A Bridge Too Much
I’ve written before that because of the wide net we cast for books, some collections—well most collections—arrive anonymously. We unpack many of our seven vans and one box truck every day. Boxes are set on pallets, stacked as best we can. The pallets get taken and placed wherever we can find some space for them. A box we bought in Hagerstown yesterday may get looked at in the Frederick warehouse today…or next year.
A couple months ago, a few of the sorters starting seeing a lot of bridge books. A LOT. “Bridge” the card game not the structure. More and more appeared. A lot of them were pretty old, and many were unusual titles I had never seen before.
I came up with the bright idea of perhaps creating a catalog of just bridge titles or perhaps seeing if a specialist bookselling colleague might want to place them en masse with an institution.
“Start putting any of them without barcodes aside until we feel like we’ve sorted the entire collection,” I sagely advised.
More and more got put on a cart. That cart got filled. Carts have 6 shelves. Each is 3 feet wide. 18 linear feet of bridge books per cart. We started another. That filled up.
Who knew there were SO MANY books on bridge?
Growing up I recalled bridge was kind of a cult for many of the neighbors—contemporaries of my parents and people even older. My parents didn’t play, but plenty of my friends’ parents had bridge parties. Sometimes their living rooms would have just one square card table with four chairs for this special evening. Card tables were almost always wooden with legs that could be folded in so the table could be stored flat in a closet. The chairs folded up as well. Sometimes if it was a bridge event in a home, there could be 4 or more tables precisely set up. Neat decorative tablecloths would be spread over them. It was a party—albeit a pretty tame and quiet party.
When I was a teen, a friend’s parents tried to teach me and their son the game. It was pretty complex, but we soldiered along. Then other more exciting ventures made us reluctant bridge partners. We became seldom available for the older couple’s quiet evenings of bidding and trumping.
One of my favorite fictional characters, Horatio Hornblower, was a very avid whist player. Whist is a kind of intellectual card game that was an 18th and 19th century precursor of the bridge we know today. I imagine the books’ author, C. S. Forester, was likely a serious card player for him to give the game such a prominent place in his hero’s life. For some reason, I recall Omar Sharif (the actor who starred as Dr. Zhivago among other roles) was highly ranked global bridge expert.
Why isn’t bridge played so much in the suburbs nowadays?
It could be because it is hard to get 4 people to come together and sit still for a few hours. Imagine not looking at your phone and ignoring texts from friends, the kids and others on an evening. It is kind of sad. That kind of quiet cerebral camaraderie seems antiquated in today’s frenzied pace. There are just so many things tugging at our time. So many entertainments that don’t involve actually sitting quietly with people talking, thinking and…bonding.
Guilty as charged.
Back to work…
I didn’t want to have that many carts tied up for who knows how long. We always need empty carts. So, I had the carts emptied into a giant cube of books on the floor. There they sat while more and more bridge books were added on. But many of the books slipped through and were added online as random one-off bridge books. Some sorters were forgetful, and the process continued for many weeks.
I felt guilty allowing bits of the collection to slip away. I often do that—feel guilty about many things. Nature or nurture?
Today after some months I surrendered. I passed by and looked down at the massive pile and gave up. I apologize to the anonymous collector who put these all together. I wish we had known they were coming. If we’d been able to keep this buy all in one place or if we’d made a house call and segregated the lot, we could have maybe placed this incredible accumulation of obscure card game books somewhere as a lot. But selling them as a lot; an archive was a long shot.
What the book collector puts together let no bookseller take asunder?
So many had leaked out…I’d seen them here and there. They were added to our online stock randomly and shelved amongst books of other subjects throughout our sprawling warehouse.
“Put this pile of books on carts, and put my name on them,” I instructed one of the warehousemen this morning.
It was four full carts and most of a fifth. I rolled them to a senior data entry manager. I instructed him:
“Make these ALL go online. If they are Not in System*, then create* them at a fixed priced $xx.xx—to start.”
* Not in System: Items not already in Amazon’s online catalog.
* Creating: Adding Not in System items to Amazon’s catalog.
I thought to myself: “This is the best I can do with all the work you did collecting these, bridgewoman (or bridgeman.) Your books will get a good chance. You did an amazing job bringing them all together. I failed in some ways breaking them up. But at least they will ALL get a shot. One at a time. If there is a market for exotic bridge in the world markets, they will be there on offer. Then maybe they will end up with fellow bridge aficionados. Your books will not be pulped as they almost certainly would have been had they been donated to a charity. Even a very large and good library or school sale would have looked at this weird pile askance. Would they have devoted several precious tables to them in hopes a bridge nut would wander in the weekend of the sale and scoop some, many or all of them up? I doubt it. We took them ALL, and we are doing something with each of them. This was the second best result they could have found. I’m a little proud of that. We will offer them on numerous selling platforms for a few years at least. We will incrementally reduce their selling prices in hopes of moving those that don’t sell sooner so that they might sell later—at a lower price.”
“Chuck, the new sorter found a bunch of Hollywood autographs!” a senior sorter told me at the end of the day as she was about to punch out. “She put them on a Chuck cart.”
“Cool!” I replied to her back rapidly walking into the distance.
I wandered to the new sorter’s station. There was a full “Chuck” cart. It was almost all very old cloth and leather books. I quickly scanned the 6 shelves of books set spine out on the metal cart. I saw no Hollywood titles. Another cart with a blue “Chuck” slip of paper set on it just had one small pile of scruffy pamphlety looking things on them. I was expecting Hollywood biographies with their title pages or endpapers inscribed.
I texted the senior sorter: “Hollywood?”
“Autograph books. Little ones,” she replied.
“Aaaahhh…” I went to the cart with almost nothing on it and lifted the first sad little folder. I carefully opened it: “Hope, Crosby, Spencer Tracy, Ish Kabibble, Kay Kyser…” Tiny page after tiny page with a signature and usually, a newspaper clipping of the autographer’s head pasted next to it. The second, third and fourth autograph books were also filled with famous and not so famous celebrities.
Where had these come from? No idea. But the wide net we cast and our meticulous sorting formulas had caught them. Oblivion would not be their fate. Externally, they were sad little unobtrusive things that would have likely been tossed had the new sorter not had a Hollywood bent.
We get a fair amount of autograph books. Most are from school kids. A classmate would scribble a bit of doggerel and write their name and a date below it. Or they would scrawl a witticism like: “Remember me til Niagara Falls.” Hahaha…
What will I do with all the Hollywood autographs? I’ll curate them in my office. Safe behind locked glass doors until…
I decide to reenter the show circuit? Or I figure out a good way to move them along to a better place.
Leafing through them, I found this little cluster of autograph books was enhanced! Serendipity! There’s a photo of the autograph hound as a young girl. Most likely a bobby-soxer. She spent hours, days hanging outside stage doors at concert or theater venues hoping a star would emerge. She would beg, plead, cajole…. “Miss Hepburn!” “Mr. Tracy!” … How many hours haunting stage doors had she spent getting these books filled?
The star could sign the little book for the plain young teen or not.
It was her hobby. Her avocation. Her way of capturing time and fame on a slip of paper in a small book.
Her picture (along with its negative) tells the story. She’s at a stage door with a few other girls. Spencer Tracy in his prime is among them. He stops his exit—maybe to a grand dinner and party and other stars for a moment and scrawls his name in their tiny books. Their calls capture him. He is polite. Most people were in those days. I see no security or bodyguards in the photo. It was a duty to the fans. A duty to maintain celebrity.
When he had signed all the books, then he could leave the teen girls at the stage door and go meet up with Hepburn or Edward G Robinson or maybe a sexy showgirl or…who knows? I don’t. I just have a photo and a few booklets and a few moments to speculate.
It’s lucky catches like these that make the drudgery of wading through so many thousands and thousands of more common and uninspiring books all worthwhile.
I’m glad we rescued these. I wonder how many things slip through here? Not many I’ll wager.
How many get tossed aside by organizations whose volunteers don’t understand old books and see these things as old scruffy problems…that “don’t sell”?
This long ago young girl’s hobby reminded me of an autograph album I acquired decades ago. And I knew just where to find it in my office. I recall Lawrence Spivak as a precursor to modern TV newspeople. He was in the Lowell Thomas pre-TV generation. Yet, he was the founder and host of the Meet the Press show. Sometime in the early 1990s some of his books came up for sale at Waverly Auction. The sale was located in Bethesda MD in those days. I tried to attend every auction. I had started buying very little. I couldn’t afford it. But I learned by observing how and what more experienced booksellers and collectors bought. As the years progressed, I would buy more and more—especially the bulky shelf lots where amongst the common but good stock there would almost always be a sleeper or two.
In Spivak’s collection, there was a green leather-bound guestbook listed for sale. This had been used in another news interview show he moderated called The Big Issue. Each page had a handwritten heading which was the title of that week’s show. Below that would be autographs of people appearing in the show. When I leafed through the book, I was astounded. It was a veritable Who’s Who of 1950 political figures. Future presidents Kennedy, Nixon, LBJ AND Gerald Ford had all written their names in numerous times. Iconic figures like Joe McCarthy, Russell Long, Sam Rayburn…
Some of the shows had serious subjects:
“What can Labor expect from the Republicans?”
Some were not:
“Should TV broadcast more than one college football game televised per week?”
I’d never see that show. It was broadcast before I was born. But I remember watching black and white episodes of Meet the Press with my dad.
That book struck me as a significant exemplar of 1950s political history. I fought hard bidding to get it. In those days, I usually sat in the front where I could make eye contact with the auctioneer. He knew me from years of bidding there. I could bid just by raising an eyebrow. If I wanted to drop out of the contest, I only had to tilt my head down and look at the auction catalog in my lap. No one else in the room could tell it was me bidding.
This autograph book ended up costing me a lot of money. But I considered it an investment for the future. I bought it and saved it and have it still. It is cool to own a document that so many famous people of the Cold War years touched.
Books take you places. This autograph book takes me back to a frightening time of history. The McCarthy Hearings, the threat of Nuclear Holocaust. It was also a golden age. The Postwar calm and security of the 50s and 60s… It also takes me back to when I was a young bookseller starting to come into my own. Gaining confidence and earning enough money so that I could buy things like this.