Sole Survivor

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It was as much a horror story
as a house call. It was about 2008. A widow had called. She needed her
husband’s "bookstore" cleared out by the "end of the month"
– three days from now. (How many times have we been called at the last minute
by procrastinators? Plenty…and I completely understand and
sympathize…sometimes we can drop everything and do it. Sometimes we can’t.)

Pryor Editions was located in
the belowground lower level of a decrepit strip center on the border of
Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland. I’d never heard of him or
the business. I got the feeling he’d had a store or booths in antique malls
before retreating into this dismal building. And then, he passed away leaving
this dubious legacy. The space above Pryor was a pizza joint I would never have
entered to eat—or even use the restroom. When the widow unlocked and raised the
garage door of the space, I gasped internally. It was an ugly black cavern.
Parts of the ceiling and chunks of dirty-yellow insulation dangled many places.
Piles and stacks, collapses and sprawls of worn, dirty books were all over a
few tables and a desk as well as the floor. Whatever was beyond this front
layer was invisible in the darkness. The floor? I suppose there was one—there
had to be—but it was covered with books, papers, trash, boxes, and yucky, scary
"stuff." Most booksellers would have said "Thanks, but no
thanks" then turned and left. But we were there with two vans and three
guys plus me. We’d invested the time and fuel to get there. How long and how
hard could it possibly be to remove the books?

Plus the widow was there with
her toddler grandchild, looking a little forlorn. It was likely a case of
Wonder Book paying her a little or her paying junk men to clear it all out.

Plus…plus…there was that
niggling instinct thing was titillating me as it has so often in my book
career.

Jonathan Gash wrote a series of
cozy mysteries with a quirky, antique dealer as his protagonist. Lovejoy. That
character had a bit of "Divvie" (Google: divvie Jonathan Gash) in
him. If memory serves, in one instance he "divined" that a book in an
unopened package sent to him was "bad" and returned it…unopened.
(Was it a Milton first with a switched title page?) I dunno. These posts are
"memories" and memory is never perfect.

"Please. Take everything
you can."

Groan.

I made a deal and we began
packing. Likely I could have asked her to pay us. It was that awful. But I’ve
removed books from worse venues.

There had been leaks. Lots of
leaks. Some books were fused to the floor. Some stacks were fused together into
solid masses. I envisioned many or most of the boxes contained moldy tomes.

An ongoing buying philosophy
for Wonder Book has been to "take everything and sort it out back
home." Why? I found early on—on return visits—how many great things I’d
missed when I did the pick-and-choose buying so many other booksellers use.

We were dusty, dirty
booksellers at the end of that day. We did the widow a favor and removed much
of the "trash" as well.

Plus, Pryor had left some odd
junk, and we were told to take that as well. Some is still stuck here. Violins,
a fencing helmet, a flute, a painted Native American on an Elk scapula, cheap
African touristy wood carvings, a Jim Beam poodle bottle with a note attached "Do
Not Remove Head"… Fun, oddball, non-book stuff we sometimes take when the
situation warrants. That stuff is still here waiting for me to decide what to
do with it.

Back at the Wonder Book
warehouse, the sorting was tasked out. People here are trained to go through
raw collections separate the trash from the common and the special from the
common. Sure enough, some books appeared on a cart with my name on it: books
distilled to my level to decide what to do with them. There was a small run of
books signed by Supreme Court Justices Harlan I & II. Some checks signed by
George McClellan slipped out of one book. These few good things that stand out
in my memory from a risky buy. The sorters here would tell you it was a train
wreck of a buy. A wasted day for four guys. And hours and hours of triage with
most books beyond salvage being tossed into the recycling gaylords.

I did notice this book on a
cart and I felt compelled to pick it up for closer inspection.

I did some quick research online
looking for "comps" (comparables) to see what others were selling it
for. Was it a $40 book or $400?

I perused the usual selling
sites. Nothing. Odd…

I went to World Cat—a huge
database of books in university and other great libraries around the world.

Nothing.

I double checked my spelling
and did it all again.

Nothing.

Hmmm. That’s all the detective
work I had time for that day so I stuck it in my office with all the other
"problem" books. The stuff "I’ll get to one day."

Sometime later…a year? Two? It
came to hand again and this time I looked inside. It was very cool. City after
city. State after state. Listings of clubs and hotels and restaurants that
would offer friendly service to African Americans in those dark days. Photos of
Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstine, Lovey Lane… Some photos of dining
rooms and club interiors. Only a few ads. It is 80 pages and indexed.

I found some papers laid-in.
There were two carbon copies of letters the printer had sent the author. The
first in August 1949 asks the author/publisher John F. Cook Jr. to pick up and
pay for copies they are holding in storage. A second in October 1949 is a
little more pleading. It offers a discount if Mr. Cook would please come, pick
up and pay "at the earliest possible opportunity." Remember this is
the 1948 edition.

There are also several in house
documents from the printer detailing the costs of cutting and binding the
order.

The facts seem to end there.
Conjecture begins…

Am I missing something? Are
there other copies out there somewhere my cursory research has not revealed?

Or may I fantasize…Mr. Cook
had some misadventure and never returned for his books? Or perhaps had no money
and could only ignore the printer’s pleas?

Was the printer left holding
the bag (or the "book" as it were)? At some point, did the printer
give up and destroy the copies in storage retaining only this file copy?

And then Mr. Pryor had come
upon the book…somewhere?

And then, it had made it to my
attention amongst the thousands of other books in that hoard.

And now it was Wonder Book’s
responsibility. My responsibility.

Is this indeed the only extant
copy of the 1948 Annual [and only] Negro Travel Guide?

If I’m wrong and there are more
out there, well, I’m a bit embarrassed. But, all in all, ’tis better to have
dreamed and been disillusioned than never to have dreamt at all.

What’ll I do with it? Well, I’m
sort of attached to it. It has become part of the fabric here. But it is in a
safe place now. And, when the time comes…I know it will go someplace even
better.

When I was writing this blog, I
asked a colleague, Michael Osborne, to double-check my searches. He is a
scholarly bookseller and lives over in that direction. He remembered Pryor. A
tall, gangly, African American bookseller who pioneered selling books in
vending machines! Michael said Pryor had been a fixture in the book scene east and
north of D.C. for many years.

But as far as John F. Cook,
Jr.’s 1948 Negro Travel Guide, Michael found nothing at first.

Then later, he emailed, "I
found it!" On a hunch, he had checked the Library of Congress’ own online database, and the travel guide was listed there. Likely Cook had submitted a
"copyright" copy to the Library of Congress.

BUT the book is not listed in
the current OCLC/World Cat database. Is it lost? Did someone just omit
adding it when the paper "catalog" went digital? Or is it sitting on the shelf with its call number, TX907.N44, amid all the travel guides shelved under TX907?

Or did it wander? I’ve no time or desire to check. It
might spoil the fun and fantasy…

So…maybe I have one of two
extant copies. Or maybe…the sole survivor.

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