Back in the Woods and Down into a Book Mine

Basement

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I’m posting this story from the Paddington Hilton in London. It’s a classic old railway hub grande dame attached to Paddington Station. Paddington Bear’s statue stands near the dozen or more tracks. Thousands of humans bustle in every direction. But step into the hotel, and time and frenzy freeze. I’m here for the Chelsea Rare Book Fair and to escape from…ghosts. Maybe this journey will evolve into a book story. The “Once in a Generation” exhibition of ancient books associated with British Isles at the British Library and the Edward Burne-Jones exhibit (the most comprehensive in over 40 years) at the Tate Britain certainly made the day memorable. Finishing at St Martin in the Fields listening to the Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was icing on the sensory overload.

Monday, October 29, 2018.

The whole country was booming. The skylines in the cities were full of cranes. I should have invested in cranes…

We were driving across Rt 7 in Northern Virginia. When I was a kid, my parents had a cabin in the woods in Shannondale, West Virginia. Rt 7 was a two lane straight shot to the Beltway across Northern Virginia and then we would head north to home in Montgomery County, Maryland. Back then it was a rural and scenic drive. It had a broad grassy median. There were large country houses set back along the route. Some were almost plantation like. Now it was 6 lanes with overpasses and exit ramps. Big shopping centers and housing developments had replaced most of the stately homes and horse farms.

More rooftops. More pavement.

Progress.

The Friday before I had gotten directions for my first visit.

“Turn right just after the mailbox with 11715 on it. It is a gravel road. Go about 1/3 mile. It has been repaired recently so you shouldn’t get stuck.”

This was from a friend who helps liquidate estates for people who have passed away or are drastically downsizing. They conduct online auctions for some of the stuff. There’s a tag sale on site for some as well.

He had written there were 13,000 books and 7000 records and did I want to take a shot at all of them as selling that many piecemeal would be very problematic. So on Friday I hopped in my Jeep and headed south on US 15 and then west on Rt 7. I found the little country road off Rt 7. It had 4 brand new 2 lane exit ramps to get to and from it now. Although it was still a two lane double yellow line road, two pairs of lanes parallel to them were being worked on by dozens of men in orange vests and white hard hats. Steamrollers were slowly rolling over fresh asphalt. All kinds of other road building machines were in action. There were plenty of workers leaning on shovels and brooms as well. Big things were coming to this once bucolic road.

My phone spoke aloud and the woman inside it said: “In one mile your destination is on the right.”

There was heavy construction on the road the whole way. (And continuing beyond as far as I could see as well.) New wide sidewalks were being installed on both sides. There were apartments and townhouses on the east side. They had new 20 foot high sound barrier walls erected between them and the new lanes. Their view a month or so ago had been woods and fields across the road. Now their windows looked out on the back of a concrete wall.

The phone told me where to turn, but she was clearly wrong. It was a curb and a utility pole. I ignored her and went on a little further and saw the old mailbox. It leaned like the Tower of Pisa on a gray faded wooden post. I turned right immediately after it, and my car rose up and over the brand new sidewalk. Then it was indeed gravel for quite a ways. Small tree and bush branches and arcing blackberry fronds scratched my car from the margins often. A flock of 8-10 big gray black turkeys scurried across the drive about 30 yards ahead. Careful, buddies, Thanksgiving is coming soon.

There were a couple forks in the gravel road, and for each I chose the one that showed more recent wear—fresher tracks. I chose the paths more traveled. Soon I saw a faded gray-green house—well it was more of a cabin than a house.

Then to the left was a large utility shop building. Its garage door gaped open as I passed.

I parked on the grass near the house. There was no paving, and the overgrown grass from the yard blended into the overgrown gravel spaces.

The house didn’t look at all promising.

My friend greeted me on the front porch, and we entered the house. I’d guess it had been built not too long after World War 2. He led me through room to room. It was a larger than it had initially appeared as rooms that had clearly been added on were tacked on in a straight line westward. I assumed the owner had built it himself. The work was competent, but everything from floor to ceiling was pretty basic building materials. There were only 6 or 7 little bookcases total in the 4 or 5 rooms. They held nothing of interest. There was a wall solidly packed with VHS tapes. A monolith of obsolescence. VHS was a big part of Wonder Book & Video’s growth from the mid 80s well into the 90s. The synergy of books (used and collectible), music, comics and video sales and rentals gave us diversity. We were a kind of entertainment department store. We specialized in having things you couldn’t find all in one store. Many of the things we carried you couldn’t find anywhere else.

We still put a few VHS on the World Wide Web. Some productions exist only on VHS—usually for contractual reasons or micro niche one-offs that were never picked up on DVD or streaming. The stores have a few dozen—mostly Disney—on the outdoor sale tables at 3 for $2.

99.9% of the VHS that comes in gets recycled. The market for them is “zero.” We urge people not to bring them to us any more.

We toured the house further. It was a sad situation. I’m guessing the wife passed away long ago. Old-fashioned faded satin dressing gowns still hung on the back of a bedroom door and in a closet. An ash-gray wig rested atop a styrofoam head on the dresser. Another bedroom had some toys and stuffed animals in it. I assumed it was for the grandkids. One of the stuffed bears had the year 2000 embroidered on it.

The energy in the home had once been vibrant. Now it was gone. The life force in a home has to do with people living in it. This was just a sad old worn out house now.

The books in the house weren’t worth removing.

“Let’s go out and look in the workshop.”

As we headed toward the door, I was struck by how massive the fireplace and chimney in the living room—not far from the front door—were. A wood-burning insert was embedded in it. It must have been built with the assumption that the massive amount of stone would hold warmth in correlation to its size. A sad pair of sneakers we set just before it. I assumed they were the old man’s.

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“Most of the books and LPs are in the big shop building. I think the snakes and mice are gone. We put down repellant a couple days ago.”

Oh boy. Well, I won’t be reaching into any dark places.

The workshop was very large. Maybe 2000 square feet. It was well constructed, paved and judging from the tools and large toolboxes, he must have worked on cars or other machinery. It seemed the owner had put more effort into this building than the house.

The estate liquidator had already begun putting salable items out on tables.

There were two nearly 3 foot stacks of very large vintage auto mobile model kits still in their shrink wrap. One table had a couple hundred model trains lined up in phalanxes. Two lightly used but fairly old ATVs were parked nose to nose along a wall.

“This property would be fun for those,” I commented.

“Not for long. This will all be knocked down. A developer is turning this into a mansion development for car aficionados. Each estate will have its own 6-10 car garage.”

A mountain of pink distracted my eyes off to the left. Maybe a hundred Barbies were neatly stacked on tables and spilled onto the floor. All were in their original box.

Then it hit me. The smell. Mothballs. I had to catch my breath it was so strong.

“Whew!”

“Yeah, when we first came in here, there were snakes and mice everywhere. We put down snake repellant and moth balls everywhere. I haven’t seen anything for a while.”

“Too cold for snakes to be moving today anyway,” I replied

“I still wouldn’t stick my hand behind anything you can’t see.”

“Nope.”

The owner had been a collector and a hobbyist across a broad range. He was not far from being a hoarder but all his collections were pretty organized and their spaces delineated.

“Need any liquor?”

He opened a closet size door in the section of wooden cabinets along a wall. There were about 7 shelves maybe 3 feet wide and over 2 feet deep. They were loaded with booze—seemingly front to back. One shelf was full of the same brand of inexpensive vodka. The bottles were dusty and dingy. Some were partially used. There were plenty of other varieties, but they didn’t look too appetizing. There were some vintage wines. A double woven basket of Madeira was just a lovely object even if their contents were dubious. Had he “taken the pledge”—stopped drinking—at some point many years ago?

“Where are the books?”

We had gotten about halfway into the long cavernous cold chemical smelling building, and all I had seen were some large Egyptian folios on tables up front near the car models. Beside that it had been booze, Barbies, typewriters, tools, electronics…

“Back here.”

We rounded a wall of wooden shelving extending perpendicular into space from the side walls. They were loaded with boxes that contained…who knows what…and…

Ahh, there they were! 6 tall double rows of books! The west wall was lined with bookcases. Here and there boxes were stacked in front of the loaded bookcases. Some old Life magazines spilled onto the floor in a corner. The shelves were full, and the collector had likely reached a dilemma. There was no room left to shelve books. He had begun to use the floors—an early symptom of book hoarding—but something had stopped him. Time? Or did he just put the brakes on book acquisition?

I like to get the overall scope of any collection I’m looking at, so I walked to the back. The last aisle was all LPS.

“This side is rock and pop and humor. The other side is all classic. I’ve got a guy coming from New York to look at the Rock.”

Records. After some strong years of renaissance (See Spinning Tales) vinyl has seen a bit of downturn in the last year or so. Plus LP collections are still pouring into our stores. I wasn’t interested in a bidding war with a New York City specialist. Classical LPs are a very tough sell in general. Some are highly desirable. Most are just…tough.

The back wall was lined with cookbooks. Hundreds and hundreds. Most were dust jacketed. I could tell by their spines they were not too old and not too new. Tweeners. Pre ISBN/bar code but not yet “vintage.”


“I’ll look around.”

I went back to the first row and on the second shelf up from the gray cement floor…bingo! About 7 linear feet of P G Wodehouse—all in old dust jackets. Many of the spines had tears or were missing bits but, boy, were they striking! I dropped to my knees and pulled out one after the other. I turned to copyright page after copyright page. “Fifth Printing, Twelfth, Third….”

After about 25, I gave up. Not a single first. Still, they were very cool. I went up and down every row. There were some nice art books back along a darkened wall. But the fiction and the history were all “tweeners.”

I got down on my knees again and pulled some books out. The space had long been unheated. That always leads to the risk of…mold. I always look under the jackets of books on the lower shelves in situations where long periods of dampness may linger.

Yep, fuzzies on many the spines—but only on the bottom shelves that I checked.

I opened 10 or twelve. I put my nose toward the gutter, but all I could smell was mothballs.

My estimation of the big collection went down substantially.

Plus, something was affecting me. It was Friday. I was in a hurry to get back to Maryland and make sure the stores were ready for the weekend. Plus, if last Friday’s book story was to be released, I’d need to proof the draft. And traffic on a Friday radiating out from Washington DC quickly turns into dreadful miles of stops and starts before the weekend.

Plus, I was kind of dizzy…almost high. The mothballs? Or whatever else was put down to make the vermin vacate?

“I’ll give you a thousand for those books there (the Wodehouse.) The rest I need to think about.”

He hemmed and hawed.

I didn’t want to dicker so I said: “I’ll think about the rest and get back in touch with you.”

I went out to the overgrown yard. I turned my Jeep around and headed out the long wooded gravel drive. Soon a hard freeze would turn the green and gray trees into riots of red, orange, yellows and golds. About halfway out to the road, I saw a deer emerging from the woods to my right. It was leaping and galloping between the tree trunks and over shrubs and boulders. When it crossed in front of me, I saw it was a big buck. 10 point?

“You’ve got a big target on you, my friend.”

I bumped along through this hidden paradise that was soon to be paved and lawned.

“You’ve got a target on you, my friend.”

I eventually got across the Potomac River and then back to the warehouse. The book story about Chicago got published. I felt it was pretty uninspired. I’d have to rework it Monday. (And I did!)

I didn’t think about the Virginia woodland collection again until I was in the next day, Saturday—playing with books. I reviewed the pictures I had taken with my phone. I couldn’t get excited very much. Except for the Wodehouse and a half dozen 18th century travel quartos (all Greece and Turkey), there wasn’t much in the way of antiquarian material. The “tweeners”—we get so much of that as those generations are now dying off or downsizing, and their collections are hitting the market. They are problematic and sometimes difficult to put onto our online catalogs. Many of the histories from those years are “outdated” and the fiction authors forgotten. All those cooking and wine books? Too old but not old enough.

Still, something nagged at me. Plus I’d invested time and trouble in the visit. I emailed my friend Saturday afternoon.

“I’ll offer $5000 for everything that I want to take. But I want to leave whatever I don’t want. It has to be this Monday. I’m going to London Wednesday, and I don’t have enough help to get that many books on Tuesday.”

What was I thinking? I don’t need those books (except the Wodehouse) or the work!

“Deal.”

On Monday morning, we got two vans ready and headed south and then east after we crossed the river.

Construction and roadwork was in full force along Rt 7.

My friend had given me instructions: “The key to the house is under the ceramic planter on the porch. The garage door opener is in a basket next to the door inside under a pair of gloves.”

We backed one van to the garage and began carrying in empty boxes and rolling out stacks of 4 or 5 full boxes on hand trucks.

I went around sharpshooting books I didn’t want to get packed with the mix. The Wodehouses were first of course.

I wrote my name on the boxes I packed and set them aside to be packed last.

I scanned the fiction shelves.

What’s this!?!

How had I missed this clutch of Kerouac?

And all these other beats? And Yoko?

4 guys packing and toting. A couple hours passed. The fumes were getting to us all. It was a bright clear crisp day, and we would all take turns wheeling boxes out just to get fresh air.

I surveyed the cooking. How had I missed this Child cookbook, slipcased and signed by Julia and Paul (the spy?), Alice Waters. Back in a dark corner, I discovered a hundred or so books on restaurant and menu management. How had I overlooked these?

Then, as I was plucking some Jacques Pepin from some shoulder high shelves, a large mouse took a leap of faith out into the air. I pulled my arms back quickly. No more mice running up my sleeves! EVER! It was likely quite gravid. It sort of waddled as I chased it out the back door and into the woods. There was a big fluffy nest in the void behind the books. Though the mouse had gourmet tastes in books, it had not nibbled any.

A bookcase and half were all books of ancient Egyptian history. Two were by my deceased friend Barbara Mertz. Red Land, Black Land. I had looked at every bookcase my first visit. Had I been blinded by the fumes? There were some great books here!

Eventually, both vans were fully loaded. I wandered about the property while the guys locked up and got the final boxes on board.

The backyard looked down on a long meadow and down into a hollow. A pretty view looking into the west. Several old metal lawn chairs were rusting in the tall grass right where the last living humans had sat…so many years ago.

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The next day, I passed one of the sorters and smelled mothballs.

“You weren’t supposed to get those. We can’t sell them smelling like that!”

I paged Clif and had him take them away and asked him to make sure the rest of the collection was segregated and labeled not to be touched until they air out. I think the smell will dissipate before long. The mothballs had only been amongst the books for a week or two.

I will check periodically. Until then this collection is quarantined. A trove waiting to be mined—one at a time.

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