Two cabin stories from long ago in the dark days before the World Wide Web. These were both written about 20 years ago. Revisiting them at this time makes them a little dreamlike. Slices of life from a different book era.
The hermit is a mysterious figure in life and lore. I’ve visited the remains of many over the years. Some are strong individualists—focused loners. But most are kind of sad. Why someone would withdraw from the race is easy to understand. I’ve felt that way myself so many times. But to do it forever is another matter entirely. Some hermits live a precise, sometimes maniacal, existence of neatness. The comb and brush precisely placed in a designated spot on the bureau. Their books uniformly fronted to the edge of the shelves. Alphabetized precisely after being precisely categorized. Their clothes folded precisely and stacked as neatly as the suicide who wishes to die nude and leaves something neat from his messy end to an unmessy life. I am an intruder to those domiciles. More so if the owner still lives because I am an agent of the law. The law of thermodynamics which sends to chaos all things that have been temporarily put in order in their dwellings. In those cases the hermits cannot be present when we do our work. They would likely explode.
But most hermitages I have visited are owned by one who has given up on everything to do with order. At least “order” that makes any sense to most people. They function solely on their mania—whatever their particular flavor of that is. They are often pack rats saving newspapers, plastic bottles and junk mail—trash. They sometimes die amidst their piles and, if the circumstances are right and I am called first rather than a roll-off dumpster, the results can be fascinating. It becomes a kind of contemporary archeology.
Christopher Easterday had died in his cabin the previous fall. He was in his 80s and had lived in this cabin alone for over fifty years. Before that he had lived there with his parents. The cabin was very primitive. There was no running water or plumbing. It had been electrified in the 1920s and never updated. The metal roof had huge swaths of rust stains shaped like deltas widening as they descended to the edge. It was off a gravel road up the mountains. You wouldn’t know it was there if there wasn’t a battered mailbox marking where a leaf covered dirt drive led back to the small log dwelling. Who knows—maybe his grandparents had lived there and generations before.
The young lady, a distant cousin, who called me believed I might be interested in the old man’s three wooden cases of books. I was. They had apparently belonged to his parents. The books were dusty, and some nibbled a little by long gone critters of various phyla. There were a number of old Department of Agriculture Yearbooks.
In certain years these are laden with bright, cheerful chromolithographs of apple varieties, grapes, oranges, nuts and more. Matted and framed these prints were delightful accents to contemporary country kitchens. Nowadays they are not as popular but they are still attractive to my eye.
The bindings were shot and even in good shape the annuals were not at all salable. The contents were mostly obsolete farming data and advice. But these images could be salvaged, and the rest of the worthless book recycled—pulped to make new paper and books.
There were also some decent turn of the century novels by (then) collectible authors like Gene Stratton Porter and Zane Grey. People used to collect authors like these trying to get a copy of every book they wrote. If the buyers were well-heeled, they might want only first editions. If they were very well-heeled, they might hold out for the much scarcer first editions in dust jackets. Those in the cabin were mostly reprints—reading copies. Salable although not at a great price. Many had some wear and storage defects but could still function as usable book. Back then many average collectors simply wanted a decent copy in order to read it and to be able to check the title off their want list. Like a low budget common coin collector simply looking for a piece in any condition dated and mint marked to fill in a spot in a coin book folder. The kind with a hole for each coin minted in the series.
“Are these all of the books?” I asked although it was pretty obvious. There were only two rooms, and the entirety could be seen from where we stood. “What’s that stuff?”
There were piles of stuff all around his sad sagging bed and throughout the little bedroom as well as the main room we were standing in.
It was Mr. Easterday’s “trash” piles that caught my attention, and I asked permission to inspect some of them.
“It looks like there’s some old paper in those piles. Some people collect old paper advertising like they collect old stamps and books. It’s called ephemera. You never know what you might find.”
“Well, help yourself. This stuff is going to the dump with the mattress and appliances. Do you know anybody who might want to buy these wood stoves?”
There were stacks of mail and paper and magazines. Everything piled haphazardly on the floor or on chairs or dressers and tables. Some were tossed in boxes. Some of the boxes themselves were of a vintage over fifty years old with thick bold lettering and a single color announcing its original contents. Piles were dotted all over this rustic cabin. Some piles were large mega-piles sprawling like a paper pool. Others were simple transient piles awaiting their final location. A few seemed to be seed piles. Small, immature piles anticipating growth. But all appeared to have been abandoned long ago. Mr. Easterday had stopped adding to them a couple decades before.
I dropped to my knees and began leafing through a pile. This was wonderful! Not a gold mine—but a lot of unusual paper pieces of history preserved in this remote mountain cabin.
“There’s some interesting things in here. I think I’d like to just pack everything and sort it out at the shop.”
“Well, if you really want the junk. You’ll save me having to drag it out of here. I’m glad I didn’t throw it out already.”
It had happened many times before. The conscientious heir in an effort to make my life easier tosses out boxes of “stuff no one would be interested in” to save me the trouble of going through things I would never want. But this had not happened here. Things were just as Mr. Easterday had left them. Untouched but by hermit hands.
I made an offer that specifically included everything “paper.”
“Even those piles of junk?”
“Yes, even those.”
As I packed those dusty sometimes buggy piles, I wondered about the hermit. Was his a simple mind or complex? Did the piles amass like bones outside a Neanderthal’s cave? Laziness or economy of energy preventing their total removal?
Or did he foresee a time when the day’s detritus would be tomorrow’s window to history? Like a monk in a dark age saving bits of culture from oblivion.
Or did he delude himself about the facts of time and light and life and speak to himself:
“Yes. Yes. I’ll want to look at these again.”
As the piles rose into mountains around him.
“I will want to browse through that again.”
Back at the shop, I worked my way one box after another. Trash, junk, trash, trash, treasure, okay, junk, junk, treasure, treasure. This would be like sifting for gold.
Mr. Easterday had been a mail order nut. He apparently didn’t buy much, but he did send away for free information and current catalogs. Whereas most of us throw away the advertising and promotions, he saved everything. There were automobile brochures, pipe (smoking and plumbing pipes) catalogs, prospectuses for new publications, fishing and gun equipment pamphlets going back over seventy years.
It may have been one of the earliest examples of the modus operandi I’ve employed with some success over the years:
“If your instincts tell you—take everything and sort it out at leisure.”
And it worked out very well.
Libraries are seldom spooky. Kent Jones’s estate sounded promising. There were “hundreds of books of philosophy and history.”
It was that dismal time between winter and spring. There were lots of daffodils gone wild around the house. Many had their faces pushed into the mud and slush by snow sliding from the roof. The house was a tiny old Maryland stone farmhouse, two rooms up two rooms down, which had been roughly stuccoed many years before. The grounds were unimproved. The drive was mostly mud. I was met by the new owner. He was a friend of Jones and had been bequeathed the entire estate unexpectedly.
“The books are up around back in the shed.”
Uh-oh. Books and sheds don’t mix. Sheds often mean no floor, dampness, bugs, wild temperature fluctuations—all of which can be very hard on books. The house was built into a hillside. The shed was even farther up the slope behind the house. I stepped gingerly around the side and up the slope. It was a very steep slope. The shed was like a little cabin—chimney and all. One door, three windows. Board and batten siding of rough unplaned oak.
It was already a muddy slippery path leading from the house to “library.” The proverbial “slippery slope.”
Removing any books from here would be a mess. There was no way to get a vehicle close to it. The slope would be a complete muddy mess after a few circuits. I don’t need any books this badly, I told myself—not for the first time. There was just one big awkward wooden step up to the threshold (more fun for hauling books I thought.) I stepped up and in. I was in yet another book bibliomaniac’s sanctorum. The shed was one room about twelve by eighteen feet. It was lined and filled with shelves made of the same rough oak as outside. It was probably lumber from his own property sawed at some mill nearby. At first glance, the books appeared okay. They had been kept “dry” somehow. I smelled no mustiness. I saw no fuzzy mold growing on the tomes. They appeared to be mostly older scholarly hardbacks—spines dark and somewhat foreboding. The air was cold and damp but the room was so full it was oddly stuffy as well.
I walked up to an above eye-level shelf to pull out a collectable book on Egyptology that had caught my eye.
I raised up on tip toes to reach. As my right thumb and fingers wrapped round the spine and I began to slip the book off the shelf, something cold and clammy touched the back of my hand and moved swiftly up my arm toward my shoulder. I jumped and bleated. Fight or flight! I vigorously shook my arm and something fell out of my sleeve. After I caught my breath and composure, I came to conclude it had been a mouse! It had probably been nesting behind the book I had touched and thought my hand was a bridge to safety.
A few deep breaths—with some steam exiting my heated lungs—and my pulse calmed a bit.
I reached for the book again and lightning struck twice. The tiny chilly unseen feet of the rodent ran unseen over the back of my hand and started up my sleeve.
I jumped and shook and whipped my right arm until I was sure I wasn’t sharing a shirt with another creature.
Only half a coronary this time.
“Leave now,” I told myself. “No books are worth this.”
And any sane person would have walked out right then and there.
But I’m not one of those. I’m a bookseller. I am willing to do just about anything for the “hunt.” Because you never know what wondrous books may be on any shelf in any venue.
Like Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher in the cave, the thrill of the next unknown thing (and my personal addiction to see every book everywhere I was permitted) pressed me forward.
The books were categorized. The mousey shelf had some nice ancient history. Off beat non-mainstream 19th century and some 18th century titles I’d never seen before.
I did put into effect a new protocol invented for this occasion. At each new shelf I would strike sharply with a board to warn napping nesting vermin that company was here and they should skedaddle—the OTHER way.
The sections evolved from history to parapsychology to spiritualism. It was an intriguing and exotic collection. Rounding the far corner to a blind aisle I was stopped in my tracks by several gruesome primitive masks hung in the uprights from nails. They were demonic. Intimidating. On the top shelf at the end of the aisle a human skill grinned diabolically at me. About it were a couple old thick candles. It was as if a bit of an altar I suppose.
“Come to me. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
In that near darkness I didn’t really want to proceed down that row but books are books. Right?
Well, old Kent had had a dark side to him. There were about three hundred black arts books. I’d always been spooked by that stuff. Ever since I saw The Exorcist at too young an age. I was still very young and inexperienced. Triple creepy. I had seen enough. I didn’t want this kind of collection. It would chase away more customers than it would appeal to. There were just too many strikes against it. The condition generally was just ok. I knew about the mice. I didn’t know the extent of damage they may have caused. In warm seasons I imagine the place could be buggy. The books had resided here for many years suffering from lack of heat and humidity control. Hard to pack and cart.
But then, there were some good saleable books here… With a little cleaning…
I have a character flaw about saying “no” so when I meet with the heir. “No” has a tone of finality. Can’t? Or won’t? I told him the books had too many problems and weren’t really my specialty. I didn’t want them at all.
“You should get someone else to make an offer. I can only give you a thousand dollars to haul them away.”
It was an offer meant for him to reject.
He said he thought they were worth more than that.
“If they had been kept better, for sure. It’s going to be nightmare getting them out of there too. And they are just not my thing.”
I could see him thinking. The real estate was where the real money was. He couldn’t show the property with “them devil books” up there. Still, he knew there were two thousand books that looked important to him.
“Can you go to fifteen hundred?”
In for a dime—in for a dime and a nickel.
Something spoke, and it must have been me, “Sure.”
I opened the door and reached my leg down to the distant stoop. I heard and growl and angry hiss. I disturbed a cat lurking under the house behind the stoop. Of course it was black. It arched its back, raised its hackles and swatted at my foot before backing away into the dark under the cabin.
“Plenty of mice inside,” I called after it.
Whistling in the dark.
After making our way down the slope, we rounded the front of the house to find a woman squatting on the gravel drive ritualistically burning four-inch straw crosses before the front porch. She looked up at me and noted my quizzical look.
“This is how you’re s’posed to get rid of ’em,” she said.
“Rid of what?” I wondered. “Did burning just destroy the crosses? Or did destroying the crosses ward off…demons?!?”
“Oh God,” I thought, “Am I buying a possessed library? Will these books bring evil spirits into the store?”
I called the new owner back that night and encouraged him to contact other booksellers.
He confessed that he had. A couple older ones wouldn’t even climb the hill. A couple others told him it was not their “kind of collection.”
I hired some outside help to wipe and clean and pack them in the cabin. AND schlep them down the mountain.
I reached out and found booksellers who knew booksellers who knew the spooky arcana. A couple of them came in and were quite excited. The final results were financially satisfying for everyone. In the light of day and safety, there were some really nice books.
I imagined Jones laughing at my discomfort from his other place, and I still wondered was it worth it?
Sure. There were some wonderful books there after all.
But I still shiver a bit when I think of those tiny chilly paws running up my bare arm.