2018 was a long time ago, and the world was a different place. So, some of this story is drawn from memory.
It started as just another contact from someone trying to find a place to take their books.
Back then, Nelson was going on a lot of house calls for us. We get so many requests. We can’t possibly do them all using our staff. We can barely keep up with all the books that come to the stores and warehouse.
The initial contact looked like this:
June 27, 2018
I have a client with a very large number of books, about 2,500, some special, others not so special.
Could we get you to come look at the collection and perhaps purchase it?
Appreciate your help with this,
I punted this cold call to Nelson.
Nelson and I must have spoken in person or on the phone because I can’t find an email record of our discussion about what he’d found.
When he told me it was part of the William Safire Estate, that got my attention! He described the collection as being in the family’s basement. Basement books are usually not desirable. Unless climate controlled, they are almost always musty and sometimes gather other systemic defects from dampness and neglect.
He said there were a lot of books suited for Books by the Foot and that I may want to go look myself as he felt it might be out of his purview.
I wanted to see the great man’s home, even if the books were crap.
I followed up with Nelson and grilled him about the way he had left it. The collection was being handled by a professional who helps busy people downsize and get the best value for the family.
I did reach out once more to him, so I wouldn’t make any faux pas.
On July 8, 2018, at 3:51 PM Nelson wrote:
I was going to E-Mail her an offer in a few days. I told her I wanted to think and to speak w/you. After speaking to you, you said put it out of mind so I did.
She did want something in writing.
She was going to get at least one more offer.
My thinking was 10 each for 200 leather. $5 each for the Franklins. The other 100 boxes about $5.00 each. $2750 to $3,000.
No signed books in the basement.
The good signed were removed to be kept.
The basement was better than the upstairs and more of it.
The living room full of nice leather. That would go last.
I would rate the basement as 2.5 out of 10 for desire to buy.
In general I do not believe that there is much prestige up side to this.
One last. My talking points were wasted as the agent wanted one thing and one thing only. HOW MUCH? The usual talk to convince was not needed at all.
A few days later, I was in Chevy Chase to check out William Safire’s basement.
The home was a stately mansion. Classic brick colonial with white trim. I went in the side door. There was staff there in livery. Salmon cotton dresses with white piping. So classic, formal and old school. Everyone was so polite and proper and…nice.
The home was much larger than it appeared from the street. Many additions had been put on over the years. It was much deeper than wide.
I was led to the basement. It was a sprawling space with numerous rooms and bookcases lining many walls throughout.
That’s when I got dreamy. The books were beautiful. I got a sense that these were books he’d collected and relegated to this lower tier. Still, I looked at many individually. I did shelf counts and multiplied. My numbers were much higher than Nelson’s. There was a great deal of personal material down there as well. A wine cellar—now much depleted. Old furniture and bric-a-brac. Things that had once been upstairs but had been displaced by new or maybe older and more valuable replacements. Framed items hung from the walls. Letters from Nixon addressed to Safire. Prints.
I was given a tour of the home. Safire had additional books in his office upstairs. His typewriter rested upon his desk like a loyal hound awaiting a master’s return that would never happen.
The books lining the walls of this smaller room were mostly more modern. I glanced at some. Each that I saw was inscribed—warmly—to a man of words. There were also a lot of books about words in all three collections. New and old dictionaries, thesauri, etymologies, forgotten terms…
The walls throughout the home were lined by framed photos and documents. Astronauts, presidents, politicians, awards. I was awestruck.
Downstairs near the front door there was a formal library containing more beautiful books.
But I was here for the basement. This was Mrs. Safire’s first step in letting things go. Many items had already been sent to Safire’s alma mater—Syracuse—to be archived for scholarly research. I did shelf counts again. I multiplied the number of shelves by the average number of books on each shelf. Numbers bounced around my head. I wanted these. Then there was all the other stuff down there. Big stacks of bound scrapbooks of his New York Times Columns. Boxes filled with…mysteries. Many items had tape on them:
“KEEP” | “DONATE”
Numbers kept bouncing around my head. And desire kept tugging in my chest.
I climbed up from the basement. A tradesman emerging from his task.
I asked if I could wander around once more.
The place was a kind of national monument. It felt like a museum.
I wondered who all had sat around the formal dining room table? Who had had cocktails and conversation in the living room? What books had he written in that office? Typing away on the manual typewriter because that was what he was used to.
I left with more numbers bouncing around my head. Numbers of books. Numbers of dollars. The number of times I would ever be in this kind of situation again.
A few days later, I asked if I could revisit. I wanted to see the books again. To be honest, I wanted to see everything again.
I had numbers in my head from the first visit. My high valuation. My low valuation.
I set up a return date.
I got permission first and then asked my older son to meet me. He had just graduated Stanford Law and had come back to live in DC. He is a history and political buff. I knew he would enjoy the immersion.
We toured the house. I made one last visit to the basement.
We left and had lunch at the nearby Le Chat Noir. That is an iconic French restaurant. It is just across the line in DC. There is no indoor dining in DC again. Makes perfect sense—if the plan is to put people out of business. While thousands and thousands have sat at home around here and been paid—there has been no relief offered to those who have shuttered by mandate. I hope they will survive the COVID closures. But back to the Safire collection…
July 13, 2018
It was a pleasure meeting you and Mrs. Safire. My son and I enjoyed seeing all the wonderful treasures in that house.
For the material in the basement I would offer $11,500.00 for everything not marked “Keep.” (We would also take the “Donate” material if that isn’t promised yet.)
Should anything be removed or the family decides to keep, please record that with photos so I can adjust my offer.
We would pay by upon pickup.
I estimate it would take us 3-4 hours to pack and remove everything. We can almost always schedule a mutually convenient weekday pickup within a week or two of your notice.
Wonder Book (and our branch called www.booksbythefoot.com ) specializes in placing ALL books to new homes. If a book is attractive but not for collectors or readers, we can usually offer to Interior Designers for display.
We can also place rare and collectible books. We are members of the ABAA—Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and have been vetted by them for quality, scholarship and ethics.
We have 3 brick and mortar retail stores in Maryland, but most of our sales are online. We have over 2 million books online on many selling sites in eluding Amazon, eBay, Amazon France, Amazon Germany, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Barnes and Noble…
If you have any questions, please feel free to email or call my cell—xxx-xxx-xxxx.
Please reply that you have received so I won’t be concerned it has gone astray.
I pushed Send and exhaled deeply.
My low offer had been $7000. My high $9000. My fingers, on their own volition, raised the bid to the number above. I guess they did not want to be overbid by some competitor.
The offer was accepted. We set a date in early August. I took a crew down in two vans and we all packed like crazy.
Mrs. Safire had agreed to let me include the non-book stuff that wasn’t marked “Keep” as well.
So, it took a second trip to get everything.
We brought everything back unloaded and put it on 7 or 8 pallets.
There they sat for over two years.
I didn’t know what to do with them.
I also hoped I would be able to buy the other books in the house.
That was so depressing. But I did get hold of a couple highlights from those that outbid me—the Bast****!
I’m kidding. I missed something.
When the upgrade to the WonderBook.com site was finished, I decided it was time. (The improvements took longer and cost much more that planned.) We had created a “Collector’s Corner” and I felt we could do justice to Mr. Safire’s books by listing them there.
I think we have begun to recover some of what we spent. Sales have been just ok for the Safire Collection we have added thus far. I have found some great things that had been lost—hidden in the basement. Some are so exotic I have put them aside…until I know what to do with them. There are still several pallets untouched. Maybe I will get into one this weekend and see what I find. If I do, you will likely hear about it in the next book story.
April is the cruelest month?
This gem arrived recently. The Waste Land.
Eliot’s poem is magnificent. Although, I like Prufrock better.
January 2021 has been the cruelest month I can remember. The country descended into madness after nearly a year of enslavement to a Plague and the often-draconian measures used in attempts to combat it. So far, we appear to be losing the battle. By all reports in the media, things are the worst ever—disease wise.
There is the vaccine which, when we are all shot, may save the day, the year, the… America’s doctor has a new opinion this week. Broadway shows may open late next fall! I’m guessing we will be masked, if so. I wonder if the performers will be masked? Doc isn’t opining there.
But he’s been right so far…occasionally.
I hope the vaccines work.
I’m not confident. Masks, distancing, closures, hiding in our homes apparently have not worked.
It is very difficult to believe in anything, to trust anything anymore.
When I go outside and water from the sky soaks me—I can assume it is raining.
Other things going on now are just as obvious.
January is the cruelest month.
Last weekend was the same as every weekend.
Carts, carts, carts…
A little archive of Thomas Edison came in amongst a load of mostly unexciting books.
Oddly, in a completely different group, I found another book about Edison. Signed by Edison!
Two early Robert Frost books of poems appeared too. They were first editions from the teens—the 19—teens. One has the first book appearance of “The Road Not Taken.” They’re not signed. No dust jackets. Still, it is nothing to sneeze at.
(NO SNEEZING! You might get canceled!)
But most of the carts held old books of no value. Those got sent back to the storerooms. A young man comes in on weekends. We pushed the carts back to the northwest corner of the building. I asked him to unload the carts. I pointed to a spot on the floor. There is no room on the shelves. The floors are filling up fast.
But we will keep taking them in. If we don’t, they’ll be sent to the…”Farm.” Plus, I need something to keep my weekends occupied.
When I got home Sunday from a weekend of books, I found my own collection of books was…a mess. After two steps forward, the homefront took a giant step back.
The master in charge of the project had decided the house needs more organization. Old books here. Modern books there. Folio society here.
Many things needed to be pulled off the shelves and piled onto the floor until a new layout is determined.
Maybe when everything is off the floor, I’ll actually be able to find things. I might need a map however.
Monday brought more headlines of madness. I’ve stopped looking at the “news” very much. Most of it is OpEd anyway. How can some these people look themselves in the mirror? Or the monitors? Zealots, I suppose.
Zealots don’t care about the means to an end.
I took a bunch of photos of “eye candy” for our One of a Kind at The Boutique. (Boy, that’s a mouthful.) Annika has gotten very adept at uploading them with descriptions.
That little group of French bindings is leaning, isn’t it? Bad photographer.
Each weekday, I went home a little early to plant bulbs. Hundreds and hundreds of bulbs. When it gets too dark to see, I stumble inside. An Old Fashioned comes first. Then I throw something wrapped in foil from the freezer into the oven to heat. Sometimes when I unwrap my meal, I am surprised by what I find inside. Sometimes I write on the foil. Sometimes I don’t.
While I’m waiting for the food to get hot, I have been typing old manuscripts onto the laptop while sitting in the bay window. I’ve done a lot of this in the past 10 months. There’s still a lot to do. Maybe it is an exercise in futility. But at least I’m trying. Last night, I found a single sheet from a yellow legal pad in the sprawling pile on the floor. At first, I wasn’t sure it was my writing. Undated it must be quite old.
It was about my dad.
“Angels. Angels and doctors hovered above my father’s head as he lay dead in the emergency room…”
People’s handwriting can dramatically change over time. Mine has.
We are meeting—virtually—with developers of a new Books by the Foot website. I’m being a bit dogmatic about the front-page design. Sometimes I know what I want. I go with my gut instincts. They’ve worked pretty well over the years.
If it sucks, I’ll take the blame and we can redo it.
We have revamped the Record Room in Gaithersburg. We’d let things slip. We’ve added more flip bins and did a lot of culling and rearranging. I hope you find some treasures. If you feel some are too high—sign up for our email list at WonderBook.com. We send out notifications when things are put on sale.
The cruelest month. Bizarre things will take place next week. Our Capital closed. Well, it has been mostly closed since last spring. So have many other cities. Plague and Protest.
Lady Gaga is involved. Nuff said?
Friday. January 15th.
Last night, I planted a LOT of bulbs. The end is in sight. Maybe just a thousand more or so.
There were some quirky things this week. Somehow two cases of Southern Comfort Egg Nog arrived with books in one of our vans. A mystery. It was expired. Rather than send them to the dumpster, I took them home and emptied the contents into a garden. There’s got to be some nutrients in it. Don’t worry—it was non-alcoholic, so no worms got tipsy.
Larry brought some wine from a house call. There was a bottle of Italian sparkling from 1961! Probably undrinkable. But still, it is a cool artifact.
That reminded me of the hoard I got some years ago from a book hoarder who also hoarded wine. That got stashed in a secret room here that was built as an office for postal police who could enter the building via a “Covert Entrance” (it’s true. I have the blueprints.) From there, there are secret paths where the entire building could be observed unobserved. I had Clif shelve them so I could store more stuff I don’t know what to do with in that room.
That’s probably all vinegar. It’s ok. Didn’t cost anything. But they are iconic.
Rain, grapes, soil, sun from when I was a very young man—all captured in bottles.
Wine is sunlight held together by water.Galileo
COVID has me getting in to many things at home I’ve long neglected. I have some boxes of printed manuscripts of early versions of these stories. They were on the floor in my bedroom for several years. I decided to move them into the closet. But the closet has a lot of stuff in it already. I decided to take the suitcases down to the cedar storeroom below. I won’t need them soon. My big rolling suitcase had stuff in it?!
When I unzipped it, I found a little time capsule from 11 months ago. My trip to the LA Rare Book Fair. That was the last in person book fair I attended. (And I think the penultimate live show in the US.) I never fully unpacked. I thought I’d be using that suitcase in March to go to the NY Antiquarian Book Fair—but I got scared off by Plagues and demons.
I found some trip ephemera. Some clothes—I wondered where those were. A couple books and a gift for a friend. I’d bought that at the Huntington after a day in the gardens, library and gardens. I’d forgotten what it was. I opened it.
Such a long, long time ago.