If you missed it, read Part 10 here.
“There are too many customers nowadays,” Sally grumbled. “I can’t get anything done with these people coming in all the time.”
“Ummmm…you’re saying the customers are getting in our way?” the bookseller replied.
“Well, you know what I mean. And…and…so many of them are just such, I don’t know, amateurs,” she stammered.
“Sally, people have to learn about good books somewhere. We’ve been an entry-level bookstore since the beginning. I was an entry-level bookseller when we first met.”
“It’s that trailer, that trailer that Althea painted. It’s like a giant billboard…”
“It is stunning, isn’t it? She made look like a medieval fresco. It seems there’s always someone taking selfies in front of it. How you could make a steel box with seams and rivets look like an Italian basilica or something…” the bookseller was speaking to himself as much as Sally, and his voice and thoughts trailed off.
“And the construction with the noise and dust…” she grumbled.
“You gotta break some eggs to make an omelet. And you were all in on the expansion. I was perfectly happy…”
“Just puttering along…buy a book, sell a book…buy a hundred books and sell 17 of them…buy a book…”
“The buying has always been the most fun.”
“Excuse me!” A young man was leaning across the counter behind which the bookseller and Sally were standing. “I have a question about this book.”
He was holding a small blue hardcover in both hands as if presenting it to them.
“Oh, Mary Poppins Opens the Door. That’s a nice copy, isn’t it?”
“The price inside says $1.75, and you’re asking $75.00 for it.”
Sally started to utter a groan. The bookseller thought she might increase its volume and derisiveness. He nudged her shoulder gently with his elbow.
“Let me see…” He reached across the counter and slipped the book from the young man’s hands. He flipped it open to the title page and then turned to the copyright page. “This is a stunning book, isn’t it? Look at Mary Poppins floating upside down in the starry sky. I’m sure you could find other booksellers selling first edition copies of this for a lot more money. Imagine being a little boy or girl opening this on Christmas morning in 1943…76 years ago…like holding time in your hands…what’s your question again?”
“The original price is $1.75.”
“Yes, and if that price on the dust jacket had been snipped off, we would have priced for less than 75,” Sally interjected.
“Oh, I see,” the bookseller spoke sympathetically. “You’re wondering why it has gone up in value. Most old books are just old books and have very little value. There are several hundred books on those carts on our front porch that are a dollar apiece. This book is different. Now can you tell me why you chose this and brought it up here to ask it?”
“My little girl, Louisa, loves Mary Poppins. We don’t have this one at home,” the young man replied.
“Ahhh, I bet we have a later printing out there without the jacket for 5 or 10 dollars.”
“Yes, there are several copies where I found this. But this was the nicest, and I know Louisa would love the picture on the front.”
“This is a first edition. What you brought up was the book just as it looked when it was first published, when the little girls and boys in 1943 first saw it in a bookstore or were given a copy of it by a family member or friend. Most of those books are long gone or are tattered and worn or are missing this piece of paper covering the book. This is called a dust jacket or dust wrapper.”
The bookseller gently lifted off the jacket off the book.
“Now, without this jacket—even though it is still a first edition—I would only price it for about 20. 20 dollars is less than what you’d buy a new copy for. It might look very similar to this as well. But without the jacket, this book is incomplete to a collector; to someone who wants a vintage copy of the book just as it appeared when it was first available in 1943.”
“Oh, I think I see. This is…original?”
“Yes. Do you collect anything?”
“So this book would be like an original pressing of a Beatles’ album from the 60s versus an LP that might look almost exactly like it produced in the 80s.”
“Oh, I see. That’s cool. I couldn’t pay 75 for it. Can’t afford it. I’ll go back and get one of the others to read to her.”
“How ’bout I let you have this for 25. That’s what a new copy would cost. Why look! It is inscribed on the half title! ‘To Libby. Merry Christmas to our little girl. Mother and Father 1943.'”
“That’s Louisa’s nickname! Libby.”
“Well, it’s meant to be. 20. Then handle it carefully, and when you’re done, put it somewhere safe. When she’s old enough to keep it in good condition, give it to her. You can inscribe it to her as well. Maybe she will read it to her children someday.”
The young man reached over the counter and took the book. He turned it over and over in his hands, not so much inspecting as discovering it had qualities of which he been unaware.
“You’ll let me buy this for 20 dollars?”
Sally mumbled something under her breath. It sounded like: “What’s up?”
“Yes. I’d like you and your daughter to have it. If she wants to read it on her own in the future, come back and get her a reading copy she doesn’t need to handle so carefully.”
The young man reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet.
“That’ll be 21.20 with the tax,” Sally said while punching information onto the keyboard.
The young man pulled out a twenty and two ones and handed them to her. The bookseller slipped a bookmark in the Mary Poppins book. It had the store’s name, address, hours and phone number printed on it. The store’s logo was on it as well. A plain ring surrounding a Shakespeare First Folio with raised bands on its spine. He then retrieved a thin millinery bag from beneath the counter and slid the book into it.
“Come back soon. And bring your daughter. I’ve always thought it was a good thing to let children pick out books for themselves as well.”
“She’s just 4. She’d make a mess.”
The bookseller laughed. “That’s her job! Our job is to straighten the kids section after every youngster that comes in.”
“Actually, it’s usually my job,” Sally groused.
“I will. I will bring Libby in. Soon. Thank you,” the young man said. And then he turned and looked the bookseller in the eye and said: “Thank you.” Then he turned and left. The bell above the door sang brightly as he pushed it open.
“What did you say just now, Sally? It sounded like: ‘What’s up?'”
“‘What a sap,’ is what I said. You gave him 75% off that book,” Sally huffed.
The bookseller pushed a couple keys on the computer keyboard. “He paid 26.666667% of our asking price. And I planted a seed. Maybe two. There may now be two more book collectors in the world. That is a good thing.”
The bell on the door chimed again. It was Althea coming in.
“You’re late,” the bookseller said looking up at the big round white-faced clock above the counter.
“I left a note on your desk last night. Yesterday was my birthday. July thirteenth. I stayed out late transplanting hellebore and lungwort seedlings in the dark. The moon was just right. I did not want to wait much longer. It is summer, and one should not transplant seedlings too far into the season.”
“Oh, I haven’t been to my desk yet.”
“Hella what?” Sally asked.
“Your birthday? Why didn’t you tell us? We would have…”
“I do not like birthdays,” Althea said. “They make me sad. That was very nice of you, by the way, letting that young father have the Mary Poppins first edition so inexpensively.”
“How did you know?” the bookseller asked.
“How old are you, Althea?” Sally asked.
Althea was already turning and heading back into the rows of bookcases.
“I will straighten up the children’s section. I know Miss Sally does not enjoy doing it all herself.”
They both watched her petite frame get smaller and smaller as she went down the long aisle directly in front of them. She had black hair which fell just below her shoulder blades. This day she was wearing a simple black frock which was cinched at her waist with a thick black sash.
“How…” the bookseller started.
“I wonder how old she is?” Sally wondered aloud. “She didn’t put any dates on her application. I wonder why?”
“She didn’t want to fill out an application at all when she started. I had to convince her she wouldn’t be paid if the accountant didn’t have her information. She said she had she always been paid cash in her previous jobs. She said: ‘I was always given money at the end of every week in the past.’ I told her to just put her name and address and social security number on the app.”
The bell on the door clinked, and a tall burly man entered. He had a goatee and wore his hair in a mullet. The bookseller always smiled about that. He had a pencil behind his ear. It was Tim the contractor. Well, Tim was much more than a contractor. He had built most of the bookcases in the store. It had been many, many years since the bookseller built a bookcase. Tim could build or repair just about anything that needed building or repairing.
“Mornin’ boss!” he said approaching the counter. “Sally, that orange shirt is brilliant! It goes so well with your platinum hair.”
“It’s a blouse, Tim. Not a shirt.”
“Whatever. It’s still nice and so bright. Makes my eyes hurt. I have some questions about the addition. Can you come out?”
“I’ll stay at the counter. There must be a dozen customers in the shop,” Sally said.
“13,” Althea said appearing from a side aisle. “Mr. Tim, you are following my plans, I trust. I did put a lot of effort into them.”
“I am using your drawings, Miss Althea. But I have some questions. Your boss and I were just going…”
“I should accompany you. He would not be able to answer what you need to know.”
The three of them exited, crossed the wooden porch and stepped down onto the parking lot. A large great horned owl was perched atop the light pole. It stared down at them and turned its head quizzically.
“I’ve never seen an owl out in the daytime before. Creeps my out. Want me to shoo it away for you?” Tim asked.
“Do not dare to do that!” Althea spoke harshly.
Tim’s big 6 foot 3 frame seemed to shrink a bit at her chastisement.
They approached the construction area. Tim’s assistant Doug was seated atop an excavator. He had just finished digging the trench which would be the outline the bookstore’s addition.
“Now before we pour the footers, you’re sure you don’t want it to be square? I’ve never built any building that had odd angles like this.”
“It is a trapezoid,” Althea said. “It maximizes the space we can use while following the property lines. It is also a very lucky and magical shape. I had to explain this to the people at the permit office. Eventually I was able to convince them that everything was in compliance with their codes. I had to go to the very top. The city engineer. A very impressive and intelligent woman. She said this will be the only trapezoidal building in town.”
They walked around the perimeter of the work site. Althea seemed to measuring the building’s outline with her paces.
“Everything is in order, Tim. You may proceed with the next step. That is pouring the concrete into these trenches, correct?”
“Yes. We call them footers.”
“Why would you call them such a thing?”
“This looks great Tim. I can’t wait ’til we start putting bookcases in here. I know how much you like building them,” the bookseller interjected.
“Yeah, I’m thinking we can put in 400 or so.”
“Four hundred and seventy three,” Althea said. “If you follow my plan.”
“Well, 473 then! Do you want them 6, 8 or 10 inches deep?”
“Yes. You will find that in my plans as well,” Althea said.
It was then that the bookseller noticed someone had joined their little group. It was a tall thin willowy Asian man.
“May I help you, sir?” the bookseller asked.
“We are being observed,” the man said. It was impossible to determine his age. He could be an old 30 or a young 70. “Just between those two large rhododendrons there is a coyote watching us.”
“Really? I don’t see…”
“He does not want to be seen,” the man said.
“I see it,” Althea spoke. “He has golden eyes.”
“I’ll chase him off,” Tim said bending down to pick up a shovel.
“Do not! Let him stay,” Althea said. “He will not come any closer.”
“I don’t see anything,” the bookseller said. “And how do you know it won’t chase a customer or something?”
“He is just visiting the book and furniture collection in that trailer. The book collection that is in the trailer waiting for Mr. Tim to finish this building. This animal came down from Pennsylvania, from the farm where you bought these books. Well, you did not really buy these books did you?” Althea said.
“I traded that little statuette for them. It was that old man’s idea. Not mine,” the bookseller countered.
“All the same, you did not write a check for that collection.”
“Well, I’m paying to store them.”
“The trailer hardly cost you anything. I negotiated a wonderful price on it for you.”
“And I’m paying to build an addition just for that collection.”
“I do not see any building going on at this time. Mr. Tim, you may start pouring the footers now.”
“I need to order the concrete. But first I’ll need to build a frame in the trench,” Tim replied.
“Mr. Tim, you may start building the frame now then.”
“It’s lunch time. Doug and I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
“This building will never be completed if you keep taking all these breaks. Would you like me to order the concrete? It will come in a truck, correct?”
“Yes, a cement mixer.”
“How many gallons will you need?” she asked.
Tim and Doug both started cracking up. Doug was nearly doubled over when Tim stuck an elbow into his ribs. Althea had caught his eye with an icy glare.
“Ummm, they measure it in cubic yards,” he stammered.
Althea did not speak but continued staring at him.
“I will…I’ll need to figure how many yards we will need,” Tim continued.
“I will calculate that today,” she said. “When will you have your framework built?”
“Maybe we can finish it today.”
“There is no rain forecast tomorrow. I will have a cement truck here tomorrow morning.”
“It usually takes…”
“Nine in the morning. Will that be satisfactory?”
Althea had already turned and was walking purposefully toward the front porch.
“Did you see her eyes?!” Doug spoke incredulously. “They were like icebergs. It made me feel cold just having her look at us.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think her eyes were blue,” Tim said.
“They aren’t. She does that sometimes. Usually when she gets displeased,” the bookseller said.
“That’s just weird,” Tim replied.
“I certainly wouldn’t say anything like that to her. Will you be able to do that framework today?”
“We’ll just take a half hour lunch and if need be start early tomorrow. It will take two or three truckloads, and we can build while they are pouring. Should I tell Althea how many trucks?”
“She’ll have it figured out. I’ll get out of your way.”
It was the Asian man.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t forget you were here. It’s just…”
“Certainly. I found that conversation quite interesting. Your assistant is quite an unusual woman.”
“Assistant? Yes…yes, unusual. How may I help you? Do you have books you wish to sell?”
“We’re going to lunch. Be back soon,” Tim spoke over his should as he and Doug headed to his big old red pickup truck.
“No, no books to sell at this time. I am looking for a book.”
“Well, let’s go inside. It is getting hot out here. Is that coyote still there? I never did see it.”
“No, he headed back up to Pennsylvania. But there is a fox squirrel up in that oak tree. There—just to the right of the trunk and about three quarters of the way up.” The man raised his right hand and pointed.
‘That’s the longest forefinger I think I’ve ever seen,’ the bookseller thought. ‘And…does he have four joints?’
“Why, yes! Yes, I do see it! I think that is biggest squirrel I’ve ever seen. Let’s go inside and talk about your book.”
When they entered the store, Sally was totaling a large stack of P G Wodehouse for a man who was wearing plus fours and argyle socks. His shirt was creamy linen, and the sleeves were quite baggy.
When the bookseller stepped behind her, she whispered over her shoulder:
“We’re gonna have a big day. He didn’t even ask for a discount. I told you that you priced these too low.”
The bookseller continued along the counter. He peeked in his office door, and Althea was at his desk speaking on the telephone.
“You will have a truck here at nine tomorrow. Another at ten. And half a truckload at eleven.”
There was a pause.
“Yes, I am completely sure that is the correct amount required. I double checked my figures. You WILL be here at nine precisely?”
“Thank you. Yes, I understand you will require cash for each truckload since we do not have an account with you. Thank you. Nine precisely?”
The bookseller continued down to the end of the counter and faced the tall man across from him.
“I am so sorry for the interruptions. Now what book are you looking for?”
“It is quite old and quite rare. It is often called Ogilby’s China. I have an image of it here.” He slid his long hand into his jacket and withdrew a folded sheet. He placed it on the counter and spread it open. Indeed, all his fingers had an additional, a fourth, joint. His nails were quite long and opaque. They were the color of ivory.
The image was of a very large and slightly battered leather-bound book.
“I am told you have this book. It is actually three books bound together,” the man said.
“No, I’m sure I would remember if I had such a thing Mr…?”
“I am Cham. I am certain this book is in your possession. I was told it was here.”
Althea appeared at his side. Further down the Sally was carefully putting the 17 P G Wodehouse first editions into a box. The man across the counter was awkwardly flirting with her.
“Ummm…would you care to dine with me some evening?”
“No,” was all she said and continued packing the books.
The poor fellow flushed bright red which contrasted dramatically with his white bushy sideburns. He took a step back from the counter and sheepishly clasped his hands behind his back.
“No. I would remember this. I’ve seen it before but have never owned one. It is quite massive. Who told you this was here?” the bookseller repeated.
“The Raven. The raven that was in that house in Pennsylvania.”
“Raven? I didn’t see any ravens there.”
He felt a gentle tug on his shirtsleeve. It was Althea trying to get his attention.
“There was a raven,” she whispered. “It perched atop the tall glassed bookcase in the foyer with the other…”
“Stuffed animals?!” the bookseller spoke incredulously.
“It is a very old raven,” Cham added. “It was hatched in Baltimore in the early 1800s.”
“I know ravens can mimic sounds—even words—but to converse about a book? A rare book? And the bird would be about two hundred years old!”
“It had stood in that house for over 150 years. It was freed when that man left with all the books and furniture. It came to me in Hong Kong. How it found me, I do not know. It appeared at my window. It tapped its beak against my window.”
Cham tapped his long forefinger upon the wooden counter.
“Tap, tap, tap.”
Althea broke the awkward silence, “And do you believe the bird flew all the way across the Pacific Ocean?”
“I did not inquire.”
The bookseller sensed Althea tensing up next to him.
“He’s not teasing, Althea.”
“No. I am not,” Cham continued. “I did try to speak to it, but the creature did not tarry after it delivered its message. I opened the window, and it croaked out: ‘The book you seek is in Merry Land. Close to where I was born. Close to where that madman wrote that story about me.’ It then said your name and the name of your bookshop. I tried to ask it how it had found me, but it just cocked its head, turned and flew off.”
“How do you know it is this book?”
“It is the only book I seek. It has been lost to my family for three hundred and fifty hundred years. It was written by my father. Cham. It proves I am the Emperor of China.”