and lost forever.