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“Thank God I am an old maid with no issue.”
Gloria Irene Smith. She was likely my third employee. It was the early 1980s. She was a customer. A good customer—which I desperately needed then. Many of the employees over the years started as customers and for whatever reason “crossed the bar” and ended up on the other side of the sales counter. I’m pretty sure her hiring wasn’t entirely my choice.
“You need help.” If memory serves, that was how she applied for the job!
And she was right. I was at loose ends. Unorganized. I needed framework.
The book store was just beginning. I was learning on the fly. On weekends I’d get up early and hit as many yard sales as I could and still get to the store to open on time. I’d schedule house calls after the store closed.
Carl Sickles, my first book mentor and erstwhile silent partner offered this advice: “Your landlord charges you rent 24 hours a day. You should try to stay open as much as you can. Oh, and never—NEVER—open late or close early.”
“Oh, ok,” I thought.
So almost from the start, I opened seven days dodging the Blue Laws (no Sunday retailing laws) because we sold bibles. I’m pretty sure we were just so small we weren’t noticed.
I had no business experience. My jobs to that point had run the gamut from cleaning fish as an Amalgamated Meat Cutter at Giant Food fish counters to packing sets of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom.
The seafood job stunk. When I got home, I’d change clothes in the garage so as not to bring the aging scent of “fresh” seafood into the house with me. I’d have to mop down the tile floor behind the counter every night with bleach. My blue jeans turned white at the hem and on up becoming less and less faded—bluer and bluer up to my knees from the splashing chemical. It paid real well. $4.25 per hour (less the union dues.) But after some months I tired of all those dead fish eyes looking back at me. Plus it was time to go back to school.
The mail order encyclopedia? I was always a kid-of-many-books. After some months of packing that same set of books over and over and over… and only that set—I decided I could no longer be a man of one book.
So, when I took the leap of faith to become a store owner, an entrepreneur (that was a VERY fancy word for my humble biz beginning) and then a “boss”…it was a crash course in “on the job training.” It was fly or bust. Do or be undone. Some instinct told me if I didn’t keep pushing forward, I would stagnate. If I didn’t succeed at this, I’d either being going back to cleaning somebody else’s fish or grad school. Neither seemed as much fun as playing with different books every day. But no one was paying me to play with books—I had to earn that perk.
My first employee, Mike, was a cop. He was a sci-fi customer and offered to work part time when off duty. I suspected it was so he would get first crack at any SF that might come in as much as anything else. He was gruff and refused to stop smoking his pipe at the sales counter. (Really! Remember this is about 1981.) My second employee was Jim. Mike’s buddy. He didn’t smoke, but he did have a scent.
I recall vividly the first time Mike said in response to some request: “Well, you’re the ‘boss.'”
I’m sure I looked around and over my shoulder wondering whom he was addressing.
Smitty had been amongst the first customers. She liked horror and mystery and was working to complete her Arkham House Collection and Dorothy Sayers first editions and first edition cartoon books like Edward Gorey and Charles Addams and…
I recall vividly she told me she wanted a nice first edition copy in dust jacket of Dorothy Sayers’ Omnibus of Crime.
I found a fine one and offered it to her for $15. A bargain I felt.
If she told me once she told me—well, many times: “No book is worth over $10.” This would be her eternal cutoff. Even when I found what I thought was a good deal on an HP Lovecraft she needed and quoted the lowest price I could she would say no if the price was over $10.
“Smitty, you’re never going to get books The Outsider and Others for $10.”
“Then it is just not meant to be…and, by the way, I already have that one.”
So, I already knew her pretty well when she “applied.” I’m sure we chatted about books in the days when often there were no customers in the shop for hours. She was a retired nurse and would tell me stories that would make my toes curl. She had moved on from serving in World War 2 to working in hospital operating rooms and wards her whole life.
She was a big woman. Wore her gray hair straight and clearly trimmed by herself. Usually wore a white shirt (I would not call it a blouse) and baggy denim-like culottes. She had a crusty exterior. She had a crusty interior as well but down in there somewhere was a heart of gold. She just didn’t want anyone to know it up front.
So, when she told me I needed help, I listened to my elder and said:
She made it clear she needed a cigarette break—every hour. But she was knowledgeable and hard working. She was good with customers—those whom she didn’t intimidate or frighten with her steely-eyed appearance and demeanor.
And the comment about being an old maid and kids—she was especially helpful with children—those whom she didn’t intimidate… She would get steamed and make that comment after the little sweetnesses—unsupervised—would trash the Kids Section. She’d take me there and point at the books sprawled and splayed, spread and scattered all over the floor with their darling footprints atop them:
“Thank Gawwwd, I am an old maid with no issue!”
When I made my first move and expansion in 1983, she pitched in and helped coordinate and organize things. I suppose I would have just moved willy-nilly otherwise.
I could never tell if she might have felt I was the child she’d never had or if I was just a patient who needed nursing. Maybe a bit of both. She would never have let on regardless.
When she said: “This place is too big now. You need a map.” I assented, and she drew one out by hand.
I think she worked for me for 7 or 8 years. She began to complain about her knees hurting. Too many years on the hard linoleum hospital floors (and my bare concrete floor.) She developed a dry cough. When she finally wore down and said she couldn’t do the work anymore, I was devastated. How could Wonder Book survive without her? I tried to convince to stay on part time. Or just sit at the counter.
She finally told me: “You don’t need me anymore, and it just hurts too much.”
“Try cutting back to just a few hours a few days week?”
Some time later she told me she had cancer and the dust in the store was bothering her. I didn’t mention her hourly cigarettes here and who knows how many at home.
It was then I knew she really could not help me any more. She had done her job. I had “needed” her structure and discipline and ethic. I built a foundation on her shoulders. Nor would Smitty be the last to join me and become integral and cause me fear should he or she leave. But they never seemed to leave until things were in good hands to carry on for them. It was almost as if someone was watching over me.
She would still come in as a customer for a number of years.
“This place is a mess! Who do you have shelving books?” She would say loud enough so the current employee du jour could not fail to hear her opinion.
Then I saw her less and less.
Though we were friends, she never invited me over. Maidenly discretion I suppose. One fellow employee she befriended—a woman of similar age if not temperament—had visited for dinner. She confided to her dismay, Smitty had served her a big ole hog maw and chitterlings, a local favorite among the older generations.
Shirley told me: “I had no idea what it was, much less what to do with it. I prodded and poked and then the thing burst open!”
I didn’t know she had died until I got a call from her “executrix.” It’s funny how obsolete words resurrect themselves in the legal trade. An unwillingness to change, an effort to keep things mysterious and too much reading of forgotten lore, I suppose. This sweet old lady called and introduced herself as “the Executrix of Gloria Irene Smith’s Estate.” I’m sure Smitty’s lawyer had told her she had been appointed “executrix” in the will and she was taking the title seriously. She said Smitty had stipulated that I bid on her books.
Smitty had bought a modern townhouse in a new development. She spent the last twenty years of her life there. I met Mrs. Hurley there and she explained Smitty’s estate to me. Smitty had orchestrated her estate to the most minute detail. She had had plenty of time to do it with all those years waiting to die. Her only diversions had been books, videos, the occasional literacy pupil, smoking, and maybe hog maw. Her townhouse was rather small. It was lined with bookcases. There were a few pieces of antique furniture, family heirlooms I guessed. There were two rocking chairs that from the patterns of wear seemed to be where she spent most of her time. One was in the middle of a small spare bedroom about three feet from a TV and VCR. This bedroom was lined from floor to ceiling with bookcases, including the closets. There was a reading light and a small table with an ashtray next to the rocker. She had everything she wanted within reach in that room. The other was next to a glass sliding door in the kitchen that opened to an outdoor porch.
Then I noticed there was something odd about her rooms. Everything—the walls and furnishings and book spines seems “toned.” Toning is a booksellers term for browning. It is most often caused by books’ exposure to too much sunlight over years and years. In Smitty’s case the toning was caused by cigarette smoke. Every exposed object in her place had a yellowish brown tint to it.
She had always been meticulous about her books. She had bought hundreds of clear plastic dust jacket protectors (“Brodarts” *) from me. Every book in the house was wrapped in a “Brodart.” There was something amiss however. Every spine was toned. Only the spine. When I pulled out samples, the front and back cover of every book was bright. Only the spines had that yellowish brown tinge to them. Rubbing my finger on the spine, it felt slightly tacky and greasy. But the stain apparently could be cleaned from the plastic protected spines, restoring the books to their original condition. I had seen plenty of cigarette smoke stained books before but never to this extent.
It was so strange. There was a kind of anti-Emerald City glow or aura to everything—the walls and ceilings.
I went to the kitchen where Mrs. Hurley was packing things for the auction. I mentioned the smoking, and she tutted:
“Gloria Irene smoked to the very end. She would sit there (she pointed to the rocker by the glass sliding door) and smoke even while she was taking the oxygen. She’d have a cigarette in one hand and the mask in the other. We thought she might blow the place up, but she said if the door to the porch was cracked open it would be safe.”
She reached up and took a round clock from the wall. The wall beneath where it had hung was a perfect circle of milky white. The rest of the kitchen wall was the color of weak iced tea.
Smitty had smoked herself to death. It took her sixty-seven years. Her final death sentence took twelve years of intense passionate smoking.
I put in a high bid. Many of the books she had spent a few dollars on in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were worth hundreds now. She had almost every Edward Gorey book in first edition. Many were signed. The same with Gahan Wilson. She had a thing for R. Austin Freeman and his Doctor Thorndyke mysteries—in perfect jackets. She had most of the Arkham houses—at least the old ones. The newer ones couldn’t be had for under $10. Somehow, despite her placing a low ceiling on the price she was willing to pay for a book, she had so many perfect copies in fine dust jackets. H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Howard, Ray Bradbury… all were there. She had all the Stephen King novels. Fine firsts in perfect jackets which were hugely popular and quite valuable at the time—before the internet caused the value of any but the first few to plummet.
Mrs. Hurley accepted my offer and said Smitty would have been glad I was getting her books.
I came back with a crew and we packed her books. The walls were white behind where we removed the books. At the warehouse I found they weren’t that easy to clean so we carefully replaced all the yellowed dust jacket protectors, “Brodarts.” The books gleamed as if they were new.
They did smell a bit, and we discounted them for that flaw. This was long before the internet and mail orders that would have made it impossible to sell smoky books. So many people smoked back then and everyone knew the odor would eventually dissipate if they were given fresh air and breathing room.
Cheers Smitty! I’m glad this blog thing had me think about you and record a bit of your story. Light one up and remember these good ole days.
The earliest email I can find from Bernie is from October 2007 but from what you read below he had been coming in for some years before:
“Hi Chuck, I am Bernie Brown, that tall older ex-prof of Comp. Lit who appears with R-Digests a couple times a year. Two issues to put before you:
1. On Wed. 10-17 I will be driving through about 8 or 8:30 a.m. Should I deposit about 100 Readers Dig. on your dock? You can send me a check, as before, for whatever they are worth to you these days. What time do you actually open?
2. What is a set of THE GREAT BOOKS (54 vols. complete with its wooden stand) (ed. Mortimer Adler; Britannica, 1952) worth to you? I don’t want to schlep them along if you are not in the market. They make the world’s most handsome “decorator” books with their learned impress value. but I would hope that you might have a genuine intellectual market to pass sell them on to? You know those things; I only know how to teach the Great Books. If indeed you do want to buy them (how much?) I can drop them off to you a few days later on my way back north.
Keep up your good work. As a book-lover I am impressed with what you do. — Bernie Brown”
Now please note it is he who says “older.” Indeed he is tall and was apparently “older” even 11 years ago—in 2007!
Back then we had a huge interior design firm for a client. They were one of the major suppliers nationwide for model homes. Their design team felt every one of their homes should have books. They also felt that the books should be uniform in size and appearance. For years they bought every Readers Digest Condensed book we could lay our hands on. No one else ever bought RDCs anywhere for any price. They wanted more and more and more and… More than we could find locally. I began asking dealers around the country to start acquiring these and that I would buy all they had for 25 cents each. We would charge the designers a dollar. 75 cents isn’t and wasn’t a big markup but if we were able to stockpile a couple thousand…
Bernie had been doing scouting in Western Pennsylvania and bringing premium items to DC area specialists for years. He’d brought me some stuff as well. One time when he spied some boxes of RDCs on the dock he was surprised.
“Nobody buys those. The people I work with just throw them away.”
“I’ll buy all that trash for a quarter apiece!”
Thus began a relationship that is well into its second decade.
2, 3, 4 times a year an email would drop in from him.
“I’m coming with…” And an itemized list would follow of what he was bringing.
Soon we developed a formula so I became his only customer. (That is as far as I know.) When he left here after that his car was always empty.
A couple things still stand out from his visits.
1. He always drove a Prius. He knew, and I learned exactly how many books it takes to fill a Prius. I don’t know if has always been the same Prius. I’m not really sure you can tell the difference from Prius to another.
2. Bernie must have been a high jumper at some point in his life. To my horror this lanky, angular “older” scholar would always jump OFF our 4 foot high loading dock. Broken bones and lawsuits were all I could think of until I either convinced him—or Father Time did—not to leap any more.
Over the years our Books By the Foot program grew and changed, and so did our needs. Suddenly, our one customer for RDCs changed their style.
“We don’t like those any longer.”
But they did begin buying other types of books. Thousands of them—until the crash of 2008 when their business got rocked by the housing bubble. They’ve since rebounded—and expanded beyond model home design—and they are back to buying in bulk from us.
If I recall, Bernie seemed crestfallen when I told him that this would be the last of the RDC loads we would take.
“Can you use anything else?”
“We can use all the Earth tone spined books you can fit into your Prius. And we need any pre 1930 cloth or leather-bound books too.”
(Earth tones are browns, tans, beiges…)
So Bernie kept coming and coming. He’d always notify me in advance, but often he’d just drop the books off and leave. I would review them when I could get to them and send off a check.
We were desperate for books in those days, and although Bernie was kind of a micro supplier and drew me personally into every transaction, I did nothing to discourage him.
Now we are drowning in books. I’ve bought a dozen trailers in the last year and have filled them all. Still, the books are flooding in faster than we can sort through them. I suspect we are the only ones willing and able to take everything in this region.
For example, earlier this week an Eastern Shore County library system brought us their sale leftovers—4 truckloads—about 50 pallets that look like these:
So, we don’t really need Bernie’s books any more. But he was there when we needed him. Plus he’s become kind of a tradition here. I like tradition.
Over the years he told me bits and pieces about himself but we were always both in a rush it seemed. He told me he had taught. He was a linguist and often asked if I could use foreign language books.
“Just Latin and some Greek classic lit.”
So as our needs would change, Bernie’s deliveries would change as well.
Below is his email that he let us know he was coming in February 2018:
I replied to this email: “Please check in with me if you have time.” I wanted ask him about some things he had hinted at over the years. Maybe it was in anticipation of this story. Because I felt there was a story. A “small” but very long and enduring book story.
I was paged to Dock 2 and there was Bernie with his Prius backed to the dock. It’s hatch opened ready for us to unload.
As the boxes were being unloaded, he pointed to a flat and said:
“I even brought a couple copies of one of my own books this time.”
He pulled out two copies of Dimensions of the Future: The Spirituality of Teilhard de Chardin edited by Marvin Kessler and Bernard Brown. Corpus Publications 1968.
“That’s cool! I didn’t know you were a writer! Autograph one for me and for a friend who specializes in Catholic books ok?”
“Did you know I was a Jesuit priest?”
“Until I decided to get married 24 years ago. I told my bishop I was called to that as I had been called to the priesthood in my youth.”
Thus began a chat where I learned he had several degrees including a doctorate in Comparative Literature. He had been a professor at Santa Clara University and Catholic University and…
“I’m an historical linguist…”
He then told me the money he’s gotten here over the last decade plus has all gone to charity—mostly for literacy programs for refugee children.
You think you know someone for more 15 years or more and then you realize you never stopped to listen and learn.
So when Bernie emailed last week and said he was dropping a load off today (April 19, 2018) I made it a point to be there… But then I couldn’t. Unluckily his arrival coincided with an appointment off site. But I did ask the warehouse managers to request his picture (the one above), that I wanted to write a story and to get his phone number.
After my meeting I called him but he’d already dropped the books off and left. He said he was leading a conference in faith in DC I think. He did mention he was now 81 and wanted to know if I wanted to buy some of his scholarly books—Greek classics and Latin.
“Sure. I think so. Can you email some pictures?”
When I got back to the warehouse, I headed back to the loading docks. There were 2 of Bernie’s unmistakable pallets. Books in flats, Spine up. Each flat label with the type of books in it.
I’m sorry I missed him. But I’m glad I finally stopped to get to know him.
See you next load, Bernie!
* Wonder Book was apparently one of the first commercial accounts to buy mylar jackets in bulk from Brodart Co., the huge supplier of library and related materials to schools and libraries. We’d always had an account them. Suddenly we were buying “Brodarts” by the thousands. Up until then I think only the libraries would buy them in bulk. My sales rep (I think she was Hank Walck’s daughter. Henry Z Walck was president of Oxford University Press and then had his own imprint published many wonderful scholarly and children’s books—including Tasha Tudor) approached me and asked why had our orders gone up so much since we were buying thousands of 10 inch sleeves. The answer was simple. It was the HyperModern Boom. People were seeking all manner of first edition fiction hardbacks. We established a policy. Any book $10 and over would automatically have its dust wrapper wrapped for its own protection and preservation. Customers saw this and began buying them from us in bulk to wrap their own collection. This new market excited the Brodart execs enough to send a camera crew out and photograph Wonder Book and put us on the cover of that year’s enormous catalog that went to every school and library in the country.
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