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Our triage (or sorting) processes here are quite complicated (and Top Secret—so don’t ask!)
But part of it involves looking inside every book we try to put online. We look primarily for "problems"—torn or missing pages, stains…bad stuff. This also leads to discoveries of good things. We get hundreds of "signed" books every week.
Unfortunately, most autographs don’t enhance the value of very low value books. Occasionally, actually quite often, we do get good, sometimes great, autographs and inscriptions.
I usually just walk past the autograph carts with barely a glance. Other folks here triage those, and then if they find special or problematic autographs, they pass them on to me. I then decide their fate. Are they worth sending to Research to put a studied value on them? Or just add them online at WonderBook.com (and the many other sites we list on) and let the software determine a price compared to similar books? Our Frederick store has fifty or so glass showcases. Is it exciting and attractive enough to go there instead? Sometimes I’ll just put it aside in a safe place until the right circumstances come along.
Yes. I specialize in "Problem Books," the tough ones no one else here feels comfortable making a final decision on. They are put on 3-foot, 3-shelf book carts labeled with my name printed on blue slips and placed inside books on either side. Those "Problem Books" carts can be exciting and great fun. They can also be frustrating and stressful (see the next post "Handselling Sundays.")
So, why did these two books catch my eye as I passed a random autograph cart with maybe 200 other books on it—each sporting a little, white, “Signed” slip extending from its top edge?
Unusual bindings? Maybe?
Because there were two identical books together? Could be.
Maybe that pesky "Book Muse" that has dogged me all these years gave me a little nudge, "Hey! Pull those off the cart, Book Boy!"
(My "Muse"…I’ve written hundreds of pages about her. It’s kind of private, and I don’t want people thinking I’m crazy, but maybe I’ll write more about her in a future blog here.)
I’d never heard of Conger Metcalf before. Also, I’d rarely seen any Boston Athenaeum publications. I transferred them onto a "Chuck" cart along with other books and "stuff" I’d examine more closely in the future.
A day or week or months later, I took them into the conference room with a stack of other books I felt I should study and set them all on the 12 foot table.
I opened one to the title page and looked at the autograph. Then I opened the next one and did the same. Both were warmly inscribed on the title page. Each also had a big heart drawn w a flourish.
One inscription read, "For my treasured friends Maurene and Richard with my fondest best wishes always Conger 5/16/90" The other, "For Maurene on her Birthday with my love. Conger 7/15/91"
"Hmmm…nice…I wonder why he inscribed 2 books to her?"
But it was nothing thrilling. I flipped through the pages of Metcalf’s works. Nice. His style is kind of romantic and evocative. I searched online and saw a few other copies signed, and they were pretty inexpensive -$35-$90.
I closed them up and was going to send them to data entry at $50 each. I felt the heart "doodle" enhanced their value some.
But something gave me second thoughts. Had I missed something? Did I see something?
"Look again, Book Boy."
I opened them again. This time side by side.
Was there a difference between the two?
Wait! One of these has a blank page opposite the title page. One has an image printed on it. That IS odd!
Wait…both books are inscribed to Maurene. The color image opposite the title page has "Maurene" underneath it as well.
That got me focused. I look at a thousand or three thousand books a day. Rarely does one get me to stop and zoom in closely.
This was no printed image. Nor was this the cursory drawing many artists/illustrators frequently sketch on books they autograph for friends or acquaintances. This was a fully executed work of art.
It was a portrait of Maurene. And above the portrait, Metcalf had executed a pinkish white flower. "A Rose for Maurene"
So many books tell us stories beyond the words on the pages. Do these two books tell two stories? I speculated this and that. Metcalf would have been about 77 years old in 1991. He passed away in 98. I have no idea who Maurene and Richard are or were.
What story do these books tell you?
Where did the books come from? They could have been brought to our stores. Each of our three stores often make thirty or more "buys" every day. 363 days a year. Or maybe they were picked up as leftovers from a charity sale. We also do house calls, and send scouts to many estates.
When did they come in? Again, we don’t know. Some collections linger unlooked at for months or years before we get to sort through them.
Luck. Serendipity. Instinct…whatever…we found it and saved it from oblivion.
Or it could be someone told me look at the books again? This time more closely.
"We are not amused…"
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