What once seemed like an esoteric world now seems essential to our culture: the community of rare book dealers and collectors who, in their love of the delicacy and tactility of books, are helping to keep the printed word alive…Greg Talbot, The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd.
It is Wednesday. Clif and I are heading up US 15 to Gettysburg. Ernest and Brian are in a van behind us. We are going on a house call that was initiated nearly 5 months ago. In fact, it was part of a book story.
It is a beautiful azure day. Is it the third day of fall. It is cool and dry. We will pass Camp David, the Grotto of Lourdes and the Elizabeth Ann Seton (America’s first saint) Shrine. We will cross the Mason Dixon Line and skirt the eastern side of Gettysburg. It was from the south and east that the Union troops came to stop the advance of the Robert E Lee and the Confederate Army’s advance on Washington.
Why has it taken months to get this house call done?
It is the home of an older retired surgeon.
The doctor needed back surgery and wanted us to wait until he was on the mend before we returned. Then we were so busy in July and August we couldn’t get up there.
And we don’t need the books.
And it wasn’t a very exciting collection.
In some ways, I was kind of hoping the house call would go away.
But I had made a commitment. So we will devote 4 of our top people for about half the day to clear out a LOT of not so great books.
But, who knows, maybe I’ll be surprised.
Last week’s book story was rushed. My editor was off Friday, and I was taking an early afternoon train from BWI to Penn Station in Manhattan early Friday afternoon. I love New York. In small doses. Ostensibly, I was going to see the New York Art Book Fair. Which I did. It was huge. It filled the large MOMA PS1 building in Queens and spilled out into tents on its grounds.
There were only 3 small rooms of used and rare books. I guess they were former classrooms. I always get evocative vibes in old schools. Like the ghosts of long dead children haunt them.
The used and rare booksellers had mostly edgy modern art and avant-garde material. Edgy… I’m not too much into “edgy.” But I get and embrace that market. Wonder Book offers lots of edgy material online. Not so much in the stores.
The rest of the booksellers were publishers and vendors of new books. Mostly edgy modern stuff. There were a LOT of them. 200?
The attendance was huge. Thousands of people packed the place. A large percentage were quite colorful. Tattoos and piercings and a rainbow of hair colors and exotic clothing surrounded me. Young and old showing their individuality by sporting their body art. I don’t get it. I’m glad I missed that era. When the time came, all I needed to do was cut my hair.
But, then, I suppose I kind of stood out from that crowd with my khakis and button-down Oxford shirt.
Shoulder to shoulder. Asses to elbows. I quickly got a bit claustrophobic and a little too warm.
I left after 30-40 minutes.
Well, it was an unforgettable experience.
Clif and I are driving back south now. 3 hours of packing and toting for the four of us. I don’t need to be doing this. If the books had been wonderful, I wouldn’t be whining…
Maybe 300 boxes. 75 boxes packed and carried out of the home by each of us.
Lots of dust.
My recollection was correct. There were very few collectibles amongst all those books. There were a lot of 19th century medical books. But I only boxed a handful to be researched. I set that box on the passenger side of our “Cube” truck.
When the Cube was moved, the box was crushed. I wouldn’t expect Clif to check the ground on the far side. My bad.
Oh, well. That solves that!
Accidents #2 and #3 were Clif and Ernest being stung by bees at the front door. I was spared that.
The old doctor hovered above me—I was packing on my knees.
“I shouldn’t look,” he said. “I might be tempted.”
The collection was broad and deep. He is a brilliant man who studied subjects beyond the 400 or 500 medical books. Psychiatry, Ireland, rare planes and ships, philosophy, literature. I don’t think I’ve met a surgeon who wasn’t brilliant.
Doctors…they are a different breed.
Finally, we were done. It was dry dusty work. It has been a dry summer.
I found the doctor in his sprawling house.
“I think we are done. Would you check and make sure we are taking everything we are supposed to?”
We had missed a low 3 shelf bookcases in the upstairs office. It was up a tall steep stairwell, but I’ve carried boxes down much worse.
He hovered above me while I assumed the bookseller’s position—upon my knees.
“I had an addiction,” he mused with all the now empty bookcases looking on.
“There are plenty worse ones,” I replied.
He had a lot of books on addictions as well.
“You know, I bought a lot of these from you. The kids loved to come to your store. We would spend hours there on Sundays.”
His walls had many photos of his children. They had been kids in the 80s and 90s.
When those last books were in the van—both vehicles were filled—we were finally done.
He followed us outside into bright early afternoon sun of the second full day of fall.
He was very grateful. Not only did he refuse the payment I had offered months before, but he gave us each a twenty! He wouldn’t let us refuse. Even me!
I haven’t been tipped in…a very, very long time.
It was still a poor business decision. But we helped the doctor out. And he spent a lifetime helping people. If there’s karma, I just got one in the plus column.
And it was a beautiful drive.
And I got to work on this book story.
I guess there was a surprise.
I got a tip!
Where was I?
I was in New York!
Friday night I went to a very hot sushi place with a couple friends. Sushi Nakazawa. I was informed it was an Omakase sushi restaurant. I believe Omakase* is Japanese for incredibly expensive. I ordered the Premium Omakase. That was 9 courses. The service was meticulous. Each piece of sushi was described in detail when it was presented.
* The phrase “omakase” is most commonly used when dining at Japanese restaurants where the customer leaves it up to the chef to serve seasonal specialties. — Wikipedia
It was incredible!
But, “Oh, my kasee!”—It was expensive.
Saturday after the book show, I headed for the Morgan Library. There were new exhibitions. Sendak, Verdi and Hogarth.
That night I took a chance and showed up at the 21 Club—Jack and Charlie’s once upon a time Speakeasy on 52nd. I brought the blue Orvis blazer I inherited from my long gone brother, Jimmy. I also brought a pinstriped Oxford shirt and my New York Boot Company shoes. 21 has a very strict dress code (for men especially.) If I was going to be turned away, I didn’t want my attire to be the reason.
They found us a corner table and a wonderful old school meal was ordered and served. Smoked salmon. Escargot. Dover Sole. Coq au Vin. Baked Alaska.
Oh, and a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape–white.
Over two decades ago a descendant of Jack or Charlie came by the store about once a month for a year or so. He sold me John Steinbeck first editions. Each was signed and warmly inscribed by Steinbeck to Jack (or Charlie.) It’s funny the things you regret; the regrets that stay with you. I paid a lot of money for the books. I didn’t have much money, so I sold them right away. I wish I still had them.
I bonded with literary ghosts at the 21 for a couple hours. Foolishly, I thought it was a good idea to go to the King Cole Bar in the St Regis. I love the huge brilliantly painted Old King Cole Maxfield Parrish painting which hangs behind the bar. I had one of their Red Snappers. That’s their Bloody Mary. They say the Bloody Mary was invented there. The name was indecorous, however, and so it was changed from “Mary” to “Snapper.”
That was a very late night…mysterious things happened.
Sunday I went to a pub in the morning near the hotel to watch Premier League soccer. I had a draft Delirium Tremens Belgian beer. I would only drink a beer in the morning for that reason—English football. After all, it is 5 hours later in the UK.
I had the day to kill. I transcribed a bunch of poems from the yellow legal pads I usually use. I would print them up when I returned to Maryland. Two copies. One for the home archive and one for the office archive. Insurance. I wouldn’t want my innermost thoughts in verse to be lost for posterity. Then I checked out of the hotel and walked to the New York Public Library. I do this most visits. How can one resist visiting the original Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals?
Then I taxied up to Zabar’s for some good salmon to take home—kippered, nova and gravlax.
I headed to a pub to watch American football. Another nice beer. Then I picked up my luggage and rolled to Penn Station where I found another bar. Watched football and had an Anchor Steam on tap.
I’d chosen a 7 pm train, so I wasn’t in bed until midnight.
No surprises really. At least no happy ones.
There have been some surprises in the past week, however.
I love my nephew Gerry. He’s only ten years younger than I. He was like a little brother when I was growing up. He has had some tough times. But now he is in great shape. He is a devoted dad. He does some contracting. He is also a “picker.” And he does his own flea marketing and collectible shows. The tough times he went through have made it so he can be very difficult to talk to. He rambles on and on. Sometimes reality gets mixed with fantasy.
Sometimes I have to interrupt the stream-of-consciousness flow.
Sometimes I don’t take his calls if I’m busy or just can’t deal with it. I love him, and he has a good heart. I’m just not patient unless there’s something important.
He only contacts me about stuff he thinks I may want about once a year. He tries hard, and he has found some exciting things. Hollywood monster movie costumes, collectible comic books…stuff I don’t really buy, but if he needs the money… and well, I’m a sucker for all kinds of cool stuff even if they aren’t books.
I never really liked “Chuck” as a name. I loathed “Chuckie” after I was 8 or 9.
“What’s up, Jerr-Bear?”
“I got some cool pictures. Autographs. Eliot. Roosevelt. Dickens. Einstein.”
I didn’t need to curb my enthusiasm. I was not excited. There must be something wrong with them.
“I’m helping clear out an estate. I paid a lot for them. But you should have them. I bet you’ll want some of them for yourself.”
“Ok. Want to bring them here?”
He was going to come that afternoon but got hung up and then had to meet his son’s school bus. He wasn’t going to come til Monday. But then he called Thursday morning and asked to come up.
I REALLY didn’t want to deal with that. His visits can be rambling as well. It was my getaway day. I had to finish the book story before my editor left for the week on Thursday afternoon. And the book story wasn’t very far along.
I’d agreed to stop and pick up some tubs and boxes of old books from a woman who’d been emailing for a couple weeks. I assumed from her description they would just be old books—Books By the Foot old books. I’ve often said 99% of old books are just “old books.” But she was insistent. She was getting ready to list her house for sale. Real estate agents often feel books are eyesores. They like the Spartan look. “Think Japanese” was what one told me once. Her house was on the way to the Gaithersburg store. It would be a very quick in and out. I’d do a ride along on a van swap. I’d work on the story during the drive.
Clif drove, and I rode shotgun. The woman had sent me pictures. The pick up—for I felt that’s what it would be with little or no money offered—couldn’t escalate from 12 tubs and boxes to 100. That has happened before.
The address was in the Montgomery Village development. A 1960s experimental community. Much of the “Village” is now old depressing townhouses. When the woman in my phone said we’d “arrived,” I looked up at a lovely half brick house. This neighborhood was maturing, getting old, but the only way you could tell was from the mature trees in the yard.
It was lovely inside as well.
I dropped to my knees and lifted the lid of the first tub.
Dreary…early 20th century folio art books. Neither the bindings nor the contents were very special.
Another box of modern books. A tub of modern coffee table books… Then I cut open a box. The contents of that were books wrapped in newspaper stock. The name of the book in each was written upon the paper. I tore open a few. They were ok. Collectible but not exciting. Then I tore open a large thin “package.”
Lovely. A couple other pretty books unwrapped themselves.
I got a “tingle.” This was a “collection.”
The woman I’d exchanged emails with wasn’t there, but her husband explained she and her grandmother used go and buy collectible books together.
Clif was hovering above me ready to sweep the tubs and boxes into our van backed into their driveway.
“I can’t go through these all now. But I’d like to offer $600. If I find anything above that when they are sorted, I’ll send a supplementary payment.”
He was very pleased. I guess I had lowered their expectations quite bit.
Soon we were on our way.
We did the swap. I did a quick inspection. The Gaithersburg reinvention project is essentially finished. Now all that is left is to fill in all the gaps we created during the heavy culling with quality books.
And…work on TRAINING.
Clif had transferred the tubs and boxes we had picked up into the filled van we were taking back up the road. And so we headed north and west toward Frederick with Clif driving and me pecking away at my laptop trying to come up with a story. As soon as I walked into the warehouse, I was pulled in numerous directions by people who wanted my attention. But the most pressing was:
“Your nephew’s here. He’s looking at comic books in the photo room.”
Great, I thought, what is he rooting through?
As kids my nephew would always go through my “stuff,” and I didn’t like it.
We quickly caught up on family matters, and then I said: “Let’s see what you got.”
Out we went into the parking lot to his big black four-door Toyota pickup. I dropped the tailgate and Gerry started bringing framed stuff to the back of the truck where we could spread it out on the bed of the truck.
Dickens. Garfield. Teddy Roosevelt. TS Eliot. Einstein. James Garfield…
“Gerry, where did you get these?”
He started rambling a bit about helping clear out a house. A dead Congressman and founder of a health care foundation for the rights of people in nursing homes. These had been boxed up in the basement. The heirs had put prices on each one. Gerry had gotten a bit of a package deal on all of them, but he had still spent a lot of money. I offered him twice as much as he paid, and he was very happy.
We started carrying in stacks of the frames into the warehouse.
“They have a lot more, but I didn’t think you would want them. Bill and Hillary and Reagan…and a bunch of Abolitionists.”
“Go back and get them…ALL.”
I wrote the check and followed him outside—mostly to hurry him along. Thursday was waning, and there was so much to do. I carried all the stuff he brought into my office and found some bare floor there to lay them on. My office is currently a jumble of books and stuff stacked everywhere. I’ll get everything shelved—eventually.
I went into the business office to see how the book story was coming along. I’d emailed the first draft of it when I first got back to the warehouse WiFi.
“A new employee turned in $800 he found in a book.”
That’ll buy lunch for the people in the warehouse for the next two months.
An 1860s half-dollar. I used to be an avid coin collector.
“Where did that come from…?”
That night I went to the Great Frederick Fair. A friend who is a brewer had a tent set up in the beer hall. He had gotten me and a buddy passes. The Fair is still a big deal in Frederick County. All kinds of people and creatures come out to it.
Hundreds of people submit their cookies, pies, flowers, lambs, bunnies… in hopes of winning a blue ribbon. It is a huge sensory bombardment of sights and sounds and smells.
Where do all these people come from? There were interesting and weird humans of all kinds—attendees, exhibitors, roustabouts…
But, then, maybe I kind of stood out as a character as well. Not many folks were wearing khakis and a button-down Oxford shirt.
Out of the blue an old friend who is also a book scout came up and greeted me. I hadn’t seen him for years.
“Come visit…see the warehouse.”
“I think I will…”
A couple approached me in the beer hall.
I didn’t recognize them at first, but when she spoke her name…
“Wow! It’s great to see you!”
She had been a manager of the store in the 90s. A good one too. She left to start a family. I regretted seeing her go. I hadn’t seen for them—20?—years. But of course I remembered her.
“Are the kids grown?”
“Come visit…see the warehouse.”
“I think we will…”
“You can come back to work.”
Well, you know about Friday and New York. Gerry texted me Sunday evening about coming Monday.
Monday…I’d been away a lot in the last couple weeks. Scotland. The wedding. New York. I was so far behind in stuff I needed to do.
The person who manages Books By the Foot (and manages many other things here) has been away on maternity leave for over a month, so I check in with that staff at least a couple times a day.
“We have a 350 foot art book order. Someone else is asking for 200 feet.”
“We don’t have that much. Should I cancel one?”
“No!” I insisted. “We will find a way.”
Gerry arrived, and I went out to his truck. For that big of a deal, I’ll find the books. He brought two boxes of framed stuff standing upright in cardboard boxes to the tailgate. Each was wrapped in disposable diapers (unused.)
Wendell Phillips. Charles Sumner. Harriet Beecher Stowe. James Madison…several Claude Peppers. (Pepper was a Senator and Congressman and was a great advocate for the elderly in need.) He produced a manila folder, and I flipped through a little stack of Reagan and Bush(s) and Bill and Hillary TLSs.*
*Typed Letter Signed
These were not as thrilling as the first load, but still…this kind of stuff doesn’t walk in here often—at least not in a big group like this.
He produced an itemized list of what he had paid—what the seller had asked for—and I paid him double.
I had to usher him out because a young woman had arrived. She’d been driven up from the Gaithersburg store in the Monday’s first van swap. She’d expressed interest in learning more about books and perhaps opening a bookstore of her own someday.
It’s a duty most booksellers embrace—to help the next generation of booksellers learn the trade.
I gave her the warehouse “Tour.” She expressed the “Wow factor” a number of times. I talked non stop as I drove her back to Gaithersburg for the second van swap (Mondays almost always require two.) I squeezed in everything I could about bookselling during the ride. I lent her a copy of Allen and Pat Ahearn’s Book Collecting and told her what she could glean from that.
I returned with a full van of books.
The top raw book sorter caught my eye as I walked past her station.
“I did those books you set aside from Montgomery Village last week,” she said. “You’ll like some of them. There’s an old vellum Beardsley Le Morte d’Arthur.”
The “Wow factor” still strikes me—so often. Next year will be the 40th anniversary of when I opened my little scruffy Frederick used bookstore. (I was only 7 years old when I opened. 🙂 ) My mentor and silent partner for several years, Carl Sickles and I each put in thousand dollars to open it. That covered the first and last month’s rent, a load of #2 6″ & 8″ pine planks to build bookcases and some opening stock from the Clifton Book Company hoard.
Robert Hunter passed away this week. His words are wired into my life intimately.
Thank you for your wonderful word the have so enriched my life.
Your muse has inspired my muse—such as she is.
Let my inspiration flow
in token lines suggesting rhythm
that will not forsake me
till my tale is told and done
While the firelight’s aglow
strange shadows in the flames will grow
till things we’ve never seen
will seem familiar
Inspiration, move me brightly
light the song with sense and color,
hold away despair
More than this I will not ask
faced with mysteries dark and vast
statements just seem vain at last
What a long strange trip it’s been.