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[I had promised the second part of the Brooklyn Pilgrimage this week. That would cover the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair visit on Saturday, September 8th. But my editor is off this Friday, and I’m waiting on a few packages of books I got at the show to come in so they can be included. So “Brooklyn Concluded” will be next week.]
“My thoughts rush headlong; my words are confused and incoherent, but love knows not order.
— St Jerome
Every house call is different. I often enjoy them, but I can only do very few myself anymore. There are so many books backed up here at the 3-acre warehouse for me to triage. Going to most estates are more of a field trip, an escape, than a good business decision.
But sometimes something makes me feel I should go. Maybe I’m led to house calls I should go to by instinct. Could it be divine interference on occasion?
This one didn’t hook me right away. But as the communications evolved, I decided I should attend to this request. There was nearly a month of back-and-forth emails. Perhaps that helped me get “invested” in this collection.
Then hurricane Florence came along and nearly washed the plans away.
It began with a cold call email on August 17th:
“I am writing on behalf of my wife’s family. Her parents recently moved to Northern Virginia with many, many, many books that my father-in-law could not bear to part with. Sadly, my father-in-law passed away a few days ago and my mother-in-law seems willing to part with nearly all of his collection, which fills a large part of their apartment. I understand you may make ‘house calls’ for large collections (we haven’t counted, but we feel pretty certain this would hit the 1,000+ mark per your ‘house call threshold.’) In fact, I learned about you from a neighbor, whose mother was in the same situation. He told me how your store came out to the house and purchased his family’s large book collection.
Right now, dealing with the books is not the family’s highest priority, but in the coming weeks, we may be ready for this project, so I’m contacting you now to find out how it would work and to establish contact with you for when we’re ready. Thank you for your consideration.”
I replied I might be interested and please keep in touch. I’d forgotten all about it until a follow up came a few weeks later.
9/7 “…we are ready to discuss…”
I asked if he would describe the collection.
“The collection covers a wide range of things. There’s a sizable fiction collection, but also a lot of non-fiction. It’s hard for me to classify, but it includes a lot of books on social issues, biographies, science, etc. It’s really an eclectic assortment and covers books over decades, including contemporary publications.
Many of the books were unpacked after the move and are in bookshelves; many still remain packed in boxes. There are also DVDs and CDs, but the family hasn’t gone through those yet to determine if they want to keep any. For now, we are interested in selling the book collection.”
They sounded fine, but nothing to merit me going. I asked if he felt anything there might be collectible.
“With respect to ‘rare or collectible’:
We’re not aware of any specific books that we consider to be ‘rare’—that’s a judgment someone more knowledgeable could make. In the general collection, we are also not specifically aware of any that are collectible, but I think that it’s quite possible that someone else might find collectibles among the books. There is a very large assortment of books, many still boxed, and we can’t make a definitive assessment.”
He thought there might be about 40 boxes. Maybe a thousand books.
We exchanged more emails almost daily.
9/9, 9/10, 9/11, 9/12
He began to convey a sense of more urgency with each communication. His mother-in-law was “ready.” I sensed as time passed she was becoming anxious. That added some pressure for me to commit to it. At some point, he chose Friday the 14th of September. He said he could be present, and that was necessary because his mother-in-law could not handle it alone.
“Are you able to confirm the ‘house call’ on Friday morning, September 14, at 11am or later?
How do you normally determine your purchase value of the books if your seller does not identify any rare or collectible books?
I said “Ok.” Even though Fridays are often very busy here. Especially, if it is “Payroll Friday” when all the checks need to be delivered to all 3 stores. About 130 pay checks nowadays.
Then Hurricane Florence began heading toward the Atlantic Coast. On Wednesday, September 12, no one was sure where it would hit and in which direction it head. I replied:
“We are concerned about the weather and can’t commit at this time.
We will see what the forecast is tomorrow and Friday AM.
Please send your address and best phone contact.
My cell is 301 667 XXXX
Any approximation of how many books are NOT already boxed?
On Thursday, September 13, the forecast looked good for that day. But Florence was heading for the Carolinas, so Friday was still uncertain. I got a phone call from a woman early in the morning. She was asking about a house call. It took a little time, but I finally put her together with the man I’d exchanged a dozen or so emails with. She said she could be at her mother’s apartment around 11:30.
Coincidentally, I was having difficulty finishing the Blog story about the expedition to Brooklyn. I was seriously considering breaking the weekly streak of book stories started in July 2017. I thought if I went on this house call to Northern Virginia and had someone else drive the van, I’d have about two hours of uninterrupted travel time to try to pound a story out. I would sort of be “imprisoned” and could not avoid the task.
So things fell together. Providentially? It was perfect timing. The weather. The day of the week. The confinement to the van’s passenger seat to write. The urgent “good deed” that needed to be done. And I was in a mood for a field trip.
I emailed the husband to let him know we need not come Friday because we were going today:
I got a call from your wife and we are planning to come today 1145-12.
Shouldn’t take but 20-30 minutes.
I found Clif in the warehouse and said: “Let’s go! The collection is mostly boxed. Let’s grab an empty van, a couple hand trucks and leave.”
Everyone was happy. That is always a good thing.
It was a beautiful day. This spring and summer of near daily rain has been depressing. Fall was approaching, and this day the air was fresh and the day bright.
Clif headed us south to Leesburg, Virginia and then east paralleling the Potomac River.
I tapped away on my laptop trying to fill in all the iconic bookish experiences I’d had on my first day in Manhattan and Brooklyn just 6 days before.
Then the woman inside Clif’s phone announced: “You have arrived at your destination.”
We pulled into the drive of a very large newly constructed gated retirement community. We told the guard where we were going. She gave us a bright orange sheet to place on our dashboard. That was a combination map and pass.
The place was huge. Over 130 acres. The community had a kind of ring road about it. Each building in the main complex was named after a bird. Heron, Egret, Warbler, Quail… We were looking for the Chickadee building. Each building was virtually identical except for the species of bird it was named for. They were each 5 stories high. There had to be thousands of people living here. We pulled into a parking place in front of Chickadee. I called to let the daughter know we were there. A young woman with a toddler let us follow her in to the locked entry way. She had her grandmother with her, and they were returning from a shopping trip. The grandmother was in her 80s and shuffled along slowly. She was tiny and quite bent with arthritis.
Once inside, they turned left to the Heron. Clif and I turned right. We took the Chickadee elevator up to the 4th floor. We exited and in the hall near the elevators, there was a little sitting area. A couch, a couple side tables, a couple chairs and a coffee table. On that table was a jigsaw puzzle. It was there for anyone to work on as they sat or wandered by. Only the frame—the straight edged pieces had been assembled thus far.
We found the apartment, knocked and introduced ourselves.
In apartments we always reconnoiter the best way to get the books out to the van with the least amount of steps and lifting. We were told there was a parking garage below the first floor, and we could use the elevator to get down to that.
Clif departed to get the van and find the underground Chickadee entrance. He would then park close to the elevator we would be using. I stayed to survey the books in the apartment.
Indeed, almost all were boxed.
That’s when the daughter told me the story. In July, her parents had moved up from Georgia to be closer to her and her family. Her father had had a much larger book collection down south and had disposed of as many as he could part with down there.
“He got rid of thousands.”
The books in this little apartment were the ones he “could not bear to part with.”
A month after they moved in, he had a heart attack as he was exiting the swimming pool. He passed away instantly. He was 89.
Now his wife wanted the books removed. She had saved some on a 6-foot by 3-foot bookcase near the front door. It was loaded with some nice literature and history and biography and science. Heritage Press and Oxford and other university presses. There were some books I saw I would have liked to talk her out of keeping. Of course I kept my mouth shut.
(I’m sorry. I can’t help myself around books.)
The two of them led me further into the apartment. The master bedroom gaped open to my right. The king bed did not overwhelm that space. Straight ahead was the living room. A card table was set up with the chair facing out toward the sliding glass door to the balcony. The table was covered with a jigsaw puzzle. It still had a long way to go to be finished.
The connected dining and kitchen areas were to the left.
Then we sort of turned around. The wall from the front door jutted into the apartment. We rounded it, and they led me to a small second bedroom tucked in that nook along with a powder room.
It was then I saw the bibliomania. The husband had tried to turn the little room into an office. A desk with a computer monitor in the far corner was overshadowed by tall stacks of boxes. Big moving boxes. I had to enter the room sideways to survey the whole collection. And indeed, most of the books were boxed for us.
There was no way to get a hand truck around the tight corners and into the cramped room. So I began carrying the boxes out through to the front door and into the hallway. There I set them on the metal tongue of the two-wheeled cart.
The boxes were big and tall. They were almost all full-size UHaul moving boxes. A stack of four reached nearly to the top of the hand truck’s handle. I tilted the first load back toward me and rolled the cart to the elevator. There was a little man leaning over the jigsaw puzzle in the public area. He was bent in a chevron shape from side to side. Some kind of spinal issue I assumed. In the elevator, I pushed the Garage button, and the books and I dropped 5 stories. I exited the elevator into a small glassed-in lobby. I bumped the automatic door opener with my hip and the door swung open.
I rolled out into the brightly lit absurdly clean underground garage as Clif was pulling the van into the parking spot next to the elevator room.
A tiny old woman was berating a retirement center employee.
“You’re blocking my car! I can’t get out!”
“I’ll move it right away, Mrs. Rodgers.”
She was hunched over her walker. She was so small I wondered how she would be able to see over her steering wheel. Maybe a booster seat? Then I noticed many empty parking spaces had walkers or wheelchairs stored against the wall in front of them.
I tipped the stack of boxes at the tail of the van and slid the hand truck out from under.
Thus began about an hour of the two of us alternating trips up and down the Chickadee elevator shaft. Clif would roll his cart to the elevator. I would carry 4 boxes out into the hallway and then roll my cart to the elevator. Each trip took me down the hallway, around a corner, past the table and chairs with the jigsaw puzzle and onto the elevator. Coming up was the reverse.
The daughter repeatedly thanked me for doing this. Each load we removed was like a little burden taken off of her mother. Each time as soon as I left and before Clif returned, she and her mother would slip into the room. They would do some measuring and discuss how to make the space functional. When I returned, they would utter a little:
And they would exit the room so I could enter.
At some point, the chevron man disappeared. On a subsequent trip up from the garage, the elevator door opened, and I saw an elderly couple had seated themselves before the puzzle. They leaned close shoulder to shoulder. They were each trying to fit a piece in.
When the last full cartload was going down with Clif, I pulled out a check and knelt on the floor to write it out on the only remaining box.
“Thank you so much for doing this. It means a lot to us both. We’re glad my father’s books are going to be treated well.”
I took one more look into the little office. It seemed much bigger now. It could be an office and a spare bedroom now. I picked up the last box and passed the table with the jigsaw puzzle atop it. Sitting there, you could look out the glass doors at the identical building across the parking lot. I imagine many of the living rooms facing me had tables with jigsaw puzzles facing out into identical views.
Out in the hall, I set the box on the tongue of my hand truck. I tilted it back and started down the hall. Both women had followed me out and gave me fond waves farewell.
I sniffed the air, and the hallway smelled so “clean.” Painters were touching up the walls about 6 doors down. I couldn’t smell a thing. There must be a kind of scentless paint.
Everything about this place was in order. Everything was perfect. It bordered on sterile but struggled hard against that.
I passed the jigsaw puzzle across from the elevator. Now an elderly man was seated there hunched over the table. He held a puzzle piece between his thumb and forefinger. He was slowly waving it over the puzzle searching for a match to the innies and outies of the piece he held. It still appeared that only the frame—the edges—of the puzzle had been assembled. No visible progress had been made to fill the middle.
I hadn’t counted the boxes, but the van was very full.
The Wonder Book van rolled up the ramp of the underground garage. The massive steel door rose automatically as we approached. We were back out in the bright day. Clif headed west. In the passenger seat, I tapped away on my laptop. The woman inside Clif’s phone would occasionally offer directions until the route was so familiar that he switched her off.
I had only looked inside a few of the boxes while at the apartment. I didn’t need to. I had given them an estimate of what we would pay per box. The sellers didn’t expect much money. This was more of a service call.
Back at the warehouse, I had them unloaded. They filled 2 and a half pallets. That would be about 100 boxes.
I instructed that they be sent to a senior sorter, and I asked her to let me know if she found anything special. Friday got busy, although not with any Hurricane Florence business. None of the old man’s books got looked at.
On Saturday as so often happens, I found myself working alone in the warehouse. Alone but for Merry and Pippin—my two Jack Russell terriers.
At some point, curiosity got the better of me, and I went over to the pallets with the old man’s boxes atop them. I started lifting lids and withdrawing books. They were uniformly beautiful. Most were pretty modern but almost every one was in perfect condition with a pristine dust jacket. There were a good number of modern collectible authors. They ran the gamut from Patti Smith to Patricia Highsmith. There wasn’t a single book I wouldn’t have had on my shelves (if I had any room for modern books.)
He had taken a LOT of books from to Georgia to Virginia. He must have left a much larger home there if he had disposed of a lot of his book collection before leaving. Most he had not had time to remove from the boxes. It would have kind of been like putting a puzzle together. Where would they have all fit? Taking the books from their boxes and finding just the right spot on the shelves for them.
He HAD taken them with him as far as he could.
Now we will dismantle the remaining collection. His collection, his tapestry, his completed puzzle will be taken apart piece by piece. We will disperse the individual pieces to readers around the world. They will decide how each fits into their own tapestry. They will decide where the piece we sent them will fit in their collection.
Postscript: Order & Chaos
“Everything put together eventually comes apart.” – Paul Simon
I thought about the community I had visited. All the “bird” buildings were like enormous waiting rooms. Though all the residents had less time remaining than they had already spent, their time in those buildings was limitless. Day after day their routines were relatively unchanged. Time meant nothing. Thus all the jigsaw puzzles to help pass the time.
We bring in thousands of books here every week. Almost always they are in random boxes. We don’t know who or where they come from. We almost never know how these fit into people’s lives. What we do, our mission, is to do something good with them. We have pretty complex processes to get them to the best place possible; to find the best “fit” for them.
In some ways, this is an enormous puzzle. Random pieces come in aboard our vans. Puzzle masters work hard to get them in the right place.
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