“I know where those came from!”
We get thousands of anonymous boxes of books in the Wonder Book warehouse each week. Each of the three stores can do thirty or more “buys” each day. A “buy” can be a handful of books or a pickup truck load or a box truck stuffed. They are brought to us by owners, heirs, house clearers, etc. They can also come in from house calls we do, deliveries brought to us, charity sale leftovers pickups…lots of ways. Most everything is unloaded from our vans at Dock 1 or 2 or by truck at Dock 6. (There are twenty-one loading docks here. Are we a “Book Port”? “The Port of Wonder.”) Boxes (and bags, milk crates, tubs…) are put on pallets to go to sorters. By that time, everything that comes in is usually mixed up. Boxes from a single source sold to us can be spread over many pallets and put in many different places.
Sometimes, if a collection is acquired that we know merits special, individual inspection, we will segregate it and label the boxes so they don’t go into the mix. Those get looked through by folks here with higher levels of experience and training.
It almost never matters if buys from one source get separated. The way we sort books doesn’t rely on subjects or authors or genres being kept together.
Our Internet stock is perfectly organized—in cyberspace—but on the shelves, the order looks pretty random. When we box books for the stores, they are also usually filled with mixed types.
So it was a surprise when I walked past a sorter’s station and noticed something untoward. There are four sorting stations here. I don’t make a habit of looking into unsorted pallets.
What caught my eye and stopped me in my place was a box of mass market paperback copies of Gone with the Wind. Many of them with identical covers.
After 37 years, I’m used to seeing books we’ve sold come back. On occasion, I’ll recognize a group of books and be able to place a name or face with them. Often they’ll still have our price sticker on them.
The “92” on this sticker is a date code. It means this book was priced in September of 1992.
“The Gone with the Wind lady…” I thought.
Then a gentle wave of sentimental sadness passed through me.
It was so long ago. The 1980s and 1990s. I worked in the stores until about 2003 when it became clear I should move my headquarters to the warehouse and dedicate time to global Internet bookselling. That’s where most of the action was. That’s where I was needed. The retail stores were in decline at that time.
But the store years were mostly happy. We usually had steady growth. Every couple years we would expand or open a new location or move somewhere better. It was fun buying and selling in person with customers on a daily basis.
The memory of many regular customers whose names and tastes I’d known has faded. I’ve known when or where some have gone via the newspaper or word from friends or their heirs reaching out to dispose of their books.
“What was her name?” I mused.
I recalled it was a memorable name but couldn’t bring it up. SHE was certainly memorable. Well dressed, classy, outgoing. She had come in regularly for years. She would buy anything and everything GWTW.
(We booksellers often used shorthand abbreviations then. Gone with the Wind was GWTW. TKAM was To Kill a Mockingbird. Why? It sped up cataloging I guess. Made sense at the time.)
EVERYTHING! Including duplicates. Or “near” duplicates.
I recall her coming to the counter with shopping basket full of various GWTW editions.
“Is this on a school reading list?” I probably asked.
“No. I collect Gone with the Wind.”
She had five or six copies of the same paperback.
“But these are the same book.”
“No. They are all different printings.”
She produced a notebook and showed me the page that listed this particular paperback edition. There was a vertical column beginning with 1 then 2, 3 and so on trailing to the bottom of the page. A number of the numbers had check marks next to them.
The only difference in the little stack of paperbacks before was the printing number printed on the copyright page.
“Hmm…weird,” I thought.
“I have the same affliction—only different,” I thought. “Or is it a blessing?”
After a number of visits, I got to know her a bit. I’d put things aside I thought might be remotely tied into the book or movie or author or…
I remember her husband was always accompanying her. He was quiet. He was patient. Maybe amused as well. His partner had a “Gentle Madness.” She could have had worse penchants.
Back to 2017… After I saw her GWTW mass market paperbacks, I told the other five or six sorters to keep and eye out, and if they ran into seams or veins or GWTW stuff in their book mining, to put them on a cart for me.
I’ll never know if I missed much of her collection. If a bunch of GWTW got sorted prior to my discovery and sent to the Internet or to the stores. I may not know if they sort any more. At some point, they will forget the little flag I put out. It may be months…or years, and her books could appear from a pallet that was put aside or rolled onto a trailer because other incoming collections needed space.
But we caught this much. So far.
And these take me back to that time on black-and-white linoleum floors. The store floor was (and is) like a vast checkerboard. Days and nights under often humming, four-bulb, 2’x4′, fluorescent light fixtures. The carefully selected “Store Play” music always playing—not too loud—for ambience. (“Good music keeps people comfortable. They shop longer and may buy more books.”)
And they take me back to that quirky customer and those times when collectors would go from town to town. They would often check the yellow pages in the local telephone book to see where the books stores were. The feeling of success a collector and the bookseller would have when the customer would bring a book to the counter and say, “I’ve been looking for this for years!”
Success. A match made in the aisles.
“Beware the man of one book” is a quote attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. “Hominem unius libri timeo.” It is easy for moderns to interpret those words as a caution against the person whose scope is limited. But the phrase can also mean you cannot debate someone who has mastered a single subject. Heady stuff.
A notebook appeared on one of “my” carts. She’d had an exhibition of her collection at a regional museum. Her name and a list of every item she’d loaned them filled ten pages. Each item had a value next to it. For insurance purposes I guess.
“Bryweag”! Welsh? Certainly Celtic. What a beautiful name I remember thinking then.
What beautiful memory I’m having now.
I don’t know why we’ve gotten this collection. I’d rather not know. It’s rarely good news when someone gives up a lifelong, focused collection. Almost certainly they were brought to one of the stores and sold to us at the back of the van there to load the boxes we buy as they come in.
Why did she collect GWTW? That book had a cult-like following for a couple generations. The movie did as well. Much like Star Wars now. The movie and book were as interconnected as To Kill a Mockingbird ‘s were a quarter century later.
Now…not so much. GWTW has lost a lot of its appeal to younger generations. Times change. Tastes change. Generations move on. New generations find new attractions to attach themselves through—for life.
Sometimes the touch of a single book can take you to a time and a place beyond its words and author and printing history.
Why did I stumble across that box amongst all the thousands of others that come and go through this three-acre building constantly churning some four million books?
Fate? Serendipity? Luck?
Whatever… I’m so glad I did. Distant memories and good times were brought back in laser focus. All because of one “book” and one passion.
No. She had fun. I had fun.
Ok, ok. In a week or two…or in a month, I’ll release the GWTW carts. I’ll have given up finding any more. They will go online or to the stores.
But I’ll remember Bryweag. Her mission. Her search. Her hobby and diversion. And her “book.” And all the books and things she found over the years about her “book.”
And now you will as well.
May you find your passion. Bryweag did. I have. All because of books.
Whoever sold us these had a different fixation…
What’ll we do with these???