Love Amongst the Tomes and Anticipation
This week indeed included the season’s first fires in the woodstoves. The cold had started seeping in through my pretty tight modern home. One evening, I gave in and brought kindling and small pieces of wood in. I lit the fire and soon it took the chill out of the air.
This week I also wore corduroys for the first time this fall. A sure sign winter is coming. Soon the gloves and scarves and coats will migrate up from the house’s lower level upstairs where I spend most of my time.
The last month and a half have been a whirlwind in the Wonder Book warehouse. It is our busy “Buying Season.” There are so many school, library, charity and other nonprofit sales during this time of the year. We have become the recipient for many of their leftovers.
Thousands of boxes of box have poured in here in September and October.
It is also the time of year when many people clean up and clear out their homes in anticipation of the winter. Is it human nature to repair and organize your nest when the days get shorter and the nights get colder? And then many people are actually preparing for the winter holidays as well. That includes us. We are already setting aside Christmas and other holiday books and items. The displays at the brick and mortar stores will go up not long after Halloween. Speaking of which, we’ve got a new hand here for seasonal and other displays. He is doing great! This week he will begin visiting all 3 stores so the stodgy Wonder Books will be flashy and timely—at least at the front ends.
Back to the “crush.”
My duties here had shifted from administration, inspection (of the warehouse and the three brick and mortar stores) and whittling away at the old books on carts and in boxes on pallets that are labeled with slips of paper with my name of them.
Oh, and I was “forced” to put aside the paperwork and other dreary deskbound things I’m supposed to do. I was not disappointed to put them on the back burner.
And so, I have been pulling and pushing pallets, driving the forklift, sorting through dozens of carts that are usually handled by others and many other physical duties which are usually not in my purview.
I didn’t mind those tasks. They are actually kind of fun. I feel like I’m back in the trenches like the good old days.
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” as Shakespeare’s King Henry V spoke to his troops at Agincourt.
King Harry was leading by example. He was willing to throw himself into the forefront of battle to rally his troops. He was willing to be a grunt soldier, a Man at Arms for the greater good.
I am no king. Although perhaps Wonder Book is in some ways my fiefdom. I’m always willing to pitch in wherever and however I feel I’m needed. The work I was doing was not symbolic. It was necessary. There were many times during the last 45 days when we were essentially out of space. If we can’t get books out of our trucks and vans and into the building, what will happen?
Well, all the books will back up everywhere. If we can’t get books in the building, we can’t empty vans. If we have no vans emptied, we can’t go and retrieve the full vans at the stores. If the stores have nowhere to put the books they buy, the boxes will languish on the ground.
At the warehouse, the dock yard is a temporary solution.
There were times hundreds of boxes of books were outside on the ground just so we could have empty vehicles so we could go back to the stores and bring back the ones they had filled. Fortunately, it hasn’t been very rainy. Rain and books do not mix. The books would be dragged in at the end of the day often clogging the loading docks until the next morning.
I’ve mentioned before I have a talent for finding or making space when it appears there is no room in this vast yet filled building. It would be a worthless talent out in the real world. I channel my ancient Tetris skills such as they were.
I’ve been doing plenty of that as well.
We have anticipated the “nuclear option.” That would be to send some pallets of marginal books to the “farm”—that is pulp them. We have about a dozen pallets of old softcover remainders. No one here really sees any use for these books.
These are titles we have plenty of copies online and in our stores. But we still have 100s or 1000s on pallets just sitting here…they have been sitting for a long time.
I came up with this idea a couple years ago for our Books By the Foot #BookRescue operation here. We painted the foredges and top and bottom edges in different colors thinking designers might like it. We called this color palette “Camouflage.”
We tried numerous colors and mixes and marketings.
They haven’t sold very well at all. Some not at all.
Sigh…I hate it when we can’t do anything with a book. When it is thousands, I hate it even more.
But, so far, we haven’t needed to exercise the nuclear option with them or other pallets of books that are potentially on the chopping block.
So today, I flung myself once again in the breach. (Well, I didn’t actually fling myself.) I was out working hard and fast in the breach when I happened to look around and everything was…ok.
I wasn’t needed in the breach or anywhere else out on the warehouse floor.
There were spaces. The books could flow according to the various formulas we have here.
They are always thousands and thousands of books that I could attend to. But I discovered I was no longer needed. The crisis was over.
You would think I’d be happy or relieved. Maybe I was for a bit. But I quickly became a bit saddened. Maybe even a little depressed. I don’t know why. Perhaps that is my nature.
Certainly, if I have a bit of time to think and there are sad things going on in my life, my thoughts gravitate to those. If I focus on them, they sometimes magnify and the sadness sweeps over me like a tide.
I walked around looking for urgent problems I needed to fling myself at and there were none.
There are many, many things I “should” do.
But I feel tired. Drained. Empty. It is 3 pm Wednesday. Too early to leave and find a Happy Hour. That diversion is not always aptly named, anyway.
So, I decided maybe I could write some.
So, here I am seated on the red plush sofa in my office pecking away on the laptop.
There are some big book stories in the works. The Gach Hoard and The Move—our nine month move from the old warehouse which was set to be demolished to our current Wonderland. Those tales are larger than life. They will be hard work.
This week I am feeling small. So a small story will be better.
Love Amongst the Tomes
I look through many of the old books that come in here. There are two senior book people, Ernest and Caryn, who can make decisions on many old or potentially collectible books. They can determine if an early 20th or 19th century book is worthless. It may be authored by a forgotten writer. It may be an obvious reprint by a marginal author even whose first editions may have mediocre value and selling power.
Most of Zane Grey’s books would fall under this category. When I was a young bookseller, his first editions were an instant sale even if they had some condition problems. The buyers were almost all men of a certain age. Those men are mostly long gone. Those that remain already have all the Zane Grey they want. If a first edition of one of his many common titles arrived here today in a dust jacket or in very fine condition, that would be different. Condition would make it valuable and more salable. These days I’m afraid reading copies of Grey in hardcover or softcover languish on the shelves of our Westerns sections in the stores—along with all the other forgotten and nearly forgotten western writers. Louis L’Amour is another example.
Louis L’Amour…2 years ago when I went to LA to attend the ABAA book fair (I am going this February as well. If you can—GO. It is amazing.) I took a side trip to the Forest Lawn Cemetery. It is a vast beautiful park dedicated to a certain kind of death cult. L’Amour has a very large and prominent plot there adjacent to their beautiful iconic huge stone buildings. He passed away in 1988. I wonder how many visitors to Forest Lawn have any idea what a powerful and iconic genre writer he was?
In the 80s and 90s, we would buy a grocery bag packed with L’Amour mass market paperbacks with great and greedy excitement. His westerns were mostly quite thin. Usually the seller was a typical Western reader. We’d put them on the shelves in the Westerns under “L.” It was like putting money on the shelves. They’d sell so very quickly—usually to another typical Western reader.
What was a typical Western reader? That genre’s “readers” were mostly thin, wizened middle-aged men and were mostly smokers. You could tell they were smokers by their raspy voice or the rectangular bulge in their cotton shirt’s front pocket or the unlit cigarette dangling out from one side of their mouth.
They are gone. Gone.
We have shrunk the Western sections in all the stores dramatically over the years. Maybe the time will come that we will eliminate them.
Where was I…?
Oh, yeah. Old books and who decides their fates here. Caryn and Ernest send the old books they deem worthless back to our Books By the Foot section in the northeast end of the building. There they are NOT worthless. We have found there is good demand for them because of their looks. Many designers find their worn old bindings appealing. It is their contents that are valueless.
We actually solicit these worthless books from other booksellers and scouts who are more than happy to sell their unsalable books to us for a buck apiece.
We call this style “Distressed Vintage Cloth.” Distressed is an interior designer term for “beat up.” Kind of like “distressed” blue jeans. But these are naturally distressed by the hands of time—usually by passing through many hands over many years.
Worthless? We’d pay you about 60 bucks for the books pictured above. That’s about $30 per “box.” We would clean them up, polish or repair them if necessary. We would stock them and pay “rent” on their space and eventually sell them for…more than a buck apiece.
Sometimes we have way too many, and they overflow their shelves into piles on the floor. Occasionally, we get huge orders, and all the trouble is then worthwhile.
Earlier this week, I was scanning some books on carts that have slips of paper with my name on them. Here’s what they looked like after I was done:
These were pretty dreadful. But I’ve learned to look at every one. Even if I can’t read the spine, I will slip it out to see what it has. Even if it has NO spine, I will retrieve it, and open it and find its title page (if any.) I’ve had some happy surprises I would have hated to have missed this way.
This book has such a faded spine I couldn’t read the title in the stack amongst the others. I slid it out and looked at the title page. I don’t recognize it, but any mid-19th century book with a subtitle “Rifle Axe and Saddle Bag” in the subtitle certainly has got to have potential. I put it aside to be researched by Madeline or Vanessa. I set it on a separate cart, and it was then I noticed the wad of papers laid into its middle. While I don’t leaf through every book looking for ephemera—I simply couldn’t time wise—if ephemera shows itself, I do pull it out for inspection. Most of the time I find scraps of paper that are worthless and ephemeral. Sometimes I find material of value. Very old books with very old ephemera laid in are a kind of time capsule.
I’ve been in such a tizzy lately I set the papers aside on yet another cart.
What is a tizzy, anyway?
Many days here I look for something unusual to sell as a diversion—a break from the routine and drudgery. I “hand sell” things mostly on an email list that goes only to fellow ABAA members. I take a few images with my iPhone. I write a very brief description and post it with a price. The whole process takes only moments using my phone. I really can’t spend a lot of time handwriting a formal bibliographic description for items that I often list for very little money.
It is more like a game for me. Can I sell this odd material to a fellow pro? Most often I list things I can’t sell easily as a “book” online or display in the stores because of its size, configuration or fragility.
I often post ephemera that have sexy “hooks” to them. Weird wacky politically inflammatory…
I was in the mood to sell “something” and looked around. Maybe there’s something in that little wad.
I picked it up and took it to a table and carefully unfolded the ten or so pieces of paper. They were all from the mid-1800s. One was a long, long ad for quack medicine. “Blood purifier”—people love that stuff! One was a flyer for Webster’s Unabridged which had just gone out of copyright and was being offered by another publisher for “free”? Nothing is free. Maybe it was an early Book of the Month Club progenitor. You get the dictionary free, but you have to buy some of the company’s other publications. There was a bit of “Lost Cause” veneration—a paean to R E Lee and Stonewall Jackson. There was other handwritten stuff. I unfolded them all and laid them together. I took a wide shot of the whole mess. Then I zoomed in on sections so the various things could be inspected be buyers on their computers.
Why did I try to decipher the old brown ink slip of paper? I don’t have time to read notes and receipts and whatever. Perhaps my Muse was involved.
My Muse…it has been a long time since I brought her into these stories. I am sorry if I offended her by my neglect. But it has always been she who shows up on her own terms and times.
It was always woe to any who ignored the gods in the ancient myths.
Is that the cause of my current woes?
“I’ve been checking in now and then. You seem to be doing as well as…well…”
“You’re back! My muse is back! I’m sorry if I…”
“Did you get me to bend look closer at that scrap?”
“Do you know the story behind it?”
I’d like to think the love note has lain in that book for a hundred and fifty years or more. That perhaps it was a rough draft the poor guy wrote out. It does seem to be in a man’s hand, and the book looks like a man’s kind of book.
Did he get the nerve up to send it to her? Did it work?
There are many entries of births written throughout the book’s endpapers and extra leaves in the same hand. There are many notes in his hand and others throughout as well.
Was the love note written by Lawrence Wingo? The handwriting is similar to this on the verso of the front free endpaper:
“Cornelia and Lawrence Wingo was [sic] married in 1866…John Wingo was born…1869…Virginia …1872…James…1882.”
I like that thought. That this love story has been buried in this book all these years, and I rediscovered it.
Is it an original poem?
I’d like to think so. That would make it a perfect love story if all the other fantasies were true.
I googled the first two lines of the poem.
This Valentine card comes up from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Circa 1850. English.
Did he crib it because he wasn’t creative enough?
Well, maybe his heart was willing, but HIS muse wasn’t?
After college, a high school buddy—a Wonder Boy—asked me to help him write to a girl out west he was trying to win. They’d met in college. I suggested The Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe as a good start.
“Come live with me and be my love…”
That worked. She moved to Maryland, and they got married.
There are a couple extra lines after the two quatrains on the love note from the old book:
“To my love” and “To one I love better than all the world.”
Maybe he created those words.
Maybe he cribbed those off someone else’s envelope.
Well, the lot sold immediately for $50 to a fellow bookseller. I’m guessing it was the blood purifier that sealed the deal.
I still have the book.
I wonder why my muse put this in my way. I wish she would help me with my problem.
“I’m not that kind of muse.”
Great. Now I’m depressed again.
Intermission Wonder Book & Golf Equipment
On Tuesday, I returned from a store run and saw this email from the person here who serves as a kind of receptionist along with many other duties:
20 Pallets of Books
He would like to bring them this week. They are already loaded on a truck. The books are located in Leesburg on Rt 15 if you want to look at them first.
Is it possible to schedule this by Friday?
‘WHAT?’ I thought. ‘I didn’t make any deal for a truckload of books.’
I get a lot of emails from mega charities who want to sell me pallets of their scanned books. Often they are in distant states. We don’t need books that have been creamed of anything valuable and then tossed unceremoniously into Gaylords—giant cardboard tubs. They essentially want me to buy their pulp.
I called the guy and, indeed, we hadn’t corresponded before. But he assured me they were a charity which doesn’t scan books for online sale.
“We put them out for a few days, and now we need to get rid of them.”
“Can you send images?”
He did, and they looked pretty clean and well packed. One image showed a few golf clubs in the foreground.
I told him to bring them down, and we will certainly pay more than he would get by pulping them.
“Oh, and bring the golf clubs, if you want. I like to put quirky stuff like that in our stores from time to time.”
At first, he didn’t think I was serious about the clubs.
He set up a time to bring them up Thursday. When I was told there was a delivery at Dock 7, I went and looked. He had backed up a tractor-trailer, and in the rear were three plastic pallet containers loaded with golf bags and golf clubs.
I laughed and made a deal on them.
About 30 golf bags and who knows how many clubs. Some were old and had wooden heads. Some were pretty modern and of good pedigree—TalyorMade, Golden Bear…
“Well, we’re in the golf club biz for a while.”
Something different to diversify and shake things up.
I don’t think we will do badly on the deal.
On October 9, my cell phone buzzed in my pocket. When I retrieved it and looked at who was calling, I knew it was going to cost me money. This friend and colleague knows the kind of books that I can’t resist. He has found some thrillers for me in the past. Not so much recently. I’d asked him numerous times over the years to find me one particular book. A book dreams are made of.
That has been the only book I really want for…forever.
When I was taking a graduate seminar in English at George Washington University (I was finishing up my undergrad degree after my parents’ illnesses and deaths interrupted my college career), it was taught by amazing fellow, George Winchester Stone. The man had Elven eyes. The irises were like hourglasses. He was clearly a genius. He knew many languages and wrote scholarly tomes. He had been president of the MLA. He took our little group to the Evergreen House in Baltimore on a field trip. There, laid out on library tables in the mansion’s great room, was a panoply of some of the world’s great and rare books. Darwin, Audubon, Chaucer, Edmund Spenser etc….and a Shakespeare First Folio—1623. I had always been a book nut and knew there were rare books in the world, but I had never gone to a rare book library or rare book show. We were actually allowed to touch these things! That trip changed my life in that it planted seeds and dreams. I would never own anything like these. I wrote a book story about a subsequent visit to Evergreen. VISIT Evergreen. You will love the art and architecture and design…and the books!
“Chuck, I think I have a line on that book you always ask about. Are you interested?”
“Yes.” I gulped.
HE said another colleague had gotten it on consignment. That bookseller specializes in more modern things. My friend knows very old books. He said he could acquire it and pass it through to me for a fairly small commission. He named a price.
“Are you interested?”
My heart was thumping hard in my chest.
“Yes,” I choked the word out.
“I will take a look at it this week, and if everything is in order, I will call you.”
I knew if he vetted it, it would be ok. I wouldn’t trust myself on the arcane things that could be wrong with such a book.
He called back some days later.
“It is much better than I thought. If I’d seen it first, I would have quoted a much higher price. It does have the problems I had told you about but, then, many copies of these have the same issues. There’s a description laid in from Sotherans* from the 1970s when the book was last sold. You still want it, correct?”
* A blue-chip rare book firm in London. It was founded in 1761.
“Yes,” I whispered.
So began a week of anticipation.
The package arrived, and I set it on the chair across from the red plush sofa in my office.
I got a box cutter and carefully opened it.
I gingerly removed the bubble wrap and Kraft paper and tissue paper protection.
“You are SO beautiful,” I spoke aloud.
I noticed on the Sotherans’ letterhead a nice bonus which I had forgotten about. The Shakespeare Second Folio contains John Milton’s first appearance in print. A short anonymous poem in praise of the Bard who had died only 16 years before.
It will go in the safe with a some other treasures.
There is one thing that makes a book valuable. Supply and demand.
I’ll never get a First Folio. Those are in the millions of dollars now.
But I am the temporary holder of this, and that is as close as I will get to the greatest writer of all time.
I know I’m one of the luckiest people in the world. I get to play with great books any day of the year I want to. I do have things I don’t enjoy doing that I’m forced to do to keep in business. That quid pro quo is a palatable—barely.
I can’t imagine doing anything else.
I don’t think I’m qualified to do anything else! LOL.
Still, there’s that missing piece. That hole in my life I thought was maybe…but now is fading into the distance.
Well, I’ll just throw myself into the breach as necessary.
Keeping myself very busy has been the one sure cure I have for keeping the spooks away.
“Things will either get better, or they will not. Have fun, go places, rescue great books, write, read, learn, drink good wine, eat good food, work hard, play hard.”
“And the other?”