Just Another House Call—Maybe…

Basement Library

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January 31, 2018. The end of the month. It is bright calm, cold day. Last night was the Super Blue Blood Moon. Sounds cosmic. Almost apocalyptic.

And last night was certainly striking and stressful. The full moon in a cloudless sky reflecting on the snow-covered mountain where I live made for a brilliant icy bright night. There are no neighbors so there’s no need for curtains. The bedroom was fully illuminated. Looking out into the forest and down the mountain slope from my pillow the scene was familiar but bizarre. The only tones were black and white but the scene was virtually daylit. It was a bleached white landscape outside. Inside it was eerily bright white light as well. Cold, lifeless light.

I could have gone out and planted more Narcissi as I did the day before had the ground not frozen solid again. I’d fallen so far behind on the planting. The long brutal single digit snap of December and early January meant hundreds of flower bulbs I’d bought in the fall are still waiting in cold storage.

What does this have to do with books and a house call?

My astrological sign is Cancer. My ruling planet is the Moon. I don’t really believe in that stuff but…well, I was in a sleepless, depressing funk of a mood all night and it carried into today.

Lonely Mountain—my dream house. Acres of forest and mountain land. Not a living soul or artificial light anywhere near. Almost all my pets have borne Tolkien names. My current creatures—two Jack Russells, Merry & Pippin—often appear in the Wonder Book, Books By the Foot and personal Instagram photos and videos. Well, Lonely Mountain if not an eponym is aptly named.

I wonder what tonight will bring? The moon will still be 98% full.

I did get a good deal of writing done in that sleepless "daytime" night. I’m working on Treesong—a story about a lovely magic Beech that is kind of a tree spirit and can…

"Ahem!"

Uh oh, she’s back! That would be my Book Muse. She appears (well, doesn’t actually "appear") from time to time. She usually has some advice or caution to offer. It usually turns out ok.

"Usually?!"

Umm, she’s always right eventually.

"AHEM!"

"Was I rambling?"

"Do yer bear neighbors do it in the woods?"

"Ummm… I suppose they must. And they tear up my bird feeders if I forget to take them down by Easter."

"Welllll?"

"I was rambling, wasn’t I. Just trying to set the mood a bit."

"It’s set! Any more ‘setting’ and whoever’s looking at this will be snoring or heading for the exit."

"Ok…ok. And about tonight: If a bookseller howls at the full moon in the forest and there’s no one around to hear does he make a sound?"

"Eedjit!"

"Not funny?"

"I’m off! Lots o’ luck on this one. Ta!"

So, after a mostly sleepless night, I was in no shape to perform my usual duties here at the 3 acre warehouse. Also, I was at a kind of loss as to what this week’s blog should be. I have about a half dozen started. I have hundreds of pages of old stories I’ve written in the last couple decades that I could rework.

I got in about 8 am and went to my office. My phone messages are taped on the door jamb there. That way I’ll see them each time I walk by. My sad desk is a hopeless pile of paper. Paper and words are everywhere in this building. Everywhere! The door jamb to my office has a high profile prominence. I can’t miss any messages hung there.

One of about a dozen caught my eye. "7000 books and vinyl. Potomac."

Potomac, Maryland!

That is one of the wealthiest and most literate areas in this incredibly wealthy and literate District of Columbia region.

I’d made an "urgent" house call down there a week ago. (Urgent almost always means "by the end of the month"—THIS month.) That call had been to a fabulous sprawling mansion. Indoor basketball court, a full size vintage airplane suspended from the ceiling above the sunken pool room, spiral staircases…you get the picture. The books were just ok. I guess they were keeping most of them for the Bethesda condo and place on "The Bay" they were downsizing to.

Still, the books were good. I did a get a dozen or so they’d purchased from the Sotheby’s Jackie Kennedy Sale. Only one was signed: "To Jackie…" but all of them had Sotheby stickers attached attesting that they had come from her estate. I also got some neat prints and paintings and knick knacks as well. But in this case the house was far better than the books.


I made the call for the new buy down that way. It was the estate of a deceased economist, a PhD, Harvard… I was speaking with the daughter handling it. She was there today. I was in the mood to "get outta Dodge."

"I can be there in half an hour."

This house was in a humbler part of Potomac, but even still these homes go for lots of money.


7000 books…you can’t go wrong right?

The home was mostly empty except for the books. Why is it the books are so often amongst the last things to go? Inertia? Or is there something else? I know many real estate stagers want most or all the books gone if the home is going to be listed furnished. They prefer the spare "Japanese" look. But it seems uncannily often when we get there, most everything else has already been disposed of—but the books in piles, boxes, on shelves…

Jan, the daughter, led me through room after room. Most had some books in them. She told me the family story as we toured. One of the pleasures in doing house calls is getting behind so many strangers’ front doors and discovering how they live. In this case "lived." She was one five sisters. She’d grown up in Chevy Chase about the same time that I was in school Montgomery County. Her Dad had transferred her and another sister to the tiny historic exclusive Emerson Prep in DC after they’d experience some severe bullying at public school. Coincidentally she reminisced, her maternal great-great-grandfather had attended there during the Civil War. His father was, Israel Carle Woodruff, Brevet General in the Army Corp of Engineers. Father and son helped feed the troops when they were stationed on the Mall for the defense of Washington. The boy played with the Lincoln children. He grew up to be a noted architect and designed a number of historic lighthouses—Edward Lowry Woodruff.

Wow! I love this kind of stuff.

But there was something wrong. Room after room of books. A basement full of books. Books in the garage.


But I saw nothing exciting. The books were good, but there’s always something that jumps out.

7000 books and nothing exciting?

She got busy with a sister, and I was left to my own devices. I wandered from room to room. It is always a little strange and somewhat exciting to have permission to poke through other people’s stuff and experience how they lived privately. I retraced the tour I had been given. I looked more closely at the books on the shelves in each room. The basement. The garage.

History. Literature. Politics…solid stock but nothing intriguing.

Frustrating.

I gave up on the books and began looking at other stuff. There were some framed things on the floor leaning against walls in a number of rooms.


Signed Wallace Nutting prints. His books and prints had been sure sales in the old days. The books in his state series (Pennsylvania Beautiful, Vermont Beautiful, Massachusetts Beautiful…) were always quick flips in their handsome uniform green buckram bindings. His 3 volume Furniture Treasury was considered a must have for any antique collector or dealer. It was an automatic $125 whenever I came across one. Now all his books languish in the stores or sell slowly, if at all, for very little money online. He was also an accomplished furniture maker. His work of finding, photographing and recreating early American furniture caused what was called the Colonial Revival Style.

Well, maybe there will be a Wallace Nutting Revival. I put them aside to make an offer.

I peeped into a closet and there was a rack of ties.


"I can sell those at the stores!" I thought. "Something different."

I must be crazy…or a "junker" sometimes. Still, they were kind of cool. Some were campy. There were some good classic labels like Yves St Laurent, Haband… There’s a Harvard logo tie! I could wear that and pretend…why not? The books had bored me to desperate distraction.

I gathered them up and tossed them on a bed.

I picked some other odds and ends and then decided to take one last walk through. In the basement there were about 10 old metal 5-drawer filing cabinets. I tracked Jan down and asked if I could look in them.

"Did your Dad collect brochures or flyers?"

That kind of ephemera can be fun and valuable. A lot of guys from his generation would save and file travel brochures or stuff like car dealer showroom advertising flyers. Maps. Anything old and printed can likely find a new home with collectors or specialist dealers.

"Yes. There was a lot of that stuff but one of my sisters threw all that away."

Groan!

"But you’re welcome to look at them."

I pulled out drawer after drawer. File folders of bills and statements and…nothing…

Well, I’d had enough fun. I walked through with Jan and made offers on this and that. She agreed to all of it and tallied each number I spoke on the back of an envelope.

The books… it would be a major project to pack and haul away all of them. We wouldn’t miss anything if I passed on them. But I couldn’t.

She accepted that offer as well.

A lot of books were in boxes. Maybe there will be some sleepers packed away.

And there would be a good number of "vintage" forgotten authors appropriate for Books By the Foot since no one reads or collects them anymore.


I told her we’d be back with the truck within a week. I asked if it would be ok if I took some of the odd items with me.

"Sure. I know where to find you!" she spoke with a smile. "I was surprised and quite happy when I found it was actually you who came."

Awww, am I a local biblio celebrity? Maybe if you have enough longevity…

"If you think of anything that your Dad had that might be interesting to scholars or collectors let me know."

"We do have a little box of letters and photos from another great-great-grandfather when he was a prisoner at Andersonville during the Civil War."

!!!!! {cue the screeching brakes sound effect}

"May I see them?"

"They’re here somewhere, I think. Unless one of my sisters took them. He was only 19 years old. You know so many of the Union POWs died of starvation and dysentery. The only water they had was sewage. Once he was leading a prayer session and a bolt of lightning struck the ground. A spring of water opened up right on that spot."

"Why…that’s absolutely Biblical."

"Yes. He was there for 440 days before he was released at Christmas and put on a train. He was only 70 pounds when his uncle met the train in Washington and had him carried home. But he recovered and lived to raise 9 children."

"That could be wonderful. And important!" I stammered. "If the family doesn’t want to keep the material, it could be very valuable. I have colleagues that could get it placed in a university archive for posterity. They would be safe and scholars could learn from them."

"I’ll try to find them. I think they should be saved."

As I was walking out, I noticed a 3 foot tall wooden African sculpture. I could tell it was old by the cracking and splitting in the little man. It was most likely just a tourist carving. But…why not?

"Would you like an offer not that?"

"Oh THAT! It always sort of spooked me when I’d walk by. I would see it out of the corner of my eye and think there was a little boy in the house."

So, I carried the statue and the ties and the prints out to the van. I asked her to take a picture of me with my booty. Why? I dunno. I never like pictures of myself…but why not?


Must’ve been the Blue Blood Super Moon that made me do it.

I called the next day to set up a time to come get the books. We chatted a bit about her ancestors and father and family.

"Let me know if you find those letters. And if you come across anything you think might be interesting in those filing cabinets, let me know."

"You know, my Dad was high up in the Department of Transportation and other agencies. We were never sure he wasn’t a spy. He was involved with the Panama Canal. He had saved all this stuff and he was going to write books—expose’s."

"Do you think…"

"I think one of my sisters tossed that stuff out…"


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